Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “tropicalismo”

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Lost Samba – Chapter 13 – A short history of Brazilian modern music

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Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes in the 1967 music festival.

Célia was the pretty and skinny girl from the eleventh floor when we lived in Copacabana. She was friends with Sarah and one day she rushed in very excitedly to say that her Mum had given her two tickets for the International Song Festival for her birthday and, to my desperate envy, she invited my sister to come. The mega-event was in the Maracanãzinho, the Maracanã’s smaller brother, set up right next to it to host non-football related events.  This was a unique opportunity to watch the best artists in the country and other big international attractions live. This was something that went beyond what Eurovision is nowadays, the regime hoped to unite the nation around them and the artists that the organizers chose with the backing of record labels represented all segments of Brazilian society. The intellectual left would have Chico Buarque, the bossa nova purists would have Tom Jobim and Nara Leão, the rockers and psychedelics would have Os Mutantes; the black people would have Toni Tornado, the militant university students would have Geraldo Vandre, the tropicalistas would have Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso; the samba lovers would have Jair Rodrigues and Paulinho da Viola; and then there was Jorge Ben who pleased everyone.

These contests grabbed Brazil’s attention and the relatively recent TV stations transmitted them to the millions of televisions recently bought to watch the World Cup in Mexico.  The military felt proud to demonstrate that, although they did not allow their people to choose their administration, they had nothing against freedom of expression. This was only half-true, with the press closely watched and limited in its freedom, the festivals assumed the status of perhaps the only forum where the debate about the country’s reality could flourish. Although there was also an undeniable commercial aspect them; they represented a break with the Bossa Nova and with the old generations of radio stars and starlets. Most of the successful artists would end up filling the coffers of the record labels and father everything that came after them.

Many songs were indeed political, while others were about the catching up with the hippy revolution that was going on outside the country, and competed side by side with pretty love songs and happy sambas. However, the political controversy of the two main trends would end up in the inevitable clash between the hard-core Bolschevic revolutionaries and the flower power crowd, which caused strange events such as a rally against the electric guitar with the presence of eminent journalists and Gilberto Gil.

The effervescence of the repressed youth, tired of the solutions presented by the traditional left and by the traditional right, would make the festivals the stage of a cultural debate, perhaps too important to the liking of their sponsors. Parallel to this there were other important cultural expressions appearing in the art world, in cinema, in the theatre and in literature. On the other hand, there was a lot happening in terms of political and cultural uprising outside Brazil. Altogether, the nation hungered for expressions that mirrored their life experiences and expectations in times of deep changes. The tropicália movement would emerge from this moment. Although it is currently associated with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes the movement was much wider in its proposal and almost amorphous in its positioning. Under its big umbrella, there was nationalism, folklore, pop, sympathy for the Cuban revolution, love for the Beatles, Samba, and search for the roots of Brazil. Before going commercial and dissipating, the tropicália encompassed graphic artists, such as Hélio Oiticica, avant-garde musicians such as Tom Zé, journalists, writers, philosophers, intellectuals and a plethora of crazies and geniuses that still influence the current days.

What kept all those tendencies together was the opposition to the regime and to Brazil’s enormous social disparities that its rulers were unwilling to deal with. As the political grip tightened, the military realized that echoes of a creative explosion landing inside the nation’s living rooms was complicated.  Many of these festivals winning artists, and definitely the most popular ones, exhibited too much creativity for the ideologues of the coup and, worse, many openly voiced their opposition to the state of things.  For the military, stopping the party or excluding the stars would send out the wrong message, the way out was censorship.

After the AI-5 decrees, that took away all basic civil liberties from Brazilians, things turned to the worse. With no judicial system to answer to, the country’s rulers resorted to exiling and jailing artists, and the festivals died out.

A few years later, the military allowed the artists back as a gesture of reconciliation.  More than their music, their fans missed the political and the libertarian overtones in their songs.  They returned as heroes but had matured abroad and now they had even more professional agendas.  Their concerts acquired a special quality, mixing an authentic resistance pedigree, celebrity status and world-class musicianship.  When Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque played, the world seemed to come back to normal.

This was the time when I began going to shows. They were huge events, closer to football matches and political rallies than to musical concerts. When the doors opened the audience rushed in like cattle, and when everyone had taken their places, there was a similar atmosphere to being in the Maracanã.  It was a lot of fun; the several sections of the theater booed and cheered each other as if they were supporting different teams. They also sang choruses with related and unrelated themes some of them political, some of them related to drugs and some of them just plain funny.

When the lights went down, the room fell silent and the magic began.  In the best concerts, one felt as being in the artists’ lounge. The calmer songs provided a communal atmosphere that I have never experienced anywhere else and the more rhythmic ones, always saved for the end, resulted in out of season carnivals with the entire theater dancing on the chairs, in the corridors and on the stage.

Parallel to these concert-parties with political innuendos, there was something new creeping in. Rock bands were the expression of the new generation and were the underground of the underground. Their public was frightening: they looked dirty, had much longer hair than the average and took drugs that most people did not even know existed. One of the main expressions was Raul Seixas, his lyricist, Paulo Coelho touched on mystical and sex related subjects close to what bands such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were doing in the international Rock scene. There was also the Secos e Molhados who adopted and androgynous style and make up that the American band Kiss would copy, and that surpassed many international bands in terms gay openness as early as 1972. These artists, although popular with the youth, shocked everyone and in intellectual terms, no one liked them, not even the Lefties.

As far as behaviour is concerned, they pioneered everything that most people would consider banal in the following decades, drugs, vegetarianism, and interest in mysticism and in oriental philosophies and the following of a sort of zen-individualist outlook of life. As Ipanema’s surfers, the rockers did not have any agenda other than living their lives intensely and ignored both the political dictatorship of the right and the intellectual dictatorship of the left. When disco kicked in, they discovered that looking good and shaking their moneymaker on the dance floor brought in more sex. This, and the large amount of drug casualties made that generation of pioneers mutate and vanish quickly.

With the gradual interchange of these two generations, the concerts slowly ceased to be about resistance to become simply a breath of fresh air from the claustrophobia of both the regime and of the audience’s homes. It also became more and more obvious that this was a rich kids’ club: in order to forget the military for a couple of hours, hang out with the cool crowd, buy the right records, go to concerts, and travel to alternative destinations, you had to have money and it was not everyone who had access to those luxuries.

There were never any representatives of the working class in the room. The masses weren’t hip: they were still the maids who had prepared our dinner, the bus drivers who had taken us there, the guys in the street who asked to look after our cars or and the policemen outside hungry to extort our money. The rebels from the less privileged classes listened to funk and went to their own parties, as portrayed in the film “City of God”, a true story of this period of Rio’s history.

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Scene from “City of God”

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Brazil and the future

ImageA country’s mission goes way beyond constructing stadiums and hosting mega international sporting events that move a lot of money but that have dubious benefits. A country’s mission is its statement, the way it can contribute to the progress of mankind. This sounds outdated in a world that honors dead leaders who said that “there is no such thing as society”, but is it really?

Out of all the big emerging countries, or B.R.I.C.S. members, Brazil stands out as a question mark, what is that country about? Is it just jumping in and out of the big stage, or is it there to stay? What will happen after the Olympics and the World Cup? Will the global recession hit it or not? Will the traditional corruption prevail or will the new way of thinking brought about by almost a decade of left-wing government guide its development?

With the possible exception of South Africa, differently from the other B.R.I.C.S. Brazil has no solid past to stand on. In many ways it is like a teenager among adults, which can be seen as a weakness but can also be seen as a big promise and a great strength. There is a fascinating civilizationary process going on there; a country is writing its history in front of our very eyes. Of course history is happening everywhere at every moment, but very few nations have such a wide range of choices as the Brazilians do.

Here we must separate current state from potential, there is a huge difference between what something is and what it can become, between. As any other nation under the influence of the western financial power, Brazil suffers from the mess. This has been the case since its foundation as a westernized country but politicians and thinkers in the highest echelons of the Brazilian establishment are aware of this and wish to walk away from this bad influence, like teenagers from dysfunctional homes who are aware that their “parents” are drunkards or drug addicts.

This is not a consensus, and is the source of the recent protests that swept the country. There are many who would happily go the easy way and allow the country to perpetuate a model that has been a source of easy profits for the richer and more powerful countries. This is what the B.R.I.C.S. boils down to; China, who has never fully digested western dominance, is leading the train but Brazil is an active member with the backing of several other Latin American countries.

Returning to the main subject, as we stated above, Brazil stands apart from its geopolitical allies not only in the physical map but also in the metal/cultural/spiritual one, and there where its potential statement and mission come in. Brazil’s melting pot is much more comprehensive and more effective than the one of its brother up north. There the mixture of African, European and indigenous didn’t and doesn’t happen. It may have happened on paper, they may have a black president, but in Brazil it has been happening for centuries in bedrooms and in maternity wards, more than eighty percent of its population does not belong to any specific race. There is no such thing as a Hispanic-Brazilian, a African-Brazilian, a Native-Brazilian or a Teutonic-Brazilian there are only human beings belonging to a population that is proud of residing in a beautiful country and of being part of a young and promising nation.

When we talk about promise we revert to two Brazilian thinkers that shone in the 20th Century: the world famous anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro and the tropicalist Jorge Mautner. Both point to the same direction: their country’s potential to accept all differences and to amalgamate them into something new and profoundly human. A place where happiness and peace are more important than wealth; the world’s promised land. Out of all the countries in the world Brazil has the potential of doing this and of setting an example.

With the big capitals of the west becoming more and more multi-racial and communication shortening the gaps between cultures and people we see mankind “Brazilifying” itself. We can only hope that Brazil finds its way to that special place and that it opens the gates to a brighter future for the entire mankind.

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.

The conflict of the century

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Whoever thought that the conflicts of the Nazis against the allies ended with the second world war may be wrong. The conflict of conservatism against freedom is still out there. As this site relates to Latinos I will talk about the face under which it appeared in Brazil, in form of  the conflict between caretas (squares) and doidoes (crazies) that was ever-present in the 60’s 70’s and part of the 80’s.

After the dictatorship got rid of the left wing revolutionaries (many of whom were caretas ) the families, the military and other reactionary forces moved their attention to the menace that long-haired rockers, surfers and weed smokers in general presented. It remains a mystery why the powers found these libertarian minds dangerous, but they did.

The Brazilian middle class bought into the American mainstream fury against the libertarian forces of the sixties. The divide was clear, or you were in favor of changing the world, wore hippy clothes and had long hair or you wanted to save the world from those agents of change. The doidoes were in the minority, but their intensity was irresistible and their presence was overwhelming to a mainstream that had the entire military and police apparatus on their side.

It is easy to minimize and make jokes about this conflict, but if one looks beyond the surface it has had an immense effect on the world as that generation reached maturity. The first one was the growth of religious fundamentalism; in order to undermine this hunger for change and the growth of communism (which in its essence is simply the notion of a society based on collaboration rather than on profit) the powerful introduced religion as an effective diversion. The place where this was most felt was in the Muslim worlds here the US and its careta allies invested heavily in zealots, such as Osama Bin Laden. The disaster in Afghanistan and in other countries with a Muslim majority is there for anyone to see. But it was not only there that this offensive took place, in Brazil and in the rest of Latin America all sorts of evangelical churches appeared and became the acceptable face of the will to change and of hope in for a better future. They became an important political force which the internal and external powers rely on.

The other area of combat against the doidoes was the war on drugs. The hard fist on drugs strengthened the criminal element, and the innocent cannabis was substituted by the lucrative cocaine and heroin. What was once something designed to be a chill out and a way to have a few moments without the weight of “the system” on one’s back became demonized and resulted in a costly multinational war. If diverted to more rational uses, the amount of money spent on this global paranoia against the “long haired” would have helped mend the economic, cultural and social cracks happening everywhere in our times, it would also have helped the world become a more intelligent and less hypocritical place with much weaker criminal organizations.

The doidoes counter attacked with the internet, a free vehicle to spread information, and to bring people together. The founders of the internet envisaged it as an instrument to bring democracy to knowledge as well as a way for people to escape the control of the state. Although the caretas are trying to undermine its freedom, this has been a highly successful revolution and has been one of the few  positive developments in the past decades.

Although no one knows how the future will be, if we take Brazil – a country known for absorbing anything you throw at it, where people of all races, cultures, faiths and ideologies are building something new – as a paradigm for what will happen at the end of the tunnel some conclusions may be taken. There, the conflict betweencaretas and our doidoes is still alive but got less important after the country was forced to brace together to tackle an economic crisis that lasted fifteen years and that makes the current one in the “First World” look like a walk in the park.

In those dark days each side learned from each other and now that the country found prosperity people from all classes have become more confident, more creative, more aware of their situation and more practical. It is not that the country can put itself in a place to teach other nations on how to deal with their contradictions, Brazil still has many problems with corruption and social inequality. However its experience shows that the friction of opposites makes things move forward and dealing with them in a rational way, using them equally and with an open mind is the way forward.

The TV Record Festival of 1967 – The birth of Brazilian modern music

 

In this fantastic video one sees the birth of Brazilian modern music.

Bossa Nova, Rock, Jovem Guarda, traditional music, politicised music, tropicalia are all present on stage in all their freshness.

The tension between tradition and the new music brought by the new comers Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso presenting themselves with pop visuals and references to rock culminates into a rally against the electric guitar with the presence of Gilberto Gil and eminent journalists such as Sergio Cabral, gives an insight to a time when the Brazilian left associated that instrument to American Imperialism.

There is also Roberto Carlos, the best-selling Brazilian artist of that generation who headed  the Jovem Guarda movement, a Brazilian  interpretation of Rock and Roll, singing samba, a rarity in itself.

The participation of the audience is also revealing, it shows the importance that those festivals had and the hopes that the youth put into music as a way to propagate ideas, and indeed democracy and resistance to the dictatorship. It also shows the birth of the Brazilian modern music industry in line with the creeping American influence; the organizers of the event talk about the business side of things and one can see that the artists went along with it. They knew about the marketing potential of those festivals, and were more worried about their careers than any student in the audience could imagine.

There is also an absence of working class people, which gives another insight to a world where the poor were regarded as secondary players and were patronized as the “mass” who the youth were ready to lead into a better world.

There is also Chico Buarque, the darling of the left who, because he was not so aligned with Gil and Caetano’s radicalism, was to remain out of the “cool” club.

The winner was Edu Lobo would end up not being too expressive in the Brazilian musical constellation.

Finally one sees the courage, and perhaps opportunism, of Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil to introduce radically new forms of music to a hostile crowd, and their winning them over due the sheer quality of the music. They are the ones who most took advantage of the festivals. The two songs that they presented, Domingo no Parque, and Sem Lenco e Sem Documento launched their careers as stars and put non-traditional music on the Brazilian map.

This was a night that set landmarks and its repercussions are still felt to this very day. There is more about it in Lost Samba, the book this blog promotes.

Mal Secreto

There are songs that are a like a magnifying glass to a period in time, Mal Secreto is one of them. It was written in the height of the censorship/dictatorship of the seventies by Jards Macale. It talks about the anguish of being bogged down by the regime and mal secreto (secret evil – not a perfect translation because mal could also mean an illness here) in this case represents his political conscience that is having to be concealed and is making him sick at the same time. This song is one of the many that scraped through the censors by using allegories to talk about what was happening.

The fact that this is hard core rock and roll for the standards of 1971/2 is also revealing; the genre would become an avenue for confronting the establishment and for youth rebellion in Brazil from that time onwards.

The parallels with Janis Joplin are undeniable, which also shines a light on the music business implications. Gal Costa, the singer, was together with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil an Maria Betania part of the Tropicalia movement, a very complex mix of pop culture, left wing, national discovery and commercial interests which I will talk about in more depth in another article.

Caetano and Gil were in exile but Gal Costa had stayed back in Brazil and had moved from Bossa Nova to Rock (well… not entirely) which shocked the left but helped her sell well and fill up show houses with the newer generation of wealthy upper middle class kids. This unveils a complicity between protest and commerce. From those days onwards it would become clear that artist were much closer to products than to “voices”.

It is worth while mentioning Lanny the legendary guitarist who conducted the musical part of this song. He was Israeli and would end up loosing it completely because of drug abuse.

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great video…

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

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