Brazil is an epic 800-page historical novel written in English by Errol Lincoln Uys, a South African author based in the US. Unusual as this may seem, the book amazes the reader by the depth of the research put into it, by the skilful writing and by the creativity used in blending history with storytelling. The way the author manages to condense five hundred years of history in just one book is downright amazing. The story orbits around the tale of two families, one in Pernambuco, in the Northeast of Brazil, and the other one in São Paulo. In parallel, and sometimes interwoven by fate, both dynasties participate directly in events that would shape the country. Despite the book’s length, at no point does it get boring; Uys’ obvious fascination and passion for the subject ensure that the read is a gripping roller coaster. Its characters are very “alive” and adventurous, providing a rich insight into how life was during the many phases of Brazil’s past in its many different regions.
Beyond its great entertainment value, Brazil is also a great resource for those studying the country’s history. I learned a lot by reading this book; it increased my knowledge and understanding of the Paraguay war, the pre-Portuguese indigenous practices as well as the life of Antonho Conselheiro, and the war of Canudos. Uys’ book has also made the names of many streets of Rio de Janeiro – and throughout Brazil – come alive to me. These small examples and many others have made it clear that Brazil is one of the best, if not the best, historical novel about the country written by a non-Brazilian. To it’s great advantage the book has a refreshing neutrality and an objectivity which is sometimes difficult to find with Brazilian historians.
In addition to my praise and awe I will put forward the following remarks: History is a slippery subject and the vastness of Brazil and the complexity of its past may cause academic objections regarding the choices of the Uys’ focus. Other historians would – and have – focused on other events and regions to describe Brazil’s past, however one must recognize that any author undertaking such an enormous task would attract similar comments. In my case, the privileging of historical events and of big names over a more “sociological” and a more the “man-in-the street” perspective caused some reflection. Another point that stuck out was that most characters in the book either belong to the powerful and wealthy elite or belong to the very poor and oppressed layers of the Brazilian society – a necessary expedient for this kind of narrative, but also a decision that may have caused a certain “flatness” in some personalities. These choices may also lead to the misunderstanding of the dynamics of some sectors of the country’s population although by no means do they diminish the book’s brilliance.
Brazilian history is widely unknown throughout the English-speaking world. Perhaps because of this, as a Bandeirante, or an explorer/settler, conquering the unexplored vastness of the country’s fascinating past, Uys has produced a fascinating, cinematographic and ground breaking piece of work. The fact that he is not Brazilian and that he wrote this book in English has allowed for a lightness and for a creativity that one normally does not find in similar books written in Portuguese by Brazilian authors. Uys’ historical novel is undoubtedly a trustful and enjoyable portal for anyone – beginner or advanced – seeking to understand Brazil and to know its past. Brazil is also a great read for those who simply want to enjoy a great book and I can see it becoming a top rated TV series. I hope it does. Anyhow, this is a definite five star book!
As 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.
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?
Célia was the pretty and skinny girl from the eleventh floor when we lived in Copacabana. She was friends with Sarah and one day she rushed in very excitedly to say that her Mum had given her two tickets for the International Song Festival for her birthday and, to my desperate envy, she invited my sister to come. The mega-event was in the Maracanãzinho, the Maracanã’s smaller brother, set up right next to it to host non-football related events. This was a unique opportunity to watch the best artists in the country and other big international attractions live. This was something that went beyond what Eurovision is nowadays, the regime hoped to unite the nation around them and the artists that the organizers chose with the backing of record labels represented all segments of Brazilian society. The intellectual left would have Chico Buarque, the bossa nova purists would have Tom Jobim and Nara Leão, the rockers and psychedelics would have Os Mutantes; the black people would have Toni Tornado, the militant university students would have Geraldo Vandre, the tropicalistas would have Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso; the samba lovers would have Jair Rodrigues and Paulinho da Viola; and then there was Jorge Ben who pleased everyone.
These contests grabbed Brazil’s attention and the relatively recent TV stations transmitted them to the millions of televisions recently bought to watch the World Cup in Mexico. The military felt proud to demonstrate that, although they did not allow their people to choose their administration, they had nothing against freedom of expression. This was only half-true, with the press closely watched and limited in its freedom, the festivals assumed the status of perhaps the only forum where the debate about the country’s reality could flourish. Although there was also an undeniable commercial aspect them; they represented a break with the Bossa Nova and with the old generations of radio stars and starlets. Most of the successful artists would end up filling the coffers of the record labels and father everything that came after them.
Many songs were indeed political, while others were about the catching up with the hippy revolution that was going on outside the country, and competed side by side with pretty love songs and happy sambas. However, the political controversy of the two main trends would end up in the inevitable clash between the hard-core Bolschevic revolutionaries and the flower power crowd, which caused strange events such as a rally against the electric guitar with the presence of eminent journalists and Gilberto Gil.
The effervescence of the repressed youth, tired of the solutions presented by the traditional left and by the traditional right, would make the festivals the stage of a cultural debate, perhaps too important to the liking of their sponsors. Parallel to this there were other important cultural expressions appearing in the art world, in cinema, in the theatre and in literature. On the other hand, there was a lot happening in terms of political and cultural uprising outside Brazil. Altogether, the nation hungered for expressions that mirrored their life experiences and expectations in times of deep changes. The tropicália movement would emerge from this moment. Although it is currently associated with Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Os Mutantes the movement was much wider in its proposal and almost amorphous in its positioning. Under its big umbrella, there was nationalism, folklore, pop, sympathy for the Cuban revolution, love for the Beatles, Samba, and search for the roots of Brazil. Before going commercial and dissipating, the tropicália encompassed graphic artists, such as Hélio Oiticica, avant-garde musicians such as Tom Zé, journalists, writers, philosophers, intellectuals and a plethora of crazies and geniuses that still influence the current days.
What kept all those tendencies together was the opposition to the regime and to Brazil’s enormous social disparities that its rulers were unwilling to deal with. As the political grip tightened, the military realized that echoes of a creative explosion landing inside the nation’s living rooms was complicated. Many of these festivals winning artists, and definitely the most popular ones, exhibited too much creativity for the ideologues of the coup and, worse, many openly voiced their opposition to the state of things. For the military, stopping the party or excluding the stars would send out the wrong message, the way out was censorship.
After the AI-5 decrees, that took away all basic civil liberties from Brazilians, things turned to the worse. With no judicial system to answer to, the country’s rulers resorted to exiling and jailing artists, and the festivals died out.
A few years later, the military allowed the artists back as a gesture of reconciliation. More than their music, their fans missed the political and the libertarian overtones in their songs. They returned as heroes but had matured abroad and now they had even more professional agendas. Their concerts acquired a special quality, mixing an authentic resistance pedigree, celebrity status and world-class musicianship. When Gilberto Gil, Caetano Veloso and Chico Buarque played, the world seemed to come back to normal.
This was the time when I began going to shows. They were huge events, closer to football matches and political rallies than to musical concerts. When the doors opened the audience rushed in like cattle, and when everyone had taken their places, there was a similar atmosphere to being in the Maracanã. It was a lot of fun; the several sections of the theater booed and cheered each other as if they were supporting different teams. They also sang choruses with related and unrelated themes some of them political, some of them related to drugs and some of them just plain funny.
When the lights went down, the room fell silent and the magic began. In the best concerts, one felt as being in the artists’ lounge. The calmer songs provided a communal atmosphere that I have never experienced anywhere else and the more rhythmic ones, always saved for the end, resulted in out of season carnivals with the entire theater dancing on the chairs, in the corridors and on the stage.
Parallel to these concert-parties with political innuendos, there was something new creeping in. Rock bands were the expression of the new generation and were the underground of the underground. Their public was frightening: they looked dirty, had much longer hair than the average and took drugs that most people did not even know existed. One of the main expressions was Raul Seixas, his lyricist, Paulo Coelho touched on mystical and sex related subjects close to what bands such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones were doing in the international Rock scene. There was also the Secos e Molhados who adopted and androgynous style and make up that the American band Kiss would copy, and that surpassed many international bands in terms gay openness as early as 1972. These artists, although popular with the youth, shocked everyone and in intellectual terms, no one liked them, not even the Lefties.
As far as behaviour is concerned, they pioneered everything that most people would consider banal in the following decades, drugs, vegetarianism, and interest in mysticism and in oriental philosophies and the following of a sort of zen-individualist outlook of life. As Ipanema’s surfers, the rockers did not have any agenda other than living their lives intensely and ignored both the political dictatorship of the right and the intellectual dictatorship of the left. When disco kicked in, they discovered that looking good and shaking their moneymaker on the dance floor brought in more sex. This, and the large amount of drug casualties made that generation of pioneers mutate and vanish quickly.
With the gradual interchange of these two generations, the concerts slowly ceased to be about resistance to become simply a breath of fresh air from the claustrophobia of both the regime and of the audience’s homes. It also became more and more obvious that this was a rich kids’ club: in order to forget the military for a couple of hours, hang out with the cool crowd, buy the right records, go to concerts, and travel to alternative destinations, you had to have money and it was not everyone who had access to those luxuries.
There were never any representatives of the working class in the room. The masses weren’t hip: they were still the maids who had prepared our dinner, the bus drivers who had taken us there, the guys in the street who asked to look after our cars or and the policemen outside hungry to extort our money. The rebels from the less privileged classes listened to funk and went to their own parties, as portrayed in the film “City of God”, a true story of this period of Rio’s history.
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.
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.