Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the month “December, 2013”

Lost Samba – Chapter 17/02 – Posto Nove, Ipanema

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Ipanema beach in the 1970’s

The Hotel Sol de Ipanema faced the beach almost on the corner of Rua Montenegro (which has since been renamed Rua Vinicius de Moraes), and it was a convenient landmark where my friends and I could all meet up at the beach. One Saturday morning, Edu and I were sitting by the sea in front of the hotel when we saw a lanky but toned guy in his forties wearing a crochet thong and playing beach tennis. His presence and his scandalously minuscule bathing attire drew our attention and, after looking at him for some time, Edu turned to me and asked, “Hey, isn’t that Gabeira?”

Edu was referring to Fernando Gabeira, one of the former exiles who had been involved in the 1969 kidnapping in Rio of the American ambassador, Charles Elbrick. In his best-selling autobiography, O que é Isto, Companheiro?  (“What is this, Comrade?”), in addition to the insider’s revelations of the mythical world of a so-called “terrorist” organization, Gabeira declared in his book that during those “heroic” days he was actively bisexual, something scandalous for the left and for the right alike. Riding a wave of fame, Gabeira launched an alternative path for opposing the system that he termed the “politics of the body”. What he really meant by this is still debated, but a political statement that seemed to prescribe being true to yourself and engaging in a lot of sex as a path to revolution went down well in Ipanema.

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Fernando Gabeira in his thong.

Rio’s beaches had, and still have, an unofficial schedule and a territorial partition that allowed one to say, “Tell me when and where you sun bathe and I will tell you who you are.” At dawn, the fishermen from Copacabana now shared the coast with surfers, yoga and Tai Chi aficionados, while joggers and cyclists paraded on the promenade. Later in the morning, as when I was a child, the ownership of the beach shifted to families, encompassing children, mums, grandmas, nannies, dogs and all other sectors of Brazilian domestic life. Around midday, they went home and from then on the more interesting people who stayed on gave Rio’s beaches sub-divisions further definition.

In Ipanema, there were unofficial spots for bodybuilders, Jiu-Jitsu fighters and yuppies. Other stretches became known as an extension of the gay scene, there was a surfers’ point, an area for the favelados, one for white-collar workers, another for sex professionals (not coincidentally the same as that for tourists), and an area reserved for football players and their groupies. Then there was Posto Nove, the beach outpost attracting followers of 1960s and 70s lifestyles and ideologies.

After the Pier, the surfers point in the early 1970s, had lost its usefullness, trawlers and cranes had done the job of demolishing the structure. From then on the Nove inherited the status of being the beach’s permanent Woodstock, the prime meeting place for artists, musicians, actors and intellectuals – both those already established and also those who never would. With the recent political freedom, came the flags of the newly legalized leftist parties flapping above the beautiful people. Meanwhile the boys from Batista’s improvised bar ran back and forth to serve beer, snacks and the tastiest caiprinhas found on any of Rio’s beaches.

There was a tacit understanding between the police and the beach-goers that they didn’t trouble us as long as we didn’t create trouble for them elsewhere on the beach. However, during election campaigns things sometimes changed when traditionalist candidates would push the police to clampdown on pot smokers, but when raids occurred, the crowd would boo them away and arrests were rare.

A typical day at Posto Nove was like being at a club or at a laid-back rock concert. Whether or not we had met before, we would chat between us about women, football and politics, and when the sun grew too hot or if the conversation became boring there was always the sea enticing us. As the day wore on, we took long swims, did some body surfing and played beach tennis. When the sun started to go down people began leaving the beach. By five in the afternoon the oceanfront was much emptier and the atmosphere became more intimate and serene. The milder sun, the afternoon breeze, the peace that came after a day spent in the open air and the beauty of the place and of the people made the Nove a magical spot.

The beach sessions would end with everyone giving the sun a standing ovation as it slowly disappeared over the horizon. After that, we all went our separate ways, normally going home for a nap before heading out to one of the parties or gigs that we had talked about on the beach earlier in the day where our free-spirited, suntanned and youthful carioca tribe would reconvene.

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Cariocas thanking the Sun for another great beach day.

Lost Samba – Chapter 17/01 – The end of the dictatorship in Brazil

Part23

Protest for going topless in Ipanema 1980

I was heading home from a rock concert at one of the main venues in Rio at the time, the Teatro Tereza Rachel in Copacabana. It was around midnight and I heard someone in the crowd say that John Lennon had been shot dead. No one knew whether to take him seriously, although everyone went home thinking about that disturbing possibility. The following morning, the newspapers confirmed what we had heard. Everyone was in a state of shock. Television reporters interviewed ordinary members of the public in the streets and famous artists, all of whom had tears in their eyes. For me, this final breakup of the Beatles seemed to interconnect with the extreme situation that I had experienced at the Noites Cariocas and another news that had also shocked us – the imprisonment of a couple of school friends for cannabis possession. On top of this there was Sarah’s dramatic split with her long-time fiancé. It didn’t make much sense, but the ripples from a wave of changes seemed to be affecting everything.

In the wider context, the Brazilian middle class had started to wake up to the fact that the lack of an alternative to the military-led government was a problem. The imprisonment, torture and then murder under the guise of “suicide” in 1975 of the distinguished journalist Wladmir Herzog in São Paulo triggered an unprecedented wave of indignation and numerous well-known political, cultural and religious figures expressed their dismay in newspapers across the country. On the other hand, now that no one could reasonably fear there was a risk of Latin America’s largest country becoming a Soviet satellite, the status of the Brazilian generals abroad was changing. Political movers and shakers in Washington as well as key figures of multinational corporations with economic interests in the country began to see Brazil’s brutal and corrupt military dictatorship as an unnecessary embarrassment.

Sensing the changing mood of their former supporters both inside and outside the country, the military took measures for appeasement. The most significant gesture was to grant amnesty to most political prisoners and to permit exiles to return home. Even if this move helped the military to remain in power, the policy of abertura politica – or political opening – was a victory for the opposition.

Overnight, the political dissidents went from being a virtually taboo subject to being courted as celebrities and hailed as heroes. They were in the press, on chat shows and their memoirs became best-sellers. Reading them we found out that they were regular upper middle class guys like us who had got carried away by the political turmoil of the times. In their books, we learned that some of them had spent periods training as guerrillas in Cuba and elsewhere abroad, before discretely infiltrating Brazil, where they took up arms, robbed banks and kidnapped important people. After the successful clamp down of their organizations, the ones who survived and went into exile were obliged to re-think their positions and to consider their next moves.

In a similar way to the artists, after the festivities for their return died off, they settled back in Brazil with more practical agendas. Many of the former exiles, as well as militants who had managed to survive in Brazil, used their popularity to progress within mainstream politics. José Genoíno, Fernando Gabeira and Carlos Minc, for example, became senators or ministers, while eventually Dilma Rousseff would be elected as president. Other non-guerrilla exiles also returned to Brazil, taking centre-stage in the re-democratization process. These included the veteran politicians Leonel Brizola who would become the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the architect Oscar Niemeyer and the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro as well as other more centrist politicians such as the sociologist president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the future leader of the PSDB, José Serra.

Although we admired most of these people, for my generation their presence opened up issues of identity. If we had not been active in the organised resistance but shared similar views on the dictatoraship, recognised the social unfairness around us and also wanted a better and fairer world, should we conclude that we were useless ? Had everything already been done? It was clear, that for them the fight was over. However, it was disappointing to see the people who we considered as legends using their past unashamedly to reach career advancements. Without understanding how a democracy works, to us, it seemed that, as ambitious political figures, they were keen to join something that, at least ideologically, we were resisting. The big unanswered question was how could we make a difference, and how should we position ourselves?

Because the dictatorship had simplified attitudes, the abertura politica brought new challenges. Until that moment, being for or against the regime placed everyone within an uncomplicated framework: depending on which side of the fence you stood, you could blame all the evils of the world either on the generals or on the communists. With the end of the military government now on the horizon, people were no longer confident as to where they stood politically and it would take some time for the country to achieve a state of political maturity.

It seemed obvious that the military would cling to power for as long as they realistically could. Everybody knew that by the time they handed back the power to the civilians, the economy would be on the ropes. For Brazilians at large, there were two pressing questions: in what state would the military return the country to the civilians, and what would our lives be like once the mounting economic crisis kicked in?

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Wladimir Herzog, the “suicide” that woke Brazil up.

What are the protests in Brazil about?

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While Brazil’s economic well being looks promising in the short and in the medium run, things have been strange in the political arena. Earlier this year, during the Confederations football Cup, there was a raging wave of protests while, under the surface, there is political unrest that may erupt during the World Cup.

Any uninformed person would jump to the conclusion that the protests come from the hungry masses who are discontent with the government for privileging big contracts instead of spending money on hospitals, education, housing etc… It is true that many are not happy but no, this is not where the anger is coming from. The discontent is coming from the middle and upper middle classes. The typical protester is a young, white male with a good level of education and no economic upheaval to deal with.

In other words, the protests are coming from the right rather than from the left. In general, the vast majority of the Brazilians, the working class, do not have strong reasons to protest, a proof of this is that there are very few working class people in the protests. The statistics show that there has been an improvement in their standards of living; more jobs, more education, more consumption… the list is long. They have benefited from the policies of the current left wing party, the PT, that has been in power for around a decade and that will most probably win the next elections.

So what are the protests about? Ask the average middle class Brazilian, and he will answer that they are about corruption in the government, more specifically among members of the PT. This is where the argumentation gets bizarre, they do not mention corruption in other parties, which in many cases is more severe than in the PT and if you listen closely, they will describe corruption as an exclusivity of the Lula and the Dilma governments, a clear fallacy for anyone who knows anything about Brazil.

There will also be the technocrats who will say that they are annoyed at the enormous presence of the State in the economy. They will defend Brazil adopting an economic model closer to the precepts of Wall Street and of the City of London: leave everything to private enterprise; they have the most qualified people and they know what they are doing. However, this is not what the protest are about, the young people in the streets do not carry neo-conservative nor monetarists flags. These arguments are only being heard now when the economy is beginning to dip. It was not so when Brazil paid their gigantic external debt, fixed the hyperinflation that corroded Brazil in the 80’s and in the 90’s and when it became the darling of international investors. In fact, the last time anyone heard these voices was when they gave terrible advice to the military regime in tackling the economic crisis. Everyone knows that if it were for these people Brazil would never have climbed out of that hole.

The question still begs an answer, what are the protests about? It is our understanding that they are about anxiety and powerlessness in the middle classes. The moralistic crusade, the hatred towards the left, the privileging of the technical over the democratic process reverts us to the rise of fascism and Nazism in the 1930’s. The country that the PT constructed during its large mandate has helped the rich to get richer and has taken a huge portion of Brazilians out of poverty. Meanwhile, the PT’s traditional voting base, the urban middle class, has not received the benefits of the economic growth. In many ways, they feel betrayed and are now worried about what will happen after the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

Justified or not, the poison is in the air. The protests were violent and there may be an escalation during the World Cup, when the embarrassment for the Government and the international exposure will be at its greatest. There are many questions: No one knows what this new right wants, not even themselves. All we know is that there is a lot of irrational anger and that they want the PT out. Apart from this, there is no party behind them nor do they have any leadership or any defined goal. Never the less problems may arise when some better organized group or power will appropriate this energy and use it for nonconstructive purposes.

Why Brazil needs to start loving itself a bit more

Interesting article.

the book is on the table

Following my post about ‘expats’ in Brazil, I stumbled across an article in which its Brazilian author uses the metaphor, ‘You don’t walk into a house and say the couch is ugly, do you?’, to infer that foreigners should never criticise other countries, including Brazil.

I’ve no doubt that I myself would also be offended if you, my dear reader, visited my house and told me yours is superior because: my furniture is cheap, my choice of decoration garish, the dinner I cooked you disgusting or the living conditions inhumane because the toilet doesn’t flush properly.

Back in the real world, it’s similarly understandable why Brazilians take offence to foreigners posting lists full of vitriolic and banal reasons why they hate living in Brazil. I’m sure most of you would be a little peeved if a foreigner wrote something as insensitive about your country.

And, despite being a…

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Lost Samba – Chapter 16/02 – Adrenaline and a miracle in Rio

Part22

The best night venue in Rio, the Noites Cariocas, was located on the first hill of the Sugar Loaf, the morro da Urca. The place was fantastic for concerts; the artists performed in an open-air theatre overhung by trees while the audience sat on the ground and on the surrounding platforms. During the intervals and after the shows, they turned on the sound system and transformed the whole place into a dance floor. By day it was filled with tourists, but on Friday and on Saturday nights the place used to be pack-solid with Rio’s party-goers.

The starry nights, the wonderful ocean breeze, the cold beer, the subdued lighting and the reliable effects of our special cigarettes made the place dreamlike. There were several paths around the lightly forested leading away from the central stage and dancing area, all of them took us to places with breath-taking views of the city’s lights. From there we could see on one side of the hill the silhouette of the Tijuca mountain range and of Christ the Redeemer reflected onto Guanabara Bay’s calm waters, and on the other side the open ocean reflecting the moon. Rio looked like a wonderful work of art with rows of lamp posts highlighting the coast and its dark hills surrounding the outlines of streets and buildings. Altogether, this was the perfect setting to woo the opposite sex. The atmosphere and the visual alchemy made the girls look beautiful up there; not all of them were from the Zona Sul and most were on the non-adventurous side so we had to keep a low profile. Even so, when it came to chatting them up, the romantic aura of Noites Cariocas was irresistible and a bit of flirting and buying them drinks performed miracles.

The frustrating side of all these discoveries was that my modest pocket money could not keep up with all the expenses involved in paying for concert tickets, joints, nightclubs, beer and movies. The most expensive item on the list was precisely the Noites Cariocas and the wise guy’s solution was to skip the entrance charge by climbing the hill instead of taking the cable car. Although the path wasn’t lit, the trek was doable.

Like poachers waiting on their prey, policemen and bouncers hid along the way, watching for guys like me to appear, hoping to extort a bribe. In the case of the security guards to allow us to continue our trek and in the case of the police officers not to take us to a delegacia where they would charge us for possession. If they caught you and you had no money, they were merciless. A group of them had caught some mates from school and, instead of detaining everyone, they had forced them to go back down the hill naked.

Climbing into Noites Cariocas that way had always had gone well for me until one particular night. It was the end of the month and my allowance had dried up, but one of my favorite bands, A Cor do Som, was playing. The only option was to take the trail, so, along with a friend, Marcio, we headed up under the light of a full moon. Midway up, we crossed a group coming down who told us that the path was ‘dirty’, meaning that there were policemen hidden somewhere further up.

Undeterred, Marcio and I decided to take an alternative route, one normally only used by experienced climbers. This was not a wise decision, but at least this path would be ‘clean’. We only realized the risks when it was too late: as if out of nowhere, we suddenly found ourselves having to cross a steep stretch of the trail with a sheer drop of 200 meters immediately alongside.
When we were almost there, my party-shoes lost their grip and I slipped. Miraculously – and I mean absolutely miraculously – there was a sapling sticking out of a rock just below me. That was the only small piece of vegetation protruding out of the rock within a radius of fifty meters; had I slipped a few centimetres before or after that point, that would have been it for me.

With the Noites Cariocas immediately above, I could hear the music and a small crowd shouting that someone had fallen down the rock. Looking up there was a four-meter wall of rock, while looking down there was a precipice. With my feet barely touching the root of that blessed and tiny trunk, I forced myself to look up and only concentrate on how to emerge alive, a reflex that I’d learned from dangerous situations in high-wave body surfing. I put my shoes into my pockets and managed to climb up the rock with my bare feet.

As I emerged and was putting my shoes back on, a bouncer made his way through the crowd and grabbed me by the arm saying that he was going to hand me over to the police. I pushed my arm away and challenged him, saying that I refused to go, and received the vocal support of everyone around us. In the face of this opposition, he backed down and instead escorted me to the cable car and out of Noites Cariocas. Given the circumstances, I just thanked the Almighty for still being alive. Beyond scriptures, priests, rabbis, mullahs, books and reasoning, I believed then – as I still do now – in the existence of an omnipotent God, a divine being who had decided this was not my moment to go.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 16/01- Jamming and Favelas in Rio de Janeiro

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Leme beach

Back at school, my guitar-playing reputation had spread and because of this I made new friends. They were part of the group of wannabe musicians who met regularly to play together and I was thrilled when they invited me to join in. We were all curious about each other’s abilities and wanted to learn from each other. There were those who were better at solos, others who, like myself, knew more chords and were good at coming up with interesting riffs, others had drum kits, keyboards, bass guitars, and percussion instruments such as bongos, conga drums and sometimes the more typical Brazilian berimbaus and pandeiros .

The meeting point was at Fernando’s, or Fefo’s, flat on the top floor of a building in Leme with a fantastic view of Copacabana beach. For some reason he and his older brother lived alone, which made their place a free zone for our gang. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the excuse of studying, we sat around playing our instruments in a room that had comfortable cushions scattered around on the wood floor, a guitar amplifier, no furniture and simple art-deco style metal windows framing a view of Leme Hill. We would kickoff by playing the latest song one of us had learned and the others would gradually join in, adding more depth to the tunes. Our approach was similar to the one we took with football – this was just fun and we had no pretensions of forming a band.

On weekends, Júlio – Fefo’s older brother – and his friends joined us. They always had a lot of weed and they rolled joints so huge that we had to compact them with our fingers. After we had finished, we’d remain in a trance-like state for what seemed forever watching my friends’ puppy wagging its tail and prodding us with its paws as though to try to bring us back to life. Deploying what seemed like superhuman effort, someone would eventually manage to drag himself to the room next door where the instruments were. One or two of us would follow and start playing something, and gradually everyone else would join in. Out of this renewed energy, we arrived at a zone of inspiration out of which some really good music emerged ­– though the smoke had the effect that nobody would be able to remember and reproduce the ideas the following day.

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Back at school, my guitar-playing reputation had spread and because of this I made new friends. They were part of the group of wannabe musicians who met regularly to play together and I was thrilled when they invited me to join in. We were all curious about each other’s abilities and wanted to learn from each other. There were those who were better at solos, others who, like myself, knew more chords and were good at coming up with interesting riffs, others had drum kits, keyboards, bass guitars, and percussion instruments such as bongos, conga drums and sometimes the more typical Brazilian berimbaus and pandeiros .

The meeting point was at Fernando’s, or Fefo’s, flat on the top floor of a building in Leme with a fantastic view of Copacabana beach. For some reason he and his older brother lived alone, which made their place a free zone for our gang. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the excuse of studying, we sat around playing our instruments in a room that had comfortable cushions scattered around on the wood floor, a guitar amplifier, no furniture and simple art-deco style metal windows framing a view of Leme Hill. We would kickoff by playing the latest song one of us had learned and the others would gradually join in, adding more depth to the tunes. Our approach was similar to the one we took with football – this was just fun and we had no pretensions of forming a band.

On weekends, Júlio – Fefo’s older brother – and his friends joined us. They always had a lot of weed and they rolled joints so huge that we had to compact them with our fingers. After we had finished, we’d remain in a trance-like state for what seemed forever watching my friends’ puppy wagging its tail and prodding us with its paws as though to try to bring us back to life. Deploying what seemed like superhuman effort, someone would eventually manage to drag himself to the room next door where the instruments were. One or two of us would follow and start playing something, and gradually everyone else would join in. Out of this renewed energy, we arrived at a zone of inspiration out of which some really good music emerged ­– though the smoke had the effect that nobody would be able to remember and reproduce the ideas the following day.

*

Almost without noticing, my friends and I had slid into the category of being the school’s doidões, the adventurous potheads. For the less sympathetic peers, we were a bunch of  porra loucas, or crazy sperms, a less flattering term for people into wild things and with no sense of reality or responsibility. Although we did not see ourselves as either, we considered most of the other students to be caretas. On our side of the fence, we believed that, unlike them, we knew what life was about and how to enjoy it with no paranoias. No matter how you saw it, the divide was clear and we were not sitting on top of the fence regarding this issue.

As the gap grew bigger, we created our own subculture. The ultimate status among us became the achievement of purchasing maconha – grass – in a favela. The first boca de fumo, or drug den, I went to was in Cosme Velho, at the start of the tram line that went up to the Corcovado, Rio’s famed Christ the Redeemer statue. Everyone had contributed some cash, but only I, Juca and Haroldo, an older guy with experience in doing deals in favelas, went.

We got off the bus close to the entrance to the Rebouças Tunnel and turned into a pathway on the edge of the Tijuca forest. Haroldo told us to wait there. We were apprehensive, and after ten minutes, he returned saying that the dealer would be coming down soon and that we should have our money ready. Soon a skinny guy in Havainas and wearing no shirt arrived at the corner, looked us over and made a sign. Haroldo went to him and discretely handed over our cash. The dealer looked around to see if anyone else was watching, and in return he took five tightly packed paper sachets from under his shorts, each of which weighing around 10 grams, and handed them over. After that, Haroldo crossed the street in a hurry and we climbed on the first bus out of there feeling like commandos following a successful operation.

This risky experience gave me a proper adrenaline-rush and I often returned to make purchases. One day, the guy at our meeting point said he had no sachets on him that day but that I could get a supply if I went up into the nearby Morro dos Prazeres favela. There were two other customers in the same situation and they knew a shortcut through the forest that ended at the football field on top of the hill.  We took a track that first followed alongside the heavy traffic entering the tunnel and then branched out into dense bush. At the top of the hill, we found ourselves on a football field where a group of boys were kicking a ball about. Barely acknowledging us, they knew exactly what had brought us there and continued their game.

We continued past the shacks until we got to the boca at the end of an alley.  From the surrounding rooftops, boys no older than us kept watch, while a tall, scrawny mulatto with a gun stuck in the waist band of his shorts and puffing away on a huge joint approached us to demand what we wanted. Trying to hide our unease, as calmly as we could we said, “fifty grams”. He told us to wait. He soon returned, carrying a one-kilo block of marijuana – looking the size of several construction bricks – the biggest single quantity of the stuff I had ever seen.

While separating out our pieces and wrapping them in sachets, the dealer became friendlier and offered us his joint. The quality was good and the effect immediately hit us, but we were afraid of relaxing our guard. After the packets were ready, we handed over the money and an older guy came out of a nearby barraco to count it. He verified that everything was OK and went back in. After that final approval we tucked our packets in our underwear, said goobye and left. We made our way unnoticed through the muddy alleyways and past the decrepit walls of the makeshift homes. Perhaps because we were stoned, the people and the environment somehow felt familiar. Soon, I realized that we were in Santa Teresa, the neighbourhood on the edge of the Tijuca forest. From there, we hopped on a tram that was going down to the city centre. I was in a state of grace, feeling as though I was on holiday. The sun was setting and the smell of the trees wafted through the rickety, old yellow carriage as it passed by the once grand, colourfully-painted houses that characterised the neighbourhood. After the bondinho reached its final stop in town, my accomplices and I each went our separate ways through the concrete jungle of the inner city.

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favela

Favela

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Santa Tereza

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