Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Novos Baianos”

Lost Samba – Chapter 11/02 – Hippies and ecological disaster in Brazil.

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The Novos Baianos

Bossa nova, guitar playing and Bahia were part of the same formative package and, as school drifted further from the radar, I discovered the Novos Baianos in IBEU’s Pandora’s Box. More than a band, they were a community of long-haired musicians from Bahia who, like the Greek poet-warriors, not only sang but also lived out the hippy dream.

Their philosophy could be synthesized in the question “Why not live this world if there is no other world?” which they asked in their good-humored samba, Besta é  Tu (It’s you who’s the fool). The song reflects the eagerness of their generation to enjoy life despite what was taking place in the political arena and to distance itself from the caretas, or the squares, and their caretice. They started out as a group of artists assembled in Salvador by Tom Zé, tropicália’s musical genius. When they came down to Rio in search of opportunities, their talent and their carefree ways ended up making them the queen bees of the carioca hippies, around whom everyone and everything cool gravitated. Luck opened several doors for them: career wise, they filled in a talent vacuum left behind by most of the country’s big names, such as Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso that the military had either exiled or completely censored. Music-wise, João Gilberto, the godfather of bossa nova, another bahiano, became very close to them and coached their raw talents into the highest musical standards. Meanwhile, their carioca bass player, Dadi, recruited through a newspaper advertisement, had no one less than Jorge Ben as a teacher.

In terms of their work, they did similar to what the Rolling Stones had done with the blues; they mixed rock and roll energy and authentic Brazilian themes. The result was very strong and, overall, their work reflected what all Brazilian hippies were during the military dictatorship: a force of nature. As expressing political thoughts was too dangerous, the confrontation with the system was existential, almost spiritual, therefore perhaps healthier than conventional politics as it did not involve picking up guns or resorting to violence. Instead this avenue sought resistance through being un-urban, in close contact with one’s true self, with nature, with music and with surfing in the case of Ipanema’s youth.

In fear of repression but, nevertheless, in complete disagreement with the route the country was taking, many thinking heads of that generation took shelter in a journey of self-discovery. By doing so, the Brazilian hippies dived into a strange, unique and lawless existence. Nonetheless, life went on, and around them was the intensity of Brazil; the mixture of cultures and the sensuousness of its streets still soaked in the euphoria of the 1970 World Cup triumph. Their psychedelic and counter-cultural outlook was akin to Jimi Hendrix meeting Pelé.

With so many cosmic forces behind their music, the Novos Baianos, the most visible and most colourful of the Brazilian hippies, found a record label that ended up providing them with a ranch in Jacarepaguá, in the outskirts of Rio. There they divided their time playing football, rehearsing, creating, eating vegetarian food, smoking weed and having children. The ranch would become an icon of that era.

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If a big portion of the youth appeared to be messed up, the mainstream was even more. Under the military, Brazil had become a lost ship sailing into an economic disaster zone with a drunk and autocratic captain in command. Following a pattern that still remains around the world, while the economy was doing well, huge predatory international deals were sealed behind the scenes; Western power brokers came up with generous investments and told the military not to worry about paying back. The rampant corruption and the suppression of any form of opposition or transparency allowed a huge portion of that money to “evaporate”. However, when the banks would come back for repayment, the bill fell on the lap of people who had nothing to do with those transactions, and who had never benefited from them.

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President Gen. Figueiredo and other Generals in the Seventies

One of the main victims of this orgy of easy money was the environment. Considered as a commercial resource, thousands of forest hectares and of animal species were set to disappear in order to allow huge farms with state-of-the-art technology to appear.  “Coincidentally”, most of the people who the big international banks funded to carry out these projects belonged to the backbone of the regime: the one percent of the population who owned eighty percent of the land. Brazil’s rulers needed this investment in order to silence the suggestion of appropriating unused land and handing it over to the destitute. The so called Reforma Agrária, the Agrarian Reform, still haunted the military despite their heavy hand. Long before the coup, this project had been a hot topic and blocking it had been one of the main reasons why the so-called revolution of 1964 had happened in the first place.

Regardless of this issue, most of the soil under the jungle was inappropriate for agriculture. Disregarding this simple but crucial limitation, the big farmers used the simplistic technique of burning down the woodland to clear their properties. After the flames had ceased, the earth on the new mega-farms became useless, and could only be used for pastures. This silent crime against the planet’s health continued way after the dictatorship ended and terminated a forest area larger than several European countries. This caused another problem: the forests’ eradication forced their populations into the big cities without any skills or preparation.  The saddest thing was that most of these investments never brought any benefit to the economy; a lot of the burnt land had to be abandoned as, much of the time, raising cattle made no economic sense in those remote regions.

Next to such a government, the demonized, longhaired, Cannabis smoking lefties were angels. The world could only blame those young hearts for not risking their lives to fight against that machinery.

Back to chapter 01      next chapter

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Burning down of a forest.

The post-tropicalistas

There is so much to say about the scale of Tropicalia in recent Brazilian culture, its importance, its vitality, its originality as well as its villainy, that one could write several books about it and still not reach a conclusion. The fact is that it left a lasting legacy in Brazilian culture and that it had many children some wanted, some unwanted, some rebellious and some loving.

Its first fruits appeared in the 70’s when the country was still under the military dictatorship and the new wave of artists came from further north than Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, who are from Bahia, to “the south” (Rio and Sao Paulo). They were from the Northeast of Brazil: from Ceara as Raimundo Fagner, from Pernambuco as Alceu Valenca, from Paraiba as Ze Ramalho, the Novos Baianos, a case apart, were from Bahia too. Their influences were diverse but they had several things in common; they were disliked by both the left and the right, they mixed the folkloric side of Brazil with what was being done in the US and the UK and portrayed themselves as having something to say while having strong record labels behind them. Most of them were presented to the country either through being sound tracks to novelas or through festivals that TV Globo organized.

In the seventies, Brazilians from all classes listened to more homegrown music than people from any other non-English speaking country in the western world. This phenomenon had not only to do with the quality and the diversity of Brazilian music but also with the importance that music acquired in previous governments in trying forge a national identity and, after the military coup of 1964, as a means to resist the dictatorship and the American imperialism.

For the greater public of the more southern states of Brazil –  RIo de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul, Minas Gerais – the post tropicalistas from the Northeast were like exotic wild fruit discovered in one’s own backyard; they used familiar rhythms but their themes, their talent and their depth touched that generation and opened their imagination. As the Vikings, they considered themselves as the Northern conquerors of an untalented South as well as the new voices that would replace a commercialized tropicalia.


It is undeniable that Caetano, Gil, Jorge Ben and Cie. had already opened the doors for them so they had less tradition to shatter and, hence, were less ambitious and freer musically and ideologically. Their long hair and the presence of electric guitars were statements; also, they did not have the need to say things to hit the headlines or be important presences in the Brazilian Cultural scene, they just concentrated in the magic of their music, and sharing a new light on on the regions they came from.

Their gigs had a strong 70’s hippy/cannabical tint, and they were masters in mixing of rustic percussion and state of the art musical gear. Because most of them appeared in local university circuits and gradually acquired fame, they had a greater knowledge of how to relate to the public, and in this they were more accessible than the big Tropicalia stars who practically began their careers as stars. Their acts were great fun and always ended in something close to street carnivals with people dancing all over the venues.

As the 80’s approached they started to lose their freshness, and became either mainstream cheesy acts or were seen as old hippies, the smarter ones, namely Alceu Valenca, retreated to their own region and are considered as living legends to this very day.

After them Brazilian Rock burst into the scene, the economic crisis too. The new bands made a point of having nothing to do with what had come before. There weretropicalist and post-tropicalist attempts to catch the eighties wave, but they were greeted with rejection. Although with less brilliance, Rock was clearly different; it was urban, angry and in tune with the turmoil that was happening in the “real world”. Of course, the movement was also backed by the big record companies.

As a final note; although the post-tropicalists were the closest to get to what happened with Reggae in Jamaica. Their music was very intuitive and free and had deeps roots in the traditional music of the countryside. Despite this, and although they were from the same generation, there was never the equivalent of a Brazilian Bob Marley. To understand why, it is important to see what happened in Jamaica: their artists came from their Favelas. In Brazil this would never happen; the artists played for the middle class and this public would never fill a theater to see someone from the working class perform, there was the carnival for that.

On the other hand, depending on where they came from, the lower classes listened to Samba, or Forro, and musical tastes never crossed barriers. Bossa-Novistas, Tropicalistas, post-Tropicalistas and Brazilian Rockers were all artists from and for the middle and upper classes. In our opinion it is here where they failed.

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