Lost Samba – Chapter 31/01 – Rock and Roll and Brazil’s silent revolution
The welcome at home was lukewarm. No one likes defeats, but still my parents were glad to have their son back and not on a risky venture that they never understood. It was also clear that Dad’s days were numbered and I wanted to try to narrow the gulf between us. Lacking better options, when the summer ended I returned to university to continue the economics course. What happened next was predictable. I didn’t belong there anymore; my contemporaries looked down on me, while my new class mates either viewed me as an incomprehensible rebel or dismissed me as an idiot who had fallen behind in his studies. My grades were bad and I hated the unforgiving truth that I’d spent an entire year out, only to return to the exact same point as where I’d left off.
However, life carried on. The healer for my pressures and disappointments was, as always, Ipanema beach and its beautiful community. One Sunday morning at Posto Nove, I bumped into Melo, an ex-class buddy from the Colégio Andrews. Melo had changed from being an introverted, skinny guy into a cool, outgoing young man with long hair. It was obvious that he had also spent plenty of time working out as his muscles were all pumped up. He was proud to tell me that he had learned how to play the guitar. Although he had never belonged to the doidão gang, we agreed to meet up for an electric session at his place after sunset. Melo asked if he could bring along his friend Leonardo, a bass player. I agreed and suggested that we also invite Marcos, a mate from university who played the drums. This was how our band was born. Initially we called ourselves “Papa Clitoris e os Oligofrenicos” (Clitoris eater and the Oligophrenics), but we soon settled on a more acceptable name, “Arrepio”, meaning “goose bumps”, a term used by surfers to describe a state of awe.
Having a band was a definite step up in the rock ‘n roll ranks, as well as being a lot of inexpensive fun and therapeutic. When the music got going, the sense of empowerment was tremendous. All life’s frustrations came storming out with crude aggressiveness from the guitar and through shouts into the microphone.
We began rehearsing at Melo’s place, as it was impossible to meet at mine as the neighbours had signed a petition against the noise. With Melo, however, we could be as loud as we wanted because his parents always travelled on weekends and it seemed that his neighbours weren’t troubled by the roar. We used the apartment’s study as our studio. The room overlooked the Morro do Leme favela, at the end of Copacabana. Down in the shacks, we could hear a punk band rehearsing on the same days as us. When we took a break, they would start, and vice-versa. Their lyrics were those of uneducated people, probably in the equivalent of the language used in British punk. Their anger sounded so naïve that it made us fall about with laughter. I prefer not to think what they made of us.
It didn’t take long for Melo’s neighbours to start to complain too. As in my building, they ended up circulating a petition demanding that we stop playing. This forced us to turn to a regular studio, placing us even deeper into the rock ‘n roll scene. With everyone forming bands, rock was now central for Rio’s youth and rehearsal studios became an extension of the Posto Nove scene. We bumped into the same people we saw every weekend at the beach and between sessions we got to know about the wildest parties, the best drug deals, and joined in the gossip about other bands, both well-established and up-and-coming.
After trying several studios, we ended up adopting one at the Morro de São Carlos favela. This slum was notorious for “belonging” to one of Rio’s most dangerous underworld organizations, the Terceiro Comando. The police only ventured to go up that hill in armoured vehicles and protected by helicopters. Naturally, we were apprehensive as we drove through the unpaved alleys with our expensive gear. When we finally found the studio, it was uneasy to stop the car and get out of it.
The high walls, the barbed wire and the five fierce Rottweilers that protected the sizeable studio and its grounds made it resemble the fortress of a drug lord. The owner was Marcos’ drumming teacher, Charles – pronounced Shaahrlees – a tall guy with blond curly hair extending down into a curly beard that made him resemble an ancient Greek figure. Charles had been the drummer for the legendary godfather of Brazilian funk, Tim Maia and for one of tropicália’s stars, Gal Costa. He welcomed us into the spacious studio that was still smelling of cement. We were the first to ever use the premises, but soon that space was to become one of the most popular rehearsal studios in Rio used by some of the top artists and bands in town, such as Cazuza, Hanoi Hanoi and Azul Limao. Charles never forgot us and continued offering a special price. He was also generous in allowing us to play using the gear that the big boys left behind.
Although we loved the studio and the fun of playing at full blast on professional equipment, getting to Charles’ studio never ceased to be a tense experience. Every time we drove up through the narrow streets the locals suspiciously eyed our car, unsure if we were the police, a rival gang or customers. Charles must have had agreements with both the drug lords and with the police because none of them ever touched us although sometimes he’d phone Marcos telling us not to come because something heavy was going on.
Parallel to the paradox of the elation of having a good band playing my creations at the same time as the situation at home was borderline desperate, Brazil was passing through an important period of its modern history.
The economic disaster and restrictive measures that the IMF imposed on the country in 1983 caused widespread discontent. But what made Brazilians especially angry was that they could not choose their president. The military’s position was that the people were not capable to make this decision and congressional representatives should be left to choose the country’s leader for them. Despite the assurances that at an unspecified point in the future they would concede presidential elections, no one bought that proposal and all democratic forces within the country united to enforce immediate change. The movement took the streets, marching under the slogan “Diretas já!” – Direct elections now!
These gigantic demonstrations took place in cities across Brazil. Following a rally in São Paulo attracting 1.7 million protesters, a rally in Rio drew more than one million people to the streets, the largest political gathering the city had ever seen. A revolution in real time was something to be part of. I squeezed my way through the crowd and climbed up a news kiosk to get a clearer view. As the first speech began, I felt some splashes on my shoulder, I looked back and there was someone peeing from the column next to me. I yelled at the idiot who excused himself and directed the flow to another angle. From then on things only got better, famous actors and artists, leading congressmen and other key political figures came on to the podium and took turns in giving memorable speeches, cheered on by the assembled masses. The rally ended with the entire crowd singing the national anthem, with barely a dry eye, forever imprinting that moment onto the Brazilian collective memory.
Brasília, the capital, was far from the main centres of population so the rulers only saw what was happening on television screens, which gave them a sense of detachment and of immunity from what was taking place on the streets. Their concession was to allow the Congress to nominate a civilian as president, Tancredo Neves, a widely respected figure who had served as a token opposition politician ever since the coup in 1964. The official candidate who they allowed to lose was the unpopular military appointed governor of São Paulo, Paulo Maluf. With Tancredo’s victory, for the first time in over 20 years Brazil was set to inaugurate a civilian as president. However, the president-elect fell seriously sick only weeks before signing in. This drama kept Brazil in suspense: no one knew how serious Tancredo’s medical condition really was, whether he could take office or if some form of conspiracy was taking place. With Tancredo hospitalised and probably in a coma, José Sarney, the vice-presidential candidate, appointed to please segments of the military, took office on 15 March 1985. A little over a month later, Tancredo died.
We were scheduled to perform our first gig on the night that Tancredo was confirmed dead. As a stunned Brazil united in mourning, we sat on the club’s doorsteps in Copacabana hoping for someone to show up. Melo anxiously paced forwards and backwards, only stopping to ask why there was no one there. We patiently explained that Brazil had just lost its rightful president, to which he replied “Really? Of what?”. He was not joking and no one could believe how anyone could be so utterly detached from reality.