Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “book on rio de janeiro”

Lost Samba – Chapter 29 – The Circo Voador and Parque Laje: The birth of Rio’s cool.

circo

The Circo Voador in its first year – 1982

I arrived back in Rio absolutely exhausted. But rather than being simply pleased to be home, I now found wrong so many of the comforts  – a maid to tidy up for me, a room of my own and food available whenever I was hungry – that I’d always taken for granted. I felt like a wild animal caged in a zoo, my old cosseted lifestyle now feeling too limited. My parents might have thought that I’d gone through a rough time but preferred not to try to discuss it

I felt like Icarus who had fallen from the skies because he had flown too high or like Gulliver pinned down by Liliputions for being too big. I was swimming against a current of narrow-minded conformity and fear of the new decade. I felt out of touch, like a second-class citizen who no one wanted to approach both in and out of home. It seemed as if recess time at school had ended and that everyone else had returned to class apart from me. Anyway, it was obvious that they thought that my outlook needed to change and I that had to get my act together. The atmosphere was bad. Dad’s punishment was weeks without directing a word to me, a passive-aggressive manner that I had become used to.

Going back to university was tough. We were delving into micro- and macro-economic theories, calculus and other hard-core subjects. Completely out of synch with that environment, I didn’t have the concentration and the will to carry on. The experiences of my travels, my need to make sense of what was happening, my original dreams of being a film director, the lack of people similar to me around, the lack of understanding from family and friends, the lack of a girlfriend were altogether too difficult. I asked my parents to let me spend a year working on a Kibbutz in Israel to sort my head out, but the answer was a categorical no. For them, the time for fun (as they saw my choices) was over. Now was the time to pull myself together, to work hard to build a sensible future. Certainly times were economically harsh and their argument made sense but I wasn’t strong enough and was too self-absorbed to take on board such a rational position.

To complicate things further, one day Dad felt ill at work and was rushed to hospital. Although in hindsight this was predictable given the stress he was experiencing, the news came as a shock to all of us, including me. Dad was now in his eighties and his “tropical paradise” was becoming unrecognisable. Nothing seemed to be going as planned. With a monthly inflation rate of twenty percent, the country’s economy was in a state of crisis, while Dad’s business – like so many others – was only just staying afloat. Meanwhile, Dad’s family was crumbling. As far as he was concerned, I had gone mad, and although Sarah – still his great hope – was doing well in her dental career, she had got into a bad relationship and was no longer on speaking-terms with the family. The country house in Teresópolis that was to be my parents’ retirement place had become a never ending maintenance problem, yet another millstone round Dad’s neck .

Despite all the aggravation,s Dad could not allow himself to rest. He needed to continue working to sustain the family’s lifestyle. And despite the health scare, we all took him for granted. I was too self-centred to offer any practical help and, anyway, those suggestions that I made (such as selling the business and the house so that he could enjoy retirement) were dismissed out of hand. Following the 25-years of achievement for my father in Rio, Brazil now seemed to be devouring everything it had given him. At home, there was a general sense that somehow the end was approaching, and in this our condition was not very different to that which many other families were experiencing.

Although I thought a lot about it, leaving home and telling everyone to go to hell was not an option. Back then young people in Brazil lived at home with their families until they found a proper job or got married and the concept of sharing an apartment with friends was unheard of. In anycase, there were few jobs around and the ones available paid less than my pocket money. As the tensions at home became unbearable, we somehow reached a compromise. I abandoned the economics course in Rio in order to try to get a place at a film college in Sao Paulo. I reckoned that compared to making my way into the prestigious economics course in Rio, getting accepted to study film ought to be easy. In my mind this move would put me back on track with who I was.

*                                              *                                              *

Beyond the realms of my family’s drama, there was the intensity of life in Rio. I was still able to appreciate some of the exciting things happening out there. The star of the moment and catching the public’s imagination was the alternative theatre group Asdrubal Trouxe o Trombone (Asdrubal Brought the Trombone). In several ways it was what my generation was waiting for: a voice of their own. By breaking away from the left-wing etiquette, this was a central player in bringing change to Rio’s – and consequently the Brazilian – cultural scene. Influenced by Monty Python, and by counter-culture in general, Asdrubal was a cultural version of the surfers and the rockers. This group of largely amateur actors and directors threw all their energy into a play called “Trate-me Leao” (Treat Me Lion). Because of their fresh approach to theatre and their humerous and easy to relate themes, the play was a tremendous success with the country’s youth and toured all over Brazil. The sketches concentrated on the everyday experiences of urban kids in search of friendship, love and adventure and who had no intention of following in Che Guevara’s steps.

All this was happening while my generation was dealing with the often painful process of reaching adulthood. A constant positive of living in Rio is that it is blessed by an array of the most beautiful beaches. No matter how stressful life might be, a calm day at the beach with friends and seeing beautiful people allows one to fleetingly forget one’s troubles. One typical glorious sunny Saturday, I was chatting with Dona Isabel in the kitchen, having my usual lunch of beef, fried onions, rice and black beans before going to the Nove. The television was on and I caught a glimpse of the Asdrubal actors announcing that they were offering acting classes. I was tempted but my beach-bum instinct won out, making me think that this was for effeminate thong-wearing fake revolutionaries of the kind that I’d do anything to avoid. This decision came to be one of my biggest ever mistakes. Many of the greatest Carioca actors and rock stars of my generation, such as the band Blitz, the singer Cazuza, comedians such as Luis Fernando Guimarães and the actress/presenter Regina Case and so many others either gave classes there or emerged from that course.

Bruno, a friend of mine, joined the classes and despite not being born to act he had a video camera and talent for filming and editing. For Asdrubal,  Bruno was a heaven-sent asset and they started to ask him to film their work. As Asdrubal grew, so  did Bruno. A decade later, Bruno went on to win several MTV-Brasil awards for best music video director and is he now one of Brazil’s leading video makers.

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Asdrubal

Asdrubal inherited the attention once given to the Novos Baianos, the hippy queen-bees, and to Fernando Gabeira, the revolutionary-chic former exile. Their latest initiative was a veue of their own an actual circus in Arpoador, the neighbourhood  linking Copacabana with Ipanema. They named their new venue the “Circo Voador” (Flying Circus), imitating one that the Rolling Stones had used for a performance in London in the 1960s.  It was here that the presentations of Asdrubal and their students took place. Jokingly the word went out that the only two musical genres that bands played under their canopy were “rock as well as roll”. They opened-up the space to local bands instead of featuring weird-looking longhaired artists from the Northeast or the soon to become outdated Brazilian music stars singing about social reform.

The musicians and lead singers were no longer the frightening, hard-core junkies of the type that led the rock scene of the 1970s. Instead, now they could easily have been (and sometimes were) fellow students, friends and neighbours merely enjoying themselves. What motivated these artists was the movement (if one could call it that) of a desire to break free from the weight of the country’s realities and to simply be part of the rock ’n roll ethos, that in their minds was a universal family. This initiative rippled throughout the country and set rock as the main 1980s cultural expression, at least for middle class youth. The Circo Voador would mark the last time that Rio would be Brazil’s musical trend setter. The centre would soon gravitate to the much larger São Paulo market, where the cultural scene was more sophisticated, in tune to innovation and more in touch with what was goung on abroad.

After going to a few Circo Voador gigs, I was convinced that I had the potential for playing to that kind of crowd.  With the little money that I had left from selling Blues Boy, I bought a cheap amplifier and an electric guitar. The shift from acoustic guitar to an electric one was like changing from a bicycle to a motorbike. Now I could shake the windows of my room with just a slight pluck of a string. Because no one was happy with me at home I had to turn the volume down, but on weekends, when my parents went up to Teresópolis, my sister was at her boyfriend’s place and Dona Isable went home, I had the apartment to myself. Feeling like a insane king in a wretched castle, the beast came out and the volume got turned right up, driving our poor neighbours crazy.

I started writing songs using ideas that had come up during my travels and in jam sessions. At the same time, new ideas surfaced and I felt certain that music was my destiny. My work tried to fuse aggresive rock with Brazilian rhythms. This kind of mixture had been a controversial novelty in the days of the Tropicália and continued being used by artists from the Northeast such as the Novos Baianos and Alceu Valenca. With the 1980s rock and Brazilian music diverged, becoming more “purist”. Until then artists often combined these genres, selling their “exotic” music as  developments of a more “authentic” style far removed from Rio or São Paulo. Now here was me, a guy from Ipanema with a rather odd Jewish and British background, working with traditional Brazilian music and trying to make it sound heavy with contemporary rock gear. This exoticism found no sympathy amongst the narrow-mindeded new audiences who could only appreciate either ”pure” rock or Brazilian popular music. Bands with a similar outlook to what I attempted would only establish themselves a generation later, with the likes of artists such as Chico Science and the Nação Zumbi .

*                                              *                                              *

Pedro had also abandoned economics to do an art course in Rio’s Parque Lage, in an Italianate mansion set in the surreal surroundings of a tropical estate. The creation of a nineteenth century Brazilain millionaire, the grounds were so well preserved that behind the house they still had the slaves’ quarters, the senzala, a grotto with stone beds covered by limestone that gave you the creeps as one walked in.

The classes were in the mansion’s famous internal patio which had been featured in one of the most important 1960s Cinema Novo films, Glauber Rocha’s masterpiece “Terra em Transe”, and had been a busy musical venue in the 1970s where many memorable gigs took place. After a few years of silence, the beautiful location was re-opened as a concert hall and the place now competed with the Circo Voador to attract the coolest young hearts and minds in Rio.

The Parque Laje was consolidated onto Rio’s cultural map when the art course that Pedro was doing decided to get their students, along with budding artists from the Federal University’s faculty of fine arts, to paint the park’s concrete external walls. They came up with a lot of amazing and original creations and the result was going to define who was who in the “geração ‘80” (‘80s generation), the most important movement of that decade. Many of these artists went on to achieve public recognition, while other already established artists from elsewhere in the country placed themselves under their umbrella and adopted the new pop-like and youthful aesthetics, presenting themselves as the new expression of Brazilian art.

Being part of the “geração ‘80”, opened doors for Pedro, enabling him to circulate amongst the kind of “interesting people” he had always yearned to be like. Now that Pedro had been accepted, it was he who was introducing me into circles that I wanted to mingle in. In this way, I became a peripheral participant of the avant-garde of the 1980’s aesthetics that had spoiled the hippy feel of the places that had drawn me to the Northeast.

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geracao80

Geracao 80 exibition at the Parque Laje

Lost Samba – Chapter 24 – Brazil in the Eighties

Eighties

Like me, Pedro had “parachuted” into the university’s economics programme. For the vestibular, he was lucky enough to sit next to an ace student he’d known since childhood. After some discreet but forceful nagging, his friend allowed him to copy his answer sheet. Pedro was not typical of my normal circles. He lived outside the Zona Sul, had darker skin, curly hair and had an athletic build from being a passionate water-polo player. We kicked off a firm friendship with me serving as his passport to Zona Sul parties, while he helped me develop some street cred. Our well-bred colleagues would soon view us as the class’s wise guys, but our popularity would lead us to forget that we were in such a demanding place of study.

In the beginning, we had a great time. The campus in Urca was divided into three faculties: economics and business administration, communications (journalism and advertising) and psychology. Economics – our course – was considered the most prestigious one of the campus’ faculties and, appropriately, we had the most high-profile building that contained the Teatro de Arena, the famous amphitheatre with a political past. Although student activism was hardly as important anymore, the students’ union opened the Teatro de Arena on weekends and transformed it into a popular venue for often great alternative bands. Perhaps because of all this, the economics students regarded themselves as being a cut above the rest of the campus, feeling we were tackling important and intellectually demanding matters, in contrast to the easy and superficial topics of the other faculties.

In response, all the other students viewed us as the campus’ slightly arrogant nerds, though we did command a certain respect. Pedro and I never really accepted these kinds of comparisons and instead made friends with the communications students (they knew how to party) and with the psychology students (they were overwhelming female, many of whom were pretty and seemed compelled to experiment with all sorts of things).

Overall, we were now part of a more senior university crowd who had a social life of their own, and, sure enough, the parties we started to go to reflected our new status. There were many older students, young professors, their girlfriends and their friends all of whom were more stimulating than the kind of people I was used to hanging out with. My guitar abilities worked miracles in getting us invited to the best gatherings, organized by the most prestigious members of the student body and many were in the best addresses in the city. This elite was left wing, and many would go on to enter politics or would rise to senior positions in government agencies or in business. Most of these young and clever people came from wealthy old families, and a few of their parents were involved in the newly legalized opposition parties or had links to returning exiles.

As this was a time of political rebirth – the period of the abertura politica – these circles appreciated the laid back attitude of a street-wise, hippy-like guitar player; a connoisseur of weed and of the alternative lifestyle found in Visconde de Mauá and Trancoso. For a short period, both Pedro and I enjoyed being courted by the student elite, but they soon brushed us aside owing to our poor grades, conventional middle class family backgrounds and to the lack of erudition in our arguments whenever serious topics came up.

The acceptance by the students of the other courses was far more straightforward and more durable. The invitations to parties, the girls, the new and interesting friendships and the jam sessions flowed in. In this situation, it was easy to forget the economic realities hovering around us as well as the academic effort that the course required if we were to hope to make the grade.

Cocaine was starting to replace weed in parties, not yet in the gatherings of the leftist radical-chiques of the economics course, but in the other gatherings that we went. Rio’s powerful drug lords had come to realise that the white powder was easier to transport, harder to track, more addictive and altogether a more lucrative business venture than was marijuana. They created shortages of cannabis that lasted for months while the supply of cocaine remained abundant and consequently cheap. The plan worked and soon pretty well everyone had converted to blow, the downside being that they began to see maconha as something for hippy dropouts from another era – in other words, losers. With more serious money pouring in, drug trafficking also became more structured and more deadly.

laCoca

Cocaine

”Brizola” – the name of a leading opposition politician and for some reason the name widely used for cocaine – was more demanding, more negative and altogether more harmful than anything we were used to. While weed brought out the fun and the contemplative side of people, cocaine heightened egos. Once it became popular, the traficantes increased the price and made it an expensive habit – and because one had to consume a lot in order to keep buzzing, at a time of economic crisis many people were forced onto paths beyond the law.

At first, I didn’t like the superficial vibe that surrounded cocaine or the ego-driven people attracted to it, but the hype was so great and the high seemed so empowering that my crowd gradually accepted it into their world. As times grew harsher, the illusion of self-confidence that the white lines on our mirrors gave us would compensate for the shock of the severe economic downturn and its serious impact on our everyday lives and futures, which felt like a truck hurtling towards us at full speed.

*

Outside our sheltered lives, but very much knocking on our doors, was the unforgiving truth that Brazil had become a country struck by hyperinflation, recession, despair and suicide, some of them close to us. There was no way out, and on the ground it was “everyone for himself and God against all” in the words of Mario de Andrade in his novel Macunaíma. For many amongst the wealthy members of society, self-destruction through excess was the escape-valve, while for some of the poor it was crime and violence. Tragic stories began appearing in newspapers, with a surge in kidnapping and murders on one side, and vigilantes killing suspected criminals on the other.

Within my social circle, there was a widespread feeling of despair and hopelessness. Many of us believed that we had stepped out of the system, but when the bad times hit us – something that we never imagined could happen – we realized how entangled our existence was with all that we found wrong in the world.

Ideologically, the 1980s were a rebellion against the rebellion and with the change of tides came the witch-hunt. People who hadn’t enjoyed the fruits of the 1970s economic “miracle”, or who did not take part of the big party either through parental prohibition, through commitment to their studies or through rejection to the way people thought and behaved, were now engaged in private vendettas and rejoicing at their enemy’s disgrace. What had been cool was now frowned on, what had been revolutionary appeared idiotic, and what had been ecstatic became the cause of sexual and mental illnesses. The journey of a generation that had struggled against a dictatorship and then witnessed the return of democracy was disregarded. The sense of brotherhood that had risen from those days evaporated. Everything had changed and seemed to have reversed: what common sense had regarded as being self-serving and obnoxious now became unashamedly the right thing to do.

Everyone sensed that this was only the beginning of a long, dark, stretch ahead. By the end of my first year at university, the effects of economic and social mayhem ran deep, and the reach of this crisis in their personal lives caught everyone by surprise and no one knew how to respond. I tried to convince myself that I could cope with whatever might come my way – that it was impossible for things to get worse. I was wrong.

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the short history of the appearance of the Brazilian bikini.

Do you know the story of the first infamous Brazilian bikini?  It happened quite by chance, back in the early 1970’s, in the area of Ipanema Beach in Rio de Janeiro.  The story begins with an aspiring young Brazilian model named Rose de Primo.  Allegedly, Rose received a modelling job offer that required her to wear a bikini.  Unfortunately, (or perhaps fortunately) Rose didn’t own a bikini, couldn’t afford to buy a bikini and her mother wouldn’t make her one so…she decided to make a bikini for herself.  She used her underwear as a pattern but she soon realized that she didn’t have enough fabric to complete the whole bikini (she must not have started with much!).  Rose then used only the front and the back part of the bikini bottoms and tied them together on the sides with string.  She liked the way it looked and followed the same idea for the bikini top and…voilà!…the Brazilian String…

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Ipanema’s weird characters in the seventies.

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Ipanema has provided the world its famous girl, the former world surf and para-gliding champion Pepe, beach volley world champions, the Brazilian g-string bikini and several other marvels. It has also been the choice neighborhood of many artists, politicians and intellectuals, famous both inside and outside Brazil such as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Fernando Gabeira and so many others. Enough has been spoken about them. Any narrative will always leave out a neighborhood’s weird characters who give its soul and, according to some schools of thought, reflect suppressed angles and layers of it collective unconscious.

In the seventies and the early eighties (Lost Samba’s time) the neighborhood was in the fore front Brazil’s march into affluence and modernity. Its streets were alive with all sorts of alternative people: hippies, militants, surfers, old-school Bohemians, yuppies, traditional families and of course the army of porters, maids, nannies who served these people and the neighboring inhabitants of the Pavao and Pavaozinho favelas. In this melting pot it would be inevitable that striking characters would emerge and become references for the community’s history.

Damiao Experiencia was probably the first person in Rio de Janeiro with a Rastafarian hairstyle, we are talking about 1977-78, and it was very long. He dressed all in white and walked around with an uncovered old acoustic guitar covered in exoteric inscriptions, a bag full of books he authored. He caused a stir wherever he went and everyone imagined he was a hidden genius or a great artist although he remained a mystery as he never approached anyone nor did he do gigs. After the initial shock his presence was digested, people got accustomed to the daily presence and became ever more curious to know what he was about. It turned out that he came from the northeast of Brazil and wrote strange music that never played on the radio. This was not because his work was too far out of reach; he sold cassettes with his songs but to our disappointment they had no rhythm, his voice was deep but out of tune and his guitar skills were next to nothing.

There was also Chicao, a huge black guy with the fiercest face who hung out with the long-haired and Californian looking Surfers. There had never been anyone as strong and with such a mean aura to walk the streets of Ipanema, and probably there will never be. It was a given that the surfers smoked weed, and by default he did too. This was a great statement at the time; a black “maconheiro” who probably came from the favela hanging around in the streets of one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of the country. Legend said that even the police were afraid of him, he never smiled any wherever he went  the fear crept in. I once saw him in a fight, it was during a carnival and he was on a small open van in a transgender costume with other guys of the surf gang, a porter said something making fun of them and Chicao got down and beat the hell of him. The big guy disappeared from Ipanema as fast as he appeared, I am not able to say why but I would guess that he ended badly, a guy like him would not have important relatives or friends to help him out when things went wrong.

The lady with a ribbon of tattooed stars under her bum was from the upper middle class but no one knew her name. She was blonde and had been part of Ipanema’s beauties in the sixties and lived in California when she was married to Paulo Sergio Valle a famous musician involved with the Bossa Nova, but by the time she started to get noticed she was in her late forties. She always kept to herself at the beach in a bikini. Her strong suntan combined very strangely with her David Bowie like make-up, wild haircuts and weird accessories such as pink Wellingtons. Legend said that she had taken too much acid in the early seventies and had never come back. In the beginning people could argue that she was sexy, she launched seductive looks at many a guy, but as the years passed time took its toll and she looked odder and odder; her endless gazes into the horizon and her inexplicable bursts of laughter signaled that there was something very wrong although after some time she began making friends with other weird characters and even found summer romances.

The old guy with a Pekinese was a constant presence at the beach too. No one remembers a day when he was not there, he was short and very tanned and had very long hair and a huge beard, which made him look like a mixture of Mahatma Ghandi and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings in beach trunks. His companion was his little dog and it was difficult to say if he was a human version of his dog or vice-versa. apparently he lived in a house in Copacabana and came twice a day on foot to the Posto 9, where we used to go. He was friends with the kiosk owners among which Baptista, a big black guy in his forties, was the most influential. It was him who once told me that the small old guy was rich and that his house was big, something that only traditional families possessed in the South Zone. There was a big commotion the day that his dog died, everyone noticed it as they also noticed that after that his health began to deteriorate. His posture worsened even after he got himself a new Pekinese dog. He was still going to the beach everyday when I left Rio in 1989 when he must have been well into his eighties.

The last character here is Mr. Ether. This was a guy whose deterioration was followed by the entire neighborhood closely. People commented that he had been a medical student and came from a good family. I first saw him in the mid seventies when we moved to Ipanema, at the time he already stood out as a hippy-like figure, a strong guy with curly dark hair who always seemed to be stoned. The traditional citizens would always be scared when, in beach trunks, he laughed at their bourgeois mannerisms from the middle of the streets. At some point he took to inhaling ether, at first it made him even crazier but it didn’t take long for him to spend days sitting on the pavement with a cloth and a bottle of ether in his hands and with a dazed look on his face. He started sleeping on the streets and never left. The authorities would remove him but as soon as they released the guy he was back. As years passed he swelled up and stank of ether, one could sense him from blocks away and everyone felt amazed and sorry for the monstrous figure he had become, with his long hair and beard, his swollen body and his tramp like presence made him look like an alien from the Men In Black films thrown on the streets of Ipanema. I am not sure when he passed away but nobody could endure that tragedy anymore.

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