Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the month “November, 2012”

Adventures in the Favela – Part 02 – Tania became a prostitute.

Rosa was from Florianopolis in the south of Brazil, a city known for good waves and for beautiful women. Marquinhos lived there and only came to visit us on weekend. When I met her she had just arrived in Rio with a friend, Tania. To be honest the night we met at a party of the Green party, I had fancied Tania’s wild looks. She had curly hair a small backside but breasts way bigger than the Brazilian average. Rosa was prettier but quieter and less sexual. However, she was more receptive that night and after a short courtship we fell deeper for each other and ended up living together.

I soon discovered that Tania was in fact too sexual. Every week she told us about a new guy: a waiter, a tourist, a surfer, a rich guy, a poor guy, a guy from another state; she was very democratic. The two girls continued to be friends and I got to know their story. They knew each other from Florianopolis and had come to Rio for the same job, subscription salesgirls for a left wing magazine. Tania didn’t last a month in the job and was fired after having a huge argument with a boss who tried to have sex with her. Now, jobless, without any money to pay her rent, with drug habits, with a great sexual appetite and knowing no one except Rosa in town, she ended up in the oldest profession in the world; prostitution.

With money coming in, she lived in several places, but everywhere she landed, she managed to argue with someone, be hated by everyone and being kicked out of the house. She would come to us when she was in a crisis, after so many bad experiences we ended up having pity on her and allowing her to rent a spare room.  In the beginning it was pretty cool, the friends she started brining to visit us in the Favela flat were actually interesting. One day she appeared with two legitimate Italian mafiosi, a scrawny pale guy wearing a heavy ring and the other one was a huge guy with a beard, together they resembled a duo that had starred a series of western comedy films called Trinity, with Bud Spencer and Terence Hill. The Italians were cool and had plenty of money, they took us out for many times dinner and were very generous with their never ending supply of cocaine. Another time she turned up with a South African yacht man who was touring the world and who was happy to find someone who spoke English when he met me. To my disbelief, he ended up confessing to me in tears that he had fallen in love with Tania, who perhaps because of this had a deep disrespected for the poor fellow and kept loathing him in Portuguese. Then there was Pierre Alain, a Swiss guy on a sexual safari through Latin America who ended up becoming her boy friend and a personal friend of mine to this very day.

Because I was her best friend’s boyfriend nothing ever happened between us and I became a kind of paternal confidant who gave her a lot of advice. Our friendship made me take her to work every evening. Her “point” was in a night club next to Lido square on avenida Atlantica, Copacabana’s beach promenade. This was the the place with the best girls on the entire strip. I would leave here there and watch girls of all sizes colors and ages swarm over rich and strange lookimng tourists from all over the world. As a gesture of gratitude, she not only paid the rent and for the gas, but she also constantly supplied us with generous small plastic bags filled with white power.

On her spare time, Tania had a talent for reading tarot cards and was into Umbanda the Afro-Brazilian religion. She sometimes gave us reading sessions “incorporating” a demonic spirit called “pomba gira” – turn-around dove -; and sometimes she guessed some pretty amazing things. When she was not doing her sessions and got drunk, the “pomba gira” business got heavy and stopping her was a problem. Things got worse when she started calling her work colleagues for card sessions and partying after work at dawn. I began to get pissed off with the whole thing because, despite living on the border of the Favela I had a job and had to get up early to give English classes.

On one occasion, she was going to travel that same morning with a suitcase I had lent her. She arrived with some friends at four in the morning and started doing her Umbanda stuff. That woke me up on the wrong foot. I got very angry and I went in to the living room to tell her to cut it out because I had to work in a few hours time. The “entity” didn’t like that and started swearing at me, at one point she started calling me a dirty Jew, and that was it, I got my suitcase back and told her not to come back after her trip.

It took a long time for me to hear about Tania again, a few years later someone told me that she was working in the sex business in Switzerland and was buying a house for her mother in Florianopolis. The old woman thought that she had found a great job as a secretary there.

Fernando Gabeira

If there is a person who embodies the recent Brazilian history from the perspective of Rio de Janeiro’s middle class, this person is Fernando Gabeira. Reporter, political activist, terrorist, exiled, behavior guru, politician, Senator and currently political commentator.

His career began in Juiz de Fora a town between the states of Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro in the early sixties when the political turmoil generated by the military coup and the student demonstrations brought him to Rio de Janeiro. When the repression  intensified he and many of his friends went underground, trained as guerrillas and produced spectacular actions against the government.

Gabeira was part of the most dramatic one: the kidnapping of the American Ambassador Charles Elbrick. They hid with him in a house in Santa Tereza and ended up exchanging him for the freedom of companions and for the publishing texts in opposition to the regime in the media. The success of the operation meant that the secret police hunted him down with extra zeal; he exchanged fire with them when he was arrested, and was tortured while wounded.

He was in a group that the military swapped for the Swiss embassador during the 1970’s world cup. After passing through Chile he ended up in living France and in the early 80’s he received amnesty together with most political exiles. He then returned to Rio de Janeiro to begin his career as Brazil’s rock and roll politician.

As most ex-terrorists, outside Brazil he broke away from the organization he belonged to, the MR8, and embraced alternative politics. He published his memoirs in the best seller O Que e Isto Companheiro? Where he described his life as a guerrilheiro, and his “path to good sense” when he broke away from hard-core revolutionary Leninism. As the dictatorship faded away, in the early days of the “abertura poltica“, Brazil’s glasnost, everyone read his book where the points he lifted of doing a more personal and heart oriented revolution were embraced almost universally in the “inteligentzia” of Ipanema.

One detail of his book caused a big commotion in every quarter, he declared that he was bisexual at the time he had been a terrorist.

In Rio, The place he frequented the beach, the Posto Nove in Ipanema, became the hub of what Brazil was going to be in 20 or 30 years, a space of plurality and open-mindedness. Gabeira made it famous by appearing there in a crochet thong, the photos hit the media and caused a national stir; the gay pot-smoking terrorist, politically active with a liberation and green agenda.

His next step was mainstream politics, he was one of the founders of the Brazilian Green Party and run for several important posts, even President. As a politician he lifted controversial issues such as the legalization of marijuana, gay marriage and the regimentation of prostitution and is close to Marina Silva Brazil’s ecological champion.

Despite his alternative profile he is very popular and has been very close to be elected the Governor of Rio de Janeiro and its mayor in recent years and received the highest amount of votes a federal deputy has ever had in Rio, close to 900.000 votes.

Read more about him and this period in Brazil in Lost Samba.

Samba and Fascism


Getulio Vargas was Brazil’s dictator from 1930 to 1945 and reappeared as an elected President in 1951. His influence in the country was immeasurable and is felt until this current day. Besides molding the face of Brazil’s current society and its political establishment, he molded Samba deeply, in a way that very few people suspect.

First of all he appeared in the scene via a coup, and as any dictator of the time and later, he had strong sympathies for Hitler and Mussolini. The far right political “package” included a strong focus on Nationalism and this is where Samba comes in.

Before being “discovered” by politics, Samba was a semi-legal form of music performed in parties/religious sessions in Candomble, the Afro-Brazilian religion, centers. Sambistas were mostly of African/slave descent and poor and their status was close to what rappers were before becoming millionaires, although less aggressive and closer to their roots. Upper classes disdained it and were into classical music or European style romanticism.

When Vargas arrived in Rio de Janeiro he was alien to the “malandragem” and to music in genera, He  came from RIo Grande do Sul state, close to Uruguay and Argentina where the Samba and a black community, were almost insistent. With a need to unite the country around him and his development targets, he chose this musical genre as a possible way to bring Brazilians from all classes and all regions of the country together. Samba was to be a catalyst, a nation builder under his regime.

Under his guidance Carnival and Samba were drawn together and the world-famous parades were born. The festival keeps the format until this day: the songs and the themes had to exult Brazil and/or be educational about its history and its geography. They had to be military like parades and, in order to entice the masses and make them participate in big numbers it had to be competition among the several Samba “schools” representing Rio’s several favelas. This was a brilliant idea that worked: the lower classes bought into the illusion of reversing the social order for four days a year when they became the “rulers” of the city, the upper classes became interested in this demonstration of nationalism and it drew national and international attention stimulating tourism. Along with this, it was a clever way to de politicize the Brazilian working class.

The dictatorship also launched artists such as Ary Barroso the author of “Aquarela do Brasil” (known abroad as “Brazil”), a song that sings the marvels of the country and other Samba big names such as Dorival Caymmi, and an entire generation of radio stars. These artist were distant to the Candomble “terreiros”; they dressed smart, looked wealthy, spoke like the rich, praised every aspect of their country and, of course, never spoke about social issues.

Adventures in the Favela – Part 01 – The Body


From far away it looked like a drunkard who had stumbled and fallen asleep on the dried up football field but as we got closer, it became obvious that this was not the case. The body was still fresh and dressed in shorts and Havaianas, and was lifeless in a fetal position, abandoned in the open for everyone to see. He was around 25, a northeastern mulato. The shot had been through his anus and although the blood had already coagulated, it was clearly visible.

As we approached in silence, the sun falling behind the hills was making the sky look orange. This, and the emptiness of that open space gave a tragic film-like feel to that solemn moment; the cars in the distance and the noise of the children playing far away were the sound track. There was some kind of celestial peace in the air; we felt the serenity of the breeze that seemed to comfort the corpse and take him to a more serene world. However, there was no way ignore that anonymous man’s silent cry of anguish and pain. Our day had been fine until then: Rosa and Marquinhos, her 9-year-old son, and I were in our beachware coming back from an entire day in Ipanema, under the sun and in the sea. Although we were in shock, we tried to hide it from Marquinhos who began to laugh thinking that this was a drunkard who had let his bowels loose before fainting. We changed the subject and walked away wondering how safe our new address was.

We were living next to the northern exit of the Reboucas Tunnel; the lush forest at the end of our street had made it a respectable spot in the past, but now a favela had crept in and reduced the old mansions into empty ruins. Only one of the original luxurious constructions had retained its opulence as the owners had been smart enough to transform it into a popular venue for wedding parties and other expensive occasions, the Le Buffet. The football field where we were was in front of it, on a valley that separated the expensive cars in its garage from where we lived. That open terrain ended at a river, the Rio Comprido, which gave the name to the neighborhood down below.

Our three-storey building was the only middle class enclave around although two hundred meters uphill on the stood was the Scuderie Le Cocq, better know as the Esquadrao da Morte, or Death Squadron. This paramilitary brotherhood was famous for making political dissidents vanish during the military dictatorshiop. Now, in the eighties, it had turned into a gun-for-hire organization focused on eliminating criminals. Above its gate under lush trees was its infamous insignia with to guns crossed behind a skull. Beyond that sinister house there were favela’s huts, alleys, a small commerce and the poor people who lived there.

Who found me the flat was the university clerk who used to sell me dope, which made us marginally part of the “context”. Because of this introduction, we were able to circulate untouched and even feel safe in an area where Rio’s middle class would not dare to set foot. I occasionally used the phone booth in the Favela, bought beer and other small things in the grocery and was wise enough to said hi to the guys of the “movement”, which was good politics. What also helped was that we were friends with Josimar, a gigantic and cool black guy who lived in the street and who was friends with Barreto, the guy who had told me about the flat. Josimar was a navy deserter and had a girlfriend from Ipanema, he had grown up in that street and was a childhood friend of our next door neighbor. Soon after we arrived, he told me that the best politics was to keep it friendly with the armed guys, and not let them know that I was a potential customer. By no means should I get too close.

Soon after the body incident, he told me the story of how the body had appeared on the football field. As I had imagined, it had been the gang who I said hi to every day who had knocked him out and had left the body exposed there as an example and a warning. The dead guy had wronged the owner of the boca – or drug den –he had ran away without paying a debt but had decided come back to put things straight. The reason he had re-appeared to talk to the traficantes, was that he had managed to get some money was back to pay his debt and ask for forgiveness. However there had been no mercy and they executed him on the spot. The gang did not fool around: one Sunday at lunchtime, when we about to leave for the beach, we saw a policeman crouched inside our entrance hall aiming a machine gun and making a sign for us to get back into the flat. After that, his team moved on and soon we counted eighteen police cars storming up the hill while two helicopters covered them from above. That same night Josimar, told us that the operation had happened because a police commander had discovered that his daughter was living with the “boss”. On other nights we saw the police exchanging shots with dealers on the other side of the river. Marquinhos would say that we didn’t need to watch TV because the action happened outside our window. Still, in some bizarre way, that place felt more connected to reality, friendlier and safer than the South Zone where we had come from.

The Cosmic Samba


It’s all about groove and non-groove, a dance of the opposites, groove takes a lead non-groove tries to kill it, when everyone thought the groove was dead it comes back re-invented as something else in another or generation who will tire out and allow non-groove take over again. Opposites need each other to exist, like the two sides of a ladder or of the DNA helix, one force would not be if it were not for the other, like two legs things would move without them.

It is also a dance of life and death, of man and woman, of big and small, of rich and poor, of important and unimportant, of known and unknown, of disgusting and beautiful, of change and of preservation etc.. etc.. etc… Everything cycles, everything flows, everything dances, everything is part of it: the punches and the kisses, the orgasms and the pains, the delirious and the fascists, the police and the criminal, the priest and the rave, the banker and the native. They are all going from nowhere to nowhere and from everywhere to everywhere.

Before being a building the wall was pure matter then the hand of the paid man molded the bricks that were put together to realize the dream of the educated man for someone to live in and a family to blossom. Now the construction stands there, people admire it from the outside while the iPlayer, made in the Far East plays electronic songs in the inside.

The city goes on, the cars pass by and all sorts of people cross the streets. Where do they all come from? What are they thinking? How do they contribute? Why are they here? I am also part of the question, but who cares?

What about the groove? Could people catch it rising up from under the ground? Can anyone hear the song? Does anyone know the cosmic samba?

Post Navigation