Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Rio de Janeiro”

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

casseteRock

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.

RadioFlum

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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MINI_PUNK_ROCKINRIO_1

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

Lost Samba – Chapter 29 – The Circo Voador and Parque Laje: The birth of Rio’s cool.

circo

The Circo Voador in its first year – 1982

I arrived back in Rio absolutely exhausted. But rather than being simply pleased to be home, I now found wrong so many of the comforts  – a maid to tidy up for me, a room of my own and food available whenever I was hungry – that I’d always taken for granted. I felt like a wild animal caged in a zoo, my old cosseted lifestyle now feeling too limited. My parents might have thought that I’d gone through a rough time but preferred not to try to discuss it

I felt like Icarus who had fallen from the skies because he had flown too high or like Gulliver pinned down by Liliputions for being too big. I was swimming against a current of narrow-minded conformity and fear of the new decade. I felt out of touch, like a second-class citizen who no one wanted to approach both in and out of home. It seemed as if recess time at school had ended and that everyone else had returned to class apart from me. Anyway, it was obvious that they thought that my outlook needed to change and I that had to get my act together. The atmosphere was bad. Dad’s punishment was weeks without directing a word to me, a passive-aggressive manner that I had become used to.

Going back to university was tough. We were delving into micro- and macro-economic theories, calculus and other hard-core subjects. Completely out of synch with that environment, I didn’t have the concentration and the will to carry on. The experiences of my travels, my need to make sense of what was happening, my original dreams of being a film director, the lack of people similar to me around, the lack of understanding from family and friends, the lack of a girlfriend were altogether too difficult. I asked my parents to let me spend a year working on a Kibbutz in Israel to sort my head out, but the answer was a categorical no. For them, the time for fun (as they saw my choices) was over. Now was the time to pull myself together, to work hard to build a sensible future. Certainly times were economically harsh and their argument made sense but I wasn’t strong enough and was too self-absorbed to take on board such a rational position.

To complicate things further, one day Dad felt ill at work and was rushed to hospital. Although in hindsight this was predictable given the stress he was experiencing, the news came as a shock to all of us, including me. Dad was now in his eighties and his “tropical paradise” was becoming unrecognisable. Nothing seemed to be going as planned. With a monthly inflation rate of twenty percent, the country’s economy was in a state of crisis, while Dad’s business – like so many others – was only just staying afloat. Meanwhile, Dad’s family was crumbling. As far as he was concerned, I had gone mad, and although Sarah – still his great hope – was doing well in her dental career, she had got into a bad relationship and was no longer on speaking-terms with the family. The country house in Teresópolis that was to be my parents’ retirement place had become a never ending maintenance problem, yet another millstone round Dad’s neck .

Despite all the aggravation,s Dad could not allow himself to rest. He needed to continue working to sustain the family’s lifestyle. And despite the health scare, we all took him for granted. I was too self-centred to offer any practical help and, anyway, those suggestions that I made (such as selling the business and the house so that he could enjoy retirement) were dismissed out of hand. Following the 25-years of achievement for my father in Rio, Brazil now seemed to be devouring everything it had given him. At home, there was a general sense that somehow the end was approaching, and in this our condition was not very different to that which many other families were experiencing.

Although I thought a lot about it, leaving home and telling everyone to go to hell was not an option. Back then young people in Brazil lived at home with their families until they found a proper job or got married and the concept of sharing an apartment with friends was unheard of. In anycase, there were few jobs around and the ones available paid less than my pocket money. As the tensions at home became unbearable, we somehow reached a compromise. I abandoned the economics course in Rio in order to try to get a place at a film college in Sao Paulo. I reckoned that compared to making my way into the prestigious economics course in Rio, getting accepted to study film ought to be easy. In my mind this move would put me back on track with who I was.

*                                              *                                              *

Beyond the realms of my family’s drama, there was the intensity of life in Rio. I was still able to appreciate some of the exciting things happening out there. The star of the moment and catching the public’s imagination was the alternative theatre group Asdrubal Trouxe o Trombone (Asdrubal Brought the Trombone). In several ways it was what my generation was waiting for: a voice of their own. By breaking away from the left-wing etiquette, this was a central player in bringing change to Rio’s – and consequently the Brazilian – cultural scene. Influenced by Monty Python, and by counter-culture in general, Asdrubal was a cultural version of the surfers and the rockers. This group of largely amateur actors and directors threw all their energy into a play called “Trate-me Leao” (Treat Me Lion). Because of their fresh approach to theatre and their humerous and easy to relate themes, the play was a tremendous success with the country’s youth and toured all over Brazil. The sketches concentrated on the everyday experiences of urban kids in search of friendship, love and adventure and who had no intention of following in Che Guevara’s steps.

All this was happening while my generation was dealing with the often painful process of reaching adulthood. A constant positive of living in Rio is that it is blessed by an array of the most beautiful beaches. No matter how stressful life might be, a calm day at the beach with friends and seeing beautiful people allows one to fleetingly forget one’s troubles. One typical glorious sunny Saturday, I was chatting with Dona Isabel in the kitchen, having my usual lunch of beef, fried onions, rice and black beans before going to the Nove. The television was on and I caught a glimpse of the Asdrubal actors announcing that they were offering acting classes. I was tempted but my beach-bum instinct won out, making me think that this was for effeminate thong-wearing fake revolutionaries of the kind that I’d do anything to avoid. This decision came to be one of my biggest ever mistakes. Many of the greatest Carioca actors and rock stars of my generation, such as the band Blitz, the singer Cazuza, comedians such as Luis Fernando Guimarães and the actress/presenter Regina Case and so many others either gave classes there or emerged from that course.

Bruno, a friend of mine, joined the classes and despite not being born to act he had a video camera and talent for filming and editing. For Asdrubal,  Bruno was a heaven-sent asset and they started to ask him to film their work. As Asdrubal grew, so  did Bruno. A decade later, Bruno went on to win several MTV-Brasil awards for best music video director and is he now one of Brazil’s leading video makers.

.


Asdrubal

Asdrubal inherited the attention once given to the Novos Baianos, the hippy queen-bees, and to Fernando Gabeira, the revolutionary-chic former exile. Their latest initiative was a veue of their own an actual circus in Arpoador, the neighbourhood  linking Copacabana with Ipanema. They named their new venue the “Circo Voador” (Flying Circus), imitating one that the Rolling Stones had used for a performance in London in the 1960s.  It was here that the presentations of Asdrubal and their students took place. Jokingly the word went out that the only two musical genres that bands played under their canopy were “rock as well as roll”. They opened-up the space to local bands instead of featuring weird-looking longhaired artists from the Northeast or the soon to become outdated Brazilian music stars singing about social reform.

The musicians and lead singers were no longer the frightening, hard-core junkies of the type that led the rock scene of the 1970s. Instead, now they could easily have been (and sometimes were) fellow students, friends and neighbours merely enjoying themselves. What motivated these artists was the movement (if one could call it that) of a desire to break free from the weight of the country’s realities and to simply be part of the rock ’n roll ethos, that in their minds was a universal family. This initiative rippled throughout the country and set rock as the main 1980s cultural expression, at least for middle class youth. The Circo Voador would mark the last time that Rio would be Brazil’s musical trend setter. The centre would soon gravitate to the much larger São Paulo market, where the cultural scene was more sophisticated, in tune to innovation and more in touch with what was goung on abroad.

After going to a few Circo Voador gigs, I was convinced that I had the potential for playing to that kind of crowd.  With the little money that I had left from selling Blues Boy, I bought a cheap amplifier and an electric guitar. The shift from acoustic guitar to an electric one was like changing from a bicycle to a motorbike. Now I could shake the windows of my room with just a slight pluck of a string. Because no one was happy with me at home I had to turn the volume down, but on weekends, when my parents went up to Teresópolis, my sister was at her boyfriend’s place and Dona Isable went home, I had the apartment to myself. Feeling like a insane king in a wretched castle, the beast came out and the volume got turned right up, driving our poor neighbours crazy.

I started writing songs using ideas that had come up during my travels and in jam sessions. At the same time, new ideas surfaced and I felt certain that music was my destiny. My work tried to fuse aggresive rock with Brazilian rhythms. This kind of mixture had been a controversial novelty in the days of the Tropicália and continued being used by artists from the Northeast such as the Novos Baianos and Alceu Valenca. With the 1980s rock and Brazilian music diverged, becoming more “purist”. Until then artists often combined these genres, selling their “exotic” music as  developments of a more “authentic” style far removed from Rio or São Paulo. Now here was me, a guy from Ipanema with a rather odd Jewish and British background, working with traditional Brazilian music and trying to make it sound heavy with contemporary rock gear. This exoticism found no sympathy amongst the narrow-mindeded new audiences who could only appreciate either ”pure” rock or Brazilian popular music. Bands with a similar outlook to what I attempted would only establish themselves a generation later, with the likes of artists such as Chico Science and the Nação Zumbi .

*                                              *                                              *

Pedro had also abandoned economics to do an art course in Rio’s Parque Lage, in an Italianate mansion set in the surreal surroundings of a tropical estate. The creation of a nineteenth century Brazilain millionaire, the grounds were so well preserved that behind the house they still had the slaves’ quarters, the senzala, a grotto with stone beds covered by limestone that gave you the creeps as one walked in.

The classes were in the mansion’s famous internal patio which had been featured in one of the most important 1960s Cinema Novo films, Glauber Rocha’s masterpiece “Terra em Transe”, and had been a busy musical venue in the 1970s where many memorable gigs took place. After a few years of silence, the beautiful location was re-opened as a concert hall and the place now competed with the Circo Voador to attract the coolest young hearts and minds in Rio.

The Parque Laje was consolidated onto Rio’s cultural map when the art course that Pedro was doing decided to get their students, along with budding artists from the Federal University’s faculty of fine arts, to paint the park’s concrete external walls. They came up with a lot of amazing and original creations and the result was going to define who was who in the “geração ‘80” (‘80s generation), the most important movement of that decade. Many of these artists went on to achieve public recognition, while other already established artists from elsewhere in the country placed themselves under their umbrella and adopted the new pop-like and youthful aesthetics, presenting themselves as the new expression of Brazilian art.

Being part of the “geração ‘80”, opened doors for Pedro, enabling him to circulate amongst the kind of “interesting people” he had always yearned to be like. Now that Pedro had been accepted, it was he who was introducing me into circles that I wanted to mingle in. In this way, I became a peripheral participant of the avant-garde of the 1980’s aesthetics that had spoiled the hippy feel of the places that had drawn me to the Northeast.

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geracao80

Geracao 80 exibition at the Parque Laje

Amazing video of Rio de Janeiro

Lost Samba – Chapter 24 – Brazil in the Eighties

Eighties

Like me, Pedro had “parachuted” into the university’s economics programme. For the vestibular, he was lucky enough to sit next to an ace student he’d known since childhood. After some discreet but forceful nagging, his friend allowed him to copy his answer sheet. Pedro was not typical of my normal circles. He lived outside the Zona Sul, had darker skin, curly hair and had an athletic build from being a passionate water-polo player. We kicked off a firm friendship with me serving as his passport to Zona Sul parties, while he helped me develop some street cred. Our well-bred colleagues would soon view us as the class’s wise guys, but our popularity would lead us to forget that we were in such a demanding place of study.

In the beginning, we had a great time. The campus in Urca was divided into three faculties: economics and business administration, communications (journalism and advertising) and psychology. Economics – our course – was considered the most prestigious one of the campus’ faculties and, appropriately, we had the most high-profile building that contained the Teatro de Arena, the famous amphitheatre with a political past. Although student activism was hardly as important anymore, the students’ union opened the Teatro de Arena on weekends and transformed it into a popular venue for often great alternative bands. Perhaps because of all this, the economics students regarded themselves as being a cut above the rest of the campus, feeling we were tackling important and intellectually demanding matters, in contrast to the easy and superficial topics of the other faculties.

In response, all the other students viewed us as the campus’ slightly arrogant nerds, though we did command a certain respect. Pedro and I never really accepted these kinds of comparisons and instead made friends with the communications students (they knew how to party) and with the psychology students (they were overwhelming female, many of whom were pretty and seemed compelled to experiment with all sorts of things).

Overall, we were now part of a more senior university crowd who had a social life of their own, and, sure enough, the parties we started to go to reflected our new status. There were many older students, young professors, their girlfriends and their friends all of whom were more stimulating than the kind of people I was used to hanging out with. My guitar abilities worked miracles in getting us invited to the best gatherings, organized by the most prestigious members of the student body and many were in the best addresses in the city. This elite was left wing, and many would go on to enter politics or would rise to senior positions in government agencies or in business. Most of these young and clever people came from wealthy old families, and a few of their parents were involved in the newly legalized opposition parties or had links to returning exiles.

As this was a time of political rebirth – the period of the abertura politica – these circles appreciated the laid back attitude of a street-wise, hippy-like guitar player; a connoisseur of weed and of the alternative lifestyle found in Visconde de Mauá and Trancoso. For a short period, both Pedro and I enjoyed being courted by the student elite, but they soon brushed us aside owing to our poor grades, conventional middle class family backgrounds and to the lack of erudition in our arguments whenever serious topics came up.

The acceptance by the students of the other courses was far more straightforward and more durable. The invitations to parties, the girls, the new and interesting friendships and the jam sessions flowed in. In this situation, it was easy to forget the economic realities hovering around us as well as the academic effort that the course required if we were to hope to make the grade.

Cocaine was starting to replace weed in parties, not yet in the gatherings of the leftist radical-chiques of the economics course, but in the other gatherings that we went. Rio’s powerful drug lords had come to realise that the white powder was easier to transport, harder to track, more addictive and altogether a more lucrative business venture than was marijuana. They created shortages of cannabis that lasted for months while the supply of cocaine remained abundant and consequently cheap. The plan worked and soon pretty well everyone had converted to blow, the downside being that they began to see maconha as something for hippy dropouts from another era – in other words, losers. With more serious money pouring in, drug trafficking also became more structured and more deadly.

laCoca

Cocaine

”Brizola” – the name of a leading opposition politician and for some reason the name widely used for cocaine – was more demanding, more negative and altogether more harmful than anything we were used to. While weed brought out the fun and the contemplative side of people, cocaine heightened egos. Once it became popular, the traficantes increased the price and made it an expensive habit – and because one had to consume a lot in order to keep buzzing, at a time of economic crisis many people were forced onto paths beyond the law.

At first, I didn’t like the superficial vibe that surrounded cocaine or the ego-driven people attracted to it, but the hype was so great and the high seemed so empowering that my crowd gradually accepted it into their world. As times grew harsher, the illusion of self-confidence that the white lines on our mirrors gave us would compensate for the shock of the severe economic downturn and its serious impact on our everyday lives and futures, which felt like a truck hurtling towards us at full speed.

*

Outside our sheltered lives, but very much knocking on our doors, was the unforgiving truth that Brazil had become a country struck by hyperinflation, recession, despair and suicide, some of them close to us. There was no way out, and on the ground it was “everyone for himself and God against all” in the words of Mario de Andrade in his novel Macunaíma. For many amongst the wealthy members of society, self-destruction through excess was the escape-valve, while for some of the poor it was crime and violence. Tragic stories began appearing in newspapers, with a surge in kidnapping and murders on one side, and vigilantes killing suspected criminals on the other.

Within my social circle, there was a widespread feeling of despair and hopelessness. Many of us believed that we had stepped out of the system, but when the bad times hit us – something that we never imagined could happen – we realized how entangled our existence was with all that we found wrong in the world.

Ideologically, the 1980s were a rebellion against the rebellion and with the change of tides came the witch-hunt. People who hadn’t enjoyed the fruits of the 1970s economic “miracle”, or who did not take part of the big party either through parental prohibition, through commitment to their studies or through rejection to the way people thought and behaved, were now engaged in private vendettas and rejoicing at their enemy’s disgrace. What had been cool was now frowned on, what had been revolutionary appeared idiotic, and what had been ecstatic became the cause of sexual and mental illnesses. The journey of a generation that had struggled against a dictatorship and then witnessed the return of democracy was disregarded. The sense of brotherhood that had risen from those days evaporated. Everything had changed and seemed to have reversed: what common sense had regarded as being self-serving and obnoxious now became unashamedly the right thing to do.

Everyone sensed that this was only the beginning of a long, dark, stretch ahead. By the end of my first year at university, the effects of economic and social mayhem ran deep, and the reach of this crisis in their personal lives caught everyone by surprise and no one knew how to respond. I tried to convince myself that I could cope with whatever might come my way – that it was impossible for things to get worse. I was wrong.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 23 – The Brazilian Hyperinflation begins

UFRJ2

The Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, Photo, Zica da Zuca

A bus to school, to my Dad’s office or to anywhere boring in the “real world”, would go from Ipanema towards Copacabana. After crossing my old neighbourhood it would leave the Zona Sul through the Túnel Novo. After this it would pass Botafogo’s training grounds before turning left towards the Botafogo beach and onwards into the city. On my first day as a university student, I was pleased to be catching the 511 bus, as it would not turn into Botafogo beach but instead would take a right into peaceful Urca where the Federal University – the UFRJ – was located. As the bus went along the good old Avenida Nossa Senhora Copacabana, I thought about the new cycle that was about to start, and realized that I didn’t know what to expect: was I going like the academic experience? What was the economics course actually about? What were my fellow students going to be like?

The campus was quiet, with well-kept trees bordering alleys that separated the well preserved nineteenth-century buildings. The one that housed the economics department originally served as a madhouse and although the asylum had long-since been transferred to a new building on the campus, we sometimes saw nurses chasing after runaway patients.

In the 1960s, the UFRJ had been at the epicentre of the students’ resistance to the military dictatorship. The National Union of Students (UNE – União Nacional dos Estudantes) had organized many crucial gatherings in its open-air amphitheatre that was just below our classrooms and most of the students who had opted for armed struggle reached that decision in the same places where I was now studying.

Even in 1981 there were rumours that some fellow-students were either undercover police agents or were members of underground organizations. I doubted this was the case, but there was no way of knowing. Anyhow, with the re-birth of open political debate, the students’ union was lively and there were active Trotskyists, Leninists, Maoists and anarchists, as well as people joining the new ideological groupings with more ecological and existential agendas.

These leftists fought amongst themselves. They bickered over almost everything; as, for example, which stance should the students union take over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, or which of the various communist parties was the true representative of the masses or which thinker best represented the people’s aspirations, Lenin, Trotsky, Mao, Bakunin or some other obscure Marxist. They also had serious fallouts over other theoretical and practical intricacies that made the experience of being involved with left wing politics seem more like belonging to a religion than anything else.

Now that the military regime was on its deathbed and the Soviet Union was beginning to show cracks, also having ceased long ago in investing in Latin American revolutions; the debate on choosing between either fighting or embracing the capitalist system had become obsolete. My generation was caught between this stagnant state of affairs and the pragmatism of the yuppie generation that would soon kick in. We recognized the importance of politics and welcomed the political springtime, but could not relate to the outdated dialogue.

Some teachers who had endured hardships during the military dictatorship saw us as a new breed of students; one of the first contingents to be free from the dictatorship’s constraints and, therefore, they expected a lot from us. Meanwhile, the militant Leftists saw us as alienated bourgeois kids while the nonpolitical students, already the majority, saw us as fake revolutionaries. Like our parents, they believed that politics was a waste of time, instead, they concentrated on forging their futures as stock market success stories.

*

The introductory courses that the university offered were vastly more interesting than the classes at the result-orientated factory schools that most of the students had come from. The programme concentrated on political economy and aimed at preparing students for future roles in government development agencies. We studied Marx – something extraordinary considering the government-funded university was still part of the apparatus of a pro-American dictatorship. Some of the professors had recently returned from exile and were excited to lecture freely in their own country. Everything was going well until an outbreak of hepatitis that I had contracted in Mauá forced me to spend over a month in bed.

That time off at home marked a subtle turning point both for me and for the country. Political freedom was already a given but an era of economic hell was about to break loose. Around the world, religious fundamentalism was taking root, HIV Aids was spreading, and Ronald Regan and Margaret Thatcher were consolidating the grip of conservative policies over the USA, the UK and the rest of the world.

In the minds of most Brazilian Leftists, the desperate middle and upper classes in the rich countries had voted in Regan and Thatcher to lead a crusade against the libertarian and egalitarian principles that had defined our intellectual upbringing. No matter how one saw this change of direction, it was undeniable that the duo had an anti-socialist agenda. For the new leaders of the two greatest western economies in the world needed to deal with a crisis caused by what they considered a warped way of thinking. While I was confined to my bed, and ate and drank from separate glasses and plates so that my infection wouldn’t spread to the rest of the family, foreign banks decided that their loans to friendly dictators – loans they’d been more than happy to make – were now a threat to world economic stability. They wanted their money back and if their debtors could not pay, they wanted to make money on those loans. Interest rates on international debts skyrocketed to levels that were unthinkable when the loans were taken out.

The international banks could not care less if their decisions suffocated the indebted countries and their citizens. Experiencing something like an ever worsening toothache ordinary Brazilians began feeling the consequences of the monetarist policies. When companies were forced to close down and inflation skyrocketed, people saw themselves jobless, with no social security to help them, while their money had less and less value. This came from the same creature that had sponsored the military coup back in 1964, now it was showing its true self again, but in a different angle.
Due to ineptness and to sheer lack of experience with such adverse economic conditions the policies that the government adopted were disastrous. With the Brazilian foreign debt rising to stratospheric levels, the authorities ignored the seriousness of the situation and resorted to printing more money in order to honour their internal obligations, a perfect recipe for disaster.

Over the following fifteen years, inflation in Brazil accumulated to 20,759,903,275,651 percent, an absolute world record. To give an idea as to how bad the situation became, had Dad not protected his money, for the same price that he had bought our comfortable apartment in Ipanema in the mid-1970s, he would only have been able to buy a cup of coffee a few years later.

At my university, faculty members and students saw this upheaval in a different light. It happened that our economics department was at the forefront of the opposition to the government’s policies long before the crisis began and many of the professors had issued warnings about the dangers ahead. Many Brazilians believed these academics could guide the country out of the mess, and they became public figures, appearing on television debates and contributing full-page articles in the main newspapers.

Hyper

The prices during Brazil’s Hyperinflation.

Meanwhile, in order to stimulate national industry, the government resorted to control imports, something that had a crippling effect on Dad’s business just as he entered his ninth decade. Now on top of a shrinking market, just getting a license to bring his goods in became difficult.

After I recovered from the hepatitis, the challenges my Old Man faced in his business meant that the pressure was, more than ever, on. The good times were clearly over and his only hope for me was that studying economics would save me from ruin. Still, I had fallen behind and the more I considered the situation, the more obvious it was that economics was not for me. I was doing badly while, to my naive surprise, my fellow students took their studies seriously and actually liked the course.

During this turning of the tide, Kristoff – my German-Chilean school friend – managed to get himself arrested on the same bus route we had made just the year before. The arrest took place in Uruguaiana, on the Brazilian border with Argentina and Uruguay, a cattle-country town that had become notorious as a hot spot for smuggling and money laundering. Although Kristoff was not smuggling drugs, he took the rash decision to light a joint in the street. Before he could inhale a single puff, out of nowhere agents of the federal police ambushed him, arrested him there and then, and later transferred him to a jail in Rio. As this was Kristoff’s first offense, he was bailed. A few weeks later, someone reported him on another charge. The police stormed into the classroom while he was attending a lecture at the university and hauled Kristoff back to jail – albeit a relatively luxurious one for foreigners and people with a university education. Kristoff’s father made a discrete appeal to the minister of justice and, to avoid a trial, the court agreed that he would be quietly deported to Chile.

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BBC writing about the Corcovado

BBC writing about the Corcovado

BBC writing about the Corcovado

Photos of 2014 Carnival

Photos of 2014 Carnival

Lost Samba – Chapter 22/01 – Getting a drivers license in Rio de Janeiro

transito

Copacabana Beach in the 1970’s

After I passed the vestibular, at home, my status leapfrogged overnight from negative to absolutely positive. My parents celebrated my success as if I had done my Bar-Mitzvah once again. This time, as a prize, I received a light-blue, old VW beetle, a 1973 Fusca, which I named “Blues Boy”.

We bought the car from a contact of our building’s doorman. As old and cheap as the Fusca turned out to be, it was still a car and, as far as I can remember, friends from much richer homes had just gotten a pat on the shoulder for performing their duty, which they had done without cheating. As far as Dad was concerned, the award was for a son who refused to listen to him and who did not appreciate his company. There was some truth in his perception; we could not help being from very different generations which made us have completely different world-views linked to language, access to material comforts and places in the wider community.

At that point Dad’s life was not at all rosy. Apart from the normal issues brought about by an advanced age, there was the unresolved suffering of the past and an un-planned frustration with the present. Even with the wealth Dad had managed to build in Brazil, the more he experienced the ways of Brazilians in business, in government and in everyday life, the less he liked the country. Although he thought it was unnecessary to express these anguishes, they were never far from the surface.

In relation to me, despite his detachment, Dad silently wanted his son to achieve things that his history had prevented him from obtaining, such as the respectability of a university degree and establishing himself as a professional. Being a remarkably intelligent man he would have gone very far had he studied and got a degree, and probably he saw this potential in me. Because of all this and the opportunities that had come to me by birth, the existential turmoil that I had entangled myself in was something that escaped his understanding and with which he did not manage to empathise.
From my perspective, higher education was going to be just another layer in the confusion. First of all, as childish as it may sound, I saw getting a prestigious diploma as a form of selling out. Furthermore, there was the issue of the choice of the profession that I was heading towards; I had never really considered studying economics, instead I had drifted towards the course merely because it was the lesser among other evils. I didn’t love the subject, I only found it mildly interesting, still it seemed a safe path to social eminence and I expected to do well in it because of my ease with numbers as well as my interests in history and politics. In reality, what had driven me so far was the blind pressure to pass the exam and get into a good university.

Dad never had these options, and this was where our divergences stemmed from. Fate and survival instincts had been the driving forces in his life while I had choices – or at least at that point I believed so -, and my choice was to enjoy life. Dad saw this as rubbish and hoped that now, with me being in college, I would take life seriously and this new step would save me from what he regarded as my hedonistic, spoiled and selfish lifestyle. In plain terms, I just wanted Dad to give me a break while he just wanted me stop acting like a spoiled brat. The final consequence was that we could barely communicate. I found it hard to appreciate Dad’s generosity in giving me a car; and Dad wasn’t able to understand that this kind of reaching out was no more than applying a Band-Aid on an open wound.

Anyhow, the summer partying season had just kicked in, and the forty-degree heat and the lure of the beach were not compatible with introspection, let alone trying to understand my father. Instead, I simply wanted to enjoy what was around – and there were plenty of opportunities. My car would be an important addition to the experience, but before I got the keys there was the hurdle of getting a driver’s license. My parents saw this as tough because, following a driving lesson that Mum had given me in Teresópolis, my reputation behind the steering wheel at home was terrible.

The family car was a clunky, beige, Brazilian-made Chevrolet Opala with a confusing, manual gear stick protruding from the steering column. On the first lesson, I got Mum’s instructions all wrong and instead of moving slowly forward in first gear, I accelerated hard with the car in reverse. Had Mum not had the instinct to pull the hand brake, we would have gone crashing over the cliff behind us. Any comical value to the scene was entirely lost on my 79-year-old dad observing us. The lessons ended after that incident.

opa;a

A Brazilian Opala

What my parents did not know was that my secret driving career was born soon after; on the day I decided to put an ad in the newspaper offering guitar lessons. I needed more money and that was the best idea that came to mind.

A female student from Tijuca called and, although this meant a long trip to somewhere un-cool and far away from the beach on Saturday afternoons, I was skint and accepted. Marineide – pronounced Mareenaydee – was younger than me and did not shy away from trying to seduce me from the moment she opened the door. Guitar lessons were not on her agenda and she ended up getting what she wanted.

Slightly overweight, with a faint moustache, not particularly bright and rather conventional, Marineide was not my type. Even so, I crossed the barriers of my schizoid social life and introduced her to my pot-smoking circles – and this was where the driving came in. My guitar student turned lover, put her father’s car at our disposal to go to Mauá. As she had absolutely no idea as to how to use it, she relied instead on my nonexistent driving skills. The hippy paradise was a four-hour drive, two and a half of which followed the most important highway in Brazil, the Via Dutra, linking São Paulo with Rio, with the remaining portion up an unpaved, winding mountain road.

Excitement won over my sense of fear and we took to the road using the little knowledge that I had acquired with my Mum in Teresópolis and by hearsay. We set off early in the morning for Kristoff’s house to pick up the rest of the guys. There was no traffic and after passing through several red lights, Marineide shouted for me to make a turn as we were heading up the wrong way of a one-way street. I didn’t think twice and turned the steering wheel as far as it would go. The car went into a skid, but the wheels obeyed, avoiding by just a few centimetres a lamppost that appeared to be passing in slow motion in front of us. How we arrived in Mauá without a scratch remains a mystery – but by then I knew how to drive.

Ignorant of this adventure, my Old Man insisted that I took driving lessons instead of buying a license through the corrupt system, as everyone else did. In order to force bribes that would swell officials’ bank accounts, the test was almost impossible to pass. Because I was about to leave on holiday, we reached an agreement: I’d take the course and they’d pay the lower fee to buy the license without the test, instead of paying a higher fee and passing without ever taking a lesson or appearing at an exam.

After two weeks of lessons, we went to the test centre where I got into the exam car with the driving school owner and two shady-looking examiners. Without looking at me, an inspector turned and asked: “Did this one pay?” The owner answered, “Yes,” so I just needed to drive around the block to receive a certificate that would let me loose on the crazy traffic of Rio de Janeiro.

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enchente 01

Flood in Rio de Janeiro in the 1980’s

Ipanema in the 1970’s

Ipanema in the 1970's

Thanks to Guarantiga and Pier de Ipanema

Lost Samba – Chapter 21/02 – An introduction to Brazilian Psychedelia.

Sunset_Ipanema_RJ_Brasil_by_imageking10

Psychedelic Sunset in Ipanema Beach

On the day of the exam, I woke up at dawn. Unable to return to sleep, I went for a walk by the beach to calm down. The sunrise was spectacular and the temperature of the water was perfect, the sea was calm and inviting, so I went for a long swim, did some body surfing and managed to relax. As I emerged from the water, I noticed a man on the promenade looking at me. He was dressed in a white suit, tall with a short moustache and an old-fashioned haircut, all of which made him look like my maternal grandfather. This bizarre encounter sent shivers up my spine, but I took the incident as a good omen.

I went home, showered, had breakfast, got on the bus and was soon with hundreds of other students gathered in front of a rundown public primary school at the end of Leblon. After a 10 minute wait, officials dressed in lab coats opened the gates to allow us in and we had to find which classroom we had to go to on a board in the corridor. I took my place at a school chair with an arm that folded down to serve as a table, under which were studded old bits of chewing gum. As we sat down, the invigilators, all in their mid-twenties, handed out pencils and erasers. When everyone was in, the inspectors ran through a roll call and made us aware of the rules: no cheating, no noise, no talking and when they said the time was over, it was over. After this they handed out thick, A4-sized envelopes containing the test booklets and a card on which we had to tick the correct answers.

The exams were spread across four days. I will confess that on the physics and chemistry tests, I had some key formulae scribbled on the lower parts of my trousers, but on the other tests, maths, languages, history, biology and geography, I played clean.

*

Fearing the worst, on the weekend that the results were to be announced in the newspapers, Kristoff and I fled to Mauá. We camped near Maromba and the only link to the outside world was a payphone in a bed and breakfast. Calling Sarah would be the safest way to hear the news: she had gone through the same process before and would not be too judgmental if I had failed.

She had already looked up my name and, to everyone’s absolute surprise, I had been accepted by UFRJ, the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, for their prestigious economics programme, considered the best of its kind in Rio as well as one of the best in the country.

Sarah had also looked up Kristoff’s name and gave the news that he would be studying biology at the same university, one of the hardest programmes to get into, with a ratio of 20 applicants for each place. Both of us were over the moon and were ready to celebrate. For the big occasion, we were going to try the latest wise guy, fun hallucinogenic craze: magic mushrooms. Mauá was renowned for them and the weather was just right for their sprouting: sunny, following a few days of steady rain.

We rushed to the closest pastures, but didn’t find any. Our hopes were re-ignited when someone told us that we would surely find them in the pastures of Campo Alegre (the appropriately named “Happy Field”), a village 40 kilometers away. The problem was that we had no means of transport other than our feet, but we were obstinate enough to go on an entire day’s trek to get our golden fungi.

The exhausting walk paid off: we found a field full of them and picked what we could under the menacing watch of the bull who owned the territory. We had to be careful: there were two similar-looking species of wild mushrooms: the desired kind had black stripes on its lower side and a poisonous variety exactly the same but with white stripes. After a moment of elation, we returned to our senses and remembered it would soon be dark and that we faced another long walk back.

20140222-094722.jpg

Hallucinogenic Mushrooms.

Back in the camping site, we took a well-earned plunge in the river, changed our clothes and got the guitars for the night jam. Once we were all set, we ate the mushrooms, wondering what we would experience and when. Their taste was similar to ordinary cultivated mushrooms – they were just bigger and looked more distinct. Night had already fallen when we hit the road and we were lucky to get a lift shortly after. In the back seat, looking out of the window, I started to feel light headed, by the time the car dropped us off and its lights had moved away, we were already on psychedelic ground.

Our lift had let us off in Maromba’s square; a patch of earth defined by the few houses and the church bordering it. In order not to go out on an uncontrollable tangent, we had the good sense to go to the only bar in the village that also faced square. The only other lights came from the grocery store on the opposite side of that unpaved terrain. Locals would gather there because they sold cheap liquor and there was pool table, while the hippies would congregate where we were. Each group respected the other’s space. One group would be stoned out of their minds while the other one was equally spaced out on a deadly mix of the region’s famous honey with cachaça.

As we tried to absorb what was going on, we noticed that there were already two guys sitting at the table and strumming something. We asked if we could tune our guitars to theirs and join in. After some time, a friend who would go on to become a famous guitarist turned up and joined in too. More people started to arrive and the end, there must have been some seven or eight musicians capturing what the spirits had to say about the beauty of the surrounding moonlit mountains and the stars above.

That session was one of the best in my life. An euphoric crowd gathered and participated using whatever means they could to heighten the energy – taking the lead by singing out loud improvised verses, clapping, drumming on tables and on the bar’s fragile walls or simply dancing. Music, place and people merged into a collective trance that endured for hours.

I cannot remember how that explosion of psychedelia ended, nor where I slept, but in the morning, when we went for our daily shot of milk – drawn manually from cows while we waited – everyone was commenting on how good the jam session had been. It turned out that all the musicians had taken magic mushrooms, but had been unaware that the others had done the same. We spent the rest of the day washing off our hangovers at a natural water slide, hurtling into the icy, fresh, water, bringing us crashing back to ordinary life.

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escorrega_01

Maua’s natural slider, the “Escorrega”.

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