Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “information on Bahia”

Lost Samba – Chapter 26/01 – Easy riding in Bahia

Salvador03

Farol da Barra. Salvador

The next stop was Salvador, where I thought we could stay with a former girlfriend who I’d met in Mauá. Michele came from Bangu, a lower-middle class neighbourhood of Rio, very different socially from my Zona Sul habitat. Michele’s mixed background gave her a complexion that could easily make her pass for Asian. She cultivated that look by wearing Indian-looking dresses and blouses and by letting her long, dark hair grow curly on the edges but straight elsewhere. She was petite and very pretty but her innocent look and her soft voice concealed a wild edge that would lead to her getting pregnant with several friends in my circle possibly being the dad.

The apartment in Salvador where Michele was staying was next to the Barra Lighthouse, one of the city’s most exclusive spots where golden middle class kids went to free carnival concerts on summer weekends. Not only were Pedro and I going to be safe from mosquitoes and have a proper bathroom, but there was a prospect for me of having some real fun at night. However, when we knocked on the door it was not Michele who opened it and we found out that the apartment belonged to her sister’s boyfriend and that there was no room for us. With the dream instantly dashed, the only way for us to hang out in that privileged spot was to sleep on the stage of the Barra Lighthouse. With summer now at its peak, there were concerts almost every night, which meant that to sleep there we would have to wait for everyone to leave. Then, at around three in the morning, we could unfold our sleeping bags on the wooden floor. To our apprehension, we found that we were not alone – there were some weird characters sleeping beneath the stage. Fortunately we never interacted, apart from early in the morning when a drunkard with a hangover emerged to do a gymnastics routine.

This sleeping arrangement ended up not being as bad as we had feared. The stage was less than a block from the apartment, and Michele’s sister managed to convince her boyfriend to allow us to keep our stuff there and to use its bathroom and kitchen. Also, for me, there was the bonus that  Michele could sneak me in when the others were out to be alone together.

Behind the times though Salvador certainly was, the 1980s was beginning to make an impact. The age of the trio elétrico was fading, being replaced by new genres of carnival music. Reggae had touched the ears, hearts and minds of the city’s culturally dominant Afro community and a new way of playing the Jamaican rhythm emerged – a percussion-led samba-reggae fusion. The main exponent of this genre was Olodum, a band from the Pelourinho, an icon of Salvador’s African-based culture and the oldest neighbourhood in the entire country.

In the past the authorities used the Pelourinho’s central square as the location to punish slaves who had misbehaved, escaped or revolted. There are numerous accounts of men receiving more than a hundred lashes and then having had salt rubbed into their wounds. Now their descendants lived in the houses of their former oppressors and the area was to be listed as an UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. Olodum managed to galvanize African heritage and pride in the form of music, radiating that energy throughout Salvador. Everything that emerged in the ”Pelo” reverberated in radios and cassette players in kiosks, spreading throughout the city, blasting out samba-reggae sounds. Olodum would later make an international splash after recording alongside Paul Simon and Michael Jackson.

The other musical novelty was the more white-orientated bands with electronic keyboards and choreographed dancers on futuristic-looking vans. They were completely cheesy, playing a blend of easy to digest salsa, soca and other Caribbean styles. It was a relief that the Trio Eletrico of Dodo e Osmar – the surviving dinosaurs of Salvador’s golden carnival days – still paraded, and we had the opportunity to see them and Olodum in the pre-Carnival events.

As this was my second visit to Salvador – and now travelling as a backpacker – I felt much less of a tourist and knew what to expect. This included knowing the particularities of the various beaches, hugely important for the experience of any Brazilian coastal town. The beaches of the Northeast exuded a nostalgic aura, offering things that had long vanished in Rio. There were fishermen selling freshly-caught crabs tied to a stick, vendors of cheese that was melted on demand, stands of homemade ice cream and men walking around with sliced pineapples on tin trays. Separating the sand from the promenade were straw-roofed wooden kiosks where they served beer and exotic snacks prepared with the large range of local seafood. Fishermen with their nets and wooden boats remained from a past long before pleasure seekers ever dreamt of exposing their pale skin to the sun and, God forbid, seek a tan.

As in Rio, the beaches were the central arenas of summer. They put everyone in a state of mind that no economic crisis could intrude. The correct time to arrive was after lunch and the right time to leave was well after sunset. As the sun went down and the heat became more bearable with the beach started to attract young people seeking similar things: partying, music, interesting people and – of course – sex….perhaps even love. In a short space of time, Pedro and I soon got to know people.

Invitations to parties were frequent and always welcome. The parties, in people’s homes, were for free and entry was by invitation and hear-say. Despite the sound gear always being too weak, these parties were always great fun with joints in every room and bright people discussing political and philosophical issues. If you were not lucky to be in the bathroom having sex, the best place would be the kitchen, where guests would eat and drink. There would also always be a room where people gathered listening to a talented guitarist, and the quality of the musicians was amazing. I never understood why they never made it when so many crap rock bands in Rio and São Paulo somehow did.

caminhoneiro

BR – 101 early in the morning

Sometimes I too would play something, but I soon learned that in order to make an impression I had to stick to playing rock tunes that no one else there was comfortable to play in what was the backyard of the likes of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and the Novos Baianos. I was no competition for the kind of stuff that they excelled at, but a Carioca who played rock was seen as something acceptable and even a welcome novelty. However, people really got excited when I played Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix tunes and sang in English, something that many of the party-goers had never before experienced.

*                                              *                                              *

Partying, going to the beach, meeting new people, playing guitar and trying (and sometimes succeeding) to get laid, was only part of the fun. Our means of transport – hitchhiking – was also a highlight of our travels. The routine always began the same way, by taking a bus to the first gas station on the highway. Many of the drivers told us to clear off, but some welcomed our harmless, and perhaps interesting, company.

By this time, Brazil’s railway system had all-but collapsed, and also goods were rarely transported by ship along the coast. Instead, almost all transport was by road, which was why the highways had an army of truck drivers. As any other category of workers, they were heavily exploited, sleeping very little and travelling for days on end along the country’s poorly-maintained highways, in fear of thieves and corrupt policemen. Nevertheless, they were awesome guys who had their own subculture and a great sense of camaraderie. They knew all the curves, bumps and potholes ahead, as well as the good and bad spots in terms of safety, food, fun and women. All of them had great stories and the cliché girlfriends, or even families, at every stop.

Most rides were with the driver in his cabin where they normally had a good-sized bed where we could take turns in sleeping but sometimes we were in the back, experiencing the unprotected magic of the highway. Together with the feeling of freedom that the constant wind and the open highway provided, at night there were be shooting stars above the moonlit hills, while during the day there was the strong sun bringing out the sweet smell of sugar cane from the plantations on either side of the highway.

back to chapter 01                    next

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/02 – Adventures in South of Bahia’s paradise

Part25

The experience did not touch Edu as much as it did me. He was more sensible and I felt he was restricting himself by choosing to mix only with a boring university crowd. They were an important part of the conversations, but only marginally participant in the “secret society”. By not having a relationship with “the herb”, they missed out on an essential element, not because of the act of showing off that they were smoking weed, but because of the perceptual dimensions it seemed to open in conversations and in observations.

Edu was into conventional psychology, which was too intellectual for that time and place. Gabeira summed up the difference of perspectives with a catchphrase, “Without a hard-on [by which he meant desire], there is no solution.” This is what the people in the forefront of that quixotic revolution thought. It was about walking the walk, and not about talking the talk. We were seeking a world in which people lived according to their connection to the positive energy of the cosmos, and not a world ruled by patronizing dogmas. In this utopian summer interlude, who needed to rationalize things? Who needed the weight of history, of schools, of tradition and of science over their heads? Should that dictate what was right and what was wrong?

The drifting apart of my friendship with Edu reached a climax because of our house-sharers, three girls from Brasília he’d found by asking around. When I met the girls, I immediately found them unattractive and square, and therefore completely off my radar. Their feelings towards me were mutual: my exaggerated carioca attitude of being laid back and not giving a shit when it came to anything remotely practical contrasted with the girls’ efforts to be sociable and with their requests to share household chores. Perhaps they were correct in seeing me as a lazy, rich guy used to having a mum and a servant indulging my needs, but I was too immature to take this on board and simply dismissed them as being annoying and ugly bitches. After all I was only seventeen years old.

The girls ended up getting fed up with my laziness and one day after the beach, they demanded that I cook a meal. I warned them I didn’t know how, but they refused to listen and forced me to embark on my first-ever culinary adventure. The stove, such as it was, was a grill lying over some bricks in the field behind the house, and I had to search for some dry wood and paper to light a fire. The wind made this a hard task and when the flames started to go down I placed on the grill a battered pot, into which I threw some water, oil, salt and the spaghetti.

While waiting for the mixture to boil, I lit the roach in my pocket on the fire. Everything was going fine until I added the eggs: as I watched them drop into the boiling water, I noticed that the rest of the contents had become thick and gluey. Even to me it was obvious that pasta should not have that kind of consistency but the harder I tried; the more I struggled to stir my creation. What was going to be a pasta meal degenerated into an unedifying block of dough. To make matters worse, I noticed that the eggs had vanished from sight. I started digging into the “thing” in an attempt to save them, but then the fork got stuck, before vanishing into that amorphous blob.

When I got back to the house and tried to explain what had happened, I found that no one else saw the comic value. In addition to wasting their meagre groceries, I was forcing them to spend their precious money on a meal in the canteen next door. The mood turned sour, but for me there were better things to do than listen to those three girls yelling at me, especially because I had warned them about my culinary inability. That night came the final straw. After getting drunk, I walked the youngest, quietest, most receptive and prettiest one of the three back home. We kissed, and after we got into the house and I was close to finalizing things, the other two girls stormed in, coming close to physically attacking me. The following day they threw me out. Edu wasn’t happy either and sided with them.

Perhaps because of this event, Edu decided to return to Rio earlier than planned and I left for Trancoso, the next village down the coast, where I stayed for three more weeks. Despite carrying with me feelings of dejection, as soon as I set foot in Trancoso, I knew that I was onto something special. That tiny place was somehow even more magical and unspoiled than Ajuda, so isolated that the only way to get there was by boat or by trekking along the beach at low tide.

*

As Ajuda, Trancoso was also situated on a cliff top overlooking the ocean. It was tiny and consisted of an angular formation of huts bordering a sizeable green in the middle of the tropical forest. At the end of the field there was a simple-looking whitewashed colonial-era church, which closed the rectangle. I arrived there at the end of the afternoon and it was love at first site. The beauty of the place was mesmerizing; the long shadows of the golden sun created by the tiny houses were almost covering the field, The smell of the fresh grass in the shade was unbelievably refreshing in that hot and dry weather.

The purity of the air made the ocean in the background assume a marvellous dark turquoise tint as it reflected the deep blue of the sky. The combination of all of this made that small commune possess an scenic sophistication that hardly combined with its remoteness. Trancoso had the look and feel of some kind of special university campus for people in search of living life in the correct way. Here, the divide between locals and visitors was not so huge, as many of the outsiders had decided to drop out of city life and had chosen to make that place their home.

I headed straight to the only bar in the place, an open air one, where I stayed chatting and playing guitar until it got dark. As it grew late, someone asked me if I had anywhere to sleep. I said no and, after a lot of talking, it turned out that the only hut available was one that stood alone down by the beach. I could stay there for free, but the downside would be having to get there alone. Although moonless nights, like that particular one, were excellent for watching shooting stars, they were terrible for seeing even one meter ahead, and even worse for walking in the bush. My new friends explained how to find the hut, but the idea of having to wade through a river to get there didn’t sound good.

trancoso

The Trancoso Church

As the night advanced, the bar’s owner turned off his kerosene lamp but the music continued, breaking the silence of the rest of the village. Soon people started to wander off. Once everyone had gone his or her separate ways, I left my guitar in the bar and set off for my hut, guided by my sharp night vision and relying on my good hearing. When I reached the river and realised that the far bank was at least six meters distant, I considered giving up. Instead, I bit the bullet. The water was warm and the riverbed was muddy. As the river got deeper, croaking noises made my mind turn to snakes, strange animals and flesh-eating fish. At one point, the water came almost up to my chest and the current made it hard to balance the gear that I was carrying on my head. When I reached the other side of the river and spotted my new home, everything became easier as from then on I only needed to follow the sand-track until the hut’s door.

It was unlocked, and as I came in I saw a candle someone had left there and took out the box of matches I’d managed to keep dry. The flickering flame revealed a basic wooden shack stuck together with clay with a sand floor and a roughly thatched-roof, the only furniture was a rustic table and a chair. The wind blowing ashore was howling loudly, rattling the door and the windows in an eerie choreography. However, the candlelight made the hut feel surprisingly cosy. Still soaked, I opened my sleeping bag, stretched it on the floor and fell right asleep.

back to chapter 01                   next

noite

Night in Trancoso

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/01 – Bliss in the South of Bahia

Part24As the year ended, my situation had improved as compared to just a year earlier. I was a full member of the doidão gang, completely integrated in the Carioca lifestyle and I had acquired some respect through my guitar playing. The summer ahead was full of promise. I had passed with ease all my exams and as an award, my parents were sponsoring a new summer adventure. I was again going with Edu, but this time we would be away for longer and would go somewhere even more exciting than Recife. The plan was to spend a month and a half in the south of Bahia, the crème de la crème of the alternative destinations. In the early 1970s, the bucolic region around Porto Seguro became famous as one of the great hippy refuges, a place where Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and other Bahian native sons and daughters had eulogized in song. The area’s natural ecosystem was still largely intact – or, at least, it hadn’t yet been plundered as much as in more southern parts of Brazil. There were still native Amerindian tribes living in reservations which enhanced the tropical-paradisical aura of the region. In addition, Jorge Amado’s hometown – Ilhéus – was near to the place we were going to stay, promising, in my mind, an immersion into the Afro-Brazilian culture.

The bus trip took thirty hours and our companions were mainly Bahianos returning home for Christmas. As one would expect for the destination, the passengers also included a group of hippy-like girls from Ipanema. As I nervously chatted to one of them, she told me that Fernando Gabeira – “the King of the Nove” – was heading to the same place as us, Arraial d’Ajuda, a small and rather remote fishing village to the south of Porto Seguro. As we neared Ajuda, as everyone called the place, our conversations invariably led to Gabeira. We found out that his presence there was a topic as hot as the region’s sun, and had drawn the attention of the country at large. The Brazilian press had long developed a tradition of naming summers and that of 1980 would belong to Gabeira, the former urban guerilla. The girls were thrilled to be spending their holidays as his neighbors.

This lovely corner of the Earth was perched on a hilltop looking out across endless stretches of wild golden beaches. There was no electricity, no cars, no pavements nor any shop worth speaking of. While the village houses were old and minimal, the locals chose to paint the front of their homes in vibrant colours which made the place resemble a cubist painting. It was obvious that the locals struggled to make a living, but in contrast to the poverty found in the slums of the big cities, Ajuda’s people seemed healthy, harmonized with their surroundings and in peace with life. “Progress” was arriving, and the few bars on the village’s square were owned by outsiders, people from nearby towns who were beginning to sense the potential for tourism. At the time, however, the tourist infrastructure was still basic and food and lodging were ridiculously cheap.

The visitors stayed in a new area built around a field behind the original constructions. The newer huts, where the likes of Edu and I stayed, had been knocked together quickly, their owners, mostly outsiders, seeing them as an easy way to bring in a bit of money during the tourist season. Donkeys, skinny cows and stray dogs seemed to like the desolation of this part of the village, perhaps because the summer visitors left them unbothered. In contrast, Gabeira was renting one of the expensive lodgings alongside the beach and, although he didn’t mix with us mortals, he was often seen in his thong, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by devoted followers. We soon ignored his presence. Both the locals and the other visitors were welcoming and, in a couple of days, we were friends with everyone.

Our routine was heavenly. We woke up sometime in the mid-morning and wandered over to the natural food place for a breakfast of banana mashed with syrup and oats. Then we followed the sand-covered trail to the beach to spend the rest of the day lounging by the sea, playing football barefoot on the sand, going for walks on the deserted coast, meeting new people, and playing beach tennis. We were interrupted only by the occasional villager passing by and selling fried bananas, water and beer. It was hot and the sun was strong so the occasional cloud that approached from the ocean was always a welcome relief. Rain showers never lasted for more than fifteen minutes but when the clouds opened-up, everyone on the beach ran into the salty water to feel the sweetness of the raindrops on their faces while the rest of their bodies remained protected by the warm, calm and shallow sea water.

At the end of the afternoon, the beach gradually emptied and we all went back to the village to gather on the patio behind the old church overlooking the beautiful valley covered in dense foliage. As the sun slowly descended, it transformed into a giant orange ball, its colours merging with the ocean and the dark blue sky. After an entire day under the sun, in and out of the sea, the body welcomed the late afternoon breeze. Sometimes there would be a roda de capoeira, where guys would display their skills in this half-fight, half-dance while we in the audience sung and clapped in time with the berimbau, the African imported single-string, musical bow, that sets the pace.

The only place with running water was a cave with a natural spring where everyone had to queue while holding their towels and their shower gear. The villagers attributed its existence to a miracle and there was a statue of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda at the entrance of the cave. As for the toilet, it was the biggest one in the world: the bush.

After washing off the sticky sea salt and throwing on a shirt and flip-flops, we were ready for the improvised parties in the canteens. Inside them, kerosene lamps placed on the tables cast thick shadows giving them an ancient aura. I, like other people, had brought my guitar and our jamming would liven up those nights. One just needed to start strumming something for people to turn up with instruments of various sorts, and our sessions typically lead to dancing to songs that we created together on the spot.

The moon was so bright that we could wander back down to the beach as if we were having a daytime stroll. The clean, bright sand, the white foam from the ocean surf, the sound of the waves and the wind created a magical bond between us and nature. The clear skies, coupled with the lack of electric lights for kilometres around, made the constellations above stand out as I’d never seen before, with shooting stars darting about. We would sit on the beach for hours, talking and playing guitar. When we returned to the village, it was like being re-enveloped into the warmth emanating from soulmates.

The villagers were untouched by “New Brazil”, living instead from what they fished using their simple boats and by renting out rooms. They were as curious about us as we were about them. Sometimes they invited us to sit with them and would tell us stories about their community, their legends, the sea and the surrounding nature, while exchanging views about life.

The visitors were a mix of university students, professors, journalists, writers, artists, musicians, professionals and political activists. Our conversations reflected the explosion of freedom of speech following the long period of repression. Everyone expressed opinions, with endless discussions taking place about everything from football to ecology, from politics to sex.

We all agreed that these were the closing days of a world in which nature was more powerful than man. In one of our conversations, someone argued that we were both the virus and the potential cure for the world. We were living an ecological turning point and for better or worse, our generation would be responsible for the outcome. Discussions apart, there was something special in the air; none of us had ever experienced this kind of collective connection before. It was as if we were living in a bubble distilled by centuries of utopian ideals and by the recent secrecy and the camaraderie of the resistance to the regime. This closeness permeated our parties, jam sessions, laughter, relationships and friendships, giving them a quality and sincerity very different from what was normally accepted as reality.

back to chapter one                          next

Post Navigation