Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Brazilian music”

Presenting the film, o Danado do Samba

Lost Samba – Chapter 31/02 – Rock from Rio in the Eighties.

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Rock and Roll took Rio over by storm. Everyone seemed to have a band, and those who did not wanted to be involved in one way or another. In the middle of this revolution, someone inherited a Radio station in Niteroi and transformed it into the first pure Rock station in town, Radio Flumnense. Now, no one needed to buy records any more to listen to Led Zeppelin, Yes, Jethro Tull, Pink Floyd, the Who, etc… This bonanza was short lived as they were approached by the big record companies demanding royalties. Unable to pay, they resorted to playing exclusively 80’s stuff; despite losing their pirate station aura they became avant-garde and introduced Rio’s youth to what was happening in the local and international rock scene.

Michel, a future work colleague, was an international air steward at the time; during his time off in London and in New York he would buy the latest releases of the latest bands and would deliver them freshly to the station. As these bands were from independent labels and had never been heard in Brazil, they were less of a problem to broadcast. No other station aired that kind of music and playing in their station became the passport to success for all the local bands. Arrepio included, did everything they could for them to play our songs. Radio Fluminense was to be the soundtrack of the eighties and was a phenomenon that will never be repeated.

Charles, the studio owner, started getting us gigs, and with the little money we got from them we started investing in demo tapes in order to who knows, finally get some air space in Radio Fluminense. This lead us to better recording studios where we came across impatient sound engineers despising us behind the glass windows. This new phase made us more aware of what we played and taught us a lot. But in a way the pseudo professionalism in those studios got in the way of us getting the best results. The tracks were recorded separately which made those sessions very different to what we were used to; sometimes the musician would get his part wrong or sometimes the engineer messed up and there were endless repetitions where the essence of the band dissipated into technical details.

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Felipe joined the band through a Posto Nove bump in too. Although he was not attached to the Circo Voador he had become a professional actor with an important role in the play “The Twelve Works of Hercules”, that was to be the cradle of many successful careers in the Brazilian acting world. He was dying to be a lead singer in a band and therefore we had an easy job to convince him to become ours. His voice was good, his presence was superb and with him we gained a new dimension; also, his contacts could break us into circles that could make it happen.

The next step was to do his début gig. Through his connections Felipe arranged one in a bar in Ipanema. It was going to the venue’s first Rock gig after decades of quiet nights of Bossa Nova. We set up our gear in the patio with the staff regarding us as barbarians coming in from the steppes; there was no pre-amplifier or sound engineer; just our instruments, borrowed microphones and the power of Charle’s amplifiers. After we had done the sound check in the afternoon he manager came up to greet us. He was apprehensive about the volume and asked us if we could play lower but we answered that because the drums were naturally loud everyone had to be at a similar level.

At night the guests started appearing; as Felipe was doing a minor role in a soap opera at TV Globo there were one or two famous faces and many desirable future starlets appearing in the room. When the hall filled up, we started. In the middle of the second number, I heard a noise in my ear and when I looked around the manager was shouting that we were too loud. I told him again that we could not play lower because of the drums. He went down and after two numbers, he knocked on my shoulder again and told me that there was someone downstairs wanting to talk to me. I replied that I could not talk then. The next thing we saw were six police officers coming up the staircase, taking the plug out of the wall and killing the gig.

The Felipe days were short lived; he signed a contract for a big role in a TV series and gave up his musical career. I went back to the vocals but arguments started to break out, the rest of the band was more concerned about their technique than my over-confident self; Marcos and Melo were still taking private lessons, which for me was very un-rock and-rollish and they did not want to understand that I couldn’t do the same for financial reasons. On the other hand, I took the venture more seriously; I believed that if we found a sound to set us apart from the other bands we could make it big and I was prepared to invest all of my energies. Meanwhile the other guys took the band with a pinch of salt and regarded the band as a fun weekend activity.

*

 The temple for goths, new romantics, quasi-punks, and other alien creatures was a night club in Copacabana, called Crepúsculo de Cubatão. The name paid homage to Cubatão, an industrial town on the coast of São Paulo state considered the most polluted place in Latin America. It was owned by Ronald Biggs, the famous British train robber, and had everything one would expect from an early eighties venue: the neo-gothic expensive futuristic look with classical overtones, girls and boys dressed up as vampires, a lot of exaggerated make up and no smell of cannabis or hint of heterosexual sex in the air. The ever-crowded door was controlled by a tiny Goth girl protected by two gigantic and un-trendy bouncers. She chose whom she would not let in by pointing at them and pronouncing the death sentence: “she/he looks like a nice guy/girl”.

Strange people started to appear in our lives talking about Post-Modernism and Nietzsche without understanding much of what they were talking about but causing a knowledgeable impression. London had become the new Jerusalem and the British magazines iD and The Face were the new Bibles; in some quarters having a sun tan was seen as a sign of belonging to the Neanderthal age. The irony about the obsession with the London standard was that coming from a semi-British background, I could have prospered big time but I stuck to my coherence and in my mind I was a defeated revolutionary who had stoically not sold out.

There was a fundamental absurdity in what was going on that I could not come to grips with: Rio de Janeiro’s natural settings did not combine with urban themes. The shallowness of the discussions about visual trends in foreign magazines and which bands and artists were free from the seventies aura had nothing to do neither with Rio’s eternal wildness nor with what I thought or intended to be. On the lighter side, it was amusing to see goths and punks walking around in black leather jackets and boots on 40 degree centigrade sunny weekends while everyone else was in their bikinis or trunks going and coming back from the beach. They looked like vampires in search of morgues to shelter in until night when they could come out and take over the city.

The Carioca middle class punks’ were another case of absurdity; the clothes they wore and the places they had to be seen were expensive and had nothing to do with Johnny Rotten screaming “no future” in London between one spit and another. The punk movement was much closer to the people crammed in buses in Sao Paulo’s outskirts and to people like me being sliced up by the economic lawnmower. We were being kicked in the face by a system that had promised a rosier world as we grew up. There was a lot of right wing talk going on about the survival of the fittest but what we saw was the survival of the ones with richer parents.

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The photo is more recent but reflects a bit what Punk in the Zona Sul was about.

Lost Samba – Chapter 19/01 – Brazil’s musical wizards.

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Hermeto Pascoal

The final year at the Colégio Andrews was completely different to the previous ones and one hundred percent directed at preparing us for the ultimate exam. The classes were in a separate building with the students grouped into four classrooms – two for earth sciences, one for biomedicine and one for the humanities. I had chosen the latter. By now, school was pure stress. The methods were intense with teachers bombarding us with infallible secrets to jump over the massive hurdle that was the Vestibular.

Our schools’ programme had a good reputation, and students transferred there from other institutions in Rio as well as from further afield. One of the new students had come from Chile. Kristof was of German descent and resembled the actor Jack Palance, albeit with long blonde hair. A few days after school began; Kristof and I took the usual bus home and started chatting. For some reason, the conversation turned to Teresópolis and we discovered, to our absolute amazement, that we were next-door country house neighbours in the Jardim Salaco. This was a massive coincidence and it helped to make us instant best friends.

We had more things in common: Kristof was also into music and played the transversal flute (he was to become a professional saxophone player), he also had a European edge and in some inexplicable way we both managed to stay academically in the top quarter of the student body despite being members of the “smoke squadron”. Kristof had come to Rio to live with his dad and, after he joined the music circuit, his flat on a hill at the end of Leblon became the new headquarters of our small brotherhood of musical misfits.

Although for us the rock giants of the 1970s still reigned supreme, we were also into jazz-rock represented by a generation of brilliant musicians such as John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Focus, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. As was the case with so many aspects of Brazilian life and youth culture, we were some five years behind what was happening in Britain and North America and were still completely oblivious to the existence of both punk and reggae. Anyhow, I suspect that even if we had known of these developments, as aspiring musicians, we still would have stayed tuned into those great instrumentalists.

There was also new high calibre local musical talent emerging and our ears were ripe for musicians like Hermeto Pascoal, Nana Vasconçelos and Egberto Gismonti who seemed to be a conduit for the kind of energy I had experienced in the south of Bahia. If Bossa Nova had been a reflection of Brazil’s post-war optimism, this new musical generation reflected a moment of self-discovery and of rebirth emerging from the resurgence of political freedom. Despite being exclusively instrumental these musicians were popular, their concerts attracted respectable large crowds, and for a short while they were the top selling acts amongst the educated middle class.

Of the three, Egberto was my favourite. His talent first became apparent in his father’s musical instrument shop where he demonstrated pianos to customers. As a young adult, Egberto went to France to study classical music. When he returned to Rio, he applied his acquired knowledge and his genius to Brazilian music, going way beyond Bossa Nova.  Arguably, Egberto Gismonti became as significant a musician as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest classical composer. Among other things, Egberto was unique in experimenting with indigenous music, going as far as to learn sacred music from a shaman in the Xingu area. The story goes that for Sapaim, the musician/shaman, to accept him, Egberto had to camp outside his jungle longhouse for about a month until he was invited in. Perhaps because of what he learned there, the sounds in Gismonti’s concerts were hypnotic, almost like a solid entity, with audiences always giving their absolute attention.

Hermeto Pascoal was born in the remote and dry interior of the Brazilian Nordeste – the Sertão. As Hermeto was an albino, he couldn’t work under the scorching sun, so his brothers would lock him up in a barn where he channelled his fury and energy into music. Hermeto’s long and curly white hair and beard, and his strong facial features covered by thick glasses, lead to the deserved nickname of ‘the Sorcerer’. His band made insane noises, not only with instruments, but also with everyday objects such as broken bottles, saws and pans. In the midst of this madness, however, there was genius, with valleys of heavenly music brewed from the mysteries of the Indigenous, the Africans and the Europeans.

Of the three instrumentalists, the one with the greatest international success was Nana Vasconcelos. The magazine Down Beat, the most important one in the Jazz world, was to elect him eight times as the best percussionist in the world; he also was to receive eight Grammy awards. Being from Pernambuco and the only African descendant of the three he had a close attachment to the spiritually charged Maracatu rhythm. Perhaps due to both he took percussion to previously unimaginable psychedelic heights.

Egberto, Nana and Hermeto were by no means the only expressions of Brazilian instrumental and experimental music in the late 1970s early 1980s. There were also bands such as Uakti – known for using custom-made instruments, made by members of the group themselves – the name derived from a native Tucano myth of a man/instrument. There were also the more electrical bands such A Cor do Som and the guitarist Pepeu Gomes, both offshoots of the Novos Baianos. Anyhow, after their relatively brief popularity in Brazil, the three main exponents of their generation would fall out of fashion at home but would emerge as stars on the international jazz scene.

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Brazil-Africa magic

What happens when you get the best of Brazilian rock in the eighties and take them to Mali?

 

The on-line home of Bossa Nova

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Sometimes the internet surprises us. We tried to search a site about Brazilian culture in English and found out that there were very few written by non-Brazilians. There was one heart warming exception: bossanovamusic.com. As the name suggests this is a site dedicated to our favorit style of music. We were happy to find a passionate account of the history of Bossa Nova, articles about its main exponents, interviews with Bossa Nova artists, excerpts of news about Bossa Nova throughout the world, reviews on albums and on related publications, everything done with great quality and care.

We got in touch with the guys and asked them to tell us more about the site. The answer was:

“… Bnovamusic.com is a site run by a group of fans that are passionate about bossa nova and its culture. Wanting to delve in further than just the music we decided we wanted to find blogs and websites and were surprised to find that they are really were few site and blogs that provided bossa nova content, especially for English speakers. Therefore, we decided to take up the responsibility ourselves. Since then we have been fortunate to work alongside very talented artists and other people in the industry. It’s been very rewarding and enjoyable to date and we are very thankful.”

Their site is a sister, or brother, of Lost Samba, in their passion and in taking it upon themselves to promote Brazilian culture in the English-speaking world. Bossanovamusic is an indispensable resource to anyone who wants to know more about the magic of artists like Tom Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes and Joao Gilberto. We thoroughly recommend it.

A review of Lost Samba

A review of Lost Samba

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Lost Samba – Chapter 15/02 – The Crazy Carnival of Recife

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The Galo da Madrugada “bloco” in Recife.

Our hopes were only half-fulfilled: the only girls who gave us any attention were the good ones from good families who were committed to post-marital sex. They gave dirty looks and we got into a lot of snogging, but the advances always ended short of the last stop. Kissing a stranger from the South was audacious enough and, if that alone required effort and patience, the rest was unthinkable.

There was one exception: a fake blond wearing no bra who we chatted up on the seaside promenade while a pre-carnival parade was passing by. We did the usual thing, flattering her as she walked by and waiting for the reaction. Unlike the others who smiled or frowned but continued on their way, she stopped to talk to us. Despite her being alone, she accepted coming behind a construction site and sitting between us. Her tight jeans revealed a slim and well-shaped body, and her perfume and her varnished toenails were a complete turn on. There was a lot of excitement in the air, but neither Edu nor I wanted to leave the other with the prize. She showed no preference and ended up not being able to cope with the attack of four adolescent hands, and got up and left.

Despite these frustrations, Recife’s carnival was fantastic. In Rio, the middle class ran away from the partying to relax, but there everyone made a point of taking part in the revelry. At night, there was the Mela-Mela (“smear-smear”) tradition where people went around the streets spreading a homemade paste of water, eggs and flour on everyone while groups paraded the emptied streets making music and dancing. Our hosts made a few bags of it for us, but it was predictable that two guys with out of town looks would be on the receiving end. We did respond but, when our ammunition finished, we had to go back home looking like two unbaked loaves of bread, happy to be exhausted from the fun.

During the day, people drove around in cars with no doors and in hired trucks throwing buckets of water on passersbys. On the pavement, the victims stood prepared to respond with three foot long wooden water jets defending themselves from onslaughts while attacking every car that passed by, with or without doors. The clashes happened with a lot of shouting and laughing. Edu’s aunt warned us to be careful with the things people could put in the water but we were never left with a strange smell.

The first proper carnival of that summer was in the rundown part of town by the old port. The area looked like the background of an old black and white film in the Middle East but with European looking buildings and populated by a Caribbean people.

Recife’s rhythm was not the samba but the frevo, a fast military-like beat with an African twist, performed by brass sections sounding intricate arrangements accompanied by a sizeable rhythm section. The traditional way to dance to it was to kneel up and down to the rhythm waving an umbrella, but the rabble at Praça do Marco Zero square was too drunk for acrobatics and the experience was closer to a punk rock concert, where no one was sure if they were in a fight or if they were having fun. The energy was intense and we had to hold our elbows high in that flood of musical insanity. At one point the organizers stopped the music and held up a bottle of Brazilian whiskey, announcing that was the prize for the best dancer. The band resumed and the crowd went even more berserk.

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picture from http://eyesonrecife.wordpress.com/

A couple of weeks later the Carnival officially started and we had two options: the first one was going to Olinda, a historic town where the authorities barred cars from circulating during the entire four days. On its streets and squares, there would be four or five big bands playing in different locations at any time. We could switch from one carnival to another and join crowds never smaller than a thousand people.

The other option was to go to the carnival balls in Recife. The biggest venues in town hired sizable frevo orchestras that made people dance wherever they could – on the dance floor, on the tables and on the chairs. On the first day we went to Olinda but as we were not successful with the girls we kept our energy for the bailes de Carnaval, where there seemed to be more feminine receptivity. The way to pull girls was to grab them by the waist, dance a bit around the rink and then take them to a corner outside and try to get as far as one could. After weeks of frustration, and a lot of beer, the qualifying standards fell and we were quite successful.

Edu stayed on with some other friends who had come up to Recife, and I went back on my own, in the dawn after the carnival ended. By coincidence, some of the members of the band that had played at the Spot Club Recife, where we had spent our carnival, took the same bus and the partying continued for the next forty something hours with a lot of booze, frevo and samba going on until we arrived in Rio.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 13 – A short history of Brazilian modern music

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Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes in the 1967 music festival.

Célia was the pretty and skinny girl from the eleventh floor when we lived in Copacabana. She was friends with Sarah and one day she rushed in very excitedly to say that her Mum had given her two tickets for the International Song Festival for her birthday and, to my desperate envy, she invited my sister to come. The mega-event was in the Maracanãzinho, the Maracanã’s smaller brother, set up right next to it to host non-football related events.  This was a unique opportunity to watch the best artists in the country and other big international attractions live. This was something that went beyond what Eurovision is nowadays, the regime hoped to unite the nation around them and the artists that the organizers chose with the backing of record labels represented all segments of Brazilian society. The intellectual left would have Chico Buarque, the bossa nova purists would have Tom Jobim and Nara Leão, the rockers and psychedelics would have Os Mutantes; the black people would have Toni Tornado, the militant university students would have Geraldo Vandre, the tropicalistas would have Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso; the samba lovers would have Jair Rodrigues and Paulinho da Viola; and then there was Jorge Ben who pleased everyone.

These contests grabbed Brazil’s attention and the relatively recent TV stations transmitted them to the millions of televisions recently bought to watch the World Cup in Mexico.  The military felt proud to demonstrate that, although they did not allow their people to choose their administration, they had nothing against freedom of expression. This was only half-true, with the press closely watched and limited in its freedom, the festivals assumed the status of perhaps the only forum where the debate about the country’s reality could flourish. Although there was also an undeniable commercial aspect them; they represented a break with the Bossa Nova and with the old generations of radio stars and starlets. Most of the successful artists would end up filling the coffers of the record labels and father everything that came after them.

Many songs were indeed political, while others were about the catching up with the hippy revolution that was going on outside the country, and competed side by side with pretty love songs and happy sambas. However, the political controversy of the two main trends would end up in the inevitable clash between the hard-core Bolschevic revolutionaries and the flower power crowd, which caused strange events such as a rally against the electric guitar with the presence of eminent journalists and Gilberto Gil.

The effervescence of the repressed youth, tired of the solutions presented by the traditional left and by the traditional right, would make the festivals the stage of a cultural debate, perhaps too important to the liking of their sponsors. Parallel to this there were other important cultural expressions appearing in the art world, in cinema, in the theatre and in literature. On the other hand, there was a lot happening in terms of political and cultural uprising outside Brazil. Altogether, the nation hungered for expressions that mirrored their life experiences and expectations in times of deep changes. The tropicália movement would emerge from this moment. Although it is currently associated with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes the movement was much wider in its proposal and almost amorphous in its positioning. Under its big umbrella, there was nationalism, folklore, pop, sympathy for the Cuban revolution, love for the Beatles, Samba, and search for the roots of Brazil. Before going commercial and dissipating, the tropicália encompassed graphic artists, such as Hélio Oiticica, avant-garde musicians such as Tom Zé, journalists, writers, philosophers, intellectuals and a plethora of crazies and geniuses that still influence the current days.

What kept all those tendencies together was the opposition to the regime and to Brazil’s enormous social disparities that its rulers were unwilling to deal with. As the political grip tightened, the military realized that echoes of a creative explosion landing inside the nation’s living rooms was complicated.  Many of these festivals winning artists, and definitely the most popular ones, exhibited too much creativity for the ideologues of the coup and, worse, many openly voiced their opposition to the state of things.  For the military, stopping the party or excluding the stars would send out the wrong message, the way out was censorship.

After the AI-5 decrees, that took away all basic civil liberties from Brazilians, things turned to the worse. With no judicial system to answer to, the country’s rulers resorted to exiling and jailing artists, and the festivals died out.

A few years later, the military allowed the artists back as a gesture of reconciliation.  More than their music, their fans missed the political and the libertarian overtones in their songs.  They returned as heroes but had matured abroad and now they had even more professional agendas.  Their concerts acquired a special quality, mixing an authentic resistance pedigree, celebrity status and world-class musicianship.  When Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque played, the world seemed to come back to normal.

This was the time when I began going to shows. They were huge events, closer to football matches and political rallies than to musical concerts. When the doors opened the audience rushed in like cattle, and when everyone had taken their places, there was a similar atmosphere to being in the Maracanã.  It was a lot of fun; the several sections of the theater booed and cheered each other as if they were supporting different teams. They also sang choruses with related and unrelated themes some of them political, some of them related to drugs and some of them just plain funny.

When the lights went down, the room fell silent and the magic began.  In the best concerts, one felt as being in the artists’ lounge. The calmer songs provided a communal atmosphere that I have never experienced anywhere else and the more rhythmic ones, always saved for the end, resulted in out of season carnivals with the entire theater dancing on the chairs, in the corridors and on the stage.

Parallel to these concert-parties with political innuendos, there was something new creeping in. Rock bands were the expression of the new generation and were the underground of the underground. Their public was frightening: they looked dirty, had much longer hair than the average and took drugs that most people did not even know existed. One of the main expressions was Raul Seixas, his lyricist, Paulo Coelho touched on mystical and sex related subjects close to what bands such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were doing in the international Rock scene. There was also the Secos e Molhados who adopted and androgynous style and make up that the American band Kiss would copy, and that surpassed many international bands in terms gay openness as early as 1972. These artists, although popular with the youth, shocked everyone and in intellectual terms, no one liked them, not even the Lefties.

As far as behaviour is concerned, they pioneered everything that most people would consider banal in the following decades, drugs, vegetarianism, and interest in mysticism and in oriental philosophies and the following of a sort of zen-individualist outlook of life. As Ipanema’s surfers, the rockers did not have any agenda other than living their lives intensely and ignored both the political dictatorship of the right and the intellectual dictatorship of the left. When disco kicked in, they discovered that looking good and shaking their moneymaker on the dance floor brought in more sex. This, and the large amount of drug casualties made that generation of pioneers mutate and vanish quickly.

With the gradual interchange of these two generations, the concerts slowly ceased to be about resistance to become simply a breath of fresh air from the claustrophobia of both the regime and of the audience’s homes. It also became more and more obvious that this was a rich kids’ club: in order to forget the military for a couple of hours, hang out with the cool crowd, buy the right records, go to concerts, and travel to alternative destinations, you had to have money and it was not everyone who had access to those luxuries.

There were never any representatives of the working class in the room. The masses weren’t hip: they were still the maids who had prepared our dinner, the bus drivers who had taken us there, the guys in the street who asked to look after our cars or and the policemen outside hungry to extort our money. The rebels from the less privileged classes listened to funk and went to their own parties, as portrayed in the film “City of God”, a true story of this period of Rio’s history.

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Scene from “City of God”

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Lost Samba's new picture

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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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Photo by Henrique Pinguim.

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