Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “70’s”

Lost Samba – Chapter 21/01 – Sex, Drugs, and Gafieiras in the 70’s


Brazilian neo-hippies in the late 70’s/early 80’s

On the serious side, the exams that were going to determine our futures and label our value to society were around the corner and, like everybody else, I was nervous. This rite of passage bothered those of us in Colégio Andrews’ smoky squadron. We questioned what all of that was about and where we were all heading. As Pink Floyd put it, this was our “welcome to the machine”, a money making structure overseeing the way the world functioned, craving for productivity and with an enormous appetite for devouring souls. Above all, we did not want to become elite trained animals, new blood in that circus where everyone and everything was bound to a cycle of working hard to obtain things that they did not really need, but that were presented as fundamental. No one bought the maxim “arbeit macht frei” – work makes freedom – written on Auschwitz’ gates but hammered into our heads with different wordings by our parents, our teachers and other authorities who were already trapped in. They were by no means Nazis, but nevertheless they believed that the only way to escape the inherent injustice of the world was to work hard in order to become a valuable part of the capitalist engine. Like in vampire stories, the moment we became “one of them” there would be no possibility for real happiness, the best we could achieve would be to conform and be content zombies, doing the same as tens of generations before ours did.

No one could deny that we were spoilt kids and that our point of view came from a comfortable upbringing. However, mirroring the perceptions in similar elite enclaves throughout the world, as we detached ourselves from our sheltered but privileged standpoints in society, like paparazzi spotting a celebrity in a surprisingly unfavourable angle, circumstances allowed us to have a clear glimpse of the machine that moved the world, and what we saw was not pretty. There was not much to be done to stop it and there was nowhere and no one to run to, not even to our parents, as they were part of that mechanism. Their rosy view was that the world was experiencing the aftermath of a victory of good against evil where the democratic and socialist forces had crushed Nazism, a hard earned victory that had given hope to the world. For them, despite the unjustified opposition of communist totalitarianism, an explosion of wealth and awareness was bathing the planet and taking it to a better place.

In the minds of the older generations we would be responsible for maintaining what they had achieved through blood, sweat and tears. This post war optimism made most people believe that humanity had achieved something good; a feeling that empowered people to try to fight to improve the world even further. This way of thinking opened a portal of ideals about universal goodwill and freedom that appeared in songs, films, books and all other forms of art and culture. Like Hamelyn’s flute player, these expressions seduced baby boomers and post baby boomers out of a graceless world inhabited by the sour generations that had come before and who had created wars, dictatorships, persecution and so many other horrible things.

However, in many quarters of Latin America the perception of the west’s triumph was not quite like this. After the Cubans had gone too far in their pursuit of freedom, the hand break was pulled and right wing dictatorships had popped up throughout the continent to ensure that those very ideals the US and their allies said they stood for, never happened and that the population remained in the pattern of working hard to buy things that they did not really need. It was depressing when to notice that for some people to be rich many others had to be poor, that all our school years had been spent programming us to serve this faceless tyrant and that this is what our futures would look like no matter what we did or tried. In our semi-innocence, we saw the vestibular as the ultimate trap set by the powerful to make us join their vampire world. As the exam approached, it was as if we were heading towards the exit door from a dream-place where, as John Lennon put it in his song “Imagine”, everyone would live for today.

However, regardless of our clarity about this warped reality, we were still privileged kids from the Zona Sul who were interested in having a good time and the year of 1980 was to be one of exacerbated contradictions. For me, the strangest of these inconsistencies was that being part of the weed/musician club into which my identity had so firmly fused, had a strangely positive effect on my studies. I had no problem sleeping, didn’t have stress-linked skin disorders and was always even-tempered. Also, with some of us playing guitar well and being more street wise than the average student, we were no longer viewed as the school’s weirdos but instead had the status of cool dudes. We had the best parties and even the most attractive girls began to notice us.


In the middle of our most hectic school year, a new Mecca appeared: the region of Visconde de Mauá, a collection of little country villages nestled in Serra da Mantiqueira mountain range right in between the cities Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. When I was a child, before the family set off in the Teresópolis venture, we would rent bungalows and take farm-style vacations there. Many of the Inns and indeed the farms had been set up by immigrants from the Old Continent. This and the more temperate mountain air made the place very similar to the central European countryside where Dad had grown up. He loved to go there as he could enjoy quality time with his children in much the same ways he had enjoyed his childhood. He would take Sarah and I to see cows being milked in the early hours, and delighted himself in explaining how farm life worked, telling us how chickens, pigs, turkeys, sheep and other animals were raised.


Maromba, Visconde de Maua.

In the early 1980s, Visconde de Mauá had become a refuge for pretty-well the only authentic hippies that still existed in Brazil. With their long and unkempt hair, and their unconventional clothes covered with Indian patterns and clumsy drawings of magic mushrooms and cannabis leaves, they were the real thing, complete social dropouts, and were too wild even for us. Their huts had an atmosphere of Celtic tents, with psychedelic drawings, portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and John Lennon drawn on the walls next to hallucinogenic references and the ever-present hippy symbol. Because of the energy around them we experienced something close to the last echoes of Woodstock, after we became closer it was like smoking the roach of a joint that giants of the past had lit up.

Mauá was about four hours from Rio and on long and rainy weekends when there was no beach life, there was no doubt that this was the place to go. The mountains, the woods and the rivers made us feel close to our British rock heroes, or at least to what we saw on the cover of their albums.
On one of our escapades from the pressure of the vestibular preparations, we managed to bring some girls from school. This was a huge novelty: we barely knew how to deal with the notion of female counterparts with the same intellectual outlook as us and, what’s more, who were actually interested in us. When they went topless at a waterfall we all took their initiative maturely, managing to keep our jaws closed.

At night, we lit a fire, opened bottles of wine and passed around the canned food. After eating, we went into our tents, took the guitars out of their covers and started to jam. The atmosphere was special. The only sound around was that of our instruments resonating into the silence of the woods. For us, the chords, the riffs and the solos were a sophisticated and emotional conversation but for the girls this was in a language that they could not understand and which made them feel left out. The original idea was to impress them, but the result could not have been more different: they kept on looking at each other, wondering what we the hell was going on.

I was the kind of guy who never picked up the signs when a girl fancied him, but even I could sense that there was some sort of tension going on between Aninha and me. Although my shyness did not allow a direct approach, I had the cunning idea of placing my sleeping bag next to hers in the tent, my thought being that she would enter the tent, I would immediately follow her and one thing would lead to another. Only the first part went according to plan. Aninha went into the tent and went straight to sleep before the jam session ended. The second part never happened. When I laid down next to her, I tried to wake her up but I was too frightened of how she might react if I insisted.

After a couple of nights, the cold became unbearable. We forgot the Anglo-Saxon rocker rubbish and one of the guys went to Maromba, the nearby hippy village, to see if there was a place for us to stay, even if that meant renting something. After three or four hours, he came back with good news: he had found a room, one room, for all eight of us and everyone was happy.


Hippy in Maua

My social life was contradictory if not downright schizoid. On some weekends, I tidied my hair, put on shirts with collars, shiny leather shoes, a belt and non-jeans trousers in order to go to the gafieiras, or samba clubs, looking good. These were remnants of Samba’s glory days in the thirties and in the forties and had survived in the traditional, downtown area of Rio. They were very much in fashion, though completely separate from the druggy world that was another part of my existence. Left-wingers loved the idea that they could mix with ‘the people’ on their turf. My well-behaved friends liked going to gafieiras, but whoever claimed that they went for the dancing or for the social experience was lying. The reality was that the lure of those clubs was the scores of attractive women some new to the city, and others perhaps from the ‘wrong’ side of the Tijuca forest, but interested in young men from the ‘right’ side of the urban mountain range.

It was not only the architecture that had managed to remain intact, the big bands that played there had managed too. They were authentic, with competent old school sambistas delighted to be playing for a new genration of dancers coming from the Zona Sul. After the cheek-to-cheek dancing under improvised disco lights, there were beers, kisses, exchanges of phone numbers and invitations. Coming from different worlds, anonymity protected both sides and allowed us to have quick flings without the pressure from closer social circles. From our perspective, we were doing what everyone expected Latin American machos to do. As cold as this may sound, it was this that attracted those women to us.

Despite the successes, at the end of the day my approach to the female world was confusing. Being shy with girls who interested me and bold with girls who ultimately didn’t was no path to a healthy inner life. I had romantic expectations built up by what the songs I listened to had told me, and the films that I had seen had shown me my entire life. I had made an effort in constructing a cool persona to be desirable to an equally cool girl. Perhaps because I was not sincere enough, or perhaps because I was too impatient, or too weird, the fact of the matter was that my hopes did not materialize. To make things worse, despite the anguish, there was a part of me saying that I should not worry about these bourgeois expectations; happiness in a relationship was for squares who believed in such bullshit.

On top of the inconsistencies in the romantic department, the success of my guitar playing also added to the internal confusion. The jam sessions and the acceptance at parties projected me to a more prominent status than I had ever expected. This achievement was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, the charisma felt amazing. I sublimated frustrations and passions into my act and this added credibility to what I did. In terms of feedback, music resembled sport: the recognition or rejection was immediate and undeniable, and the buzz of people’s enjoyment was addictive. The curse was that music was to become an unfulfilled promise hovering over my life and keeping me from focusing on other goals. I never managed to translate this gift into material success: the ease of getting things right and of making them sound good is given to you and the best one can do is to be thankful regardless of what one achieves.

Anyhow, as the end of the year neared, the pressure grew exponentially. In order to pass the vestibular, music and partying had to fall into the background. There was only one month left and if I didn’t get down to some hard work there would be no good college and no one would ever forgive me at home. This required a radical step so I went to Teresópolis to isolate myself and prepare for the exams.

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Gafieira by Di Cavalcanti

Lost Samba – Chapter 17/01 – The end of the dictatorship in Brazil


Protest for going topless in Ipanema 1980

I was heading home from a rock concert at one of the main venues in Rio at the time, the Teatro Tereza Rachel in Copacabana. It was around midnight and I heard someone in the crowd say that John Lennon had been shot dead. No one knew whether to take him seriously, although everyone went home thinking about that disturbing possibility. The following morning, the newspapers confirmed what we had heard. Everyone was in a state of shock. Television reporters interviewed ordinary members of the public in the streets and famous artists, all of whom had tears in their eyes. For me, this final breakup of the Beatles seemed to interconnect with the extreme situation that I had experienced at the Noites Cariocas and another news that had also shocked us – the imprisonment of a couple of school friends for cannabis possession. On top of this there was Sarah’s dramatic split with her long-time fiancé. It didn’t make much sense, but the ripples from a wave of changes seemed to be affecting everything.

In the wider context, the Brazilian middle class had started to wake up to the fact that the lack of an alternative to the military-led government was a problem. The imprisonment, torture and then murder under the guise of “suicide” in 1975 of the distinguished journalist Wladmir Herzog in São Paulo triggered an unprecedented wave of indignation and numerous well-known political, cultural and religious figures expressed their dismay in newspapers across the country. On the other hand, now that no one could reasonably fear there was a risk of Latin America’s largest country becoming a Soviet satellite, the status of the Brazilian generals abroad was changing. Political movers and shakers in Washington as well as key figures of multinational corporations with economic interests in the country began to see Brazil’s brutal and corrupt military dictatorship as an unnecessary embarrassment.

Sensing the changing mood of their former supporters both inside and outside the country, the military took measures for appeasement. The most significant gesture was to grant amnesty to most political prisoners and to permit exiles to return home. Even if this move helped the military to remain in power, the policy of abertura politica – or political opening – was a victory for the opposition.

Overnight, the political dissidents went from being a virtually taboo subject to being courted as celebrities and hailed as heroes. They were in the press, on chat shows and their memoirs became best-sellers. Reading them we found out that they were regular upper middle class guys like us who had got carried away by the political turmoil of the times. In their books, we learned that some of them had spent periods training as guerrillas in Cuba and elsewhere abroad, before discretely infiltrating Brazil, where they took up arms, robbed banks and kidnapped important people. After the successful clamp down of their organizations, the ones who survived and went into exile were obliged to re-think their positions and to consider their next moves.

In a similar way to the artists, after the festivities for their return died off, they settled back in Brazil with more practical agendas. Many of the former exiles, as well as militants who had managed to survive in Brazil, used their popularity to progress within mainstream politics. José Genoíno, Fernando Gabeira and Carlos Minc, for example, became senators or ministers, while eventually Dilma Rousseff would be elected as president. Other non-guerrilla exiles also returned to Brazil, taking centre-stage in the re-democratization process. These included the veteran politicians Leonel Brizola who would become the governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro, the architect Oscar Niemeyer and the anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro as well as other more centrist politicians such as the sociologist president Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the future leader of the PSDB, José Serra.

Although we admired most of these people, for my generation their presence opened up issues of identity. If we had not been active in the organised resistance but shared similar views on the dictatoraship, recognised the social unfairness around us and also wanted a better and fairer world, should we conclude that we were useless ? Had everything already been done? It was clear, that for them the fight was over. However, it was disappointing to see the people who we considered as legends using their past unashamedly to reach career advancements. Without understanding how a democracy works, to us, it seemed that, as ambitious political figures, they were keen to join something that, at least ideologically, we were resisting. The big unanswered question was how could we make a difference, and how should we position ourselves?

Because the dictatorship had simplified attitudes, the abertura politica brought new challenges. Until that moment, being for or against the regime placed everyone within an uncomplicated framework: depending on which side of the fence you stood, you could blame all the evils of the world either on the generals or on the communists. With the end of the military government now on the horizon, people were no longer confident as to where they stood politically and it would take some time for the country to achieve a state of political maturity.

It seemed obvious that the military would cling to power for as long as they realistically could. Everybody knew that by the time they handed back the power to the civilians, the economy would be on the ropes. For Brazilians at large, there were two pressing questions: in what state would the military return the country to the civilians, and what would our lives be like once the mounting economic crisis kicked in?

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Wladimir Herzog, the “suicide” that woke Brazil up.

Lost Samba _ Ch10/02_Sexual initiation at the Pink House.


Mangue, by Lasar Segal

When boys of my generation reached puberty, after undergoing the domestic audio-visual introduction, moved on to the age-old Brazilian tradition of being initiated in sex either by a maid or by a professional.  From one moment to another, it seemed that everyone except for me and my immediate circle of friends had already done it. As none of us had hot and available domésticas, the only way out were the pros. Given our budgetary limitations, all fingers pointed in the same direction: the infamous Casa Rosa, or the Pink House.

Many fathers took their sons to the important event or at least they sponsored the excursion. This was certainly not to be my case. With Dad in his mid-1970s, sex was not on the cards and it wasn’t a subject of discussion, not even in passing conversation. As far as he was concerned, licentiousness was the preserve of maids and other promiscuous favelados. I never accepted this, but I couldn’t help but inherit something of the idea that sex was intrinsically dirty and that it should be hidden away from polite society. Nevertheless, I was dying to be initiated and saved up for months, scraping together whatever I could for the big day.

Finally we thought that the day had arrived. One Saturday afternoon, my friends and I arranged to meet after lunch, but at the very last moment our trusted guide chickened out. Not only were we all pissed off, but so too was his dad. A few weeks later, we set off alone to the Casa Rosa.  We did not know how to get there but when the taxi driver heard “Rua Alice”, he knew exactly the purpose of our excursion.  On our way, we discussed whether we should lie and say we were seventeen instead of telling our true age: fourteen. Some of us thought this would bring more respect and would keep us from being thrown out. I was in favour of telling the truth because the lie would make us look even more retarded.

The Casa Rosa was big and seemed to have a faded grandeur. As we approached the house, we noticed a police car parked immediately outside, causing one of the guys want to give up. As we got out of the taxi and entered the building, several policemen were on their way out and greeted us with a reassuring smile. Inside, we sat around a wooden table by the improvised dance floor and waited, the silence only broken by the afternoon samba show coming out of the black and white television under the staircase.  Next to the flickering set, there was a counter with two price lists: one for the drinks and another one for the “programs”.

One-by-one, the girls came down for their matinée session.  They looked nowhere close to the unobtainable beauties who watered mouths on the beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana but at least they were younger and better looking than our maids. The madam pointed to us and said:

”It’s time for the children to have milk.”

They selected us, not the other way around, and took us to their rooms.  When the action was about to begin, one of the guys knocked his knee against the bed, and from his reaction, we knew it had hurt: we could hear Mauricio jumping around in pain through the thin wooden walls. Meanwhile, the rest of us slipped into a silent and nervous mood without knowing what to do.

My girl was prettier, whiter, thinner and younger than the others. As she took off her clothes and lay next to me, I remembered the porn films.  She talked to me and calmed me down, and I began to explore her body. Her naked flesh felt warm, tender and good. The act was as quick as it was disappointing, but I could at least count it as my initiation as a Latin Lover.  I was not the first one to appear downstairs, which was a relief. After everyone had paid, we went down the hill making fun of Mauricio’s sore knee and his wounded pride.

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The Pink House


Lost Samba, Chapter 10/01 – Super-8 and puberty in Rio de Janeiro


Aterro do Flamengo, Photo by Pedro Kirilos

Avi’s dad, Daniel, was not as lucky as mine with the stock market crash. Their family had lost a lot and perhaps because of this they lived in a small, stuffy, apartment in Copacabana. Avi’s dad was in his mid-forties and behind his rather harsh-looking features, thick moustache and cold blue eyes hid a very likeable personality. Although I was as skinny as a stick insect, he considered me a healthy influence for his chubby son. Daniel thought my pastimes were the right ones, namely that I enjoyed playing football and body surfing instead of spending the day watching television and eating sweets. Therefore my friendship with Avi was supposed to be a sporty one, and on weekends, either he would come with me to the club or we would do outdoorsy activities with his dad. The choices were walks in the Tijuca forest and picnics on faraway beaches. In the afternoons, as a compensation for the exertions of earlier in the day, we would end up in one of the several funfairs that were constantly opening up or closing down all across the Zona Sul.

After we discovered skateboards, our favourite place became the Aterro do Flamengo, a park designed by Roberto Burle Marx, Brazil’s leading landscape architect. The authorities had constructed the park on land reclaimed from the sea alongside the Guanabara Bay as a gesture to compensate Rio for losing its status of national capital. However, despite the gigantic cost, what Rio ended up with was a monumentally boring place. The “attractions” included a museum of modern art that never seemed to have any significant work on display, an area to fly model airplanes, a pond for model boats, a memorial for the Brazilian servicemen killed in World War II, playgrounds for toddlers, an old airplane for people who had never been in one before and a promenade alongside the bay. Despite this, the Aterro was a good place for beginner skateboarders like ourselves: the pathways were made of smooth cement and there were several easy ramps.

Neither Avi nor I, ever came close in terms of skateboarding skills to those of the gang who hung out on my street, let alone those of the Californians who performed impressive moves in empty swimming pools and whose photos we saw in Skateboarder magazine. In fact, we sucked. Like geeks trying to look the part, both of us had the same board, the Brazilian-made Torlay, a rigid piece of wood with two very un-cool pairs of black rubber wheels stuck under it. They broke all the time and looked embarrassing next to the imported ones with colourful semi-transparent polyurethane wheels and flexible, fiberglass boards that the cool kids used.


The uncool Torlay skateboard

One morning, Avi’s dad took out a Super 8 camera to film our awkward performances. I had never seen such a camera before and, noticing my curiosity, Daniel asked if I wanted to try it out. He handed over the small, futuristic, box and explained how it worked. I gave it a go and managed to capture Avi going down the slope. When I played back the footage in the visor, I had something close to a revelation. That device for capturing time, full of control buttons and with intricate futuristic leds blimping on its lens was simply too awesome for words and for weeks I could think of nothing else. For me, this was state of the art technology, almost the same as the cameras used to make 007 films, John Wayne westerns and other movies that I loved so much.

I was so mesmerized that I asked for a Super 8 camera and a projector as my Bar Mitzvah present, a heavenly wish Jewish parents simply could not refuse, as long as it was within reason. After I got the equipment, the obsession continued; I filmed just about anything on every opportunity. After getting the films developed in the shop, I rounded up my friends and family to show the results in the darkness of my room. The débuts were big occasions and before them, I carefully edited the shots with a slicer, stuck the bits together with special glue and reviewed the cuts in a precarious retro-projector. My room smelled of chemical glue and there were filmstrips hanging everywhere but, as they say in Brazil, I was as happy as a chick in a garbage can.


The Canon Super-8 camera

This interest took a new dimension during a family trip to Bariloche, a resort high in the Argentine Andes with a European atmosphere that gave Brazilian visitors – as well as Nazis in hiding – the illusion of being in the Old Continent.

One day, we went on a boat excursion to an island in the middle of the huge Nahuel Huapi Lake, a beautiful place that had inspired Walt Disney’s artists for the backgrounds in the movie “Bambi”. The journey soon became boring. Being unable to stand the forced jokes and talks about my future, I went outside to throw bread to the seagulls that raced alongside the boat. About a half an hour later, Dad came out seemingly to interrupt the fun, but instead of bothering me again, Dad told me that he wanted to introduce me to a man he had just met who happened to be a documentary director. Bill was British and was in Latin America to make a film for the BBC about an explorer who in the nineteenth century had travelled on horseback all the way from Argentina to the United States. For me, this was the coolest thing someone could ever do – travelling to shoot a film, not the horse ride – and I decided there and then this was what I wanted to do when I grew up.

Back at home, I started using my Super-8 camera to make silent movies with my friends and took a course in which I ended up directing a short film. The workshop’s organizers liked the end result and took it to several Latin American youth festivals. The film’s name was “Cheque Matte” and the script blended two stories: one of a man playing chess with someone the viewer never saw, and the other a romance of this same character with a female mannequin that he had stolen from a shop. At the end of the film, it turns out that the protagonist was playing against the plastic dummy and he throws the board into the air saying in a low melancholic voice “My life was a game of chess.” As any other trendy film director of time, I will never know the true meaning of my film. Years later, I was flattered to learn that an Ingmar Bergman film, The Seventh Seal, had a similar plot.


The seventh Seal, playing chess with Death.

My teachers considered themselves as part of the Cinema Novo movement, Bossa Nova’s cinematographic – and more politicized – sibling.  The people involved in it wished to move the Brazilian cinema away from the commercial studio system and discover the country from a different perspective. Following the neo-realist trends in Europe, these filmmakers focused on poor people, who until then had been portrayed in stereotypical and peripheral ways but now they were the central characters. The movement gained importance after their main exponents, Glauber Rocha and Nelson Pereira dos Santos, won international recognition at the Cannes festival in 1964.


Poster from Deus e o Diabo na Terra do Sol, the Cinema Novo’s master piece

As I entered into a more hormonal teen phase of life, my friends and I started to use the projector for a much less demanding style of film.  Anyone with any knowledge of the subject will agree that the 1970s were the golden age of porn: the action was authentic and the quasi-amateur debauchery made kids like us go wild. With hundreds of clandestine Swedish Super 8 movies passing from newsstands to the back of our wardrobes, my projector became a rare and coveted piece of gear I happily traded for a few days with borrowed films. This secret activity was to be the beginning of the end of my never-fulfilled dream of becoming a film director. With no one to share my passion, the lack of any decent film courses and the absence of parental encouragement, my interest, although ever present in the back of my mind, slowly dissipated into the tropical psychosis.

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Porn in the 70’s


Lost Samba – Chapter 06/02 – Brazil’s football triumph in 1970

Part09The first game of the 1970 tournament was between the Soviet Union and Mexico, which my family watched in Paulo’s flat. To my relief we had a place to see the games. Despite being a dedicated left-winger, Paulo belonged to the twentieth century and owned a television set, despite the fascist propaganda, as he saw it, that set continuously spewed out. The fans dismissed both these teams as minor football potentates and we were only interested in the opening ceremony. From our vantage point, however, the situation was a bit different: Paulo was supporting the team with the inscription “CCCP” – the USSR – on their tops. The presenter called the team “Russia”, mentioning them as little as possible, which provoked a few grunts from our friendly-faced host.

Brazil played its first game a couple of days later. It was at night and on a weekday, too late and too awkward to watch at Paulo’s place. However, my parents allowed me to listen to it on the radio during dinner, ignoring my sister’s protestations. To the shock of Brazilians throughout the land, Czechoslovakia scored the first goal. The commentator’s dry words fell as a knife into the nation’s chest and outside there was a silence as though the end of the world had arrived. Sarah made the mistake of laughing at my anguish so I hurled a chicken thigh at her face and Dad sent me to my room. At least there, I could hear the game with no interruptions. Soon after, to everyone’s relief, Brazil scored and went on to win by four to one.

The next game had a greater significance to my family. Brazil’s adversary was England, the reigning world champion, and everybody kept asking my parents where they stood. Whom were they supporting? What would the result be? What did they think of the English players? How did Pelé compare to Bobby Charlton? Although neither of my parents knew any of the answers and in truth were wholly disdainful of football, there were enough reasons for us all to watch it. The Brazilians were about to challenge the British pose of world champions. Moreover, by coincidence, the referee was going to be the Israeli Avraham Klein: our surname!

The awaited game was on a sunny Sunday afternoon. From the early hours the bangs from occasional firecrackers were like church bells reminding Rio de Janeiro that this was a special day. Since I had woken up, Radio Globo, my indispensable source of football-related news, had been busy stirring-up the excitement. On the days that the national team played, Radio Globo suspended its regular schedule of programmes. The presenters spoke about nothing else and every now and then they interrupted whatever they were saying for live broadcasts of reporters who had managed to grab a piece of news from Mexico.

As usual, we went to the Paissandú Club at around 10 am. Caught up in the atmosphere, I put on my canary yellow shirt and, as the car emerged from the garage, I opened the car window and waved my giant yellow and green flag that I’d tied to a broomstick. Whenever we passed someone with the same shirt, I shook my fists outside the car and shouted out, “Brasil!!!”, and the responses echoed back with the same euphoria.

Arriving at the club, to my shock I immediately noticed perhaps the only Union Jack flag to be flying anywhere in Rio de Janeiro. It was hanging from a palm tree above a group of pale, middle-aged men drinking whiskey at the poolside. The other boys, the service staff, and I mumbled to each other comments questioning those Brits’ masculinity as well as the virtues of their mothers.

Some of us interrupted listening to the radio to take a dip in the pool, but did not stay long in the water. Instead, we massed around the lifeguard’s radio like a swarm of bees, falling silent whenever a reporter managed to interview one of our players. Around lunchtime, the increase in the number of fireworks going off across the city indicated that kick-off time was approaching. Television started transmitting live from Guadalajara and the streets emptied.

In order to catch the beginning of the game, we had an early lunch in the club’s restaurant. On our way to Paulo’s flat, we passed crowds of people gathering in front of the windows of electrical goods shops to watch the game on the TV sets that they had left on for the occasion. Almost all of these spectators held tightly a mini-transistor radio to their ears, much as people attach themselves to mobile phones today. I managed to convince mum to put the car radio on to Radio Globo so that I could hear what João Saldanha, now a commentator, was saying about the imminent game. As his slow and deep voice came on, I forgot the flag and concentrated on every word every word he said.

Paulo lived in a modest flat in front of our butcher and next to the bus stop on Avenida Barata Ribeiro. We arrived ten minutes before the game. The television was already on and we settled down in time to watch the players entering the stadium, stand in line and sing the national anthem. Soon after, the referee blew the whistle and the game started. The names of players who would soon belong to the world’s football pantheon resonated in the nervous silence: “Jair to Pelé, Pelé with the ball, to Tostão…. Gerson…. to Rivelino”. In Copacabana, every citizen was performing his or her duty of supporting their national team. The game shut out the rest of the world. The streets were completely empty: shops, police stations, hospitals, fire stations – everything was closed. If you were to have a heart attack, if your flat was to catch fire or if you were about to give birth, it was just your tough luck!

The beginning was somewhat nervous and boring. Zagallo used the tactic of holding his team back in the first half to then try to liquidate the adversary in the second half, trusting in his players’ greater fitness and in their natural Brazilian flair. However, nothing was guaranteed. Everyone was tense and the opposition was tough. In the second half, the heat had taken its toll on the English team and exhaustion was setting in. Their goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, was doing miracles to keep the match scoreless. We could sense that Brazil was about to mark a goal – it was simply a question of when and not if, but the wait was agonising. The excitement drew in even Dad and Paulo, and by now they were silent and fully concentrated. When the Brazilian attack finally broke through the English defence and Jairzinho scored, no Brazilian could contain his or her emotions and there were primeval screams in every home.

Of course I went berserk to the amusement of the adults – everyone in the room but me. We could hear the madness outside but the atmosphere in Paulo’s flat was very different. Mum was not supporting Brazil and despite her being in her fifties, she was the youngest grown up in the room.  As soon as the game was over and the television transmissions returned to the studios in Rio de Janeiro, they all went back to serious topics – mainly Israel. I took advantage of having the TV entirely for myself, picked up the bowl of cookies, took a coke out of the fridge and switched over to Tarzan.  My parents stayed waiting for the “savages”, whose shows of excitement had boiled over into the streets, to calm down before going home. As Brazil progressed through the tournament, celebrations lasted longer and the samba became wilder.

In the Cup final, Brazil beat Italy four to one, in one of the most famous games in football history. The campaign ended with Pelé setting up Carlos Alberto for a cinematographic shot from outside the goal area into the back of the Italian net.  That convincing triggered a national catharsis that allowed the whole country to temporarily set aside its political differences and social problems. As this was the country’s third World Cup, the Jules Rimmet Cup came to Brazil for good, which sealed the glory. The victory also meant a success for the military’s PR machine. The relentless propaganda was successful in tying the regime’s image to that triumph and in injecting the country with nationalistic fervour. Now the regime felt legitimized to tighten their political grip on Brazil.

No one noticed that this was the way that the golden days of Copacabana found to say goodbye in a grandiose fashion. Within a few years, the beach side neighbourhood’s glamour would fade. People from alien social circles would replace the elite of Rio de Janeiro in its Hollywood style buildings. The upper class would move to the neighbouring up-market areas of Ipanema and Leblon, and even further south to São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca. Meanwhile, at night, the Avenida Atlantica would become the world’s biggest open-air brothel.

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Celebrations in Copacabana for the 1970’s Word Cup Championship.

Lost Samba Chapter 06/01 – Football passion in Brazil’s golden days

build up

The year of 1962 was not only the year I was born, it was also the year that the Rolling Stones and the Beatles recorded their first singles, that Fidel Castro was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII, that Adolf Eichmann, the engineer of the holocaust, was executed in Israel, that João Gilberto and Tom Jobim made their American début at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and that Marilyn Monroe died of a drugs overdose.

For Brazil, what marked that year was its second ever World Cup victory. If winning a World Cup electrified “developed” countries, such as Italy, Germany and England, it is hard to imagine the explosion of excitement and sheer joy that Rio de Janeiro experienced. From the shacks in the favelas to the luxury apartments in the Zona Sul, everyone’s ears were firmly glued to their radios, anxiously following the tournament’s final between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. Every move in Chile’s National Stadium produced waves of nervous excitement in every corner of Rio and every goal that Brazil scored triggered a collective delirium.


After the final whistle sealed Brazil’s three to one victory, celebrations took to the streets, continuing into the small hours of the morning. As always the  batucadas, or samba drummings, were the soul of the spontaneous out-of-season carnivals. This unmistakable beat was based on three instruments: the surdo, a large bass drum that marked the rhythm; the caixa, a type of snare drum; and the tamborim, a tiny, shallow, drum that made a loud cracking sound and that was used to lead the music.

The musicians came down from the favelas to show the “asphalt” that the streets also belonged to them and declaring that they were the kings of samba. In their entourage were caramel coloured girls, or mulatas, who shook their magnificent bodies to the rhythm, exposing almost everything long before the appearance of the Brazilian-style bikini. As the celebrations took off, the crowds pushed aside political and social differences and only thought about the goals scored by their football heroes – Garrincha, Didi, Vava and so many others. In their celebratory delirium their hearts only cared about singing their joy out in carnival songs that they all loved and who knows, meeting someone special amidst the partying.


Spontaneous street celebrations.

Eight years later, in 1970, after the disappointing and unimpressive campaign of 1966, Brazil was on its way to Mexico to attempt its third World Cup title. Thanks to television, the entire nation could now actually see their team play live, and, with the help of this new medium, the military regime invested heavily in fermenting a fever of patriotism around football that engulfed the country.

Some villages received their first television set in order to allow their people to watch the tournament. The villagers gathered around these single sets, often in unpaved squares in the middle of the jungle, to become part of the “90 million in action”, as went the team’s official song. Throughout the country, almost every car had a yellow and green ribbon tied to its antenna and every establishment bore at least a flag or a poster of a favourite player, or of the whole team, affixed to a wall. Our street was no exception and joined in the commotion. Residents hung flags from their windows and the more exalted took their time to spread hundreds of small paper banners on wires that they set up crossing from one side of the road to the other.

While at every possible opportunity the media spread pro-regime messages and there were stickers everywhere proclaiming slogans like “Brazil: Love it or leave it” and “God is Brazilian”, few people realized that the team’s coach, João Saldanha, was a committed communist who held meetings of the illegal party in his house. After Saldanha refused to select one of President Medici’s favourite players, Dario – Dadá Maravilha – for his team, and making inconvenient political statements while inspecting the stadia in Mexico, the governing generals ordered that Zagallo, a former star player who had participated in the victorious campaigns of 1958 and 1962, replace the coach.

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Brazil, love it or leave it; a message to the opposition.


National fever: Scrapbook with Brazil’s 1970’s team

Ipanema’s weird characters in the seventies.


Ipanema has provided the world its famous girl, the former world surf and para-gliding champion Pepe, beach volley world champions, the Brazilian g-string bikini and several other marvels. It has also been the choice neighborhood of many artists, politicians and intellectuals, famous both inside and outside Brazil such as Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Fernando Gabeira and so many others. Enough has been spoken about them. Any narrative will always leave out a neighborhood’s weird characters who give its soul and, according to some schools of thought, reflect suppressed angles and layers of it collective unconscious.

In the seventies and the early eighties (Lost Samba’s time) the neighborhood was in the fore front Brazil’s march into affluence and modernity. Its streets were alive with all sorts of alternative people: hippies, militants, surfers, old-school Bohemians, yuppies, traditional families and of course the army of porters, maids, nannies who served these people and the neighboring inhabitants of the Pavao and Pavaozinho favelas. In this melting pot it would be inevitable that striking characters would emerge and become references for the community’s history.

Damiao Experiencia was probably the first person in Rio de Janeiro with a Rastafarian hairstyle, we are talking about 1977-78, and it was very long. He dressed all in white and walked around with an uncovered old acoustic guitar covered in exoteric inscriptions, a bag full of books he authored. He caused a stir wherever he went and everyone imagined he was a hidden genius or a great artist although he remained a mystery as he never approached anyone nor did he do gigs. After the initial shock his presence was digested, people got accustomed to the daily presence and became ever more curious to know what he was about. It turned out that he came from the northeast of Brazil and wrote strange music that never played on the radio. This was not because his work was too far out of reach; he sold cassettes with his songs but to our disappointment they had no rhythm, his voice was deep but out of tune and his guitar skills were next to nothing.

There was also Chicao, a huge black guy with the fiercest face who hung out with the long-haired and Californian looking Surfers. There had never been anyone as strong and with such a mean aura to walk the streets of Ipanema, and probably there will never be. It was a given that the surfers smoked weed, and by default he did too. This was a great statement at the time; a black “maconheiro” who probably came from the favela hanging around in the streets of one of the most exclusive neighborhoods of the country. Legend said that even the police were afraid of him, he never smiled any wherever he went  the fear crept in. I once saw him in a fight, it was during a carnival and he was on a small open van in a transgender costume with other guys of the surf gang, a porter said something making fun of them and Chicao got down and beat the hell of him. The big guy disappeared from Ipanema as fast as he appeared, I am not able to say why but I would guess that he ended badly, a guy like him would not have important relatives or friends to help him out when things went wrong.

The lady with a ribbon of tattooed stars under her bum was from the upper middle class but no one knew her name. She was blonde and had been part of Ipanema’s beauties in the sixties and lived in California when she was married to Paulo Sergio Valle a famous musician involved with the Bossa Nova, but by the time she started to get noticed she was in her late forties. She always kept to herself at the beach in a bikini. Her strong suntan combined very strangely with her David Bowie like make-up, wild haircuts and weird accessories such as pink Wellingtons. Legend said that she had taken too much acid in the early seventies and had never come back. In the beginning people could argue that she was sexy, she launched seductive looks at many a guy, but as the years passed time took its toll and she looked odder and odder; her endless gazes into the horizon and her inexplicable bursts of laughter signaled that there was something very wrong although after some time she began making friends with other weird characters and even found summer romances.

The old guy with a Pekinese was a constant presence at the beach too. No one remembers a day when he was not there, he was short and very tanned and had very long hair and a huge beard, which made him look like a mixture of Mahatma Ghandi and Gandalf from the Lord of the Rings in beach trunks. His companion was his little dog and it was difficult to say if he was a human version of his dog or vice-versa. apparently he lived in a house in Copacabana and came twice a day on foot to the Posto 9, where we used to go. He was friends with the kiosk owners among which Baptista, a big black guy in his forties, was the most influential. It was him who once told me that the small old guy was rich and that his house was big, something that only traditional families possessed in the South Zone. There was a big commotion the day that his dog died, everyone noticed it as they also noticed that after that his health began to deteriorate. His posture worsened even after he got himself a new Pekinese dog. He was still going to the beach everyday when I left Rio in 1989 when he must have been well into his eighties.

The last character here is Mr. Ether. This was a guy whose deterioration was followed by the entire neighborhood closely. People commented that he had been a medical student and came from a good family. I first saw him in the mid seventies when we moved to Ipanema, at the time he already stood out as a hippy-like figure, a strong guy with curly dark hair who always seemed to be stoned. The traditional citizens would always be scared when, in beach trunks, he laughed at their bourgeois mannerisms from the middle of the streets. At some point he took to inhaling ether, at first it made him even crazier but it didn’t take long for him to spend days sitting on the pavement with a cloth and a bottle of ether in his hands and with a dazed look on his face. He started sleeping on the streets and never left. The authorities would remove him but as soon as they released the guy he was back. As years passed he swelled up and stank of ether, one could sense him from blocks away and everyone felt amazed and sorry for the monstrous figure he had become, with his long hair and beard, his swollen body and his tramp like presence made him look like an alien from the Men In Black films thrown on the streets of Ipanema. I am not sure when he passed away but nobody could endure that tragedy anymore.

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.

Catching a crocodile (Pegando Jacare)


Rio de Janeiro is, among other things, a surfing town. Don’t underestimate this statement: Rio has produced several world champions and Brazil is considered on of the world’s strengths in the sport. It all began in Ipanema in the sixties and the seventies. Although before surfing was imported from the USA by American expats there were other more indigenous forms of riding waves.

Catching crocodiles, pegar Jacare, means riding waves without the help of a board and it never fell into the same category as surf or body surf. As it did not have any expensive accessories attached to it, there were no commercial interests in promoting it so it never has been considered cool, although back in the day it was “the” way to affirm one’s masculinity on days with high waves. Nowadays there are many surfers from the favelas, but when surf arrived in Rio the rudimentary sport was a substitute for those who couldn’t afford a board. In some cases it went beyond the economic limitations: it was the best way to feel the power of nature on the body and to test one’s courage in the water.

When the red flags were up there would be always some crazy guys who went out there and, as the photographer of the picture above, they held everyone’s breath on the crowded sand. Some unaware tourists could try to join them and but not knowing the secrets of the currents and of the waves they would end up giving work to the life guards.

From those days crocodile catchers share with Rio’s surfers the glory of ruling Rio’s waves.

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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