Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

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Malandros and Otarios


The painting above is of an idealized “malandro“, a popular/archetypal/folkloric figure from Rio de Janeiro that summarizes what most Cariocas try to be and how the rest of Brazil sees Cariocas.  He is the wise guy from the Favela who. despite the abject poverty he was born into, by his charm and by his wits lives the great life as Chico Buarque puts it beautifully “walking on his tip toes, as treading on hearts… ”

This mythical Jack Sparrow of Rio’s streets has his opposite, the despised otario, the guy who works honestly, is dim witted, monogamous, sleeps early and is boring. From childhood every Carioca, no matter which class or color, tries to be a malandro while his parents do everything to keep him an otario.

The struggle between malandros and otarios is an old one, the otarios are the descendants of the privileged immigrants who had money to open businesses and to educate their children while the malandros are the descendants of slaves without opportunities, discriminated by the mainstream (the otarios) and who could only fight back through their malice.

This war is universal and good and evil get lost in it, both sides are right and wrong depending on the angle and the occasion. The questions that they bring up are about life itself, what is just and what is unjust? the police or the exploited? the rich or the poor? the religious or the profane? both are  lovable and hateful at the same time, like all of us.

This very brief article will end with a sentence from the Brazilian tropicalist pop star Jorge Ben who presented a cure for malandragem: If the malandro knew how good it is to be honest, he would be honest just by “malandragem. A very good, but hard, path to follow. This could be a great learning for the malandros involved in Brazilian (and world) politics since its begginings; when otarios decide to become malandros, we have a big problem…

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.

Tim Maia – the King of Brazilian soul music


Much has been said about Tim Maia, (there is actually a great book about him written by Nelson Mota telling all the story). There is a reason for this: he is possibly the most colorful character in Brazilian pop music.

First of all he lived in the US for some time in the sixties and got very much absorbed in the funk scene and in what was going on in the streets at the time, to a degree that he was arrested and deported back to Brazil. Perhaps because of this he was the Brazilian artist who best understood what went on outside his country and kept no myths about the gringos. His music had a quality that owed nothing to what came from abroad and broke barriers of class and of race in a rhythm and style that were not Brazilian.

Of his generation he was also the one who lead a rock and roll life style the closest to those of his American and British counterparts. The stories of his craziness are legendary: like refusing to play with Caetano Veloso because he was wearing a sarong, telling his dog to attack a the owner of the land he had built his beach house on when he came to complain, firing musicians during gigs, confusions with managers and venue owners and serious drug and booze abuse; the could go on for days. Despite this awful reputation he was and still is respected for his great legacy of hits and his grandiose style.

His talent was as huge as both his body and his ego and anyone in Rio will remember his songs and will have a funny story to tell about him.

Below is a video that may be a sample of his talent for you:

Hermeto Pascoal

He is more than a musician this man is a natural phenomenon. He has avoided stardom and has created a ring of musician followers who have refused to become mainstream to live the adventure of playing with “the sorcerer”.

A few have defected to become some of Brazil’s best musicians.

This is what Lost Samba says about him:

“Hermeto was born in the deep interior of Brazil. As he was albino and could not work under the sun with his brothers, he was locked up in a stable where he channelized his fury into music. His long and curly white hair and beard and his strong traces covered by thick glasses gave him the deserved nickname of “the sorcerer”. His band did insane noises, not only with instruments but with objects such as broken bottles, saws and pans but performed valleys of heavenly music.”

Lost Samba is available at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00791OM34

A short story of Rio de Janeiro’s Organized Crime.

The characters interviewed in this video, a priest in Portugal and two elder gentlemen; one respectable-looking and the other a bit rougher looking one, have an extraordinary story in common. They were the unwilling founders of organized crime in Rio, personified in the Red Command, or the Commando Vermelho.

The preist is the renown Padre Alipio: a Portuguese who in the late 1950’s served as a missionary in the Maranhao state and who in the early 1960’s became so angry at the poverty of the simple people and the insensitivity of the rich that he joined the “Ligas Camponesas”. The Peasant Leagues was a far left organization, and through it he became part of the armed resistance against the military regime.

The other two do not have such an ideological past, they were dangerous common prisoners who met him at the top security Ilha Grande. This penitentiary had been the destination of many political prisoners during the Vargas dictatorship in the 1930’s and the 1940’s and the military reactivated it as a sort of a political Devil’s Island when they came to power.

While sharing the same cells Padre Alipio and his colleagues taught the common prisoners, some of the most dangerous in Brazil, about socialism as well as organizational skills and the interchange gave birth to the infamous criminal organization. This is an explained in Lost Samba:

“…Brazilian organized crime was born at this time In the Ilha Grande prison, the Brazilian version of Papillon’s Devil’s Island where political prisoners who had received paramilitary training shared their cells with the country’s most dangerous criminals. The militants still possessed the germ of catechizing the masses but went further and taught their fellow inmates about the importance of being soldier-like and organized as well as for bank robberies and kidnappings.

The political prisoners ended up being either exchanged for VIP’s or receiving amnesty while the ordinary prisoners stayed on and gave their own interpretation to the lessons received. They created the Red Command that first took over the prison’s informal world and then Rio’s entire penal system. From inside the prisons’ walls they managed to influence and then control the city’s criminal world. They relied on the fact that the destiny of every criminal is to land in jail. If they did not belong to the organization, or didn’t pay a contribution, once behind bars they would have serious questions to answer.”

The importance of surf culture in Rio de Janeiro

The military dictatorship was in its peak and prisons, exiles and censorship were part of the country’s day to day life.  The left had been decimated, or at least silenced and there was no outlet for protest. Meanwhile the surf culture was growing in the vacuum left behind the shutting down of the left in Ipanema, a neighborhood known for its leftist residents. This culture had been imported from California and been introduced to Rio de Janeiro’s middle class by students of the American School of Rio de Janeiro.

So were the surfers really relevant? Did anything they say really count for anything?

Most of the Brazilian intelligentsia would say no. This was an insignificant byproduct of a repressed era.

Well, it wasn’t. First of all it did not come from the military apparatus, nor was it well  seen by the American mainstream. In the Coastal towns of the US the kids who were making it the king of sports among the youth came from the lower classes and were dropouts specially in the late sixties and early seventies.In this environment, being a long haired surfer was being against the establishment. The anti Viet-Nam war protests were at their peak, and protesting in the seventies was not theoretical, it was about taking on the mainstream by actions. The kids who were dropouts were closer to home, they could be anyone’s kid who was engaging into something outside the system, it could happen in any family, it was the real thing…

The generations who came after the surfers can still relate to them and the freedom that they represented. They sought a personal detachment from the logic that everything in life should be attached to a production system that has profit as an ultimate goal.

Surf culture in Rio was to give birth to the rock movement of the 8O’s that took the country by storm. For that generation they were like the stronger older brothers who told parents to shut up, who broke ties and who were radically alive. These were the precursors of Brazilian Punk, but healthier, more charismatic, sexual, and less hateful than their British counterparts.

If no one liked them in the middle class, it is because everyone wanted to be like them but did not have the inner strength to do so. In Rio some were spoiled rich kids, but  this group certainly were not accepted into the surfing elite.One you had to earn their way into being respected by being good at the sport and by tough in the water. They were not dumb blondes, they were just too big for this world.

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