Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Bahia”

Lost Samba – Chapter 26/01 – Easy riding in Bahia

Salvador03

Farol da Barra. Salvador

The next stop was Salvador, where I thought we could stay with a former girlfriend who I’d met in Mauá. Michele came from Bangu, a lower-middle class neighbourhood of Rio, very different socially from my Zona Sul habitat. Michele’s mixed background gave her a complexion that could easily make her pass for Asian. She cultivated that look by wearing Indian-looking dresses and blouses and by letting her long, dark hair grow curly on the edges but straight elsewhere. She was petite and very pretty but her innocent look and her soft voice concealed a wild edge that would lead to her getting pregnant with several friends in my circle possibly being the dad.

The apartment in Salvador where Michele was staying was next to the Barra Lighthouse, one of the city’s most exclusive spots where golden middle class kids went to free carnival concerts on summer weekends. Not only were Pedro and I going to be safe from mosquitoes and have a proper bathroom, but there was a prospect for me of having some real fun at night. However, when we knocked on the door it was not Michele who opened it and we found out that the apartment belonged to her sister’s boyfriend and that there was no room for us. With the dream instantly dashed, the only way for us to hang out in that privileged spot was to sleep on the stage of the Barra Lighthouse. With summer now at its peak, there were concerts almost every night, which meant that to sleep there we would have to wait for everyone to leave. Then, at around three in the morning, we could unfold our sleeping bags on the wooden floor. To our apprehension, we found that we were not alone – there were some weird characters sleeping beneath the stage. Fortunately we never interacted, apart from early in the morning when a drunkard with a hangover emerged to do a gymnastics routine.

This sleeping arrangement ended up not being as bad as we had feared. The stage was less than a block from the apartment, and Michele’s sister managed to convince her boyfriend to allow us to keep our stuff there and to use its bathroom and kitchen. Also, for me, there was the bonus that  Michele could sneak me in when the others were out to be alone together.

Behind the times though Salvador certainly was, the 1980s was beginning to make an impact. The age of the trio elétrico was fading, being replaced by new genres of carnival music. Reggae had touched the ears, hearts and minds of the city’s culturally dominant Afro community and a new way of playing the Jamaican rhythm emerged – a percussion-led samba-reggae fusion. The main exponent of this genre was Olodum, a band from the Pelourinho, an icon of Salvador’s African-based culture and the oldest neighbourhood in the entire country.

In the past the authorities used the Pelourinho’s central square as the location to punish slaves who had misbehaved, escaped or revolted. There are numerous accounts of men receiving more than a hundred lashes and then having had salt rubbed into their wounds. Now their descendants lived in the houses of their former oppressors and the area was to be listed as an UNESCO world heritage site in 1985. Olodum managed to galvanize African heritage and pride in the form of music, radiating that energy throughout Salvador. Everything that emerged in the ”Pelo” reverberated in radios and cassette players in kiosks, spreading throughout the city, blasting out samba-reggae sounds. Olodum would later make an international splash after recording alongside Paul Simon and Michael Jackson.

The other musical novelty was the more white-orientated bands with electronic keyboards and choreographed dancers on futuristic-looking vans. They were completely cheesy, playing a blend of easy to digest salsa, soca and other Caribbean styles. It was a relief that the Trio Eletrico of Dodo e Osmar – the surviving dinosaurs of Salvador’s golden carnival days – still paraded, and we had the opportunity to see them and Olodum in the pre-Carnival events.

As this was my second visit to Salvador – and now travelling as a backpacker – I felt much less of a tourist and knew what to expect. This included knowing the particularities of the various beaches, hugely important for the experience of any Brazilian coastal town. The beaches of the Northeast exuded a nostalgic aura, offering things that had long vanished in Rio. There were fishermen selling freshly-caught crabs tied to a stick, vendors of cheese that was melted on demand, stands of homemade ice cream and men walking around with sliced pineapples on tin trays. Separating the sand from the promenade were straw-roofed wooden kiosks where they served beer and exotic snacks prepared with the large range of local seafood. Fishermen with their nets and wooden boats remained from a past long before pleasure seekers ever dreamt of exposing their pale skin to the sun and, God forbid, seek a tan.

As in Rio, the beaches were the central arenas of summer. They put everyone in a state of mind that no economic crisis could intrude. The correct time to arrive was after lunch and the right time to leave was well after sunset. As the sun went down and the heat became more bearable with the beach started to attract young people seeking similar things: partying, music, interesting people and – of course – sex….perhaps even love. In a short space of time, Pedro and I soon got to know people.

Invitations to parties were frequent and always welcome. The parties, in people’s homes, were for free and entry was by invitation and hear-say. Despite the sound gear always being too weak, these parties were always great fun with joints in every room and bright people discussing political and philosophical issues. If you were not lucky to be in the bathroom having sex, the best place would be the kitchen, where guests would eat and drink. There would also always be a room where people gathered listening to a talented guitarist, and the quality of the musicians was amazing. I never understood why they never made it when so many crap rock bands in Rio and São Paulo somehow did.

caminhoneiro

BR – 101 early in the morning

Sometimes I too would play something, but I soon learned that in order to make an impression I had to stick to playing rock tunes that no one else there was comfortable to play in what was the backyard of the likes of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and the Novos Baianos. I was no competition for the kind of stuff that they excelled at, but a Carioca who played rock was seen as something acceptable and even a welcome novelty. However, people really got excited when I played Bob Marley and Jimi Hendrix tunes and sang in English, something that many of the party-goers had never before experienced.

*                                              *                                              *

Partying, going to the beach, meeting new people, playing guitar and trying (and sometimes succeeding) to get laid, was only part of the fun. Our means of transport – hitchhiking – was also a highlight of our travels. The routine always began the same way, by taking a bus to the first gas station on the highway. Many of the drivers told us to clear off, but some welcomed our harmless, and perhaps interesting, company.

By this time, Brazil’s railway system had all-but collapsed, and also goods were rarely transported by ship along the coast. Instead, almost all transport was by road, which was why the highways had an army of truck drivers. As any other category of workers, they were heavily exploited, sleeping very little and travelling for days on end along the country’s poorly-maintained highways, in fear of thieves and corrupt policemen. Nevertheless, they were awesome guys who had their own subculture and a great sense of camaraderie. They knew all the curves, bumps and potholes ahead, as well as the good and bad spots in terms of safety, food, fun and women. All of them had great stories and the cliché girlfriends, or even families, at every stop.

Most rides were with the driver in his cabin where they normally had a good-sized bed where we could take turns in sleeping but sometimes we were in the back, experiencing the unprotected magic of the highway. Together with the feeling of freedom that the constant wind and the open highway provided, at night there were be shooting stars above the moonlit hills, while during the day there was the strong sun bringing out the sweet smell of sugar cane from the plantations on either side of the highway.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 25/01 – Hitchhiking in Brazil

CaronaWhen the summer arrived, ignoring the incoming storm, Pedro and I decided to go on a tour of the Northeast. Things had changed and from the start it was clear that the budget would be limited this time. Dad didn’t want me to go, and refused to finance the trip, and Pedro’s widowed mother did not have much to put on the table either. I had to sell my beloved Blues Boy and he had to scrape most of the money that his father had left him. Still the money wasn’t much and by our calculations, we had enough to get a bus to Vitoria in Espirito Santo, the closest state capital, and from there we would hitchhike, camp and reach as far north as we could, living the Easy Rider dream.

As the bus moved into the lane heading north and took the Rio-Niteroi Bridge, I was thankful to once again be en route to the idyllic Brazil. We did not expect much from our first stop, Vitoria, which was a hybrid of the developed South and the as-yet-developed Northeast, neither modern enough to be exciting nor exotic enough to be attractive.

Our plans were to camp on the beach for a couple of days and then begin the hitchhiking phase into Bahia. We left our backpacks at a kiosk before going to the beach and had our first setback when the owner explained that camping on the beach was forbidden. We didn’t pay much attention, as the sun was shining strong and all we wanted was to evaporate the stress of a 15 hour journey by the sea. When sunset arrived, the question of where will we would sleep that night re-emerged.

We were discussing our options when we met two guys scuba-diving nearby. We asked them if there was anything to see in the water and they ended up telling us that they were also from out of town and were staying in one of their uncle’s flat. We explained our situation and they said that, if we were OK to spend the night in the maid’s room, they wouldn’t mind. This was the best option available, so we agreed. After settling in, taking a shower and eating a quick sandwich, we all went out into Vitoria’s bohemian district, Vila Velha.

Money was tight and the only thing we could afford to do was to walk around along the packed promenade. It felt like a nocturnal funfair filled with trailers selling drinks and food, and playing loud music. In the confusion, one of the guys noticed an empty table filled with untouched nibbles and beer bottles. We were still hungry and dying for a beer, so we spent some time keeping an eye out to see if the owners came back. They didn’t so we got closer and discretely took over.

As soon as the bottle reached my lips, I heard an effeminate voice calling me cheeky. I moved to an ‘excuse me’ mode and offered to pay, but I soon realized that we had fallen into the trap of a gay duo that was smiling at us by the van. It was obvious that what they were looking for went far beyond apologies. Anyway, as the other two divers seemed to be more comfortable with the situation, Pedro and I slipped out and let them deal with the situation.

After a couple of hours, things got boring, we were tired and it was time to go back to the table and ask about going home. There was news for us: the two parties had become perhaps too friendly and going back to the flat was not part of the plan any more. After many deliberations, it was agreed that we were all going to sleep at one of the gay guys’ apartment and in the morning they’d drive us to the motorway.

We didn’t like it but there wasn’t much choice. We went back to our flat to get our gear and were invited for dinner at a good restaurant, a good but rather uncomfortable news. After the meal, the next step was passing the night at the den of love. The chat was a bit tense and after a session of insinuations and avoidances, action time arrived and the scuba guys went to their rooms with their respective partners while we went to the living room to try to get some sleep.

The lights went off, the doors were closed and we stayed giggling like two idiots. About an hour later, one of the doors opened and we pretended to be sleeping. We heard one of the guys saying, “Sorry, but I was not inspired tonight” and then leaving the flat. I almost got up to ask if we could go with him but there was not enough time. The room door didn’t close and, with my eyes closed, I started thinking to myself, “Oh oh, shit is about to happen!” Then I heard some footsteps coming towards us and Pedro saying, “Take your hands off, mate!!!” After a few seconds, the same happened to me; after that, the short and now badly tempered guy, who looked like a Brazilain version of Little Richard, said something and left the flat slamming the door.

The next day the other couple woke us up in a much happier mood. The owner of the flat had long blond hair, a beard and he was wearing a purple silk robe and heavy make-up. He was hanging on to his diver’s neck telling us that he had lost his virginity. We found out that the unsatisfied one was a neighbor who owned the car that was going to take us to the highway. We stayed waiting for him to come down for breakfast. When he arrived he was in a bitchy mood and, in revenge, he said he wasn’t going to take us. The ex-virgin spared us from a ‘Cage aux Folles’ nightmare, as he was on our side, and they drove us to a gas station out of town as promised.

NicolePeralta

BR – 101 – Photo by Nicole Peralta

After that unexpected beginning, we wondered what could be expecting us next. Anyway, we had two months ahead of us and it was a hot, sunny morning and the tone of that day was being set by the noise of cars speeding on the BR-101 motorway heading towards Bahia. Meanwhile we were going from truck to truck asking for a hitch to our next destination, Porto Seguro.

Our first ride was in the rear of a truck carrying dried beef. We climbed up and joined a group of workers sitting on the plastic mats covering the cargo. They looked like the Latin American peasants one would expect to see in a film about revolution. They were a mixture of black, native and white, and wore torn clothes, straw hats and caps, and prehistoric Havaianas flip-flops. They were drunk and having a ball with the wind from the highway blowing all over them.

Riding unprotected on top of a van was dangerous and illegal. The guy sitting next to the driver opened his door, leaned out and shouted, “Police!” We all had to duck under the greasy plastic for 10 minutes where we stayed skidding on the rough but slippery meat until he shouted that we could come out again.

That group could not understand what two university students from the South were doing up on that stinky plastic with them. One of them passed their bottle of cachaça and taught us how to drink from the bottle correctly while others tried to teach us how things were pronounced in the region. Soon we were drunk and talking rubbish too. As we shook from the motorway’s bumps on its unprotected back, the truck took a turn onto a dirt track and stopped at a bar in the middle of nowhere. Everyone jumped off and inside our new friends made a point in treating us to more cachaça and to a local delicacy: a dark and strong, disk- shaped, barbecued organ of some undefined animal. The guys wanted to see if we had the balls to eat it and our pride made sure that we did: we were too drunk anyway to be disgusted but the taste was sobering.

They stayed on waiting for a bus to take them home while we went back on the truck and were dropped off in Eunápolis, only an hour and a half by local transport from Porto Seguro. We arrived there exhausted and found a camp site by the beach where we washed off the cachaça and the meat stench and got some well needed sleep.

We spent the next day at the beach diving into the warm light blue water and feeling the breeze of the south of Bahia. At night we discovered that its streets were lively: the locals decorated their backyards with colored lights, added tables and chairs, filled their fridges with beer, turned their stereos up to the maximum and transformed their houses into lambada clubs. There were more expensive places set up by people from big cities, but even there it would not be surprising to feel a chicken peck at your feet while you were dancing.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 18/03 – In Brazil’s Holy of Holies

Trancoso

Trancoso’s beach

The early morning sun breaking through the cracks in the window’s shutters woke me up. I could still hear the wind but now it was gentler, enabling me to also hear the sound of bird songs and the soothing rhythm of waves breaking in the distance. Daylight revealed pristine nature preparing for the new day. At that moment, the world consisted of just my hut, the surrounding forest, a deserted beach and me. The temperature was agreeable and that unique moment of peace in that special place, transported me to the beginning of time.

I was not very far from where history books say that the Portuguese had first set foot on that uncharted land. This was the spot where those western lost souls had officially planted the seeds of a new country. I walked to the sea and had a long swim. In the deep I floated in the calm, crystal-clear, water. At that moment, at that place, it was easy to imagine the first flotilla appearing from beyond the horizon. Was anyone on those ships considering anything other than plundering what lay beyond the beach? Was the exotic jungle a soul devourer, or a place waiting to be tamed? Could the intruders possibly have imagined that there was anything worthy of their respect or to learn from in this beautiful place and from its original inhabitants?

 *

Before the arrival of hippies, Trancoso had been a Christian mission for the conversion of the indigenous Pataxó people. All that remained of that time was the simple parish church that faced inland and a group of westernized descendants of that tribe who lived in a reserve a few kilometres away. Its back faced the ocean and it was there where we gathered every night when the church’s whitewashed wall reflected the strong moonlight like a screen in a movie theatre. Long before the arrival of the first white men, the local tribe assembled at this very spot for festivals. The sacred ground still held its power with Trancoso remaining a place apart. The only trace of civilization anywhere around was Porto Seguro twenty to thirty kilometres away, its lights faintly visible on the far corner of the horizon.

We waited for the full moon and, after an hour or so, a huge silver ball started rising up at the end of the ocean. We were around ten people, gazing at that apparition in awe and in silence. The reflection grew stronger and created a bright streak across the water. The moon rose above the low clouds making them look like white, puffy, backlit mountains, casting heavy shadows from only a few meters above the sea. Their bases were flat, as if a meticulous artist had sliced them.
While I contemplated that marvellous scene, the universe sent a vision showing me that love, life, health, the water we drank, the air we breathed, were all for free. We were not on a different planet, nor was this a dream: all that magic could be here and now, forever, if only we would learn how to value the things that were given to us. I wished Trancoso would always be my home and that the feeling of completeness never ended.

*

Those last three weeks passed in the blink of an eye and all too soon it was time to return to the reality of city life. I bummed a lift to Rio with some guys who were returning home to São Paulo. Unbelievably, they had managed to reach Trancoso driving their beetle along a dirt track through the forest. I had never heard about the trail and, after a few minutes in it, they remembered that this was not a route intended for cars. Thick vegetation must have sprung up since they had first driven along that track because we kept on having to get out of the old Volkswagen and push it through mud and over the tangle of plants. It took a couple of hours until the trail developed into something more resembling a dirt road. Eventually this got wider, and soon cattle, donkeys and small huts started to appear and eventually, people sitting by stands selling local fruit. Finally, we came across cars and after we passed by Ajuda and arrived at the barge that crossed over to Porto Seguro there was a small queue of cars waiting to board. On the other side there was already asphalt and the highway that took us on the long journey home.

I arrived back in Rio under the spell of Bahia. It was difficult to face the fact that a crucial battle of university entry exams lay ahead. There was another zone of contention ready to erupt at any moment; with every joint I rolled, with every jam session I participated in, with every new friend I made, I was immersing myself further into a world that my parents could not even begin to understand. A process of becoming completely estranged from my family was on its way. Mum and Dad were at a loss, not having a clue as to what was going on inside my mind and my soul. I had taken their quest for the New World many steps beyond their imagination. I was entering a no man’s land where, on the one hand, I was distancing myself from my roots and, on the other hand, those very roots made me structurally different to the people, and to the culture, I was relating to.

My parents expected Sarah and I to accept without question the terms of their happy adventure in the idyllic land that they had chosen. Now that we had grown up, the cultural baggage they had brought over from the Old Continent paralysed their reactions towards our experiences. The British way was to brush everything under the carpet, not to discuss problems in the hope that things would sort themselves out in one way or another. The central European approach was more pragmatic, but disregarded the poetry of life: searching one’s truth was pointless and bad for business – the solution was simply a matter of getting my head down and doing the right thing: studying. From my side, the process of making sense of the situation that I was born into would require a rupture, and, by the looks of it, this process would be solitary and painful.

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TrancosoD

Trancoso

Lost Samba – Chapter 18/01 – Bliss in the South of Bahia

Part24As the year ended, my situation had improved as compared to just a year earlier. I was a full member of the doidão gang, completely integrated in the Carioca lifestyle and I had acquired some respect through my guitar playing. The summer ahead was full of promise. I had passed with ease all my exams and as an award, my parents were sponsoring a new summer adventure. I was again going with Edu, but this time we would be away for longer and would go somewhere even more exciting than Recife. The plan was to spend a month and a half in the south of Bahia, the crème de la crème of the alternative destinations. In the early 1970s, the bucolic region around Porto Seguro became famous as one of the great hippy refuges, a place where Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and other Bahian native sons and daughters had eulogized in song. The area’s natural ecosystem was still largely intact – or, at least, it hadn’t yet been plundered as much as in more southern parts of Brazil. There were still native Amerindian tribes living in reservations which enhanced the tropical-paradisical aura of the region. In addition, Jorge Amado’s hometown – Ilhéus – was near to the place we were going to stay, promising, in my mind, an immersion into the Afro-Brazilian culture.

The bus trip took thirty hours and our companions were mainly Bahianos returning home for Christmas. As one would expect for the destination, the passengers also included a group of hippy-like girls from Ipanema. As I nervously chatted to one of them, she told me that Fernando Gabeira – “the King of the Nove” – was heading to the same place as us, Arraial d’Ajuda, a small and rather remote fishing village to the south of Porto Seguro. As we neared Ajuda, as everyone called the place, our conversations invariably led to Gabeira. We found out that his presence there was a topic as hot as the region’s sun, and had drawn the attention of the country at large. The Brazilian press had long developed a tradition of naming summers and that of 1980 would belong to Gabeira, the former urban guerilla. The girls were thrilled to be spending their holidays as his neighbors.

This lovely corner of the Earth was perched on a hilltop looking out across endless stretches of wild golden beaches. There was no electricity, no cars, no pavements nor any shop worth speaking of. While the village houses were old and minimal, the locals chose to paint the front of their homes in vibrant colours which made the place resemble a cubist painting. It was obvious that the locals struggled to make a living, but in contrast to the poverty found in the slums of the big cities, Ajuda’s people seemed healthy, harmonized with their surroundings and in peace with life. “Progress” was arriving, and the few bars on the village’s square were owned by outsiders, people from nearby towns who were beginning to sense the potential for tourism. At the time, however, the tourist infrastructure was still basic and food and lodging were ridiculously cheap.

The visitors stayed in a new area built around a field behind the original constructions. The newer huts, where the likes of Edu and I stayed, had been knocked together quickly, their owners, mostly outsiders, seeing them as an easy way to bring in a bit of money during the tourist season. Donkeys, skinny cows and stray dogs seemed to like the desolation of this part of the village, perhaps because the summer visitors left them unbothered. In contrast, Gabeira was renting one of the expensive lodgings alongside the beach and, although he didn’t mix with us mortals, he was often seen in his thong, sometimes alone and sometimes accompanied by devoted followers. We soon ignored his presence. Both the locals and the other visitors were welcoming and, in a couple of days, we were friends with everyone.

Our routine was heavenly. We woke up sometime in the mid-morning and wandered over to the natural food place for a breakfast of banana mashed with syrup and oats. Then we followed the sand-covered trail to the beach to spend the rest of the day lounging by the sea, playing football barefoot on the sand, going for walks on the deserted coast, meeting new people, and playing beach tennis. We were interrupted only by the occasional villager passing by and selling fried bananas, water and beer. It was hot and the sun was strong so the occasional cloud that approached from the ocean was always a welcome relief. Rain showers never lasted for more than fifteen minutes but when the clouds opened-up, everyone on the beach ran into the salty water to feel the sweetness of the raindrops on their faces while the rest of their bodies remained protected by the warm, calm and shallow sea water.

At the end of the afternoon, the beach gradually emptied and we all went back to the village to gather on the patio behind the old church overlooking the beautiful valley covered in dense foliage. As the sun slowly descended, it transformed into a giant orange ball, its colours merging with the ocean and the dark blue sky. After an entire day under the sun, in and out of the sea, the body welcomed the late afternoon breeze. Sometimes there would be a roda de capoeira, where guys would display their skills in this half-fight, half-dance while we in the audience sung and clapped in time with the berimbau, the African imported single-string, musical bow, that sets the pace.

The only place with running water was a cave with a natural spring where everyone had to queue while holding their towels and their shower gear. The villagers attributed its existence to a miracle and there was a statue of Nossa Senhora da Ajuda at the entrance of the cave. As for the toilet, it was the biggest one in the world: the bush.

After washing off the sticky sea salt and throwing on a shirt and flip-flops, we were ready for the improvised parties in the canteens. Inside them, kerosene lamps placed on the tables cast thick shadows giving them an ancient aura. I, like other people, had brought my guitar and our jamming would liven up those nights. One just needed to start strumming something for people to turn up with instruments of various sorts, and our sessions typically lead to dancing to songs that we created together on the spot.

The moon was so bright that we could wander back down to the beach as if we were having a daytime stroll. The clean, bright sand, the white foam from the ocean surf, the sound of the waves and the wind created a magical bond between us and nature. The clear skies, coupled with the lack of electric lights for kilometres around, made the constellations above stand out as I’d never seen before, with shooting stars darting about. We would sit on the beach for hours, talking and playing guitar. When we returned to the village, it was like being re-enveloped into the warmth emanating from soulmates.

The villagers were untouched by “New Brazil”, living instead from what they fished using their simple boats and by renting out rooms. They were as curious about us as we were about them. Sometimes they invited us to sit with them and would tell us stories about their community, their legends, the sea and the surrounding nature, while exchanging views about life.

The visitors were a mix of university students, professors, journalists, writers, artists, musicians, professionals and political activists. Our conversations reflected the explosion of freedom of speech following the long period of repression. Everyone expressed opinions, with endless discussions taking place about everything from football to ecology, from politics to sex.

We all agreed that these were the closing days of a world in which nature was more powerful than man. In one of our conversations, someone argued that we were both the virus and the potential cure for the world. We were living an ecological turning point and for better or worse, our generation would be responsible for the outcome. Discussions apart, there was something special in the air; none of us had ever experienced this kind of collective connection before. It was as if we were living in a bubble distilled by centuries of utopian ideals and by the recent secrecy and the camaraderie of the resistance to the regime. This closeness permeated our parties, jam sessions, laughter, relationships and friendships, giving them a quality and sincerity very different from what was normally accepted as reality.

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Lost Samba – Chapter 11/02 – Hippies and ecological disaster in Brazil.

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The Novos Baianos

Bossa nova, guitar playing and Bahia were part of the same formative package and, as school drifted further from the radar, I discovered the Novos Baianos in IBEU’s Pandora’s Box. More than a band, they were a community of long-haired musicians from Bahia who, like the Greek poet-warriors, not only sang but also lived out the hippy dream.

Their philosophy could be synthesized in the question “Why not live this world if there is no other world?” which they asked in their good-humored samba, Besta é  Tu (It’s you who’s the fool). The song reflects the eagerness of their generation to enjoy life despite what was taking place in the political arena and to distance itself from the caretas, or the squares, and their caretice. They started out as a group of artists assembled in Salvador by Tom Zé, tropicália’s musical genius. When they came down to Rio in search of opportunities, their talent and their carefree ways ended up making them the queen bees of the carioca hippies, around whom everyone and everything cool gravitated. Luck opened several doors for them: career wise, they filled in a talent vacuum left behind by most of the country’s big names, such as Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso that the military had either exiled or completely censored. Music-wise, João Gilberto, the godfather of bossa nova, another bahiano, became very close to them and coached their raw talents into the highest musical standards. Meanwhile, their carioca bass player, Dadi, recruited through a newspaper advertisement, had no one less than Jorge Ben as a teacher.

In terms of their work, they did similar to what the Rolling Stones had done with the blues; they mixed rock and roll energy and authentic Brazilian themes. The result was very strong and, overall, their work reflected what all Brazilian hippies were during the military dictatorship: a force of nature. As expressing political thoughts was too dangerous, the confrontation with the system was existential, almost spiritual, therefore perhaps healthier than conventional politics as it did not involve picking up guns or resorting to violence. Instead this avenue sought resistance through being un-urban, in close contact with one’s true self, with nature, with music and with surfing in the case of Ipanema’s youth.

In fear of repression but, nevertheless, in complete disagreement with the route the country was taking, many thinking heads of that generation took shelter in a journey of self-discovery. By doing so, the Brazilian hippies dived into a strange, unique and lawless existence. Nonetheless, life went on, and around them was the intensity of Brazil; the mixture of cultures and the sensuousness of its streets still soaked in the euphoria of the 1970 World Cup triumph. Their psychedelic and counter-cultural outlook was akin to Jimi Hendrix meeting Pelé.

With so many cosmic forces behind their music, the Novos Baianos, the most visible and most colourful of the Brazilian hippies, found a record label that ended up providing them with a ranch in Jacarepaguá, in the outskirts of Rio. There they divided their time playing football, rehearsing, creating, eating vegetarian food, smoking weed and having children. The ranch would become an icon of that era.

*

If a big portion of the youth appeared to be messed up, the mainstream was even more. Under the military, Brazil had become a lost ship sailing into an economic disaster zone with a drunk and autocratic captain in command. Following a pattern that still remains around the world, while the economy was doing well, huge predatory international deals were sealed behind the scenes; Western power brokers came up with generous investments and told the military not to worry about paying back. The rampant corruption and the suppression of any form of opposition or transparency allowed a huge portion of that money to “evaporate”. However, when the banks would come back for repayment, the bill fell on the lap of people who had nothing to do with those transactions, and who had never benefited from them.

Figa

President Gen. Figueiredo and other Generals in the Seventies

One of the main victims of this orgy of easy money was the environment. Considered as a commercial resource, thousands of forest hectares and of animal species were set to disappear in order to allow huge farms with state-of-the-art technology to appear.  “Coincidentally”, most of the people who the big international banks funded to carry out these projects belonged to the backbone of the regime: the one percent of the population who owned eighty percent of the land. Brazil’s rulers needed this investment in order to silence the suggestion of appropriating unused land and handing it over to the destitute. The so called Reforma Agrária, the Agrarian Reform, still haunted the military despite their heavy hand. Long before the coup, this project had been a hot topic and blocking it had been one of the main reasons why the so-called revolution of 1964 had happened in the first place.

Regardless of this issue, most of the soil under the jungle was inappropriate for agriculture. Disregarding this simple but crucial limitation, the big farmers used the simplistic technique of burning down the woodland to clear their properties. After the flames had ceased, the earth on the new mega-farms became useless, and could only be used for pastures. This silent crime against the planet’s health continued way after the dictatorship ended and terminated a forest area larger than several European countries. This caused another problem: the forests’ eradication forced their populations into the big cities without any skills or preparation.  The saddest thing was that most of these investments never brought any benefit to the economy; a lot of the burnt land had to be abandoned as, much of the time, raising cattle made no economic sense in those remote regions.

Next to such a government, the demonized, longhaired, Cannabis smoking lefties were angels. The world could only blame those young hearts for not risking their lives to fight against that machinery.

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Burning down of a forest.

Lost Samba Chapter 11/01 – Discovering Bahia

Part17My precocious and unusual career choice stirred things at home and, without any knowledge of the film business nor how to react to the unexpected decision, my parents did their best to respond. The wisest option would be to study cinema abroad, more specifically in the UK, but for that to happen, I would have to take the O-Levels. This was a difficult exam one took when one was around 16 in order to proceed to the next stage of the British educational system: the even harder A-Levels, the entrance exam for British universities.

There was no other place to go in Rio de Janeiro other than the same British School that had practically expelled me years ago. This was an expensive and risky choice as my class would be the first one in the school’s history to prepare for that exam and we would be the oldest pupils the school had ever taught. In addition, mirroring the downturn in the British economy, things had changed there; the disciplinarian headmaster had long gone and the current one, a greasy guy with thick glasses and the face of a drunk bulldog was very different. Apart from having a lot of severe nervous ticks and a posh accent that we made fun of, he did not have a clue about how to deal with pubescent teenagers.

Educationally it was a bad time to study at that school, but in terms of fun…With the exception of our Maths teacher, Mr.  Bindley, a heavy ex-rugby player from Northern England, the rest of the staff was also unable to have any authority over our class. This allowed us to rule the school and to do all the wrong things available for boys between the ages of 14 and 16. We did scary stuff, like sticking our unsolicited hands into girls’ skirts, exploding the good students’ notebooks in the ventilator, flushing goldfish down the toilet and getting drunk during school hours.

Although the school taught the same curriculum as similar schools in Britain, neither I nor the American guys who I teamed up with, would ever take anything of value out of those classes. At the end of the year, I had to tell Dad he was wasting his hard-earned money. With all that craziness in the classroom, it would require a super-human effort to step above that nonsense and to succeed in an exam I was not even sure I wanted to take. The burden of that responsibility was too heavy; after all, I was only 15 and my parents had not raised me to face that kind of challenge and even if they had, changing my good life in Rio de Janeiro for one in a school in the UK that would put me “in line” was a grim prospect.

Parallel to the anguish of what to do about my education and me, Mum came up with the suggestion that I should learn the guitar. As a toddler I had been promising on the flute, and if I became good with the strings, my ability could help me open the doors of popularity. There was already an excellent hand-made guitar at home; Sarah’s Del Vecchio which she never touched. For once, motherly advice turned out to be spot on and, unable to take school seriously, popular or not, I dived deeply into the instrument and turned that carved wooden box into a lifelong friend.

The private teacher was slim and his pale greasy face was covered in pimples that blended badly with his African features. He looked and dressed like a nerd, but was impressive on the guitar. He had been a rocker, but had converted to Bossa Nova fundamentalism and this was what he taught. In the beginning, I wasn’t too happy: I wanted to play like Jimi Hendrix while he only taught me the pure João Gilberto style. His homework was painful, it took a lot of effort to get my fingers to hold down the strings in spider-like positions and do those jazz chords. It was a tough learning curve, but when fluency arrived and the left hand did its thing while the right hand tapped the samba, the sweetest music came streaming out. From that moment on, I had found not only a state of mind that brought me harmony but I also found something to love. However, as the guitar took a central role in my existence, the O-levels became ever more distant.

bossa

As we only had classical music records at home, my source to the songs and to the styles I wanted to learn was the library at IBEU (Instituto Brasil-Estados Unidos, the Brazil United States Institute), located near our former flat in Copacabana.  Set up to demonstrate the US was Brazil’s friend and to ensure an American cultural presence in Rio de Janeiro, the Institute’s shelves had tons of vinyl long play records, LPs, of famous and obscure Brazilian artists whom I began to like and to learn.  It also had a respectable collection of international and national rock and pop titles. As those LP’s piled onto the old record player in my room, the sudden access to such a variety of music made the world begin to seem a broader place.

The IBEU was not only about accessing new musical worlds; they also had books and, therefore, the library also helped to expand my literary horizons. I had started earlier with the entire collections of Asterix and Tintin and by now I had grown out of those and had discovered Jorge Amado. My first book was “Capitães de Areia” (“Sand Captains”) about street boys in Salvador, Bahia, which had blown me away. Its pages described the intense life and the difficulties street kids in Salvador encountered due to poverty, ignorance and racial prejudice, before “New Brazil” had stepped in.

jorge

Jorge Amado

Although the entire collection of his work was available in the shelves of the library of one of Uncle Sam’s hubs, Amado was a self-proclaimed communist as most other important intellectuals of his generation were. Similarly to the Cinema Novo’s film makers, his work showed how the so-called masses were sophisticated and had rich lives when compared to the neurotic, urban, white nouveaux riches.  After that first book I went on to read all his other ones, their pages were intense and filled with Brazilian sensuality. That literature had the effect of making my attention gravitate towards what happened outside the surrealism of home, religion and of school. His writing drew my attention towards the huge celebration of life in the melting pot of races and cultures that is Brazil.

Through Jorge Amado I discovered Bahia at the heart of the fascinating country my parents had moved to. It was the Mississippi Delta of the Portuguese speaking world and, with the exception of Haiti, the most African place in the world outside the actual continent. Unlike most black people in the world, the Bahianos  were proud of their origins and lived accordingly, not as a political statement, but just because this is how they had always lived. Along with its best writer, that state had provided the country with its most talented musicians: Dorival Caymmi, João Gilberto, Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. The Samba was born there, as was Capoeira, the Brazilian dance-cum-martial art developed through the resistance of slaves to their destiny.

It was not only me who was fascinated with Bahia in the 1970s; the abundance of unexplored beaches and its Afro-Brazilian atmosphere transformed that part of Brazil into the ultimate destination for the nation’s hippies. There was something shining out of there that allowed people to connect with their country in a way that was more powerful and more genuine than the Californian style that the Zona Sul of Rio de Janeiro was adopting. Coincidentally, this was close to the time when the greatest Capoeira master of his days, mestre Camisa, a disciple of the great mestre Bimba, arrived from Salvador and popularized the sport in the Zona Sul. He started training a small group of capoeristas, Gato, Peixinho, Garrincha who would later become mestres themselves and who would form with him the grupo Senzala, now divided into several diferent groups, but that would come to dominate the Brazilian and the international Capoeira scene.

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bahia01

Photo Lis Farias

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Capoeira history.

In a similar fashion to the Japanese and Chinese martial arts Capoeira is a self defense system that requires self-discipline a lot of training and has a hierarchy that goes from masters and legends to the hundreds of thousands of students all over the world. But in our opinion it goes a bit beyond that and there is a cultural, historical and indeed spiritual dimension that may pass unnoticed to the non-initiated.

What interests us here is the historical, and who knows spiritual aspects of this fight. Until recently the generally accepted history was the following: it came from Africa and was used and developed by the slaves in Bahia as a means of self-defense against the slave owners, once the afro population started getting its freedom and slavery was finally abolished it was used in the margins of the society in the state of Bahia and gradually reached its white population. In the sixties and seventies of the 20’th century it was taken to Rio and Sao Paulo and was adopted by the middle class as a more colorful and closer to home martial art and from there it spread throughout the world.

Recently a richer history starts to appear. It links Capoeira to Candomble (the afro Brazilian religion). The terreiros where  the sessions took place were a constant throughout Brazil and because of the secrecy around them little is known or documented. The fact is that they were the meeting point for slaves coming from different tribes, speaking different languages and with different customs. What happened in them fulfilled a socializing role as well as providing them a place to express spirituality and give sense to their lives.

It is part of many African religions and tribal rituals that young males affirm their propensity to be good warriors in front of their community to be accepted into adulthood and it is more than probable that this went on in the terreiros and that this is how and where Capoeira was born. The “roda” or the people around the fighters singing and clapping to the rhythm of the drum probably came before or together with the fight. This explains why there were so many “Capoeiras” setting up “Quilombos” (hidden and independent sites) throughout the country at the same time, and not only in the state of Bahia.

In the context of a community coming from different ethnicities, speaking different languages and under an extreme duress the “roda” came as a unifier that give them vivacity, respect, a social life and pride which in many ways spread out to the wider Brazilian community and it way of being. In this Capoeira and Samba have a similar origin.

The history of Capoeira as a modern martial art is the subject for another discussion.

Trancoso Church

Trancoso Church

If Brazil had a center to its soul perhaps this place would be it.

Trancoso is not very far from where the first Portuguese officially stepped on Brazilian soil and if one believes in destiny, this was for a reason…

The region remained remote until the late nineteen seventies and in the meanwhile the church above was built as a mission to convert the natives of the Region, the Pataxos (pronounced Patashohs). Usually churches were built over sacred sites to, in a way, respect the old rituals while telling the natives that the universal white European God was stronger, more widespread and better than theirs.

The church “closes” a square of houses around a huge green that used to constitute the village. The people who live there call it the “rectangle” and behind it lay the tropical forest, the almost extinct Mata Atlantica. The view from behind it is fantastic, one sees the entire coast of the Porto Seguro area from the top of a cliff .

There is no doubt that the Pataxos celebrated their beautiful world at this very spot in their festivals long before the arrival of the white people.

I had the privilege to discover Trancoso when it was just a fishing village with no electricity, populated by locals and by hippies some 25 years ago. Now it has become an international attraction and is visited by tourists from all around the world.

It still preserves its magic though.

Lost Samba, the book, will give you a better description of how it was back in the day, the link to is just besides the article.

Sunset over Bahia

Everyone who goes to Bahia loves it!

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