Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the month “September, 2012”

The post-tropicalistas

There is so much to say about the scale of Tropicalia in recent Brazilian culture, its importance, its vitality, its originality as well as its villainy, that one could write several books about it and still not reach a conclusion. The fact is that it left a lasting legacy in Brazilian culture and that it had many children some wanted, some unwanted, some rebellious and some loving.

Its first fruits appeared in the 70’s when the country was still under the military dictatorship and the new wave of artists came from further north than Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who are from Bahia, to “the south” (Rio and Sao Paulo). They were from the Northeast of Brazil: from Ceara as Raimundo Fagner, from Pernambuco as Alceu Valenca, from Paraiba as Ze Ramalho, the Novos Baianos, a case apart, were from Bahia too. Their influences were diverse but they had several things in common; they were disliked by both the left and the right, they mixed the folkloric side of Brazil with what was being done in the US and the UK and portrayed themselves as having something to say while having strong record labels behind them. Most of them were presented to the country either through being sound tracks to novelas or through festivals that TV Globo organized.

In the seventies, Brazilians from all classes listened to more homegrown music than people from any other non-English speaking country in the western world. This phenomenon had not only to do with the quality and the diversity of Brazilian music but also with the importance that music acquired in previous governments in trying forge a national identity and, after the military coup of 1964, as a means to resist the dictatorship and the American imperialism.

For the greater public of the more southern states of Brazil –  RIo de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais – the post tropicalistas from the Northeast were like exotic wild fruit discovered in one’s own backyard; they used familiar rhythms but their themes, their talent and their depth touched that generation and opened their imagination. As the Vikings, they considered themselves as the Northern conquerors of an untalented South as well as the new voices that would replace a commercialized tropicalia.


It is undeniable that Caetano, Gil, Jorge Ben and Cie. had already opened the doors for them so they had less tradition to shatter and, hence, were less ambitious and freer musically and ideologically. Their long hair and the presence of electric guitars were statements; also, they did not have the need to say things to hit the headlines or be important presences in the Brazilian Cultural scene, they just concentrated in the magic of their music, and sharing a new light on on the regions they came from.

Their gigs had a strong 70’s hippy/cannabical tint, and they were masters in mixing of rustic percussion and state of the art musical gear. Because most of them appeared in local university circuits and gradually acquired fame, they had a greater knowledge of how to relate to the public, and in this they were more accessible than the big Tropicalia stars who practically began their careers as stars. Their acts were great fun and always ended in something close to street carnivals with people dancing all over the venues.

As the 80’s approached they started to lose their freshness, and became either mainstream cheesy acts or were seen as old hippies, the smarter ones, namely Alceu Valenca, retreated to their own region and are considered as living legends to this very day.

After them Brazilian Rock burst into the scene, the economic crisis too. The new bands made a point of having nothing to do with what had come before. There weretropicalist and post-tropicalist attempts to catch the eighties wave, but they were greeted with rejection. Although with less brilliance, Rock was clearly different; it was urban, angry and in tune with the turmoil that was happening in the “real world”. Of course, the movement was also backed by the big record companies.

As a final note; although the post-tropicalists were the closest to get to what happened with Reggae in Jamaica. Their music was very intuitive and free and had deeps roots in the traditional music of the countryside. Despite this, and although they were from the same generation, there was never the equivalent of a Brazilian Bob Marley. To understand why, it is important to see what happened in Jamaica: their artists came from their Favelas. In Brazil this would never happen; the artists played for the middle class and this public would never fill a theater to see someone from the working class perform, there was the carnival for that.

On the other hand, depending on where they came from, the lower classes listened to Samba, or Forro, and musical tastes never crossed barriers. Bossa-Novistas, Tropicalistas, post-Tropicalistas and Brazilian Rockers were all artists from and for the middle and upper classes. In our opinion it is here where they failed.

A Pink Floyd tale in Rio de Janeiro

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Daniel owed me one after hooking me up with Marcos. It was undeniable that Marcos’ deep voice blended well with my songs, and in the beginning the work looked promising. Marketing wise, things also looked good. Daniel knew many people at Radio Fluminense and the timing was correct; Punk was dying off and we could be presented as one of the new bands that were coming up; more sophisticated and less aggressive, something like a Brazilian Tears for Fears or Duran Duran. Every time one turned the radio to “Maldita FM” there was a new band happening. I was hopeful as many friends of mine who played as well as I did, were already touring the country and making it big.  However, three months down the line Marcos decided that he was not interested in endless rehearsals of songs that were not his, and walked away. This pissed me off and Daniel wanted to redeem himself.

Both of us worked as teachers at an English course, and Daniel was the colleague who had most to do with me there; British parents, deep into rock and with very similar musical tastes. These were times when the bands you listened to defined what you were about, and because of this we had important bond. Physically he looked like James Taylor with a mustache, but in the best Pink Floydian tradition he was an authentic English gentleman, and before being a teacher he had been a world traveled air steward.

In his defense, he was also upset with the Marcos affair because he had been serious about producing us. He played no instrument and, perhaps because of this, he was determined to be in the background of a rock and roll success story, something close to a Malcolm MacLaren of the tropics.  Although the breakup was another disappointment in a long line of set backs both of us were still hungry and Daniel maintained his faith.

This was the scenario in which he hooked me up with Danilo.

What the three of us had in common our passion for Pink Floyd. Danilo was hardest-core of us; he was the oldest and had been one of their first fans in Rio to. Far from being psychedelic crazed out guy, he came across as an intellectual, soft spoken, never said rude words, didn’t like football or cocaine and smoked weed only occasionally. He had called his daughter Emily, named after one of Pink Floyd’s early songs, which at that point I had never heard, but that we were to play in our band. His misses was Daniel’s misses’s best friend. Both the guys lived with their girfriends, and the two girls were phd’s in financial matters. Were it not for his past in the musical industry and for his love for the guitar he would be downright boring, but he was not. He had started doing gigs when he was fourteen; playing Beatles songs in parties with one of the first electric guitars in town. Later on, he joined the Analphabeatles (Analfabeto means illiterate in Portuguese) one of Brazil’s pioneering cover bands who my entire generation had heard of.

Pink Floyd was a tricky choice in the Eighties. Everyone knew that the “dinosaurs of Rock” went against everything that the decade represented, especially in a country that was at least five years behind in terms of Punk. However, playing Classics such as Echoes, Wish you were Here and Time with a guy like Danilo was exciting, and I felt proud of it. We were aware that we would never make it big but we could create a niche following, and above all, it would be fun. There were, no doubt, many aficionados around; ironically most the musicians of the eighties bands loved Pink Floyd, although they would never admit to it and face the penalty of being a fashion outcast.

The rehearsals had to be at Danilo’s; I had just moved with Rosa to a flat close to a favela. The area was great, it once had been the address of impressive mansions by the edge of the Tijuca forest but now a shanty town had taken over and my work partner refused to take his gear there.  I tried to explain that there was no problem as everybody knew me, but this was of no avail. I regularly went up and down its winding alleys bordered by open sewage to use the public phone and to buy groceries, which was seen with good eyes by the community. This also brought some sympathy with the drug guys because it showed at the same time that I was not a snob and that I was not afraid. They never harassed me, but because of their presence my window had a bullet hole in it and at least once a week I could see the gun fights happening on the other side the small river below the flat.

The only advantage of my place was that we could play as loud as we wanted. Danilo lived in a much safer area, Humaita, in a modern building with internal rules that forbade loud music from dinnertime onwards. The solution was to rehearse early; we would meet after lunch in his room overlooking the Botafogo district and delight ourselves in playing Pink Floyd classics until evening came. There was another reason I loved going there; his flat was close to the well-priced and excellent restaurant belt in Visconde de Caravelas Street. Before our sessions, we always went for the famous succulent steaks at the Aurora restaurant or for the squid and broccoli rice at the Spanish restaurant right in front of it.

After a couple of months, we had become a competent Pink Floyd cover band with the unusual formation of just two guitars and two singers who did vocal arrangments. We chose a name for the band: Ibiza Bar, based on one of Pink Floyds older albums, and we were ready for our first gig. The first venue we tried was too fashionable and they would not even listen to our demo cassette, I suggested we go to a more mainstream and busy place next to the Jardim Botanico Park, the Mistura Fina. He was not too convinced that we were good enough for the venue, but they accepted us at once. The next step was to promote the night, Danilo’s day job was as a graphic designer so he came up with a great poster using one of Floyd’s first album covers. I called all the other teachers from the course, friends from the University and whoever else I could think of. Daniel also did his best to promote the gig and in the end the house was three-quarters full, quite a good public for the kind of music we were doing our presentation went very well considering the limitations. The manager invited us to play there another two times and after that, we stopped.

Soon after, for several reason, I left Brazil to live in the UK, Daniel was furious but Danilo was understanding and decided to carry on with more instrumentalists. In a weird twist of fate, the other guys who replaced me were class mates from school. Now with a drummer, a bass player and a keyboard they went fully electric. Daniel ended up behind the scenes projecting ink stains behind the band, a device used by the pioneers of psychedelia in the 1960’s . They also changed the name of the band to Eclipse and the band grew to become recognized internationally.

Weirdness in Teresopolis

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I had just finished lunch when it started to thunder and suddenly the electricity fell in the house. My first reaction was to go to the fuse board and put it back on but the lights did not restart. The problem was external and only heaven knew when the electricity company would sort it out. I went out to the big balcony to see if a lightning had damaged anything in the house. The view was stunning there, it overlooked a valley with a river and on the other side there was an endless sea of hills and mountains, which were now covered by dark clouds releasing a thick curtain of rain. The storm was heading towards me and as I was alone in the house, there was no time for my usual nap: I had to run in to shut the windows and the glass doors before the water came pouring in.

I closed the doors and the windows of the dining room and the living room, both the glass ones and the wooden ones and it got dark inside. In the kitchen, I slid the glass windows until their locks clicked inside. For some reason the cupboard doors had all opened up, so I shut them and then I checked the fridge to see if anything had happened inside; the light didn’t come on but everything else seemed fine. After that, I dealt with the two guest rooms on the ground floor. When I finished, I went back to the kitchen to grab a slice of cheese from the fridge and bizarrely the cupboard doors were all open again. I didn’t think much about it and closed them for the second time, went to the living room got a glass of water from the table and sat on the couch and drank it all in one go. It was strange in there; the rain and the wind were making a huge noise on the windows and the doors. There was some light coming in from the kitchen but otherwise it felt like nighttime and the air was very damp.

I heard a lightning crack and a loud thunder after it and remembered that there were still the windows of the upper floor to deal with. I rushed up, closed all of them, and worried because the rain had wet some of mom and dad’s books as well as some of their furniture and the things on them. I went back to the living room and started to gather the plates and the leftovers from lunch to wash them up. When went back in the kitchen, every cupboard door in the kitchen was open again, even the ones bellow the sink.  I felt goose bumps climbing up my spine and in panic, I rushed out of the house. Soaking wet, I thought to myself that there was no way I was going back in and that there was nowhere else to go other than the caseiro’s, or housekeepers’ quarters, located under the balcony. With the heavy rain pouring all over my body, I ran down the stone path and knocked on the door.  Jorginho, our new caseiro – or housekeeper – was not in, but his wife and his kids were.  It was embarrassing to explain what had happened, but hey… I was the owner’s son so she had to welcome me in.

Housekeepers usually came as a couple; the man would deal with the maintenance, the garden, the security etc… while the wife would clean the house and cook when we were there. In exchange for this, they lived there for free and got a salary. I had seen that place being constructed, first it had been the construction’s depo and then it became the place where the workers slept. This was the first time I had been in there after caseiros started living there. Although with no light, it felt a bit like a dark, damp and cold favela hut there was something familiar in there that I liked, especially as we waited for the rain to settle. I stayed there trying my best to socialize and left when the electricity came back. I then returned to the house to face a creepy and lonely night in my room.

I would never have been in the Teresopolis if I did not have to study for my university exams. That house was too weird and too isolated for anyone to feel well in it; there was no TV and even if there had been one, the signal would have been too weak. There was nothing decent to play music on, nor was there anything else that could help a person feel sane. Outside it was gloomy, on weekdays there were only other empty country houses around and the closest store was a twenty-minute drive away. That was why I went there; I was almost forced to study as this was the only thing to do up there.

The next morning Jorginho came up to talk to me. He was different to the previous caseiros, first of all he seemed Nordic rather than Brazilian, he was as blond as blond can be, with blue eyes and much more clever and more articulate than any other person who had worked for us or, for that matter, any other local whom I had ever met. He made fun of me in a polite way, said he had to buy some things for the house and asked me if I could drive him into town. Having something to do and company was more than welcome so I accepted on the spot. Every time I spoke to him, the impression I had was that he was too good for the job. A we drove skidding on the curves and lifting mud all over the dirt road that feeling continued. We bought the stuff we needed and then he asked if it was ok if we went to the town’s center for him to deal with some personal things. Of course, I was cool with that.

When we started to drive through the town’s traffic, Jorginho seemed to know everyone around. On several red lights, he stuck his head out of the car to call his pals. That was no bullshit stunt, all of them knew him, answered back and then he would say something funny or tell them he would talk to them later. He also pointed at people and told me about their stories.

“See that dark guy in blue jeans, he’s from Rio, he told me he is running away from a gang in the Baixada Fluminense.”

After a few minutes. “That guy with dark glasses crossing the street he’s my friend, he’s a sargeant the military police.”

And then again; “Can you see that guy over there in the bar playing snooker, he sells stolen cars, do you want to buy a new one? This one is a bit of a mess.” He said with an insolent smile.

We parked in the city center, he left the car and kept me waiting there for twenty minutes and came back offering no apologies. On our way back he started to talk about the house, how he liked working and living there, how honorable my Dad was, how he liked my Mum, and gave suggestions about what we should do in terms of maintenance and improvements in the infrastructure. Last but not the least, as we were coming up the dirt path he took a joint out of his pocket, lit it up and after a puff he passed it to me. I didn’t know better and accepted it, and after my first puff he told me not worry about the police in the Jardim Salaco, as they never went up there.

According to him, the only problem in that area was an old woman who lived alone in a small house close to us. Her home was on top of a low hill just after the curve before the end of the road where our house was. I had already seen her several times and indeed, she was strange. That woman was the only person who lived permanently in the vicinity but seldom spoke to anyone, rich or poor. She had an Eastern European accent, and many suspected that she had a Nazi past too. She lived alone, had no children, no pets, never received any friend and was famous for turning her hose onto anyone who passed in front of her plot. That shower was always followed by rude words in her own language and in Portuguese. In fact our family and a few guests had received this treatment and it had never been clear to anyone why she did it.

What probably Jorginho didn’t like was that the eccentric woman had taken upon herself to police the area. In the past, she had always made a point in telling my parents whenever I arrived late and had said that I was smoking weed. She was also well known in the police force for pestering them with calls about irregularities in the neighborhood, real and imaginary. She had gone as far as sending a letter to the President of Brazil complaining about the lack of policing in the Jardim Salaco.

“Dona” Ingrid, if I am not mistaken, took one step too far when she shot a horse that was grazing in front of her entrance. Because no one liked her and no one wanted to deal with such a disgusting situation, the corpse stayed lying there for months and as time passed one could smell the carcass from a mile away.  Every time we went to the house we were exposed to the goory spectacle of vultures feeding on the exposed flesh and organs, which were covered by a carpet of flies. One day Jorginho decided that enough was enough and poured a five-liter tin of kerosene over the carcass and finally set it on fire.

This may have been a turning point. Weeks later we received a complaint from a farmer; one of his cattle had wondered into our land, had been shot and then had become barbecue while we were not there, In order not to anger my parents, Jorginho had been careful to give us some of the meat. I am not sure how my parents dealt with the situation, but the case was dropped soon after. What I do know is that one day Jorginho’s wife, who was way more attractive than any servant we had ever had in Teresopolis – or even in Rio – came to my Mum to tell her she was leaving with the children. She also told mom to be careful and that ahe didn’t know who she was allowing to look after her house.

Burglaries started to happen in the area and every house was affected except for ours. One of the neighbors was General Lemme, a man who was very high up in the ranks of the fading dictatorship. It may have been because of the possible combination of the old lady’s big mouth and the General’s power to get things done that freaked Jorginho out. Anyway, one day she was found dead in her hut. It was not a natural death, she had been murdered – not surgically with a shot, but savagely ripped apart with a knife. The walls had graffitis written with her blood reading maconha (marijuana) and putaria (dirty sex). The house stayed abandoned, and whenever I went up with my friends, we would use it to smoke weed and to have jam sessions, the first times it was eerie but then we got used to it.

Dad died around this time – although it was in Teresopolis it was for natural reasons and had nothing to do with our caseiro. I stayed for some time without going up and Jorginho continued to “keep” the house for a couple of years. By then Mum knew who she had living under her balcony but was threatened when she tried to fire him. It took a long time for me to know about this part and can’t say what I would have done if I had known.  As most criminals in Rio, he disappeared from one day to another. By then mom had remarried and it wasn’t difficult to find a replacement..

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