RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Decked out in full firefighting gear, Elielson Silva stands 150 feet above the ground atop a retractable ladder poking up from a red fire truck.
His lofty perch is about as high as Rio de Janeiro’s colossal Maracana soccer stadium behind him. Silva faces a row of apartment buildings filled with Brazilians sheltering from the new coronavirus and watching from their windows and balconies.
He raises his silver trumpet to his lips and the notes soar toward his audience, helping extinguish the blues from being cooped up inside their homes.
Silva plays tunes known across Brazil, but especially ones composed in and about Rio. Channeling an era that was more carefree, his songs tug at their heart strings: “Watercolor of Brazil,” “Samba of the Plane,” “Marvelous City” and “I Know I’m Going to Love You.”
“Everyone is suffering the pandemic and I’m trying to the boost the morale of Rio’s population, so all this difficulty is lessened in these times we’re going through,” says Silva, an 18-year veteran of the city’s firefighting corps. “Bringing a bit of music, a bit of air, to these people has meant a lot to me as a musician and to the corps.”
Raised to heights of up to 200 feet, he has performed all over the city. That includes tourist hot spots that these days are eerily empty — like Copacabana beach and the base of Sugarloaf Mountain — and working-class communities Rocinha and Jacarepagua. On Sunday, he played in three separate neighborhoods, always sporting his heavy, fire-resistant jacket and fire helmet despite temperatures above 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
He draws cheers and enthusiastic clapping.
“Hearing all that music restores our will to be in Rio, our sense of collectiveness,” Renata Versiani said from her windowsill, where she watched Silva play with her husband and young daughter. “Initiatives like this remind us of who we are as a community. It’s happiness to have a surprise like this.”
Versiani knows the emotional value of such gestures. She’s a psychologist whose family, by her telling, has “surrendered” to the calls to stay inside their home.
Rio’s firefighters were the front line of the state government’s initial campaign to raise awareness about the need for people to isolate themselves and help contain the virus’ spread. They patrolled the city’s legendary beaches, playing a recording that urged beachgoers to head home, and spoke to people walking on the streets.
Since Rio’s governor imposed restrictive measures, the firefighters have been seen waving people off the beaches.
Brazil is in the midst of a pitched battle over the effectiveness of isolation, with President Jair Bolsonaro dismissing the virus’ severity and publicly taking aim at governors who impose shutdowns that he says could cripple the economy. His gatherings in public with supporters counter instructions from international health authorities and his own health ministry.
Brazilians seem to be more atuned to the experts. A survey by the polling firm Datafolha in the opening days of April found that 76% of Brazilians surveyed support social isolation.
Silva is striving to make social distancing seem a little less distant.
In Rio’s Flamengo neighborhood, the sun glinted off his horn as he played his final numbers — Brazil’s national anthem, then “Hallelujah.” Onlookers surrounding him began applauding with their arms above their heads as his ladder telescoped downward.
“Congratulations to these heroes,” Silva said, motioning to firefighters on the ground.
Then he put his hands over his heart, and took a modest bow.