It’s a long way from the mean streets of the Brazilian favelas to the tree-lined campus of an Iowa university, yet that’s the extraordinary journey musical twins Walter and Wagner Caldas made. The thirty-something-year-olds got their first instruments, violins, from their father, who had a small woodshop and made instruments for a local orchestra designed to keep kids off the streets. The boys took lessons, joined the orchestra at 12, and began traveling outside the favela. They also memorized pop songs by Justin Timberlake and Michael Jackson.
The orchestra played for celebrities and dignitaries and the twins, with their high-energy takes on classical music, stood out. After a performance in Rio de Janeiro in 2006, an NPR producer did a story on them and they began to imagine life outside the favela. “Art, in general, it takes you somewhere, somehow,” Walter said. “It gave everyone a vision of the world they didn’t have, including me.”
In the summer of 2006, the president of the World Food Prize, Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, was planning an event to celebrate people who had made a difference in the availability of food in the world. He heard the NPR segment on the Caldas twins and invited them to Iowa to perform. They were given visas, travel and a three-day stay at a Des Moines hotel. They weren’t nervous, even though they decided their program ten minutes before they performed, Walter on the violin and Wagner on the ukulele. “They dazzled,” Quinn said. “They had the energy of youth; they just had this verve to them. You could see it and feel it in the room.”
Their unique style led Benjamin Allen, then president of the University of Northern Iowa, to approach them through a translator and offer them full scholarships to study music at the university. “We thought it was just talk,” Walter said. “A month later, we started receiving stuff in Brazil from UNI, everything in English, with pictures of the dorms, and I was like, ‘Oh, my God, we’re really going.”
The twins didn’t tell their parents because they knew their mom and dad would be afraid for them. They got help filling out the applications from others. Neither twin could speak or write English then and people in Brazil made them signs in English to help them navigate the airports.
Learning English was hard and the twins were often homesick, but they never regretted their decision to come to America. “Having each other was a big part of it,” Walter said. “We never let each other feel sorry about anything in our lives.”
As they performed at university events and around town, music became more important than classes. They started a band, the B2wins, which they pronounced B Twins for Brazilian Twins, where they put their own classical spin on the popular music they grew up loving. The high-energy shows grew popular throughout Iowa and the Midwest and they became full-time musicians. They both married. Their American dream was becoming a reality.
In 2015, they were invited to appear at the 80/35 Music Festival in downtown Des Moines, where there would be thousands in the audience. No one except his wife and Walter knew that Wagner had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer and would probably lose his left arm. Wagner thought he would never play the ukulele again, so he downloaded instructions to teach himself the piano. Grueling chemo followed, the cancer responded well to treatment and the amputation was canceled. The band played in his absence, but Wagner made one appearance when treatment ended, bald and thin, but with his ukulele, while Walter played “Lean on Me.”
Through it all, Wagner remained upbeat, calling it a “crazy adventure.” He was declared cancer-free and the pair began performing again. In 2019, they performed 153 shows across 14 states and continued to cultivate a loyal fan base here and around the world, with unique renditions of the music of everyone from Sinatra to Ed Sheeran and Michael Jackson. From hip-hoppers to jazz aficionados, pop enthusiasts to ravers, rockers to reggae lovers, all found common ground in a show that was, in equal parts, a rock concert, dance party, jam session and vacation for the soul.
It’s been a long journey for the twins from Brazil to the world stage, but they’ve remained grounded and humble. They have only one mission: to change the world, one smile at a time.
They’re on their way.
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