Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Book”

Lost Samba – Chapter 27/02 – Easy Riding in Canoa Quebrada.

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Fortaleza was most northerly state capital that we visited. A key reason for making the trek there was that it was very near a fisherman’s village called Canoa Quebrada (Broken Canoe), a must-go place on the Brazilian easy rider’s circuit. After thumbing a few lifts and some short bus trips to increasingly remote spots, we were eventually dropped off at the foot of a gigantic sand dune. The climb up that dune was tough but when we got to the summit and caught our breath, in the distance we made out a group of huts that resembled a lost place between the desert and the sea. We were captivated.

Canoa Quebrada’s rugged huts were separated by sand paths that abruptly ended at a massive clifftop. The beach below was wider than the ones we had seen elsewhere on our travels and its sand was harder, ideal for keeping the fishermen’s rafts – jangadas, a mispronunciation of Chinese junks. These rafts were flat-bottomed and made of tough, dried tree trunks bound together by ropes, and featuring a mast with a huge triangular sail. At sunrise, the fishermen rolled their wooden vessels into the water over coconut tree trunks. At sea, jangadas were light and easy to maneuver, and their simple elegance fitted in perfectly with the surroundings.

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The locals knew how to cope with the sun and the heat: they would only expose themselves early in the morning or late in the afternoon. During the day men mended nets, sold their catches, bought provisions, or simply rested in the shade, while the women produced lace items, their technique famous across Brazil. The summer visitors, hippy-looking people from all over the country, including me, went to the beach at the hottest time of the day, from 11 am to 2 pm. When the heat became unbearable, we found shade in the kiosks by the cliffs and drank beer, listened to one other’s stories, recommendations of places to visit, gossip and expound political-existential theories.

Pedro and I rented, for next to nothing, a room in a fisherman’s hut. The accommodation wasn’t very comfortable but, after putting up with Pedro’s uncle, anything was great. The family slept in hammocks while we were in a separate room, sleeping on mats  placed on the sand-covered floor. There was no electricity, the house was lit by a kerosene lamp and water came from a well. Food was cooked on a rudimentary wood-burning stove. The wattle and daub walls were full of holes that enabled the breeze to cool the rooms slightly and the gaps in the roofing were hardly a problem because it rarely rained.

Our landlord was the patriarch of the three generations who lived under the straw roof. His hair was entirely gray but his body was still strong thanks to the years spent at sea. He had the look of someone who had lived life in its plenitude in the place that destiny had assigned to him. He had a bookless wisdom and a clearer picture of where the world stood than many of my professors,would ever achieve. His questions about our way of life were sharp and we had many conversations comparing our two worlds. If people were to ever dare sneer at him for not knowing how to read or write, he could easily – and rightly – reply that he could read the ocean and the stars – indeed the whole surrounding natural environment, the accumulated wisdom passed down through the generations.

At sunset, the outsiders congregated by the dune. In Rio – as in all the states we had been until then – the sun set at the right end of the beach. But, as Ceará is so much more northerly and located on Brazil’s northeasterly hump, the sun set in land. In Canoa Quebrada the sun disappeared behind an endless plain of low, untouched, woodland that echoed with the sounds of birds. We went to see this daily spectacle from the top of the dune that separated the village from the rest of the world. The intense, orange ball shone on the sand and on our faces, creating an amazing hue that contrasted against the dark blue sky. When night finally arrived, it seemed as though the land had absorbed the day’s light and had responded by providing a different look and a more pleasing temperature.

The sense of harmony we experienced as dusk approached was like that I’d felt in Trancoso two years previously. One special evening  my companions asked me to play the guitar. The atmosphere was so positive that a circle opened around me in the field behind us. That circle of people singing and dancing to the music felt like redemption for the anxieties that we were escaping from.

As I relaxed and unwound, my luck with women began to change. There was a wonderful moment that an average guy like me could only dream of. I was in a bar with a friend from São Paulo, when I noticed a beautiful blonde girl with blue eyes and dark, suntanned skin staring at me. I approached her and asked if she wanted to go to the sea. She immediately accepted the invitation and I took her by the hand as we followed the trail down the cliff.

The beach was almost empty and we laid down with the waves licking our feet. I didn’t need to talk much: we kissed for a long time while stroking each other under the moon light. I whispered the suggestion that we should go to the construction site where, by chance, my buddies from Alagoas and Frenchman’s Beach were camped. On our way, every now and then we would stop to feel each other’s skin and kiss passionately. When we arrived, there was no one there. After tripping on the magic of her sheer beauty, a hurricane of pleasure took over and then, all of a sudden, we found ourselves lying next to each other in the cool, gentle wind beneath the stars. I felt at peace with the world.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 25/02 – Anguish in South of Bahia’s Paradise.

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The return to Arraial d’Ajuda was an anti-climax. The paradise I had fallen in love with seemed to be another place and now its main activity was tourism. Electricity had arrived and the village had become much more structured for tourists and, of course, more expensive. Most of the fishermen had left after selling their boats and their houses in bad deals.

I found very little of the spontaneity that had impressed me only two years earlier and was disturbed by the out-of-context, Eighties-style haircuts and heavy make-up. There were a lot of people who I instinctively did not want to mix with, and that feeling was mutual. To make things worse, I began to realize that Pedro’s agenda was to blend in with the older, more ‘interesting’ and more stable people who rented the more expensive houses and ate in the better places; for him, they were a portal into the world of financial comfort and this had nothing to do with what I was looking for.

Whenever I managed to borrow a guitar the playing at night still happened. It was pleasurable and by then I was way better. I had perfected my routine and knew more songs and could easily grab the attention of people who I had never met before. I began with psychedellic and intimate songs such as Caetano Veloso’s “Terra” and Geraldo Azevedo’s “Caravana”, some Milton Nascimento songs, then I played some solid Bossa Nova’s such as “Wave”, then I progressed into happier songs such as the Novo’s Baianos version of “Brasil Pandeiro” and invariably ended with carnavalsque songs of Alceu Valenca and Moraes Moreira and closed the night with Jorge Ben.

People still liked that kind of music, but not all, and that kind of experience was already in the out as something cool. The atmosphere just was not there, and I wanted to leave. As there was still no electricity in the neighboring Trancoso and the access continued to be difficult, it would be less of a disappointment. Although Pedro could not get enough of the ‘interesting’ people in Ajuda – who actually were the ones who most like what I played – he also got fed up of being treated as tourist. If we moved there, the experience would be more like the real thing: the houses around the green were less spoiled, more affordable and there were as many people to network with, so I found it easy to convince him.

This time there would be no need for crossing deep rivers in the middle of nowhere and in the dark because we had a tent. However, things had changed there too and on our first night someone tried to steal our stuff that was outside the tent. The noise woke us up but we took too long to get out and to get a hold of the fake blond with curly hair running away in shorts under the moonlight. The next day, we saw him at the beach but as we couldn’t prove anything, we could only give him dirty looks which he pretended to ignore.

That same night, I discovered that Trancoso’s mosquitoes used tents for their general assemblies and dawn revealed a carpet of them hanging on to the nylon walls. The only way to get relief was by putting the sleeping bag on the pavement and let the wind carry them away.

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Trancoso’s green.

Pedro was a well built waterpolo player, mischievous small eyes, caramel colored skin and curly yet blondish hair, when approaching the ladies he was completely cool and to the point and knew everything about the right timing and the right words to say. After a few days in Trancoso, insects and thieves weren’t the only thing bugging me: my lack of success with the ladies compared to Pedro’s triumphs was affecting me. Also, at night when I was not playing and while everyone was enjoying themselves near the fires, every now and then the seriousness of my situation would change the course of my thoughts. How was the future going to be? Where was the girlfriend who cared about me and liked the same things that I did?

Now my life was as if I had reached the summit of a high mountain in a beautiful landscape and discovered that on the other side there was a garbage depot. Those troubles were like the wall of mosquitoes in the tent: I could shoo them away temporarily but they would come back no matter what I did.

A lot of people were in the same boat: this was a generation of problematic, middle class kids, orphans of the prosperity of the Seventies and of the politics-of-the-body ideology, and unprotected from the economic downturn.

Some people saw us as a market niche. Everyone was talking about Rajneesh, now Osho, an Indian guru based in the US who preached that the way to spiritual enlightenment was the annihilation of one’s ego via the exhaustion of the libido. His therapies had strong sexual overtones, something that I doubted was authentic in the traditional Hindu society. His books were well written and it was very tempting to join – many hot ladies did – but the expensive fees convinced me to keep away. We came across people who had gone as far as meeting him in person in his Ashram in Oregon, an expensive privilege. They talked about falling about in tears when they saw his “penetrating and loving look” that had “liberated their soul”.

During the day people sat on the beach chatting while looking into the light blue horizon while the breeze swayed the trees and the greenery behind them. The main topic were the long bearded guru’s books and his tantric therapies to achieve enlightenment, I would stay quiet thinking to myself that this was THE product that everyone wanted: not giving a damn about anything except their pleasure and, in return, achieving a never-ending orgasm. No one wanted to talk about the anguish regarding the future and regarding what was going on in our lives. This was understandable in such a setting, but why talk without stop about Rajneesh? OK, the hyperinflation and the economic downturn were too real to be mentioned and we were all suffering inside; still my instinct told me that these bad cards were beyond our control, as were the blessings we had received in the good days. We had the power to decide what we were going to do with them but no guru or magic pill could sweeten what destiny had lay for us to swallow.

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Rajneesh, nowadays Osho, graduating a “Sanyasi”.

 

Lost Samba – Chapter 14 – Binge gone bad in Teresópolis

Part20Teresópolis was an hour and a half away from Rio in the mountains and many of my parents’ friends had country houses there. When I was a toddler, we used to spend the summer in those hills and during one of our stays, an opportunity to buy an affordable plot of land in a remote place called Jardim Salaco came up. We went to see the empty empty terrain in a horse-driven chariot that took at least two hours to get there on dirt tracks. The trip was picturesque, we passed by farms and fields and went up hills covered with trees feeling the fresh country breeze under their shade and the hot sun while in the open. Meanwhile the driver kept whipping the poor smelly horse, which had vents on its eyes and sweat all over its body.

Dad could not resist the bargain and bought the land with a friend, a short, bald, lanky and slightly aggressive French ex-freedom fighter. After that, it took him more than a decade to decide what to do with that white elephant. However, in the meantime, his friend built a house there and, perhaps expecting that Dad would sell him his part, he invaded our side. By the time we woke up to what was going on, his family was using the entire plot as their own and this drew Dad’s attention to the situation.

We went up to evaluate how much the plot could sell for, but the result was the opposite. Despite the neighbour’s ugly house and his psychopathic German Shepard, Dayan, the beauty of the place convinced them to build a house and, who knew, retire there someday.

Sarah and I did not welcome that surprise decision, for us Teresópolis was a boring weekend destination where many Jewish people had houses. To make things worse the few houses that some friends had were miles away. To attract us, our parents went as far as putting in a pool, but we were past the stage of being content with splashing around in the water. In fact, things turned out quite differently: I was 14 and Sarah was 19, and when my parents went up on weekends, we would stay back at home unsupervised, with the dangerous freedom to do anything we chose.

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The country house in Teresopolis

Sarah and I did not welcome that surprise decision, for us Teresópolis was a boring weekend destination where many Jewish people had houses. To make things worse the few houses that some friends had were miles away. To attract us, our parents went as far as putting in a pool, but we were past the stage of being content with splashing around in the water. In fact, things turned out quite differently: I was 14 and Sarah was 19, and when my parents went up on weekends, we would stay back at home unsupervised, with the dangerous freedom to do anything we chose.

Bizarrely, it turned out that Fred, the leader of my pot-smoking ring at the Escola Americana, had a country house close by. My parents were terrified of his folks after they said that they themselves supplied him with weed in order to avoid his contacting drug dealers. Nevertheless, they tolerated the friendship, as he was a neighbour who could make me decide to go up to Teresópolis more often. Also as his dad was a famous architect, the boy may come to grow out of his habits and become a valuable contact for my future.

One weekend, I went up knowing that he and the rest of the gang would be there. On the Saturday afternoon, I visited them and ended up getting so drunk that they had to call my parents. Drinking was something unseen in the family and they had taken a lot of care not to expose us to this vice, to the extent that, in my entire life, I never saw Dad even slightly drunk. When they saw me there, 15 or 16 years old, absolutely paralytic, they were shocked. The blame fell on Fred, with the suspicion that he had put something in my drink.

For them, this was a serious incident that affected profoundly the image that they had of me. My parents were not only immigrants to a new country they were also foreign to modern life, especially Dad. The contrast between that incident and the stoic 19th century-like atmosphere at home could not have been greater.

Dinners, for example, seemed to jump out of a Bela Lugosi film. When we sat down in the large dining room, at its centre was a big, dark, handmade, wooden table where there was always a Chinese bowl waiting for us filled with, sometimes not so fresh, apples, bananas, oranges, grapes and mangoes. This was because we began meals with fruit, as it was healthier to fill oneself up with them before moving on to the heavier food. Right above that still life scene, was a macabre chandelier lighting the room while we ate on the uncomfortable, posh looking chairs. The dining cupboards around us were also made of dark wood and the free parts of the walls held large classical paintings of Biblical scenes, with heavy, fake antique, golden frames around them.

Once everyone had finished with the fruit, they would ask me to step on the buzzer under my foot that made an annoying and loud noise in the kitchen. Dona Isabel would then come in with her awkward walk carrying a tray to clear the table and would then return with the main course. While we were eating, nothing was supposed to disturb the pomp: there was no television, no radio and no answering of the phone. When we were finished, there would be another foot buzz for the desert. After that, Sarah and I returned to Planet Earth while Mum and Dad would go to the living room to spend the rest of the evening in silence reading and listening to classical music.

It was during one of these dinners that they told me that a cinema college in the US or in the UK would be unaffordable. Despite the disappointment, the news was predictable. There were questions about the seriousness of my career choice: the ideas of advertising and of cinema were too alien for them, and my attitude at large did not help much. Maybe it would be better if I chose a proper profession such as engineering, law or medicine. My sister had chosen dentistry and was doing well at her university course, so why shouldn’t I do the same, seeing that I was effortlessly a good student?

Who needed an expensive American School with drunk pot smoking punks if I was not going to study cinema anyway? They put me back in the Brazilian system, the fifth school change in my short academic career. They had to do this as soon as possible because in order to get into a good Brazilian university, I had to pass a tough entry examination, the vestibular, for which the EA did not prepare.

The outcome wasn’t that bad: I could subvert their plans and study cinema in São Paulo later on. Of course, the Brazilian film industry did not come close to the British and the American ones but the subjects were the same and, with some talent and some effort, I could make everything work out.

Their approach to the new situation differed: the sermons about the importance of financial success became more and more pressurized. The conversations were conflictual and came down to two mature people with an agenda against one who was struggling to structure his own. They were trying to convince me about things that they did not understand but, the more I tried to explain my views, the worse the situation got. They were right to be worried – after all, that’s what parents do – but were wrong in their assumptions, at least with relation to advertising: this was a booming profession that paid very well.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 05/02 – Mas Que Nada and body surfing

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In terms of family, we were not completely isolated in the new country. There was my only Brazilian cousin – Bibi Vogel, the daughter of one of Dad’s distant cousins who had moved to Brazil before the war. Bibi was a well-known popular singer and actress, her fragile looks, with green, sharp eyes, dark lips and a hippy-looking haircut, helped make her a muse of her generation. Her voice was similar to that of Joan Baez and she recorded a couple of successful albums. She also starred in soap operas and played one of the main roles in the Brazilian version of Hair, the counter-cultural musical of the sixties.
In the early 1960s, before her Brazilian rise to fame, Bibi had gone to New York to try her luck with a friend’s bossa nova band. After a year or so, she took a break and returned to Rio. While there, she heard Jorge Ben’s hit “Mas Que Nada” (“oooo… Maria aioooo, oba oba oba…”). Back in New York, Bibi introduced the song to the band, but soon after she left to follow a boyfriend. Sergio Mendes and his Brazil 66 took up Bibi’s suggestion and this move projected them to become the biggest Brazilian international showbiz act since Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz appeared with their “Girl From Ipanema”.

As I became a teenager, I was surprised – and slightly amused – to see Bibi semi-naked and covering her breasts on the cover of Status – Brazil’s first Playboy-style magazine. More shockingly, Bibi appeared on posters advertising soft-porn pornochancahada films, chanchadas being the name given to Brazilian, home-grown, mass produced popular musical comedies of the 1950s. Their porno contemporary was a genre that filled cinemas with solitary male members of the lower classes eager to watch actresses showing their breasts in sexual situations. If having a cousin involved in this was strange, to make things even stranger, Bibi’s mum (Dad’s cousin) was the lead singer on the high holidays with our synagogue’s choir.

What was most confusing was that although Bibi’s artistic accomplishments and her image went against everything my parents taught us, they couldn’t help but be proud of her. As with any middle class family, success was more important than virtue. As far as I was concerned, Bibi had a very respectable personality and I always leapt to defend her when my friends came out with rude jokes about her. To me, Bibi was inspiring: if someone in my family could make it artistically, then surely I could too…. though I hasten to add not in the porn industry!

At home, at school and in my parent’s social circles, every one considered me “artistic”; something that I was never sure if people said as a compliment or rather as a polite way of saying that I was hopeless. Anyway, with Mum’s ban on pop music and popular culture, I listened to a lot of classical music and I loved it. The intricate but harmonious music of Johann Sebastian Bach topped my charts, followed closely by the dramatic compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven and by the uplifting melodies of Igor Stravinsky. Music moved me, probably due to a gene running in the family. For decades, my uncle, the composer Sydney Torch, conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, both Mum and Granddad were accomplished piano players, and Grandmother had been a music teacher. More recently, my cousin from Liverpool, Ben Mandelson, was a guitarist, playing with Billy Bragg in the 1980s.

On weekends, I would wake up early to listen to the musical classics and conduct invisible orchestras with my extendable Japanese pen. My parents took note of this passion, and Mum arranged for music lessons. The school’s teacher was a special person. He had come to Rio through a charity linked to the Church of England and was “spastic”; the name commonly given at the time to the disorder cerebral palsy. Although the symptoms were severe, they did not affect his speech or his ability to teach a six-year-old to play the recorder.

After winning the battle to learn my first tune – “Au Claire de la Lune” – the instrument went from being my hated enemy to becoming my best friend. I played wherever and whenever I could, and the sweet sounds of the instrument connected me to something bigger, something that seemed to escape most people’s perceptions of the world around them. Although my school enemies took my discovery of music as a new offence and as a further excuse to attack me, my neighbours, teachers, family and friends seemed to encourage my playing. Even so, after about a year of putting up with my performances, they were all secretly relieved when I swapped the recorder for a quieter, more outdoorsy, passion: body boarding.

After the toddler stage of running with the foam at the water’s edge every morning, I moved on to a polystyrene board and ventured out to where the waves broke. First, I learned how to slide down straight and then how to cut the waves sideways. As my courage grew the size of the waves kept increasing, I also developed my technique and started to belong to the tough guy’s group. The more respectable I became the smaller were the boards I used, until I dismissed boards completely and used only my bare hands with the help of diving fins. Out there, behind the powerful surf and under the hot sun, everything was pure and calm. There was only the vast ocean, the far away buildings and the single expanse of the beach. When the waves rolled in from the far horizon, it was as if they were challenging us. In order to ride them, we would position ourselves in the perfect spot and swim forward at just the right speed until the ocean’s force allowed us to become part of its wall of water. After this, all we had to do was to guide our body ever so slightly to prolong the feelings of bliss as long as possible.

Big waves were the scariest, but also the most fun. At my peak as a bodysurfer, I mastered swells of up to two and a half meters which, viewed from beneath, seemed massive. There was always a point of no return when you could still look down and analyse what you were about to do. At that point, one had to be a bit crazy to continue, but, in ninety percent of cases, the dare was more than worthwhile.

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Body surfing in Ipanema

The highlight of body surfing was to be covered by the wave’s tube. This is surely one of the best places to be on this planet: a dynamic cave of water formed by Nature only for a brief moment in time. There was a subliminal, erotic poetry of being in there, as the stiff body slid through the cosmos’s wet tunnel.

That kind of communion with nature was greater than anything I had learned either at home or at school. After the sessions, I walked out of the ocean exhausted, the body energized by the adventures and feeling proud. Riding waves brought me beach respectability, which in turn began to raise questions of why I should step down from such heights. My parents greeted my achievements with apprehension, fearing that I was on the verge of ruining a brilliant future. They saw physicality and daring as altogether dangerous attributes, and riding waves was for the disrespectful, longhaired, hooligans who my parents, and their circle, believed were spoiling Rio.

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Bodyboard

Photo by Henrique Pinguim.

Lost Samba Chapter 04 – Part 03 – Rio’s Beauty.

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Photo by Custodio Coimbra

To paraphrase a verse from Gilberto Gil’s hit “Aquele Abraço”, when Mum and Dad arrived, Rio de Janeiro continued beautiful. There was no doubt that this was one of the best places to live in the world; apart from its generous coastal line with exuberant beaches, the Cidade Maravilhosa – the marvellous city – boasted the largest urban forest in the world – the Tijuca National Park, a place so vast that helicopters would sometimes spend days searching for lost hikers. With my parents’ British habit of going on walks and not much patience for spending the entire weekend sun bathing on crowded beaches – nor any friends to do this with them- they got to know the park very well. As soon as my sister and I were able to follow them, they took us along regularly. Exciting as they were, the outings were never dangerous. Sure, the forest was home to venomous snakes, but we never came across any and, as far as wild beasts were concerned, the city’s growing population had hunted them to extinction long ago. Nevertheless, a magical feeling always infected us in the silence of the dense, primeval forest, only broken by the noises of insects, by bird calls and by the crystal-clear water cascading down small streams.

Every trail eventually led up to a massive rock that was usually hard to climb. It took some effort to reach their summits, but these exertions – that very few cariocas undertook – were always worthwhile. From up there we could marvel at the breathtaking views of the city, of the bay and of the coast, a reminder to my parents of what it was that first attracted them to Rio. Mum would unpack the picnic and serve her egg mayonnaise sandwiches, which rather than leaving it to Maria, she always made a point in making herself.

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On one of our many walks, I heard a rattling coming from the trees above us. I looked up and saw the foliage moving in a strange choreography: there was a monkey jumping around the branches as if playing in a funfair. The monkey was not alone – he was followed by at least twenty others, including babies clinging onto their mothers’ backs. They stopped for a while and stared at us with curiosity. Then, just as quickly as they had appeared, they disappeared back into the timeless forest.

Mico2Photo by P&C pictures

The city that stood in our – and the monkeys’ – background spread out along the coast beneath us resembling one of the forest’s butterflies’ enormous pair of wings. From our vantage point, we could see the huge Guanabara Bay opening out to the Atlantic ocean. On the opposite shore was Niterói, an important city in its own right, and behind it there was a never ending sea of hills and beaches. To the north was the Ilha do Governador (Governor’s Island), the location of the airport; my parents’ introduction to Brazil.

On our side of the Bay was the ocean-facing Zona Sul with its picture-postcard places: Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and the Sugar Loaf Mountain. Following the coast we could see the – then deserted – beaches of São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca which were only visible from the highest points in the forest. Closer to us stood the church spires and office buildings in the city centre and the seemingly endless sprawl of industrial buildings, low-rise housing of the Zona Norte. This was where the poor and the lower middle class lived and in our snobbishness, we considered those two thirds of the city as being on the “wrong side” of the forest, somewhere unworthy of our attention. The only recognizable feature there was the Maracanã Stadium: the supreme temple of Brazilian football.

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At the feet of the forest’s hills there were favelas marking the boundaries between the city and the thick bush. This was where the poor lived. Some of them had originated as small quilombos – hiding places set up by fugitive slaves who chose these precipitous mountainsides as they provided the perfect shelter from patrols in search of escaped “property”. The favelas had developed into agglomerations that looked like anthills, where chickens, pigs and dogs roamed in the mud alleyways around the inhabitants’ wooden huts. Crooked electricity posts, television antennae and clothes drying on strings added extra layers to the seeming chaos.

Their inhabitants wore torn clothes and old Havaianas flip-flops and had curly hair, dark skin, loud voices and open laughs. Children ran around barefoot, their mums trudging up and down the steep alleys that curled along the hills balancing tins of water, or sacks of dirty laundry, on their heads. Although many of the favelados were white, this was a Brazil derived directly from Africa.

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Brazil and the worst of capitalism

With big investments pouring into the country for the 2016 Olympics and the next FIFA World Cup, Brazil is facing a new and dangerous cycle as the one begun with the construction of Brasilia around sixty years ago. This is not a pattern exclusive to Brazil and we have seen it in European, African and Asian countries before.

What happens is that big money pours into a country that is “tagged” as promising and to maximize profits, the astronomical funds are dealt by their worst citizens, corrupt politicians and businessmen with no scruples or responsibility, who make fortunes and leave the rest of the country’s population with unpayable debts after the show is over.

We only need to take a look at what happened recently with the European Union, which only twenty years ago was labeled as the greatest business opportunity ever, or with what happened in Brazil several times before. We could not fail to mention Greece, who also hosted the Olympic games and now is in brink of total disruption. We  wish the Brazilian protesters success and worry about the aftermath of Brazil’s current “Golden Days”.

Lost Samba – Chapter 03/02 – Settling in Rio

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Before moving to Brazil, Raphael and Renée met Paulo through a mutual friend in their house in north London. Paulo lived in far-off place that everybody had heard about, to which many were attracted, but where few had actually been: Rio de Janeiro. He had moved there from Germany before the war and the colourful stories that he told about his new country, its people, its beauty and its customs convinced my parents to come over for a visit. When they did in 1955, it was love at first sight and they decided to make the move. Brazil was an uncommon destination for a young Jewish couple: after the war they were supposed to move to Israel by ideology, or to North America, South Africa or Australia, which were more familiar in terms of culture and as promising in terms of opportunities.

Apart from his exotic address, Paulo had another peculiarity: he was a member of the Communist Party, a huge statement at the height of the Cold War. After my father came over to live in Brazil, they became best friends. Dad was far from being left-wing but their long conversations reignited memories of the political discussions in Yiddish that had been at the heart of Jewish life in Eastern Europe. During one such debate, Paulo showed off a watch made in communist East Germany, the GDR. Although it was unimpressive, Dad spotted what he felt was an amazing business opportunity. In the popular mind, “German” was synonymous with “reliable” and, coming from a communist country, the prices of the watches would be extremely competitive. They would surely sell like water to the emerging Brazilian lower middle class.

Dad soon opened an importation business in Rio. For an outsider, at first thought it might have seemed strange for someone who had two thirds of his family slaughtered by the Nazis to make a living through selling German products. Nevertheless, Dad was at ease with the no-nonsense approach so typical of Germans and he pragmatically tried to apply this state of mind to his own business decisions. In this, he was little different to most of his Jewish friends; despite all they and their close ones had gone through during the war they sill maintained their respect for Teutonic pragmatism and straightforwardness. As most eastern Europeans they continued to see Germany as an incorruptible and innate leader. While they may have physically left Europe, the old continent had never left them.

With a business up and running, a rented flat facing the beach and furnished in the best British style, the comfort of a live in maid and promising prospects ahead, the next step was to start a family. Sarah arrived in 1958 and, five years later, my time came.

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Thirty centimetres taller than the average local female, a strong gringo accent and a wardrobe full of fashionable clothes tailored in London, for Brazilians, Mum came across as a powerful, adventurous and open-minded woman who was ahead of her time. This was easy in a place where respectable housewives were never seen out at night, not even in restaurants with their husbands. Her bikinis – in vogue in post-war Europe – showed her belly button. This display of nudity shocked many people at the beach and, more than once, lifeguards asked her to leave.

Mum was also one of the first women drivers in Rio, which attracted many comments, some rude and some in admiration. Neither of these two approaches disturbed her, as in Renée’s opinion Brazilians transformed into uncivilized cowboys as soon as they were behind a steering wheel. In the country that was to provide the world with Formula One racing champions such as Emerson Fittipaldi, Nelson Piquet and Ayrton Senna, she took upon herself the mission of teaching the natives by example how to respect speed limits. Her car always ended up slowing down the fast lane, which put her on the receiving end of a constant flow of hooting and swearing from the drivers she had forced to overtake on the wrong side.

The attitude behind her driving was revealing. At home, she banned any novelty that suggested being more advanced or more forward than the image she had of herself. Because of this, our domestic life was stoic, almost puritan, with the occasional verbal and physical abuse when she lost control of things. There was no television, no comic magazines and no Brazilian or international popular music, be it jazz, bossa nova or rock ‘n’ roll. She also forbade sweets, chocolates, fizzy-drinks and pastries, insisting on a diet of generally tasteless, health-food.

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Mum and my sister.

Dad was born in 1900 in the Polish town of Krosno, in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia. Eastern European Jews considered the  Galitzers  as the peasants of their world while their fellow Austro-Hungarians looked down upon Jews from that region as being the peasants’ peasants. Therefore, in Dad’s mind it was a great social leap to marry into my mum’s well-established Golders Green family. Perhaps because of this, Dad went along with her rules. For him, his young wife – 20 years his junior – symbolized the highest expression of London’s refinement, a world that he wanted to belong to. However, he never really achieved this goal as, in so many ways, his thoughts and attitudes were lost in a time warp. He occasionally would let his world slip out in stories from his past: of the rabbi whose beard he had glued to the table while he was sleeping; the barn where he had managed to fool a Polish policeman searching for illegal alcohol; his grandfather, a wealthy anti-Zionist, who everyone came to seek advice; and a plethora of jokes, sayings and religious teachings from that vanished space-time that only lived on in his memories and in precious photographs.

For my Old Man, Brazil was an attempt at reinvention, but in his new life he could hardly have been more of an outsider. Not only was he a foreigner to Brazil, he was also foreigner to a life of middle class urban comfort and a foreigner by age and by experience to most of his social circle. The relative innocence and the joyousness in his new country contrasted with his hidden solitude and the disappearance of his former world, of which the last remaining thread of contact were his business links in East Germany, a Soviet satellite born of the country that had caused him so much pain.

Perhaps to maintain his sanity, whenever the weather permitted Dad reconnected to his universe on solitary dawn-walks along Copacabana’s oceanfront. At that time of the day, with no eyes on him, he was free to be himself. On his way to the beach, he shared the streets with the occasional maid sent out to buy the early-morning bread, with zealous porters cleaning the entrances to their precious buildings, and with packs of stray dogs chasing newspaper and milk delivery trucks.

Sometimes he took me with him and I enjoyed it. At that time of the day the early-morning mist covered the beach and the ground was still moistened by the dew that had settled during the night. We would walk at the water’s edge and talk mostly about existential issues where I would ask questions and he would answer them as easily to understand as he could. As the conversations became deeper and more interesting the haze dissipated while we left our footprints behind on the smooth wet sand.

We always went until the fishermen’s colony at the far end of Copacabana. Their base was one of the first constructions in the neighbourhood: an old wooden depot where they sold their catches to local restaurateurs and residents. Next to it, dozens of small fishing boats rested on the sand surrounded by nets where seagulls fought over the remains with skinny dogs, observed by sleepy donkeys and tied up goats. Around them were swarms of flies and a strong smell of salt and decaying fish permeating the air.

In groups of five or six, the fishermen would set out before sunrise while a small party would coordinate the activity from the beach, shouting and sending signals. By the time we reached the colony, the boats would already be on their way back. To haul them in, the men would lay tree trunks in front of their wooden vessels and then push those heavy wooden crafts until they came to rest on the beach close to the avenue. The daily act of catching and landing the fish was like a mini-festival. The fishermen always needed more people to help pull in the nets, and a gigantic human circle would form, trapping the hundreds of sea creatures leaping in all directions out of the water, gasping for air. Once the bosses separated the prize catches, they allowed anyone who had participated to take whatever they wanted. Sometimes I too made a point of claiming my own, but they always ended up in the rubbish bin as they were either too small or not good enough for our pretentious dinners.

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The early gangster days of Computer Graphics in Rio de Janeiro – part 01

ZonaSulThis was already in the nineties.
I had come back from Europe after the storm of the Fernando Collor years to begin my career as a computer graphics artist. In my luggage was the strange experience of being a salesman/semi-legal smuggler of visual effects equipment travelling between France and the UK and then as a Sales Manager for the same sort of goods in Portugal, this time in a bigger company where I wore suits and had a secretary. I promise to write on those crazy times in another post but this only comes in because it shows an unusual background for a Carioca at the time.
I had fallen in love with those image manipulation and three-dimensional softwares and my mind was made up to be part of the circus. However, succeeding in Computer Graphics in Rio de Janeiro was a steep mountain to climb: in 1994 one could count on the fingers the people who were doing it professionally. I didn’t care and reckoned that if I came back home, bought a PC and ran after my dream the chances of making it were higher than in the European market where the absence artistic or computer related training were a serious handicap.
My guess was spot on; I began calling production houses and most of them were happy to talk to me. As expected they had state of the art video editing equipment and were starting to open their eyes to the possibilities of Computer manipulated images. This was happening abroad and was bound to happen there sooner or later. The people I met were evasive about a possible partnership or about having me as a computer graphics department in their premises  However something struck me: all the studios I visited had signs announcing that they had been recently mugged by an armed gang and asking for any possible leads.
In one of the houses, I bumped into an ex-colleague from University, she had studied art in London and had actually worked at Framestore a facility that would become one of Soho’s biggest. She was on her way out and with her recommendation the doors opened and I got my first job as a CG artist. The owner was the son of the Teresa Rachel theater, see my post about the venue, and it was not by chance that the studio was in the same shabby gallery in Copacabana. The job would not last long, the owner was into video art and had no patience for the slowness of what I wanted to introduce.
Magnetoscopio was quite a trendy place, they had done several music videos with the biggest pop names of the time: Renato Russo, Blitz, Titas and many others. The highlight of my three months there was an exhibition he organized with the american videoartist Bill Viola, for me the greatest artist of the end of the 20th century. It is not that I had an important role in the show, I was there helping to hang things from the walls and from the ceiling and making sure that the equipment had not suffered from the journey. Anyway I made some new friends there and one of them, Marcos, got interested in what I did and promised me to put me in contact with more people.
In the meantime my dentist sister talked about me to one of her clients who was a big shot in one of Rio’s biggest advertising agencies, Artplan. It was a thrilling invitation but in a few days I discovered that this was all about bringing in an extra computer for free to the office rather that doing anything related to footage for commercials. To my luck, the time as a useless artist for tests that the cocaine head art directors asked for was short-lived; one day I received a phone call of a guy calling himself Hoarse Duck (Pato Rouco) saying that Marcos had recommended me and asking me to come in to discuss about a commercial to be done in Computer Graphics.
Nervous, with a demo-reel containing the few experiments I had done with the software I went to meet the guy in his studio that was in one of the worst parts of town; the Feira de Sao Cristovao. As I came into his office the bearded muscular guy in his early forties who seemed to have popped out of a Honcho magazine was sitting with a fat man from Sao Paulo. He got up from his chair and greeted me as if we knew each other for a long time. He presented me to his client and said.
“This is our computer graphics artist!”
The next thing I knew was that I was working on a thirty second commercial for an English course in one of the roughest areas of Rio de Janeiro, and a few weeks later I was seeing my work on TV screens all over town.
Things happened so fast that I never stopped to think what I was getting into. After the second commercial, work went quiet and I started to observe better what was around me. Computer Graphics is a profession known for late nights and going home was one the unsafest experiences I have ever had; I had to walk alone through a unpoliced area famous for having the highest mugging rates in Rio. My work colleagues were all from the most modest areas of town and were street wise rough and kept on insisting that I bought a gun. Their stories were horrific, one of them had witnessed a gang war in a favela where the rival faction hung the head of the defeated leader on a post. On another occasion some others were stranded for three days in a favela at war.
The only two other guys from the South Zone were the editors. One of them only appeared occasionally, he lived in Sao Paulo and liked to brag about how much money he was making. The other one, Luis, was a more shadowy character who lived in Botafogo. He was my age, big and looked like a corrupt police officer, we got along well and were lunch companions; he was curious about Computer Graphics and I was curious about the crazy stories he had to tell. It must be said that I was considered the lovable nerdy guy and the conversations between me and my peers never went further than talking about computers, football and women.
One day one of the runners said that he had heard that Luis and his brother were part of the armed gang that was stealing the other production companies and that the owners had found him out and were going to kill him. Not sure of what to do, we approached him and said that we did not want to know if this was true or not but we had heard this, this and that and that he should be careful. His reaction was to laugh about it and get back to work.
However, a week later he received an urgent phone call while working, asked someone to finish what he was doing and rushed out. Two days later he was on the front page of one of Rio’s crime dedicated newspapers, dead with his body full of bullet holes. After that the owners of other studios left town while Hoarse Duck productions was in a pandemonium.
I over heard conversations about cameras that only went from his house to shooting sessions and back and other creepy stories. I though to myself that I had been introduced to the CG world through a very bizarre door and that now my new mission was to get the hell out of there as soon as possible.

Vimana – the origins of Brazilian Rock

Johnny was an American/Brazilian friend, perhaps because of this and because he had two older brothers he had a more liberated life than myself; his parents allowed him to surf and to go to rock concerts. The friendship opened doors to a world that I wished to get into, namely the surfer’s one.

Without parental consent he started to take me to where it was happening. We began by surf films: high school student union cine-clubs showed them in sessions advertised on A4 sized posters suck on to walls of the surf shops that were starting to pop up in Ipanema. Teachers and head masters certainly did not know what went on inside those rooms. The first one I went to was in the auditorium of a Church in Copacabana. The girls looked too wild for us and all the guys in the room had long hair and looked, or at least tried to look, like seasoned surfers.

As the lights went off the warrior cries and the surfer’s “yeehaa!!!” began. The first shot was a fly through the Hawaiian Mountains that landed on a beach with perfect waves. From there it cut to “real” long-haired american surfers which all of us knew from imported magazines. I think that was the first time in my life I was in a room where someone smoked weed. At the end of the session, although my parents forbade surf at home and weed was considered as the synthesis of evil I was a few steps closer to the surfing world.

The next step was going to a proper rock concert. Johnny invited me to go to see a really good band with an English singer that everyone was into. The name of the Band was Vimana.

As it happens that band was to represent the genesis of Brazilian modern rock. It featured guys who were to become major names in the Brazilian Rock scene: Lulu Santos, their guitarist and vocalist on some songs would become one of Brazi’ls biggest commercial successes in the 1980’s, Ritchie, the English singer also would become a household name when he launched the classic Menina Veneno a few years later and their drummer Lobao, only 16 at the time, is still one of the most influential names in Brazilian Rock.

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The theater was the Teresa Rachel (see article about it in this blog) and the public was the same as in the surfing films but bigger. It seemed that everyone with long hair in Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone was in that hall. There was the inevitable smell of Cannabis in the Theater but what really caught our attention was the futuristic equipment and the similarity of the music that they played to what we heard on our record players: Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Led Zeppelin.

The level was deafening and left a hum in my ear for almost a week. As I left the theater I was proud to have been to my first rock concert and that was boasting material for weeks.

Vimana was good even when compared to foreign bands. Unfortunately my pocket-money was not enough to buy the single that they released, the one and only they ever did. As most bands do, they ended up imploding but a few years later they were called up by Patrick Moraez, the keyboard play from the mega British Progressive rock band Yes to work with him, they rehearsed for months but it ended up not going ahead.

The video above is not great but is probably their only live recording ever. Hopefully you will enjoy it.

The book about Brazil that was missing: Lost Samba

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Brazil – You know that the economy is doing well, that the next Olympics and the next World Cup will be there, you have heard about its Football, its Carnival and the crime scene. But is this enough to really know anything about the country? Wouldn’t you like to know how it is to live there? How it would have been growing up there?

Surely you would like visit the country in its most exciting times experiencing memorable football games in the Maracana, unforgettable carnivals, days on some of the worlds most famous beaches, revolutions, hyperinflation, the seventies and the eighties, drugs and crime, and travel with a guide who you understand, and who understands you, through Ipanema, Copacabana, Bahia, Favelas, Salvador, Arraial d’Ajuda, Trancoso, Sao Paulo, Canoa Quebrada, and so many other places.

Wouldn’t it be great if he also explained Brazil’s culture and its football, its mentality, its ecology and its politics as well as taught you about Samba, Brazilian Rock, Frevo, Lambada and the Trio Eletrico?

You will find all of this in Lost Samba: a book about true stories bathed by the bitter-sweet happiness of Rio de Janeiro’s golden youth in the 60’s, the 70’s and the 80’s. In its pages you will know about the roller coaster of events that took that generation from the “Economic Miracle” of the sixties to the worst economic crisis in recent history in the eighties, all seen through the eyes of the Brazilian son of a British expat and a Holocaust escapee.

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