Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the month “May, 2013”

Lost Samba – Chapter 03/01- Moving to Bossa Nova Land


The London to Rio de Janeiro flight took two long days, stopping in Lisbon, Dakar and Recife in northeastern Brazil. The modern airports, the glamorous hostesses, the high technology, the generous meals and the feeling of being part of the international jet set, did not compensate for the engines’ hum that left a ringing in one’s ears for days.

On a 1956 dawn, the airplane carrying Raphael and Renée touched-down at Rio de Janeiro’s Galeão Airport. As the cabin crew opened the door, the early-morning tropical air hit the couple and that blissful feeling caressed their skin. Exhausted, but relieved for having arrived and comforted by the pleasant weather outside, they walked down the airplane’s unstable staircase and contemplated the beauty of their surroundings, fantasising about the new life that was about to begin. After months of making plans and arrangements, they had finally arrived in the country they had dreamed of for so long. Inspired by Hollywood big-screen imagery, magazine features and documentaries, Rio seemed to offer everything a European could possibly wish for following two world wars: natural beauty, economic prosperity, good weather, racial harmony and above all the rare attribute of happiness.

After passing through passport control Raphael and Renée identified their luggage. Although very few people spoke English, the airport was chic and well organized and soon uniformed porters appeared to carry their suitcases to the taxi queue outside the terminal. Inside the car, in very poor Portuguese, they read the paper with the address of the hotel they were going to and waited for the driver to load their cases and go. Looking through the window the penny dropped: it was real! Excitement flooded in, and as the taxi set off they put on their sunglasses and enjoyed the scenery. First they passed alongside the bustling dock area, then they weaved through the city centre with its contrasting mix of colonial-era churches and Belle Époque and modernist-style public buildings. At the end of the green avenue, they reached Guanabara Bay where they would soon see the Sugar Loaf, and from there the cab sped by the gleaming neighbourhoods of Flamengo and Botafogo before finally going through two tunnels to reach Copacabana.


From their sunny Copacabana hotel room, the newly arrived couple planned their first mission: to choose a place to live. With a bank account filled with plenty of valued British pounds, this was a pleasurable yet daunting task. There were many wonderful neighbourhoods to pick from: green Gávea by the mountains; trendy Ipanema and its neighbour, Leblon; traditional Cosme Velho, set in a valley amidst the Tijuca forest and the green Jardim Botânico, alongside the park established in the nineteenth century by Joao VI, the exiled king of Portugal and first emperor of Brazil. There were also more secluded areas to consider, such as relaxed and low-key Urca, in the shadow of Sugar Loaf mountain and Santa Teresa, in the hills immediately behind the city centre, where wealthy merchants and aristocrats had once lived, their elegant villas and palatial houses a reminder of Brazil’s imperial past. All these choices were dreamlike for a couple coming from grey London.

Despite all those choices they opted to remain in Copacabana. What this stretch of Rio de Janeiro possessed that the others lacked was the Hollywood glamour that the likes of Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Carmen Miranda had introduced to the world. Copacabana had charisma; in some ways it resembled the stylish resorts along France’s Cote d’Azur, with its clean and calm streets and its frenetic beach life. In other ways, the neighbourhood resembled Manhattan, an urban forest of modern concrete towers with shops selling fancy imported novelties, chic nightclubs and streets jammed with the latest car models.

The “Princess of the Sea” had a cosmopolitan buzz like no other neighbourhood in Brazil. The beach itself was amazing: it was four kilometres long and a range of lush hills separated the district from the rest of the city. Facing the neighbourhood, out in the open ocean, a group of small islands covered with wild greenery broke the dullness of the horizon, An elegant promenade, the Avenida Atlantica, bordered the sand; this was the stage where the wealthier cariocas – Rio’s natives – exhibited their toned and tanned bodies during the day and where in the evening they showed off their best clothes when they went for a stroll.


Copacabana was part of Rio de Janeiro’s upmarket Zona Sul, or southern zone. It was there the likes of Vinicius de Moraes, João Gilberto and Tom Jobim gave birth to the bossa nova, that samba-jazz fusion. Although these artists preferred to live by the next beach down the coast – in bohemian, but chic, Ipanema – the swankiest music venues in town were along Copacabana’s Avenida Atlantica, while the coolest places to go were in the alleys behind it, such as the Beco das Garrafas, where the trio and other future bossa nova legends regularly performed. This was the cradle of most of the genre’s classics. None was more famous than “The Girl from Ipanema”, a song that Frank Sinatra would record at the height of his career, and which rivalled in sales anything the Beatles or the Rolling Stones recorded at the same time.

This new laidback style of playing samba was a reflection of a wealthy, self-confident and modernizing Brazil. The president, Juscelino Kubitschek’s, slogan was to build “fifty years in five”. With this mentality, he set out to construct a new and futuristic capital, Brasília, in the sparsely inhabited centre of Brazil, at the same time he invested heavily in infrastructure and opened the economy to foreign capital. The country’s industrialisation accelerated fast and with a widening consumer market, opportunities seemed unlimited. Bossa nova was the musical expression of this optimism ­– it was clever, urban, mainstream and sophisticated, yet in love with its Brazilian roots.

Although my parents only listened to classical music, they fitted in well with the new middle class who were eager to live according to the international standards as portrayed in foreign movies that fired their imaginations and in the magazines that they devoured. Coming from London, despite the hardships of the post-war, Mum was quick to notice that she could embody the glamour of the developed world, and she welcomed the role of ambassador of that image with conviction and joy. As for the couple’s search for a new home, it did not take long to find a spacious, ocean side penthouse apartment with a veranda and stunning views. The building was on the corner with Avenida Atlantica and, like all others in the area, it resembled a luxury hotel. Marble panels and gigantic gilt-edged mirrors lined its entrance, giving it an air of something similar to a Hollywood set or a European palace.

Their household goods, purchased at London auction houses at post-war bargain prices, included antique furniture, such as an authentic Chippendale side-table, a grand piano, fine English silver, high quality china and classic paintings. Everything had been shipped ahead, and was sitting in customs at the docks.

While Raphael set out to make contact with the people whose names friends had given him, Renée stayed in charge of clearing her treasures. Armed with some basic Portuguese that she had acquired in London in preparation for the move, she set off to deal with the Brazilian bureaucracy. For the custom’s officer, she could not have seemed more of a typical rich gringa. Despite the warnings of her new neighbours and her friends, Mum could hardly imagine that such a charming man in such a responsible position could be fishing for bribes, although everyone had assured her that anyone in such a job would expect an “incentive” to expedite things. On one crucial afternoon, however, her fear of giving offence was so strong that she could not bring herself to hand him an envelope containing a nice sum of cash. This hesitation cost them another four months of waiting.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 02 – Escaping the Nazis


I was born in Rio de Janeiro in 1962 when Dad was the ripe old age of sixty-two. To reach Brazil, he had travelled a convoluted road. Two-thirds of his Jewish family from Poland – mother and father included – were victims of Adolf Hitler’s “final solution” for my tribe. The funny thing was that although he had already gone completely grey by the time I was born, he had blue eyes and was blonde when he was young.

In the 1920s and the 1930s, Dad had lived in Germany. Following Hitler’s rise to power, as the situation became unbearable, Dad and his two brothers moved to neighbouring Holland. There, Dad became the working piglet of the three, with his older brother, Ziesch, marrying into a wealthy family and the younger one, Heimish, indulging in a bohemian lifestyle. In May 1940, when they realized that neutral Holland was about to be conquered by Hitler’s armies, the brothers decided that they would have to escape. Dad was aware that the Nazi thugs meant business. One year earlier, when the Nazis invaded his country, he had gone through the traumatizing experience of crossing Europe to see his parents for the last time at the Polish frontier without even being able to approach them to say goodbye. A few weeks after that final hand wave, they were to be deported to a ghetto and later on, to a concentration camp, Auschwitz.

Amidst mounting chaos around him, Dad managed to buy tickets for passage on a ship that was heading for safety in Britain. At the crucial moment of rushing to the harbour, Heimish was nowhere to be found. Dad and Ziesch set out on a frantic search and, by the time they realized that there was no way of finding him, the ship had already sailed.
In despair, Dad somehow managed to buy a small fishing boat. In that precarious wooden craft, Dad and Ziesch’s family rowed out to sea, expecting that a larger vessel bound for England would pick them up. This never happened: ten long days and nights went by with no food or water aboard, and no other boat or sign of life in the open North Sea. Dad carved his name into the wood, resigned to the fact that he and his companions would not survive.

The awareness of their location and the course to take depended on the ability of Dad’s fourteen-year-old nephew, Eli, to read the stars, something he had learned in the boy scouts. One morning, a military plane flew over them and Eli had the idea of using a mirror to reflect the sun into the pilot’s eyes. This worked, and luckily the plane was British.

The pilot must have radioed his command because the Royal Navy sent a ship to the rescue. The crew had to move fast as they were close to a minefield – a delay of a couple of hours would have meant death, either by explosion in the middle of the sea or by starvation. During the operation, German planes attacked the rescue ship and several men perished. My sympathy and admiration goes to the anonymous heroes who put their lives on the line so that my dad could continue living and that these words could be written.

Life changed for the better after their arrival in England. Later on, the family would love to boast that, as they were among the first refugees to arrive from Holland after the German invasion, the story made the headlines. My dad also liked to tell us how his dramatic escape brought him and his brother’s family momentary fame, with members of London’s Jewish community holding dinner parties in their honour. At one of those events, Dad met a Jewish “princess” half his age and almost twice his height; my mum. She was from Golders Green, a well-to-do London suburb where aspirational British Jews had established their “headquarters” and where many of the more prosperous Jewish refugees were living.

The news of the refugees from Holland traveled across the Atlantic. Eleanor Roosevelt heard the story and decided to adopt my cousins, Eli and Josephine, and take them to the United States. The First Lady’s wish came to nothing as my uncle had second thoughts after the Germans torpedoed the merchant ship that was going to transport them back to America. Instead, my cousins went to school in London where they excelled, Eli even being awarded a national prize for being the best pupil in England.

As the allied forces prepared to liberate German-occupied Europe, the Dutch authorities in exile forced Eli to enlist into their army. In 1944 he fought at Arnhem, a battle memorably depicted in the movie “A Bridge Too Far”. Legend has it that he was one of the sole four survivors in his division. It took years for Eli to get over the trauma. He would never talk about it. When, years later, I visited Eli in London, I tried to bring up his wartime experiences, but he was quick to change the subject. My other cousin, Josephine, continued her studies in her new country where she would eventually become a noted sociologist.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 01/02 – A distinguished guest.

Breakfast taken, uniform checked and impeccable, Mum, Dad and sister dressed elegantly, we were all ready to leave. While the rest of the family set off by car, taking the fast route skirting the city’s beautiful beaches, I had to catch the school bus because I was the only actual student.

In order to pick up the other children, the old red and yellow vehicle took the side streets zig-zagging along Copacabana’s two main arteries, Avenida Nossa Senhora de Copacabana and Avenida Barata Ribeiro. Long branches of lush trees offered shade to both avenues. Beneath them, trolley buses emitted loud and bright sparks as they passed under the web of electric wires held aloft by rusty posts. By eight o’clock, a mass of crowded public buses and bulky 1950s-style cars already jammed the avenues and the adjoining streets. Impatient drivers hooted for no reason and barefoot moleques – or street boys from the favelas – darted between the gridlocked traffic, pushing wooden carts so low they almost scraped the asphalt.

In our condition of posh little gringos, we stared at these boys from the bus windows with a mixture of envy and fear. Although those moleques were about our age, if given the opportunity they could easily – and would – beat up any of us. They worked at the feiras, or open-air markets, where the stand owners hired them to fill their carts with produce and deliver them to the porters of the customers’ homes and offices. These makeshift markets changed neighbourhoods every day, and wherever they landed, they combined pungent smells of fruit, meat and fish exposed to the hot sun.  Their odour and their unmistakable noise advertised their presence from many blocks away. From beside the fruit stands, powerful black men in torn shirts shouted out songs and rhymes to attract the madames: “Only today! Pretty women get a discount if they buy a half kilo!” – “Look at the fresh bananas, only 10 Cruzeiros a dozen!”.


The bus progressed slowly through the streets and at the various intersections, it met with smartly uniformed mulato policemen who controlled and directed the traffic through an artful mix of whistles, glances and hand movements resembling a rare bird’s mating ritual.
On that special morning of November 1968 there were to be no classes. In honour of the occasion, Union Jacks and Brazilian flags were everywhere and excitement filled the air. The cleaners had unbelievably wiped away the normal carpet of leaves and rotting fruit from the school’s huge playground. While a small crowd of guests gathered outside in the patio, a nervous buzz was building all around. We settled in our usual classroom and waited for the other classes to leave for the assembly hall where the event that the entire school had been anticipating for months was going to take place.  Our teacher, Mrs Feitosa, was an assertive blonde-haired woman from Manchester in her mid-forties who had married a Brazilian. Her make-up and her elegant dress did not diminish her authority as she closed our classroom’s door and stood in front of the blackboard.

“I want everyone to sit down and to listen carefully!”

We stopped whatever we were doing, fell silent and she continued.

“Good. Can you all hear me? Today everyone must be on their best behaviour. Am I clear?”

Mrs Feitosa gave us “the look” from behind her glasses and twisted her thin lips. As if by magic, each pupil thought our teacher was directing her evil eye at him or her so we were relieved when someone opened the door to say it was our turn to leave the building.

“Now, I want all of you to hold hands and come with me.”

Back out on the patio, there were now more parents and other adults were waiting, all dressed in their best clothes. As we passed by, they proudly waved and smiled at us, while at the same time they kept turning their heads to see if the distinguished guest had arrived.

When we had almost reached the entrance, we heard sirens and Mrs Feitosa looked back. We followed her gaze and saw the great moment happening: accompanied by her entourage, Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth the Second, was entering the British School of Rio de Janeiro.

In full regal resplendence, the Queen, wearing a plain white dress and matching hat, was standing in an open-top Rolls Royce, waving and smiling at the crowd now gathered alongside the row of palm trees extending all the way from the school’s entrance gate to the playground. Moving slowly alongside were the most impressive motorcycles any of us had ever seen. As in a film, they were huge with roaring engines, enormous radio antennae and glitzy transparent protective shields. The sun was shining on the riders’ dark glasses and they looked like Hollywood stars in their leather jackets displaying the official emblem of the military police.

Mrs Feitosa broke our trance by telling us to enter the assembly hall and to climb onto the stage before the security staff allowed the grown-ups into the room. We were lucky because this was the best viewing spot. When the Queen entered, all chatter stopped and as silence filled the room, it was as though the power and aura of the British Empire had transformed the entire building into an outlandish place carrying the Kingdom’s importance and pomp. Prince Phillip followed behind the Queen and he stopped to chat with, of all people, my sister Sarah, who was standing amidst the section of the hall reserved for ex-students. Sarah was amazing: confident and polite.

The two students who had been chosen to take the leading roles in welcoming the Queen were English “thoroughbreds”, as everyone called that clique. Dressed in the style of traditional British aristocrats, the boy walked up to Her Majesty and in a chivalrous manner threw his  cape  across the floor, while the girl stood facing him. The girl then curtsied and the boy bowed, and when he rose he shouted out something or other that I did not catch. Whatever it was that he said, the Queen acknowledged her approval before turning towards my class.


Mrs Feitosa lifted her hand and we began to sing. Well-rehearsed as we were, much to everyone’s relief we sounded good. After the applause, there were presentations and speeches, the Queen spoke a bit, and at the end of the ceremony the school’s staff handed out royal teacups to the guests as presents. The festivities continued long after she left. If there ever was a golden day for the British community in Rio, this was it.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 01/01- Waking up in Copacabana


No one expects to meet Queen Elizabeth at school in Rio de Janeiro, but here is how the story went.
It was a cloudless November dawn in Copacabana. The city was already in that marvellous time of the year when it prepares for the summer. The first rays of sunshine began to lighten the line of trees bordering Rua Siqueira Campos waking up the street birds, their calls echoing between the buildings, welcoming the orange horizon far-off across the sea. Everything was very calm; down at the beach, waves slid forward and retreated in a soothing rhythm of lengthy splashes. Meanwhile, high up on the twelfth floor of one of the buildings facing that morning choreography, the haze created by the infusion of the sun’s heat and the salty water down below would have embraced my sister and I were it not for the air conditioning in our room. But instead, we were still comfortably tucked in bed, dreaming away.

The alarm clock rang out at six thirty sharp bursting the comforting bubble of sleep. Laziness tried to pretend nothing had happened, but Sarah – my sister, five years older than me – not only turned on her bedside lamp but also made a noise that was impossible to ignore to find her clothes. After this, she went off to take a shower almost ignoring me.

As soon as she opened the door, like an evil cloud in a cartoon film, hot air flooded into our room and the temperature under the blanket became unbearable. Fighting the blinding clarity and the horrible heat a disembodied lazy arm that did not seem to be mine stretched out to switch on the radio lying on the floor beside my bed, a Sharp transistor set, no bigger than a small chocolate-box, made of white plastic and with an aluminium grille covering its weak, tinny-sounding, loudspeaker.

I managed to turn the dial to Radio Globo and, still with my eyes half-open I was in synch with the city’s spirit. This was the favourite station amongst maids, porters and other ordinary people. The presenter, Haroldo de Andrade, had the voice of an opera singer and hosted a show with Roman Catholic and spiritualist overtones, broadcasting news, trivia and interviews with football, samba and soap opera stars. It was interactive, and listeners from all over the city called in to voice their opinions on the issues of the day. During the intervals, Haroldo played jingles and the latest hits, while the station’s astrologer, Alziro Zarur, read out his forecasts with mystical oriental backing music. I was the only one in the family who loved that programme – no one could understand how or why, but I did.

“That junk!” – as my sister referred to my favourite radio programme – was on when she came back from the bathroom wrapped in a towel. Irritated by my laziness, Sarah asserted her seniority by changing the station, switching off the air conditioner and opening the wooden shutters next to her bed. The strong light shattered my delicious morbidity, and it was hard to decide what was more annoying: not being the eldest, having her waking me up so brutally, or simply being obliged to get up so early. Anyway, the cruelty of Sarah’s energy, the hot, humid, air and the early blue sky sealed my fate. I had no choice but to take my turn and get ready for the important day ahead.

There was a pleasant hot breeze out on the veranda when I went out in my pyjamas to take a look at the beach. The day was glorious. We lived on the top floor and I loved to stand there, daydreaming high above the street amongst the plants, the canopies and the hammocks. I had grown up there and this was my playing ground, In the distance, there was the open Atlantic Ocean, while in the opposite direction, at the end of the street, was the  Morro do Cantagalo (Singing Rooster Hill), covered with trees that almost hid the favela, or slum, clinging to its slopes.
CantagalSmallSarah stepped onto the veranda to remind me that I could not make myself late. She detailed my to-do list: I had to take a shower, brush my teeth, comb my hair, dress my school uniform impeccably, and put on uncomfortable polished shoes. All of this I hated with a passion.

The maid was already awake and preparing breakfast in the kitchen. Maria had a talkative and well-humoured nature and was always laughing at our gringo habits. She also liked Radio Globo but, in the early morning, in order to get things done in time, she listened to Radio Relógio, the clock station that told the time every second minute after monotonous adverts and useless information. “Did you know? The African rhinoceros has two horns; the bigger one is in front and the smaller one is behind. Did you know?… Beep, beep, beeeep…. Six o’clock, forty-two minutes, and zero seconds…. Beeeep.”

After completing the annoying morning tasks, I was ready to join the family under the canopy on the veranda. We all liked to have breakfast around the plastic folding table Mum always covered with an elegant tablecloth to camouflage its cheapness. In the presence of my Dad, Maria was always serious. When I arrived, there she was wearing her bright uniform that contrasted with her dark skin, being careful not to spill anything and putting on a stern face in order not to allow her playful side to show in front of the man of the house. Maria finished serving our Anglo-tropical breakfast of boiled eggs, hot milk, thick brown bread, porridge, jam, bananas, papaya, freshly squeezed orange juice, honey and butter.



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