ON the banks of the Xingu River in Brazil, Gordon Lightfoot came to their rescue.
The chiefs from nine of Brazil's indigenous tribes looked over The Boom Booms, a Vancouver sextet with a great affinity for Brazilian music.
The band wanted to go down the river, but it would only happen if the chiefs agreed to take them.
They had met at a house that served as a way station for tribesmen paddling in search of supplies or medical care.
After a few greetings were exchanged, the band played "Steel Rail Blues," a Gordon Lightfoot tune about loneliness and trains.
"Big steel rail gonna carry me home to the one I love," cavaquinho player Sean Ross sings over the phone, reliving the moment before launching into the song's distinct falsetto: "Woo hoo, woo-hoo-oo."
It was the falsetto that won the chiefs over, he reports.
"They loved it, they thought that was the funniest thing and it totally broke the ice," Ross recalls. "After that one of the chiefs came and he was like, 'Hey, I'd love to take you guys and show you where we live.'"
Farther down the river, construction had already begun on the Belo Monte Dam. Slated to be the third biggest hydroelectric dam in the world, the controversial project would divert approximately 80 per cent of the river's flow; flooding more than 500 square kilometres of forest in the Amazon basin. Approximately 20,000 people are expected to be displaced by the project.
"We were actually busking in Spain when we decided to make the trip and we had met some Brazilian girls who had gotten involved with the protest against the Belo Monte Dam," Ross explains. "A big problem with the protest is that they've banned all photographers and journalists from the actual protest."
Once the band decided to go to Brazil, they elected to wade into the Belo Monte controversy.
"We had done a fundraiser for the protest," he said. "Through that, a few connections got made."
That connection got them an introduction to the chiefs, but it was Gordon Lightfoot that got them down the river.
"Another example of music being the icebreaker," Ross says.
The Booms Booms are an eclectic mix of funk and pop that uses congas to complement electric guitars.
Formed in 2007, the band has released three albums including the 2012 EP Make Dat Do Dat.
For Ross, whose brother Aaron handles lead vocals, the band truly began with a Wes Anderson movie.
While watching The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, Ross was struck by the soundtrack, which featured Brazilian singer Seu Jorge performing David Bowie songs in Portuguese.
"I actually saw that movie when I was pretty young and then started learning a couple of those renditions," Ross says.
He eventually became fluent in Portuguese, largely as the result of reading Brazilian song lyrics.
Ross also became fascinated with the cavaquinho. Unable to find one of the small guitars at home, Ross played his brother's re-strung ukulele until he was able to pick up the genuine article in Brazil.
Despite owing so much of their sound to Brazil, four of the band's members grew up within a few blocks of Nanaimo and Hastings in Vancouver.
"Our conga player has played for 15 years in a Zimbabwean marimba band. Our guitar player came from a strictly rock background. Our bass player went to school for jazz," Ross explains. "We've played so many shows together and tried so many different things and been so scattered that eventually it kind of synthesized into what we're doing now."
The band is currently working with Chin Injeti, the Vancouver producer best known for collaborations with hip hop acts like Eminem and Drake.
Following the trip to Brazil, the band returned to the rain of Vancouver with a slightly broader perspective.
"They kind of had to drag me out of Brazil," Ross explains. "It's nice to know you can feel at home in two different countries."