Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Joao Saldanha”

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.


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 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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Photo Lis Farias

Lost Samba – Chapter 06/02 – Brazil’s football triumph in 1970

Part09The first game of the 1970 tournament was between the Soviet Union and Mexico, which my family watched in Paulo’s flat. To my relief we had a place to see the games. Despite being a dedicated left-winger, Paulo belonged to the twentieth century and owned a television set, despite the fascist propaganda, as he saw it, that set continuously spewed out. The fans dismissed both these teams as minor football potentates and we were only interested in the opening ceremony. From our vantage point, however, the situation was a bit different: Paulo was supporting the team with the inscription “CCCP” – the USSR – on their tops. The presenter called the team “Russia”, mentioning them as little as possible, which provoked a few grunts from our friendly-faced host.

Brazil played its first game a couple of days later. It was at night and on a weekday, too late and too awkward to watch at Paulo’s place. However, my parents allowed me to listen to it on the radio during dinner, ignoring my sister’s protestations. To the shock of Brazilians throughout the land, Czechoslovakia scored the first goal. The commentator’s dry words fell as a knife into the nation’s chest and outside there was a silence as though the end of the world had arrived. Sarah made the mistake of laughing at my anguish so I hurled a chicken thigh at her face and Dad sent me to my room. At least there, I could hear the game with no interruptions. Soon after, to everyone’s relief, Brazil scored and went on to win by four to one.

The next game had a greater significance to my family. Brazil’s adversary was England, the reigning world champion, and everybody kept asking my parents where they stood. Whom were they supporting? What would the result be? What did they think of the English players? How did Pelé compare to Bobby Charlton? Although neither of my parents knew any of the answers and in truth were wholly disdainful of football, there were enough reasons for us all to watch it. The Brazilians were about to challenge the British pose of world champions. Moreover, by coincidence, the referee was going to be the Israeli Avraham Klein: our surname!

The awaited game was on a sunny Sunday afternoon. From the early hours the bangs from occasional firecrackers were like church bells reminding Rio de Janeiro that this was a special day. Since I had woken up, Radio Globo, my indispensable source of football-related news, had been busy stirring-up the excitement. On the days that the national team played, Radio Globo suspended its regular schedule of programmes. The presenters spoke about nothing else and every now and then they interrupted whatever they were saying for live broadcasts of reporters who had managed to grab a piece of news from Mexico.

As usual, we went to the Paissandú Club at around 10 am. Caught up in the atmosphere, I put on my canary yellow shirt and, as the car emerged from the garage, I opened the car window and waved my giant yellow and green flag that I’d tied to a broomstick. Whenever we passed someone with the same shirt, I shook my fists outside the car and shouted out, “Brasil!!!”, and the responses echoed back with the same euphoria.

Arriving at the club, to my shock I immediately noticed perhaps the only Union Jack flag to be flying anywhere in Rio de Janeiro. It was hanging from a palm tree above a group of pale, middle-aged men drinking whiskey at the poolside. The other boys, the service staff, and I mumbled to each other comments questioning those Brits’ masculinity as well as the virtues of their mothers.

Some of us interrupted listening to the radio to take a dip in the pool, but did not stay long in the water. Instead, we massed around the lifeguard’s radio like a swarm of bees, falling silent whenever a reporter managed to interview one of our players. Around lunchtime, the increase in the number of fireworks going off across the city indicated that kick-off time was approaching. Television started transmitting live from Guadalajara and the streets emptied.

In order to catch the beginning of the game, we had an early lunch in the club’s restaurant. On our way to Paulo’s flat, we passed crowds of people gathering in front of the windows of electrical goods shops to watch the game on the TV sets that they had left on for the occasion. Almost all of these spectators held tightly a mini-transistor radio to their ears, much as people attach themselves to mobile phones today. I managed to convince mum to put the car radio on to Radio Globo so that I could hear what João Saldanha, now a commentator, was saying about the imminent game. As his slow and deep voice came on, I forgot the flag and concentrated on every word every word he said.

Paulo lived in a modest flat in front of our butcher and next to the bus stop on Avenida Barata Ribeiro. We arrived ten minutes before the game. The television was already on and we settled down in time to watch the players entering the stadium, stand in line and sing the national anthem. Soon after, the referee blew the whistle and the game started. The names of players who would soon belong to the world’s football pantheon resonated in the nervous silence: “Jair to Pelé, Pelé with the ball, to Tostão…. Gerson…. to Rivelino”. In Copacabana, every citizen was performing his or her duty of supporting their national team. The game shut out the rest of the world. The streets were completely empty: shops, police stations, hospitals, fire stations – everything was closed. If you were to have a heart attack, if your flat was to catch fire or if you were about to give birth, it was just your tough luck!

The beginning was somewhat nervous and boring. Zagallo used the tactic of holding his team back in the first half to then try to liquidate the adversary in the second half, trusting in his players’ greater fitness and in their natural Brazilian flair. However, nothing was guaranteed. Everyone was tense and the opposition was tough. In the second half, the heat had taken its toll on the English team and exhaustion was setting in. Their goalkeeper, Gordon Banks, was doing miracles to keep the match scoreless. We could sense that Brazil was about to mark a goal – it was simply a question of when and not if, but the wait was agonising. The excitement drew in even Dad and Paulo, and by now they were silent and fully concentrated. When the Brazilian attack finally broke through the English defence and Jairzinho scored, no Brazilian could contain his or her emotions and there were primeval screams in every home.

Of course I went berserk to the amusement of the adults – everyone in the room but me. We could hear the madness outside but the atmosphere in Paulo’s flat was very different. Mum was not supporting Brazil and despite her being in her fifties, she was the youngest grown up in the room.  As soon as the game was over and the television transmissions returned to the studios in Rio de Janeiro, they all went back to serious topics – mainly Israel. I took advantage of having the TV entirely for myself, picked up the bowl of cookies, took a coke out of the fridge and switched over to Tarzan.  My parents stayed waiting for the “savages”, whose shows of excitement had boiled over into the streets, to calm down before going home. As Brazil progressed through the tournament, celebrations lasted longer and the samba became wilder.

In the Cup final, Brazil beat Italy four to one, in one of the most famous games in football history. The campaign ended with Pelé setting up Carlos Alberto for a cinematographic shot from outside the goal area into the back of the Italian net.  That convincing triggered a national catharsis that allowed the whole country to temporarily set aside its political differences and social problems. As this was the country’s third World Cup, the Jules Rimmet Cup came to Brazil for good, which sealed the glory. The victory also meant a success for the military’s PR machine. The relentless propaganda was successful in tying the regime’s image to that triumph and in injecting the country with nationalistic fervour. Now the regime felt legitimized to tighten their political grip on Brazil.

No one noticed that this was the way that the golden days of Copacabana found to say goodbye in a grandiose fashion. Within a few years, the beach side neighbourhood’s glamour would fade. People from alien social circles would replace the elite of Rio de Janeiro in its Hollywood style buildings. The upper class would move to the neighbouring up-market areas of Ipanema and Leblon, and even further south to São Conrado and Barra da Tijuca. Meanwhile, at night, the Avenida Atlantica would become the world’s biggest open-air brothel.

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Celebrations in Copacabana for the 1970’s Word Cup Championship.

Lost Samba Chapter 06/01 – Football passion in Brazil’s golden days

build up

The year of 1962 was not only the year I was born, it was also the year that the Rolling Stones and the Beatles recorded their first singles, that Fidel Castro was excommunicated by Pope John XXIII, that Adolf Eichmann, the engineer of the holocaust, was executed in Israel, that João Gilberto and Tom Jobim made their American début at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and that Marilyn Monroe died of a drugs overdose.

For Brazil, what marked that year was its second ever World Cup victory. If winning a World Cup electrified “developed” countries, such as Italy, Germany and England, it is hard to imagine the explosion of excitement and sheer joy that Rio de Janeiro experienced. From the shacks in the favelas to the luxury apartments in the Zona Sul, everyone’s ears were firmly glued to their radios, anxiously following the tournament’s final between Brazil and Czechoslovakia. Every move in Chile’s National Stadium produced waves of nervous excitement in every corner of Rio and every goal that Brazil scored triggered a collective delirium.


After the final whistle sealed Brazil’s three to one victory, celebrations took to the streets, continuing into the small hours of the morning. As always the  batucadas, or samba drummings, were the soul of the spontaneous out-of-season carnivals. This unmistakable beat was based on three instruments: the surdo, a large bass drum that marked the rhythm; the caixa, a type of snare drum; and the tamborim, a tiny, shallow, drum that made a loud cracking sound and that was used to lead the music.

The musicians came down from the favelas to show the “asphalt” that the streets also belonged to them and declaring that they were the kings of samba. In their entourage were caramel coloured girls, or mulatas, who shook their magnificent bodies to the rhythm, exposing almost everything long before the appearance of the Brazilian-style bikini. As the celebrations took off, the crowds pushed aside political and social differences and only thought about the goals scored by their football heroes – Garrincha, Didi, Vava and so many others. In their celebratory delirium their hearts only cared about singing their joy out in carnival songs that they all loved and who knows, meeting someone special amidst the partying.


Spontaneous street celebrations.

Eight years later, in 1970, after the disappointing and unimpressive campaign of 1966, Brazil was on its way to Mexico to attempt its third World Cup title. Thanks to television, the entire nation could now actually see their team play live, and, with the help of this new medium, the military regime invested heavily in fermenting a fever of patriotism around football that engulfed the country.

Some villages received their first television set in order to allow their people to watch the tournament. The villagers gathered around these single sets, often in unpaved squares in the middle of the jungle, to become part of the “90 million in action”, as went the team’s official song. Throughout the country, almost every car had a yellow and green ribbon tied to its antenna and every establishment bore at least a flag or a poster of a favourite player, or of the whole team, affixed to a wall. Our street was no exception and joined in the commotion. Residents hung flags from their windows and the more exalted took their time to spread hundreds of small paper banners on wires that they set up crossing from one side of the road to the other.

While at every possible opportunity the media spread pro-regime messages and there were stickers everywhere proclaiming slogans like “Brazil: Love it or leave it” and “God is Brazilian”, few people realized that the team’s coach, João Saldanha, was a committed communist who held meetings of the illegal party in his house. After Saldanha refused to select one of President Medici’s favourite players, Dario – Dadá Maravilha – for his team, and making inconvenient political statements while inspecting the stadia in Mexico, the governing generals ordered that Zagallo, a former star player who had participated in the victorious campaigns of 1958 and 1962, replace the coach.

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Brazil, love it or leave it; a message to the opposition.


National fever: Scrapbook with Brazil’s 1970’s team

Joao Saldanha – the star coach


This man above is probably one of the most colorful people to belong to the Brazilian football pantheon. He is the coach who set up the legendary 1970 team and the most popular radio and tv commentator Brazil has ever known. Funny, lovable and polemic he was part and parcel of Rio’s, and indeed the country’s, football passion in its glory days.

The greatest peculiarity about him was that he was a member of the banned communist party. This was no small matter, the regime’s plan was to used that team riddled with stars such as Pele, Tostao Rivelino, Gerson and Carlos Alberto for propaganda, and they invested heavily in it. They wanted to silence the protests with a world cup win, meanwhile the man chosen for the job held meetings of their biggest enemy in his flat after training session.

This couldn’t last and they fired him after he refused to call up the President’s favorite player Dario, or Dada Maravilha, and after making political statements during his visit to Mexico to inspect the stadiums where the squad was going to play.

He went on to TV Globo, which at the time was like a dictatorship sponsored station, to become their leading football commentary man. He was excellent at that: one could not get enough of him talking, he made the strangest analogies of the games and of the players with known and made up folk stories. He also was politically incorrect and never shied away from slagging off coaches, players and club owners. Despite the craziness what he said was always precise and he was very influential in all matters: club policies, choices of coaches and of players, even in the national team.

As a coach and as a man of the press he was a libertarian who believed in allowing the players do what he could do best: play football, he was passionate about talent and understood where the players came from: the favelas and believed in bringing its joy and toughness to the field. This was not something small in a time with no political liberty while the country was drunk by their football success. As I stated above these were the glory days of Brazilian football, when players were not sold to the richer European clubs and people saw players as if they were their best friends.

We salute Joao Saldanha, a hero in that time and place.

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