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.