Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “copacabana”

Disney in Copacabana in the 1940’s

Disney in Brazil in the 1940's

New Year in Copacabana.

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Photo by Yasuyoshi Chiba.

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

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Ipanema beach in the 1970’s

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

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

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Fernando Gabeira in his thong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cariocas thanking the Sun for another great beach day.

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

Part22

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Leme beach

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Favela

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Santa Tereza

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Lost Samba, Chapter 09/02 – Ipanema in the seventies – Brazil’s California.

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Ipanema in the 1970s

In 1973 there was a major stock market crash due to the sudden increase in the price of Petrol internationally, and, as anywhere else in the world, people who had made easy fortunes suddenly lost everything from one day to another, leading to a major drop in real estate prices. Dad was either clever or lucky enough to have sold his shares just days before the collapse and for us this stroke was like winning the lottery. Having plenty of cash available, my parents were able to buy an apartment in Ipanema, and to move into Rua Nascimento Silva, only a few doors away from the home of Vinicius de Moraes, the acclaimed Bossa Nova poet.

The new address meant an upgrade not only in our social status but also in our lifestyle. Although the flat did not have a verandah as the rented one in Copacabana, the new home was much larger and, more importantly, it was ours. The previous owners had joined two small three bedroom flats into a single unit. At its centre was the kitchen, which separated my parents’ side of the flat from the one where Sarah and I moved into. Now, each of us had our own room with a privacy that was a dream for most kids.

Regardless of the hurricane of social change going on behind closed doors, with the exception of the beach front Avenida Vieira Souto, in terms of architecture and of environment, Ipanema felt like a luxury version of a typical Brazilian coastal city. The streets were calm, airy and lined with lush trees that almost hid the sky. Its buildings were newer than those in Copacabana but were lower and less ostentatious, giving the district a more residential, down to earth feel.

Our new home seemed to bring sudden changes to our lives. To begin with, in what was surely one of the coolest places to live in the entire planet, Sarah and I went from being children to being adolescents, both of us discovering the delights and set backs of that period of life. In second place, my parents finally gave way and bought a television set, perhaps accepting that elegant society considered it strange for their aspirants not to have one. Our new TV immersed us even deeper into the wider Brazilian world. Like anybody else, now we could watch TV Globo’s four different novelas, or soap operas, Brazil’s main cultural product, five days a week. Although I soon got tired of them, in the beginning I was hooked: at six in the evening, there was a novela aimed at youngsters; at seven there was a pre-dinner comedy; at eight there was the big production for the entire family; and at ten, there was a more adult show. All were excellent: censorship had forced the best professionals in the field to work in them, as there was otherwise very little space for independent voices in the entertainment industry. This concentration of talent gave the genre an amazing quality that would help them be hits all over the world.

Due to my Mum’s complete disdain for the medium, she did not want our black-and-white television in the living room but instead it stayed in a spare room next to mine. Every evening at seven Dona Isabel, switched on the set to listen to the soap operas from the kitchen as she prepared dinner and this sound track only ceased when we went to bed. Apart from knowing what went on in the novelas, I could watch football games, sitcoms, films and imported TV series while on Saturday afternoons I could enjoy seeing the latest international bands on Sabado Som. Suddenly I was no longer a complete alien at school.

*

Probably the reason why the previous owners had sold their Ipanema flat to my parents was that the neighbourhood’s main street gang used the building’s entrance as their base. Although they had a middle class background, they were the bad boys at the top of Ipanema’s food chain who ruled not only the streets, but also the waves with their surfing skills in the hippest part of the beach, the Pier. Now long gone, the Pier was set up for the construction of an enormous pipe to funnel Ipanema’s sewage out into the deep ocean. Because its construction had altered the currents and the seabed, the waves there were amazing and the specialised press ranked that particular point as one of the best places to surf in Latin America. These circumstances would make the Pier produce many of Brazil’s first surf champions. Anyway, the gang’s constant presence in our entrance way brought the 1970s rebellion right to our doorstep. Mum and Dad felt besieged by a bunch of barbarians.

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Courtesy of Pier de Ipanema

One of the gang members, Pepê, was to become a world champion surfer and hang-glider, and years later his popularity would help him be elected into the city council. His younger and less talented brother, Pipi, was shot after he jumped over the counter to attack the owner of the botequim, or bar, on our corner. One day I was coming home from school when I saw a peroxide-blond surfer sitting motionless on the pavement, waiting for an ambulance with his blood-soaked shirt stuck to his belly. The next morning as I was leaving for school, our building’s porter told me that Pipi had died in hospital.

Whenever there were no waves, the gang hung out on the other side of the street to skateboard on a garage ramp while blasting out Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones from a cassette player. While none of them could understand the poignant lyrics, I could, which made me somehow participate in what was going on as I watched them from our living room’s window like a sick boy watching other children play from a hospital ward. In those afternoons, the songs’ words, together with the smell of cannabis wafted into our flat. Seeing the cigar-sized joint passing from hand to hand among the suntanned surfers was like witnessing a bank robbery from a privileged position. This was the subversive crime that the authorities were warning everyone about on television now that the fear of left wing terrorism had died off.

Anytime I passed in front of that gang, I would hear them comment, “There goes that little wimp”. The most embarrassing moments were when we went by car to the club and the porter had to ask those surfers politely to move aside so that our car could exit the garage. As we left the building, inside was my middle-aged mum wearing a white mini-skirt tennis uniform and me with my skinny legs and my oversized football gear. Because of them, my parents ended up banning surfing at home but those guys pushed me to prove, if only to myself, I was not the wimpy kid they saw. I am still trying.

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An extract of the film Garota Dourada shot at the time.

Lost Samba, Chapter 7/02 -Religious disappointment.

Part12

A philosopher once said that big changes enter our lives as pigeons walk into a cathedral. It all began with an innocent football game on a sunny afternoon. Every Tuesday and Thursday the British School took us to train on an official eleven-a-side field in Botafogo. Like the mess that was about to happen, everything in those games was disproportionate: the field was way too large for ten-year-old players and the goal posts were too far away and too huge for the goalkeeper. When we dribbled a ball past an adversary and looked ahead, there still seemed to be miles to go, which made passing complicated and running exhausting. On top of this, the coach took our performance seriously and whistled to mark every petty mistake.

It was a relief to hear the final whistle and I was looking forward to take the shuttle bus to the Paissandú club to play a much more pleasurable game of five-a-side football. However, when I got on the bus the driver told me to get off because my name was not on the list. Someone in the school’s office had cocked up and I was on the list of children going home. I told the teacher, and he said there was nothing he could do. Not wanting to take no for an answer, I asked for a lift from a friend who would be heading to the club with his mum following his after-school judo class. The teacher agreed. We got back to school where I spent a tedious hour and a half watching the judo instructor throwing my friend around the mat. When his mum arrived, it turned out that they were going straight home – she was in a rush and could not take me to the club. However, she acknowledged the confusion and gave me a reluctant ride home, as Copacabana was handier for her.

Meanwhile, when I did not arrive at the club with the school bus, Mum phoned the school to ask what had happened to me and received the unbelievable answer that they did not know. This was a time when urban guerrillas were kidnapping foreigners to exchange them for their imprisoned comrades. Of course, our family did not belong to the target group – mainly diplomats and high ranking executives– but the paranoia made panic set in. When I arrived at home, the maid was hysterical and did not know what to do. Someone came up with the idea of putting me in a taxi to go to the club. As far as I was concerned, this was a thrilling adventure: here I was, ten years old, riding all alone with an unknown driver and ducking whenever we passed a police officer because, in my head, this was illegal.

When Mum found out exactly what had happened, she was furious with the school. Things got worse after she learned that the new headmaster, a disciplinarian, ex-Royal Navy officer, had blamed me for the incident. Notices started to appear saying that everyone could do this and that, except for me because I was not to be trusted and was irresponsible. My parents decided that the headmaster’s targeting of me was completely unacceptable and this was how I left the protective cocoon of the British School for an immersion in the Brazilian World.

In reality, the beginning was not a one hundred percent Brazilian experience. I was plunged into the Eliezer Steinberg, a Jewish school, and a safe bet, at least until my parents could figure out what to do with me. The change was exciting but there were hurdles. The classes had many more students, the lessons were all in Portuguese and there were new subjects to get my head around: Hebrew, Yiddish and Jewish history. As I started to get to grips with what was happening, I found myself being very different from my classmates and with new enemies happy to prey on my fragile position.

*

My parents – like most other ones in our circles – considered religion an antiquated superstition, but they valued their Jewish heritage and felt that they should use it to give Sarah and I a sense of identity. As time progressed – and the more it looked that the family would stay permanently in Brazil – religious rituals started playing an increased role in our lives. We started lighting Shabbat candles on Friday evenings and regularly going to synagogue.

On the high holidays, we would go to the A.R.I. – the Israelite Religious Association – a nonorthodox congregation for the Zona Sul’s Ashkenazi – or European descended Jews – in Botafogo. I had to dress up in my best clothes and it was embarassing to leave home and make my way through Copacabana’s streets looking like a little gay prince while everybody carried on with their normal lives. The most solemn day of the Jewish calendar was Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – when the community would fast for twenty-four hours and life would orbit around divine forgiveness. While the grownups stayed inside the synagogue feeling increasingly hungry, undergoing a marathon-session of prayers and wrestling with their guilt, my friends and I stayed outside, the whole day long, trying to chase away the boredom.

ARI

The A.R.I. Synagogue

Yom Kippur was not the only the holiday that we observed. Earlier in the year, there was the much more fun Passover dinner. We would receive guests in our home, or would be invited to spend the evening with friends. In that ceremonial evening, among prayers, we shared the table eating ritual food, drinking wine, and reminding ourselves of all the miracles that God had performed when he helped Moses to take us out of evil “Pharaoh-land”. For the next ten days, we could not eat leavened bread, but only matzos – slightly annoying perhaps, but we saw it as a heavenly chore and felt guilty if we did not follow it.

In reality, the only miracle that observing those holidays ever achieved was the one of making us feel Jewish. Religious rituals, however, were not the only aspect linking us to the rest of the nation – there was also our proximity to the State of Israel, and of course our support to the people who had settled there. The world had taught Dad’s generation that whatever you personally believed in, or whatever you were like as an individual, was irrelevant when people hated you for the mark of your heritage and then, with the blessing of the state, threw you and your family into a gas chamber. For that generation, a Jewish homeland was the only way to guarantee the nation’s survival and the fact the Jews had returned to the Biblical lands was nothing short of a miracle.

After the horrors of the Holocaust and the initial anguished possibility that Israel’s neighbours would throw the Jewish population into the sea in the war that followed the United Nations acceptance of Israel as an independent state came the military triumphs. The transformation from victims to victors swept across the entire Jewish world like a fever. Our home was no exception. Our circles considered even the very mention of the Palestinians as a form of treason. Although most people in our closest circles encouraged me to take part in that Jewish nationalist carnival, there was a part of me which did not buy that enthusiasm. Throughout the Holy Land’s history, there were few people involved in its numerous conflicts who understood that stability and security required mutual understanding and that the impossible idea of complete possession of that land implied often-monstrous solutions. As the situation became unbearable for the Palestinians, they resorted to desperate actions that only confirmed the prejudices against them. There was something missing in the way both sides approached the Middle East conflict: no one spoke of peace and reconciliation, but only about survival and revenge, and with this kind of mind-set, those animosities would surely never end.

Because of one my best friends, Uri, I had a clear view of what Israel was about. He had moved there from Rio de Janeiro at the age of ten. We were like family. Uri’s dad, Ossi, was Paulo’s brother-in-law and worked with my dad. He had served the Israeli army in the war of independence and had a charismatic Humphrey Bogart-like character, with a French edge to him, as France was the place where he grew up. His relaxed airs, his strong build and his dry sense of humour made him a great success with women. He had split up with his Israeli wife, a beautiful former actress, and she returned to Israel with the kids.

Uri and his younger brother did not want to go. I also did not want them to leave but at least our friendship survived, as they would spend every summer in Rio to stay with their Dad. They opened my eyes to how stifling and tough life was in the “Promised Land” and to how lucky I was for growing up in Copacabana. The interesting thing about the way these two – now Israeli – friends saw the ever-present conflict was that they actually viewed the Palestinians as human beings. In contrast, Dad’s friends – who would never need to face an armed enemy in a battlefield – held much more prejudiced and hawkish opinions. I saw in Uri and his brother a healthier way of being Jewish, free from the worries about what the claustrophobic and neurotic Jewish community of Rio de Janeiro expected of me, and not allowing anti-Semitism to mold my character.

*

As is the case with any Jewish boy, when I reached thirteen the time for Bar Mitzvah arrived and with this the necessity to find me a teacher. The first choice was our synagogue’s main singer, the chasan Aaronson, an imposing man with a powerful voice. When he flowed out loud the prayers in his strong Yiddish accent, Aaronson was feverish, swaying his body and contorting his mouth. Somehow, the spit that sprayed out of him managed to wet his thick glasses and to make his act seem even more impressive. The problem was that Aaronson’s classes were too expensive so we opted for our second choice: a short and plump cantor in his sixties who also wore thick glasses but who had less dramatic garments, a meeker style and who brought disapproval upon himself for his habit of dozing-off in front of the congregation at major events.

In the beginning, I was fascinated. The part of the Torah I was going to recite was about the sabbatical year, something I have always regarded as a brilliant utopic idea which, if adopted, would reset the world on a correct course. It stated that every seventh year, all Israelites – as well as their land and their servants – were to rest for an entire year. At the end of 49 years (that is following seven sabbaticals), whoever had bought land in that period should return the property to the original holders so that, in the end, no one got disproportionately rich or poor.

My teacher’s mission was to show me how to sing in Hebrew the part destiny had assigned me in front of the congregation. He gave classes in a stuffy, old-smelling room in his far-away flat. During the lessons, we went over and over the chosen text, sitting on uncomfortable chairs while leaning on an old wooden table that supported piles of religious books. After one month, the classes started to get boring and I struggled to stay awake every time those pages in Hebrew were in front of me. One day, completely out of the blue, I felt, – and then saw – my mentor’s fat hand creeping up my thigh and landing on my thirteen year old “shlong”. He continued reading the book and acting as if nothing was happening. Although it was only a squeeze, I was shocked beyond words.

When I told my parents what had happened at the rabbi’s house and asked not to have classes with him anymore, they took my “story” as being just another excuse. Anyway as we were close to completing my preparation, according to the way the synagogue had designed the course, the lessons at the rabbi’s home ceased and the next stage were the final rehearsals at the shul. With this, in one go, I was rid of the excruciatingly boring classes and of the fiddling. Nevertheless, my respect for organized religion had been shattered.

Something else helped to lead my heart astray. On the day before my Bar Mitzvah, I received a surprise call. Ruth, a girl who I had met in a Machaneh in São Paulo phoned to say that she was in Rio especially for the occasion. Overwhelmed by the news, I invited her out to play mini-golf by the Rodrigo de Freitas Lagoon and then to see a movie – the Day of the Jackal – in a nearby cinema. She was pretty and we fancied each other but there was too much shyness in the air for anything to happen. Nevertheless, I was over the moon for coming so close to having a girlfriend.

When I got back home, instead of Mum congratulating me for my first romantic exploit, she fired a hysterical battery of screams at me for being late and for not taking the Bar Mitzvah seriously. Furious, I replied that I did not give a damn about that circus. Nonetheless, as tradition demands, we went to the synagogue for the Friday night service and the next morning I was there for the big day. The synagogue was full of familiar faces, and I was so nervous that I developed an eye twitch that lasted for weeks. When the big moment came, the young rabbi from New York, with red hair, a moustache and round glasses – very similar to Ned Flanders in The Simpsons – called me to read the Holy Book and to hear a sermon in which, among other superfluous things, he said that I liked rock ‘n’ roll and surfing.

Had I been an orthodox Jew, from that moment on I would be responsible for my acts in terms of divine punishments and rewards, and my Bar Mitzvah would have been a rite of passage. Instead, the whole event ended up being about performing an irrational duty and an excuse to receive expensive presents. After everything was over, I had passed into a new stage in life but not as expected: my hair was growing long, my body and my voice were changing and my hormones were kicking in.

My initiation into manhood had happened at the beach catching big waves and at the Machanehs where I proved that I could be tough. To me, synagogue represented an old folks’ social gathering designed to forge business contacts under the pretence of being pious while listening to prayers in an incomprehensible language. As far as I was concerned, that theater and teachers pinching my penis did not represent a path to a higher truth.

If the adopted norm for modern Jews was to be atheists, why should I waste my valuable time going to synagogue? If they wanted to use Eastern European traditions and fear to keep me inside a fence, this would not work in the Rio de Janeiro of the 1970s. In addition, employing Zionism to keep the community connected seemed plain ridiculous: if our parents – like most of their friends – had chosen to emigrate to far-off Brazil and hadn’t the guts to fight for Israel, what commitment could they demand of us? With a room full of expensive presents and a new status, I was ready to discover the real world and not the wonders of the Holy Scriptures.

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If you have the patience, check out our views on the Jewish/Zionist issue:

 

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

Rio

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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Lost Samba – Chapter 03/03 – The Marvelous City

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Later in the morning, like schools of little fish emerging from the mouths of rivers, children flowed onto their street’s section of the beach. The morning began with our nannies or our mums planting an oversized parasol into the sand with circular motions until the tip was deeply and firmly embedded. If they were hopeless, there were always plenty of ice cream vendors, chair-renters and lifeguards around to lend a hand. After they completed the process, they could open up their cloth shade and allow them to become part of a landscape of colourful dots on the golden sand. Next came the time-to-stretch-out-the-towel phase, then the unfolding-the-chair phase and then, finally, releasing the body boards, the balls and the buckets for us to play with our friends.

The beach was like a funfair set beneath the baking sun. We would play in the shallow water, chase schools of tiny fish, bury ourselves in the sand, construct barriers against the waves, dig tunnels, sculpt castles, have sand wars, and watch the constant flow of people walking by. In the intervals, the grown-ups would ask us to clean off the sand and then they would call one of the strong men who walked the beach with boxes of Kibon ice cream or Matte Leão iced tea, and buy some for us, their sweet iciness soothing the scorching heat.

The ocean signified complete freedom. The salt-water felt a million times better and more refreshing than any shower or any swimming pool ever did. Beyond the breaking waves, seagulls plunged to catch their prey, which would struggle to escape the beak as the bird flew away. Sometimes dolphins leapt out of the water and harmless shark-like fish showed their fins causing excitement and concern on the beach. As we grew more confident, we discovered waves and learned how to dive under and through them as well as racing the white foam and allowing the sea’s natural force to crash on us.

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On windy afternoons, kids came down from the favelas to fly kites. Their fun was to have air battles with their colourful hand-made toys, some of those moleques glued broken glass powder on to their strings to make them more effective. A swirling and uncontrolled kite was a sign that another group had seized their flying coat of arms and the kids ran in the dozens to collect it as it crashed onto the sands below.

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As the sun descended, the beach seemed to relax. The heat grew less intense and the buildings began to throw shadows on the sand. The sun’s golden colours reflected on the water creating a special light that made people and everything else on the beach and around it, look special. Sometimes groups from the favelas enjoyed the sunset playing samba and gave that time of the day a special musical flavour, like the sound track to a film.
My usual beach companion was Pilar, a pretty Portuguese nanny in her late twenties. The only clear memory I retain is of her naked body when we showered together after we returned home. In the bathtub, I could examine everything my friends had talked about but which we could not figure out how they worked. Pilar would eventually end up marrying my barber, the friendly Senhor Ribeiro, who was also Portuguese but was short, had a moustache and curly blond hair and who always reserved for me the latest football magazines and the best sweets.

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