Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Salvador”

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lost Samba Chapter 11/01 – Discovering Bahia

Part17My precocious and unusual career choice stirred things at home and, without any knowledge of the film business nor how to react to the unexpected decision, my parents did their best to respond. The wisest option would be to study cinema abroad, more specifically in the UK, but for that to happen, I would have to take the O-Levels. This was a difficult exam one took when one was around 16 in order to proceed to the next stage of the British educational system: the even harder A-Levels, the entrance exam for British universities.

There was no other place to go in Rio de Janeiro other than the same British School that had practically expelled me years ago. This was an expensive and risky choice as my class would be the first one in the school’s history to prepare for that exam and we would be the oldest pupils the school had ever taught. In addition, mirroring the downturn in the British economy, things had changed there; the disciplinarian headmaster had long gone and the current one, a greasy guy with thick glasses and the face of a drunk bulldog was very different. Apart from having a lot of severe nervous ticks and a posh accent that we made fun of, he did not have a clue about how to deal with pubescent teenagers.

Educationally it was a bad time to study at that school, but in terms of fun…With the exception of our Maths teacher, Mr.  Bindley, a heavy ex-rugby player from Northern England, the rest of the staff was also unable to have any authority over our class. This allowed us to rule the school and to do all the wrong things available for boys between the ages of 14 and 16. We did scary stuff, like sticking our unsolicited hands into girls’ skirts, exploding the good students’ notebooks in the ventilator, flushing goldfish down the toilet and getting drunk during school hours.

Although the school taught the same curriculum as similar schools in Britain, neither I nor the American guys who I teamed up with, would ever take anything of value out of those classes. At the end of the year, I had to tell Dad he was wasting his hard-earned money. With all that craziness in the classroom, it would require a super-human effort to step above that nonsense and to succeed in an exam I was not even sure I wanted to take. The burden of that responsibility was too heavy; after all, I was only 15 and my parents had not raised me to face that kind of challenge and even if they had, changing my good life in Rio de Janeiro for one in a school in the UK that would put me “in line” was a grim prospect.

Parallel to the anguish of what to do about my education and me, Mum came up with the suggestion that I should learn the guitar. As a toddler I had been promising on the flute, and if I became good with the strings, my ability could help me open the doors of popularity. There was already an excellent hand-made guitar at home; Sarah’s Del Vecchio which she never touched. For once, motherly advice turned out to be spot on and, unable to take school seriously, popular or not, I dived deeply into the instrument and turned that carved wooden box into a lifelong friend.

The private teacher was slim and his pale greasy face was covered in pimples that blended badly with his African features. He looked and dressed like a nerd, but was impressive on the guitar. He had been a rocker, but had converted to Bossa Nova fundamentalism and this was what he taught. In the beginning, I wasn’t too happy: I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix while he only taught me the pure João Gilberto style. His homework was painful, it took a lot of effort to get my fingers to hold down the strings in spider-like positions and do those jazz chords. It was a tough learning curve, but when fluency arrived and the left hand did its thing while the right hand tapped the samba, the sweetest music came streaming out. From that moment on, I had found not only a state of mind that brought me harmony but I also found something to love. However, as the guitar took a central role in my existence, the O-levels became ever more distant.

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As we only had classical music records at home, my source to the songs and to the styles I wanted to learn was the library at IBEU (Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos, the Brazil United States Institute), located near our former flat in Copacabana.  Set up to demonstrate the US was Brazil’s friend and to ensure an American cultural presence in Rio de Janeiro, the Institute’s shelves had tons of vinyl long play records, LPs, of famous and obscure Brazilian artists whom I began to like and to learn.  It also had a respectable collection of international and national rock and pop titles. As those LP’s piled onto the old record player in my room, the sudden access to such a variety of music made the world begin to seem a broader place.

The IBEU was not only about accessing new musical worlds; they also had books and, therefore, the library also helped to expand my literary horizons. I had started earlier with the entire collections of Asterix and Tintin and by now I had grown out of those and had discovered Jorge Amado. My first book was “Capitães de Areia” (“Sand Captains”) about street boys in Salvador, Bahia, which had blown me away. Its pages described the intense life and the difficulties street kids in Salvador encountered due to poverty, ignorance and racial prejudice, before “New Brazil” had stepped in.

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Jorge Amado

Although the entire collection of his work was available in the shelves of the library of one of Uncle Sam’s hubs, Amado was a self-proclaimed communist as most other important intellectuals of his generation were. Similarly to the Cinema Novo’s film makers, his work showed how the so-called masses were sophisticated and had rich lives when compared to the neurotic, urban, white nouveaux riches.  After that first book I went on to read all his other ones, their pages were intense and filled with Brazilian sensuality. That literature had the effect of making my attention gravitate towards what happened outside the surrealism of home, religion and of school. His writing drew my attention towards the huge celebration of life in the melting pot of races and cultures that is Brazil.

Through Jorge Amado I discovered Bahia at the heart of the fascinating country my parents had moved to. It was the Mississippi Delta of the Portuguese speaking world and, with the exception of Haiti, the most African place in the world outside the actual continent. Unlike most black people in the world, the Bahianos  were proud of their origins and lived accordingly, not as a political statement, but just because this is how they had always lived. Along with its best writer, that state had provided the country with its most talented musicians: Dorival Caymmi, João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. The Samba was born there, as was Capoeira, the Brazilian dance-cum-martial art developed through the resistance of slaves to their destiny.

It was not only me who was fascinated with Bahia in the 1970s; the abundance of unexplored beaches and its Afro-Brazilian atmosphere transformed that part of Brazil into the ultimate destination for the nation’s hippies. There was something shining out of there that allowed people to connect with their country in a way that was more powerful and more genuine than the Californian style that the Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro was adopting. Coincidentally, this was close to the time when the greatest Capoeira master of his days, mestre Camisa, a disciple of the great mestre Bimba, arrived from Salvador and popularized the sport in the Zona Sul. He started training a small group of capoeristas, Gato, Peixinho, Garrincha who would later become mestres themselves and who would form with him the grupo Senzala, now divided into several diferent groups, but that would come to dominate the Brazilian and the international Capoeira scene.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 04/02 – Brazilian History in a Flash.

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About two centuries later, after populating the Northeastern coast of Brazil with profitable sugar plantations, the white colonizers finally found the gold that they had always believed to exist. Rather than being hidden away in the mythical El Dorado, it was lying on riverbeds beneath crystalline waters, far beyond the coastal mountain range. A flood of adventurers, some alone and others accompanied by militias and enslaved African descendants plunged into the region to claim the nuggets that the natives had simply perceived as being beautiful offerings of Mother Nature. The prospectors were afraid of Indians, wild beasts, bandits and runaway slaves, but nevertheless they dipped their rusty metal equipment into the water. The riches that they found there and carried back to the coast, made Brazil one of the world’s most prosperous colonial possessions.

Because its port was closer to the mines than Salvador, the then capital of Brazil, Rio de Janeiro began its ascension to become the country’s most important city. However, Rio only really started to develop its flamboyant personality in 1808, with the arrival of the Portuguese royal family. Accompanied by thousands of courtiers, the king had fled Lisbon on the very eve of the city being occupied Napoleon’s advancing army after they had already seized the rest of the Iberian peninsula. Just as with my dad, the Portuguese refugees crammed into any sailing vessels they could find to take them to safety, and crossed the ocean under the protection of the British navy.

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The arrival of House of Bragança marked the first time European royalty had set foot in the Americas. The experience of a European royal family ruling over a global empire from the New Continent was completely unique. With them came debauchery and abuse of power but the noble families also brought with them scholars who would open the first schools in Brazil, as well as artists, intellectuals and concepts of an evolved legal system and administration.

The royal court had one thing in common with Brazil’s indigenous people: whether by contract or by slavery, labour was taboo. The difference between the two, was that the Portuguese women also took it easy and the males had other people to go to war for them. It is not that there were no colonizers labouring on the land. During the course of the Portuguese colonization, there were numerous agricultural settlement schemes based on European immigrants, much like the experience of pioneer settlers in North America. But in general, the question of who was going to do the hard physical labour – especially in the mines, in the sugar plantations and later in the coffee plantations – worried the colonizers. Initially they tried to employ the indigenous inhabitants but these fled, died from the white men’s diseases or, in the ultimate act of resistance, committed suicide. The answer was to turn to Africa. In total, some four million enslaved Africans were transported across the South Atlantic to Brazil and they would become the third leg of the country’s genetic pool. Brazil would champion the world in slave imports and from the late nineteenth century, the African descended population would constitute the majority of the nation, and would transform Brazil into the largest black country outside the African Continent.

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There was another question: as Portugal’s military had been completely defeated by the French invaders in Europe, how could they possibly defend Brazil’s long shoreline? Britain came to the rescue. The result would be that although Brazil was never to belong to the British Empire, the country was to be part of its zone of economic and political influence.

Anyway, because of the gold trade and the arrival of the royal court, Rio de Janeiro developed into Brazil’s prosperous and cosmopolitan capital where its small but influential merchant community shared power with the ruling nobles. In general, foreigners ended up doing intellectual tasks, such as engineering, medicine, commerce and industry. The authorities granted the British the major contracts to modernize the country– developing ports, railways, electricity systems and other key infrastructural elements – while immigrants from Portugal and from elsewhere fulfilled the role of a middle class.

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Capoeira history.

In a similar fashion to the Japanese and Chinese martial arts Capoeira is a self defense system that requires self-discipline a lot of training and has a hierarchy that goes from masters and legends to the hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. But in our opinion it goes a bit beyond that and there is a cultural, historical and indeed spiritual dimension that may pass unnoticed to the non-initiated.

What interests us here is the historical, and who knows spiritual aspects of this fight. Until recently the generally accepted history was the following: it came from Africa and was used and developed by the slaves in Bahia as a means of self-defense against the slave owners, once the afro population started getting its freedom and slavery was finally abolished it was used in the margins of the society in the state of Bahia and gradually reached its white population. In the sixties and seventies of the 20’th century it was taken to Rio and Sao Paulo and was adopted by the middle class as a more colorful and closer to home martial art and from there it spread throughout the world.

Recently a richer history starts to appear. It links Capoeira to Candomble (the afro Brazilian religion). The terreiros where  the sessions took place were a constant throughout Brazil and because of the secrecy around them little is known or documented. The fact is that they were the meeting point for slaves coming from different tribes, speaking different languages and with different customs. What happened in them fulfilled a socializing role as well as providing them a place to express spirituality and give sense to their lives.

It is part of many African religions and tribal rituals that young males affirm their propensity to be good warriors in front of their community to be accepted into adulthood and it is more than probable that this went on in the terreiros and that this is how and where Capoeira was born. The “roda” or the people around the fighters singing and clapping to the rhythm of the drum probably came before or together with the fight. This explains why there were so many “Capoeiras” setting up “Quilombos” (hidden and independent sites) throughout the country at the same time, and not only in the state of Bahia.

In the context of a community coming from different ethnicities, speaking different languages and under an extreme duress the “roda” came as a unifier that give them vivacity, respect, a social life and pride which in many ways spread out to the wider Brazilian community and it way of being. In this Capoeira and Samba have a similar origin.

The history of Capoeira as a modern martial art is the subject for another discussion.

Sunset over Bahia

Everyone who goes to Bahia loves it!

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Salvador da Bahia, or people will just say Bahia, was the first capital city of Brazil when the Portuguese colonlised the country. From the city , it took me a while taking the bus to go to the beach. But it was enjoyable particularly when the sun set.

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Violao e guitarra magazine

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This magazine was part and parcel of my generation’s upbringing in Rio de Janeiro. Everyone bought it to learn how to play their favorite songs and then impress the girls in the parties or at school.

The number above featured Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso, Gal Costa and Maria Bethania, pretty much the elite of the music from Bahia. At the time they had come together for a show and called themselves Doces Barbaros (Barbarian Sweets).

I remember buying it from a newsstand when I was sixteen. For this and much more: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00791OM34

Carmen Miranda – the Precussor

This is one of the greatest highlights of Brazilian music of all times, the legendary Carmen Miranda singing one of the most famous songs of one of Brazil’s best song writers ever: Dorival Caymmi.

Legend says that she went to the US as part of the “good neighbour” policy; a way to approach the two countries during the second world war and bring Brazil to the Allies’ side.

Regardless, Carmen Miranda, was a huge success in the US and world wide; as big as Madonna at her peak, so much so that her audiences kept Columbia pictures from going under for years.

Her smiles contributed for Brazil’s image as a happy country, blessed by beauty and peace, a view that precailed until the crisis of the eighties, when Brazil started being seen as a problematic country plagued by violence, adminitrative ineptitude and corruption.

Now after Brazil has left the economic nightmare of the 80′s behind, is dealing with its social problems, and is developing fast and as it enters the BRICS, hosts both the FIFA World cup and the Olimpics in 2016, the world view is changing once again into a more positive light.

The charm of Carmen Miranda, however, is eternal!

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