In terms of family, we were not completely isolated in the new country. There was my only Brazilian cousin – Bibi Vogel, the daughter of one of Dad’s distant cousins who had moved to Brazil before the war. Bibi was a well-known popular singer and actress, her fragile looks, with green, sharp eyes, dark lips and a hippy-looking haircut, helped make her a muse of her generation. Her voice was similar to that of Joan Baez and she recorded a couple of successful albums. She also starred in soap operas and played one of the main roles in the Brazilian version of Hair, the counter-cultural musical of the sixties.
In the early 1960s, before her Brazilian rise to fame, Bibi had gone to New York to try her luck with a friend’s bossa nova band. After a year or so, she took a break and returned to Rio. While there, she heard Jorge Ben’s hit “Mas Que Nada” (“oooo… Maria aioooo, oba oba oba…”). Back in New York, Bibi introduced the song to the band, but soon after she left to follow a boyfriend. Sergio Mendes and his Brazil 66 took up Bibi’s suggestion and this move projected them to become the biggest Brazilian international showbiz act since Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz appeared with their “Girl From Ipanema”.
As I became a teenager, I was surprised – and slightly amused – to see Bibi semi-naked and covering her breasts on the cover of Status – Brazil’s first Playboy-style magazine. More shockingly, Bibi appeared on posters advertising soft-porn pornochancahada films, chanchadas being the name given to Brazilian, home-grown, mass produced popular musical comedies of the 1950s. Their porno contemporary was a genre that filled cinemas with solitary male members of the lower classes eager to watch actresses showing their breasts in sexual situations. If having a cousin involved in this was strange, to make things even stranger, Bibi’s mum (Dad’s cousin) was the lead singer on the high holidays with our synagogue’s choir.
What was most confusing was that although Bibi’s artistic accomplishments and her image went against everything my parents taught us, they couldn’t help but be proud of her. As with any middle class family, success was more important than virtue. As far as I was concerned, Bibi had a very respectable personality and I always leapt to defend her when my friends came out with rude jokes about her. To me, Bibi was inspiring: if someone in my family could make it artistically, then surely I could too…. though I hasten to add not in the porn industry!
At home, at school and in my parent’s social circles, every one considered me “artistic”; something that I was never sure if people said as a compliment or rather as a polite way of saying that I was hopeless. Anyway, with Mum’s ban on pop music and popular culture, I listened to a lot of classical music and I loved it. The intricate but harmonious music of Johann Sebastian Bach topped my charts, followed closely by the dramatic compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven and by the uplifting melodies of Igor Stravinsky. Music moved me, probably due to a gene running in the family. For decades, my uncle, the composer Sydney Torch, conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, both Mum and Granddad were accomplished piano players, and Grandmother had been a music teacher. More recently, my cousin from Liverpool, Ben Mandelson, was a guitarist, playing with Billy Bragg in the 1980s.
On weekends, I would wake up early to listen to the musical classics and conduct invisible orchestras with my extendable Japanese pen. My parents took note of this passion, and Mum arranged for music lessons. The school’s teacher was a special person. He had come to Rio through a charity linked to the Church of England and was “spastic”; the name commonly given at the time to the disorder cerebral palsy. Although the symptoms were severe, they did not affect his speech or his ability to teach a six-year-old to play the recorder.
After winning the battle to learn my first tune – “Au Claire de la Lune” – the instrument went from being my hated enemy to becoming my best friend. I played wherever and whenever I could, and the sweet sounds of the instrument connected me to something bigger, something that seemed to escape most people’s perceptions of the world around them. Although my school enemies took my discovery of music as a new offence and as a further excuse to attack me, my neighbours, teachers, family and friends seemed to encourage my playing. Even so, after about a year of putting up with my performances, they were all secretly relieved when I swapped the recorder for a quieter, more outdoorsy, passion: body boarding.
After the toddler stage of running with the foam at the water’s edge every morning, I moved on to a polystyrene board and ventured out to where the waves broke. First, I learned how to slide down straight and then how to cut the waves sideways. As my courage grew the size of the waves kept increasing, I also developed my technique and started to belong to the tough guy’s group. The more respectable I became the smaller were the boards I used, until I dismissed boards completely and used only my bare hands with the help of diving fins. Out there, behind the powerful surf and under the hot sun, everything was pure and calm. There was only the vast ocean, the far away buildings and the single expanse of the beach. When the waves rolled in from the far horizon, it was as if they were challenging us. In order to ride them, we would position ourselves in the perfect spot and swim forward at just the right speed until the ocean’s force allowed us to become part of its wall of water. After this, all we had to do was to guide our body ever so slightly to prolong the feelings of bliss as long as possible.
Big waves were the scariest, but also the most fun. At my peak as a bodysurfer, I mastered swells of up to two and a half meters which, viewed from beneath, seemed massive. There was always a point of no return when you could still look down and analyse what you were about to do. At that point, one had to be a bit crazy to continue, but, in ninety percent of cases, the dare was more than worthwhile.
The highlight of body surfing was to be covered by the wave’s tube. This is surely one of the best places to be on this planet: a dynamic cave of water formed by Nature only for a brief moment in time. There was a subliminal, erotic poetry of being in there, as the stiff body slid through the cosmos’s wet tunnel.
That kind of communion with nature was greater than anything I had learned either at home or at school. After the sessions, I walked out of the ocean exhausted, the body energized by the adventures and feeling proud. Riding waves brought me beach respectability, which in turn began to raise questions of why I should step down from such heights. My parents greeted my achievements with apprehension, fearing that I was on the verge of ruining a brilliant future. They saw physicality and daring as altogether dangerous attributes, and riding waves was for the disrespectful, longhaired, hooligans who my parents, and their circle, believed were spoiling Rio.