Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the month “October, 2012”

Get to Know a Brazilian – Torquato Neto

Torquato Neto,,, an important figure of the Tropicalia

Americas South and North

This week’s “Get to Know a Brazilian” focuses on Torquato Neto, a figure whose contributions to the Tropicália movement are even more overlooked than those of Rogério Duprat. Some of the most moving, daring, and playful compositions of the Tropicália sound came from Neto’s pen.

Like many of his fellow tropicalistas, Torquato Pereira de Araújo Neto was born in the Northeast, in the state of Piauí, to a middle-class family. His father was a public defender, and his mother was a primary school teacher, one of the more common “acceptable” jobs for married women at the time. Like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso before him, Torquato Neto moved to the city of Salvador in Bahia when he was sixteen, and forming a lifelong friendship with his classmate Gilberto Gil. During his time in Bahia, he also met Caetano Veloso and Gal Costa, creating the bonds that would tie…

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Communism as an inspiration: Latin America

ImageDuring the 60’s and the 70’s in Latin America the notion of what the “free” world was about was clear; it was bullshit. This was the period when the rich developed Capitalist countries intervened in the continent’s local affairs. They wanted the southern hemisphere to swallow their bitter pill at whatever cost in order not go to the communists. For this they sponsored numerous military dictatorships where there was everything but freedom.
In most cases the military’s main concern were not the people whose lives and futures were most affected, the uneducated masses, but the leaders of potential uprisings. These were middle class knowledgeable students who understood what was going on and who were in favor of more egalitarian avenues to development. The example of Cuba was in everyone’s mind and provided a unacceptable scenario in the offices that dealt with the richness and the future of the LatinAmerica.
Taken out of the context of the cold war, the bearded revolutionaries had a Robin Hood like appeal that inspired a generation. For sure this is what drew a great part of the middle class kids towards them and not their disastrous Stalinist way of controlling their people. This was brought about by the economic blockade imposed by the US and its allies and forced the Castro regime to approach the Soviet Union and become an important pawn in a wider conflict.
In Brazil, for young people living under a dictatorship set to destroy it, the word communism was uplifting. First of all it was forbidden; mentioning the tabu word was like talking about porn and anything in this condition is exciting. Secondly it sounded like the antidote of an unjust and elitist solution that the powerful forced down the country’s throat. Lastly and most important, due to the secrecy surrounding this ideology, the only thing we knew about it was its name, which alluded to something that did not sound bad at all: sharing. There must have been something very good being kept from us.
To our uninformed minds and souls the word common implied privileging what belonged to everyone. For us a system with these worries seemed better than one that wanted the world as a place where individuals fought for survival in a hellish Darwinian fire of vanity and consumerism. The military dictators then, as the mainstream politicians now, seemed to want to appease and bow to the interests of these powerful forces “beyond their control” that created evil instead of focusing on common grounds such as our future, our ecology, our wealth, our education, our children, our friendship, our love ( the list is endless).
This giant task of standing up to these idols with unimaginable wealth, armies, police forces and prisons while fighting to transform the world into a more communal place was set long before neo-liberalism, the Latin American dictatorships and Karl Marx himself. The demonized and abused word communism stood in our minds as representing this struggle. We did not know about the parties, the purges, Siberia etc.. what we knew was that our oppressive system struggled against it and saw it as a serious threat.
The more profound and “realistic” interpretations of communism created state sponsored monsters in a similar way that the holy scriptures caused inquisitions, jihad and land grabbing. We were going to learn about this later but what we hopefully never forgot was the stream of clear water that this ideology originally drank from.

Street Art

Adventures in the time of the Cruzado – part 02

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Divine Justice touched the ex-director, as well as the bank, a few years later. Before anything, we must know that the Cruzado plan, as the others before and after it, was a disaster and that a few months after the incident the economic nightmare was back with a vengeance. Because I missed the time to take my money out, I learned that I was not a stock market genius the hard way and lost everything I had put in. Experiencing inflation was bizarre: on average, prices rose around thirty percent a month, although the peak was sixty percent. The rising prices were like a collective illness corroding everything: salaries, revenues, serenity, hope, good judgement and I guess moral standards too. Prices just went up, and up and up again; in the turmoil no one knew how much the simplest of things; a bus fare, a packet of cigarettes or a sandwich would cost the next day.

Every now and again, after the prices of common articles had reached the tens or the hundreds of thousands, the authorities were obliged to come up with a new currency. The original Cruzeiro, became the Cruzado, and from there it went to the Cruzado Novo and so on. What they did was to cut off three zeros from the previous currency, which together with the “plan” that came in parallel; gave the illusion that stabilization was on its way.

This is where my ex-bank director “friend’s” fate comes in. He had gone on a business trip to New York, and on the day previous to his return flight the government had announced the change from Cruzado to Cruzado Novo. In other words they had cut three zeros from the Cruzado so no that now one Cruzado Novo was worth a thousand Cruzados. He took a taxi from the Galeão Airport to far away São Conrado, a handsome forty minute to one hour fare for the driver. After the gorgeous ride through Rio in an air-conditioned cab, he arrived at his luxurious condominium’s gate, passed the security and stopped in front of the Hollywood-like entrance. As in a commercial, the grey haired gentleman got out of the car, took out his suitcase, took his checkbook and a pen out of his hand luggage, wrote out the value, tore off the paper and handed it over.

If only his day had ended with the taxi leaving the gate… In the torpor of his jet lag, inflation, dollars and a new official currency melted in my “buddy’s” head and did allow him to realize that he had written out a check of one hundred and fifty thousand Cruzados Novos still thinking in Cruzados. His check was worth one thousand times more than what was on the meter, which was not a small amount. By any standards this was a respectable amount of cash; enough to spend a couple of years without working. Hardly believing his luck and probably as fond of his passenger as I was. Knowing that the old bastard was an ex-director of ABN Amro’s branch in Brazil because he always used the same taxi company, the driver not hesitate: he went immediately to the bank to withdraw the money.

There was not enough in his account but as this was an ex-director who was friends with all the important people in the board of directors who was known to be “difficult”, they released the money, in cash, without his authorization. The driver had his merit; he was convincing and smart, and vanished without leaving a trace.

This was still fresh when an ex-colleague told me about it, Apparently the lawyers had stepped in, but I am not sure how this ended. The only thing I know is that he was never rude to a trainee again, at least not in that bank.

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Adventures in the time of the Cruzado – part 01

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I left University in 1987; now the time had arrived to take life “seriously” and to begin climbing up the tree of success. I had left the fun job as a teacher and had managed to find a job as a trainee in a prestigious international bank, the Dutch ABN AMRO, on Rio Branco Avenue.

I began at their leasing agency, which I chose because it offered prospect of being transferred to the idyllic Northeast region of Brazil – the Nordeste -, which I loved and where I wanted to spend the rest of my life. However, in the middle of the program, someone dropped out of the main trainee group in the Bank itself and I was selected to join in. Everyone, including myself, saw this offer as a promotion and because of the change of status, I had to buy new suits and smarter ties to look good next to my ambitious and square colleagues from elite families.

An international Bank was an entire new world which I was not too sure about, the status of walking around in a suit and being treated as someone inherently better than the rabble around me was seductive but went against my gut instincts. Although secretaries, receptionists and other working girls looked at me with different eyes in my new uniform, I felt that I had sold out. There was also the issue that I was left wing to the core, my beliefs were anti-capitalist, my university was against neo-liberalism, I hated Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, my heroes were Fidel Castro and Che Guevara and all the Brazilian militants who had picked up arms to fight the regime only a decade and a half before. On the other hand, as far as mom and her circles were concerned, I was doing what was expected from me, which at an unconscious but deep level, gave me a sense of comfort. There were more superficial advantages; although the pay was not great our lunch vouchers gave us access to the culinary world of the city centre. Now I went for lunch at sushi places, the new trendy vegetarian restaurants and cheap barbecue houses. One of my favorites was a place on the second floor of an old building on Ouvidor Street that was proud to serve steaks that dropped off both sides of the plate. If they didn’t, the owner would personally take your plate back to the kitchen and come back with another one.

The most alluring part of that universe inhabited by the privileged and rotating around raw money was the stock market. Due to Brazil’s never ending hyperinflation, at different times the Brazilian government launched shock policies to try to stall it. Some were electoral stunts and others were sincere efforts, it would take fifteen years for them to get it right and finally come up with an effective way to end the inflationary spiral. What these plans had in common was that they created spasms of optimism and a temporary false sense of regained stability. Of course, these changes affected investors and made share prices soar. Outside Brazil, these were the days of the yuppie, the casino economics years, when “Wall Street”, the film with Michael Douglas, hit the screens and making easy money was almost a divine commandment. After witnessing a friend buy a Ford Escort, the coolest car available, from stock market money I decided to join the herd. I got the little money I had and put into a fund and was extremely lucky. I got into the market right after a serious plunge, two weeks later the government came up with the Cruzado plan, which “froze” prices and promised that, this time, they would recuperate the economy. The value of my stock more than doubled, I won tons of money in one month and considered myself a genius.

Meanwhile at the bank, everything was going fine until the day I answered the external phone line in the investment department where, as part of the program, I was learning the ins and outs of its operations. It rang shortly before leaving time and there was no one else in. I cleared my throat and answered the call with one thing in mind: the clear guidelines not to give clients’ balances no matter what they said. However, my Botafogo supporter’s luck dictated that this was exactly what the stressed out voice on the other side of the line wanted.

With politeness, I explained that I could not do that and that he should call his account’s manager the following day. With a bit less politeness, he replied that he knew this but that he needed to know his balance immediately.

“I am sorry Sir, your account manager will be glad to do this tomorrow morning but I am not authorized to give you your balance.”

“I can’t wait until tomorrow, I need to know it now; can’t you do me this favor? I know you have access to the information.”

“I won’t lie to you, I actually do, but the rules are strict and you can only know your balance through your account manager”

“Come on, do me a favor, just go to the list and tell me how much money I have in my account, no one will know about it.”

“I am sorry, I can’t, call back tomorrow morning.”

This continued for some fifteen minutes and his tome went from bad to worse, I could not hang up but I was losing my patience with that arrogant guy. The conversation ended as follows:

“Listen son, I am tired of this shit, give me my f…ing balance now!!”

“Listen my friend, number one: I am not your son, number two: why don’t you go f…k yourself?!!” and hung up the phone.

OK, I lost it, but come on… this was not exactly my fault. Anyway, my “good” star ensured that this guy was an ex-director of the Bank who knew all the relevant people who could decide my future in that establishment. It is not hard to guess what happened next, when the program ended everyone else got a job, and I went back to giving English lessons. Another factor that contributed to this sad ending was that I hung out with the only international trainee in bank, a Dutch guy who decided to make me his guide to drugs and prostitutes in Rio. He was pals with the son of the American consul, who asked me in a rather impolite way who I was when we went up to his luxurious apartment. The only thing Diederick had learned in Portuguese was “caralho” – the male sexual organ – end the only thing he said in the local language was, “Caralho man!!” – the equivalent “of shit man!” – and he did not stop saying it. This was funny, but the down side of the friendship was that did not care about boasting about his carioca adventures and saying who had taken him there, and this ended up falling into the wrong ears.

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