Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “nordeste”

Lost Samba – Chapter 28/01 – Good times in Natal.


In the morning, we continued as the night before, but when we began communicating using words, we very soon came to realise that we were incompatible. I was a spoiled boy from Rio’s Zona Sul indulging in an experience of self-discovery and exploring the world around me, while she was from a nearby small Ceará town and was concerned about getting home fast because her mum wanted her back at work in the family shop. Our relationship only lasted that night. Two days later I saw her walking hand-in-hand with one of my long-haired buddies from the Praia do Francês. This didn’t bother me. The moment had been mine, although the girl was not mine any more.

Pedro and I had grown apart: he now spent most of the time with his new, older girlfriend, Carla, and her circle of mature people with proper jobs in glamorous professions such as journalism, fashion and television. I was hanging out with the musicians and the handicraft makers and drifting into a pretty strange place that was a bit too idealistic for the times, somewhere not in tune with the individualistic “survival of the fittest” mode of thinking that was conquering middle-class urban Brazil. I did not want to–  or perhaps did not manage to– adapt. Still, there I was in this idyllic place enjoying my youth in perhaps the best country in the world, managing to celebrate life but with gales of economic crisis, alienation and reality testing spinning around in my head.

As travelling companions Pedro and I were looking for completely different things.  But despite our differences, we recognised that we were in the trip together. One afternoon we sat together by the beach to have a talk and decided to keep to our original plan. I was going to put up with a fake hippy, who lied through his teeth to look cool and to get what he wanted, while he was going to put up with a guy who imagined that he was a hippy but was lost in his grip on reality. We were going to continue the trip together. Carnival was approaching and we were looking forward to spend it in Olinda.

There was still time to stop for a few days in Natal, the capital of Rio Grande do Norte, in between the state of Ceará, where we were, and Pernambuco, where Olinda is located. We hit the road again, with our bodies deeply tanned and our souls cleansed by the month and a half that we had spent beneath the strong sun of the Northeast. Natal proved to be wonderful. The strong winds of its exposed coast and the thin white sand dunes would later make the place one of the best sites in the world for kite surfing and the location for shooting numerous national and international commercials. Though Natal had by far the best waves of the Northeastern coast, as its water was infested with Portuguese man o’ war jellyfish, we preferred to stay on the sand drinking beer.

The wind’s strength as well as the quality of the waves was due to its position: Natal is about the most easterly point of the Brazilian coast, jutting into the Atlantic Ocean right where the continent curves to the west. As the closest point to Africa in South America, Natal had served as a refueling base for American planes during World War 2. This helped to explain the strong military presence there and why Natal’s streets were more serene and more organized than in any other city we visited on our trip. The students’ hostel was also the best one we stayed in, with clean, spacious, modern rooms. Natal showed what Brazil could have been like had  “Order and Progress” (Brazil’s national motto, adorned  on the country’s flag) had been followed.

After a couple of days camping and relaxing on Redinha beach – by far best spot around Natal – we talked about money. To our surprise we realized that so far we’d spent less than we’d expected, and because of this we decided to take a bus to Recife. The next morning, a rare cloudy day, I woke up early and went to the terminal to buy our tickets but the attendant told me that I couldn’t buy one for Pedro as I didn’t have his ID card. After some insistence, she told me to try to get an authorization at the terminal’s police station. The door was closed but after some time a skinny, unshaven, gray-haired man in his fifties showed up. He was drunk and barely managed to turn the keys, but eventually we were able to enter.

Before I started to explain why I was there, he ordered me to put my backpack on the table and dived into it to search for drugs. There were none but he took out two giant shells that I had found on the beach to give to Mum and Dona Isabel. He looked at me and said that now they were his. I asked why, and he took a hammer out of the drawer and put the metal side close to my right ear and started screaming abuse at me.

I invented a story that my dad was a famous reporter and that if anything happened to me, the story would be in all the newspapers throughout Brazil the very next day. As this was a time that the press had become strong, on a daily basis exposing dark secrets about police abuse during the dictatorship, he bought my bullshit. A bit rattled, he allowed me to to stuff my belongings back into the bag, but put aside my precious shells. When I asked for them back his anger was reawakened. Somehow, an unhappy compromise was reached: I reclaimed one shell while he took the other. I left the office without the authorization.

I let Pedro sort out his ticket for himself and we managed to arrive in Recife in time for the carnival. As we got off the bus, we bumped into a friend from Trancoso, a happy coincidence because we had nowhere to stay and he was more than keen to share the costs of a room he had found in Olinda, something we were told would be impossible to get at this time of year. Our carnival base was going to be next to the Praça do Carmo, where the main action takes place. We were in luck!

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Lost Samba – Chapter 27/01 – A hike through the Sertão, Paraíba and Fortaleza.


A Sertanejo in the Sertao

We took a train to our next destination, João Pessoa, the capital of the state of Paraíba. Given the scarcity of railways in Brazil, this was a rare opportunity – and tickets were cheap. The line did not pass along the coast, instead entering the Sertão – the Northeast’s dry interior. This time Pedro and I had company, joined by our Praia do Frances camping companions. With us were some seven or eight guys from the south of Brazil, all with very long hair, most of them blond and – to people who did not know them –unfriendly faces, seeming to step out of a cover of a heavy metal album.

We were in for a ride through the Sertão, a bone-dry landscape, so completely different to the lush coast a short distance away. This was Brazil’s poorest region with a subculture that was akin to that of medieval Europe. The people were deeply Catholic, with quasi-feudal class relationships, a strong macho ethos and a high degree of illiteracy. As the vegetation became even dryer and the air hotter, the towns became increasingly dilapidated. We stopped at train stations that seemed to be remnants of an era when there was at least a promise of prosperity, but now people seemed to be reduced  to fighting to get to our windows to sell us all sorts of stuff, from plastic water bottles to captured wild animals. In every village we passed through, the train was the biggest event of the day, and we – the weird-looking long haired guys – a real highlight. The villagers would gather at our window pointing at us and laughing, sometimes they’d make jokes about us, while other times we’d playfully poke fun at them.

The streets around the stations were filled with make-shift bazaars and rudimentary liquor stores surrounded by rusty old cars, sleepy donkeys, scrawny dogs and barefoot children running around under the scorching sun. Loud music blared out of the record shops, not the folksy and cool acts that helped draw me to the Northeast but cringe-worthy love songs and accompanied by electric organs.

The semi-desert landscape reminded me of the spaghetti westerns that I’d so enjoyed as a child. Here, though, the population was a mix of African and indigenous origin who lived in clay huts with straw roofs, their small plots of lands struggling to look like farms. There was very little vegetation, the cattle were so thin that their ribs were clearly visible and the dry, stifling heat made even worse by the lack of even a slight breeze. All of this reflected the very hard life endured by the people the sertão.

The train’s old British-built engine and carriages were rusty and dillapidated, and seemed completely in tune with the landscape. Inside, we were alone in our carriage, appearing like a gang of suspicious-looking outlaws. Every now and then train officials approached us and a tense silence would fall. Despite their vigilance, we managed to light up our green venom and smoke with our heads leaning outside the windows. Despite the tension and the extreme poverty that we came across, it was quite trippy to take in that outlandish landscape.

*                                              *                                              *

In Rio, “Paraíba” was the derogatory name given to the enormous contingent of migrants from the Northeast regardless of the actual state that they in fact came from. They fulfilled the same role as Mexicans in the USA, Arabs in France and Asians in Britain have traditionally taken. Much as in those richer countries, people in Rio had contradictory feelings towards the Northeast and its population. Along with a fascination about the place and its culture came the rejection of its uneducated and poor migrants.


The poverty of the Sertao

In reality, João Pessoa, Paraíba’s capital, had a classic sophistication with well-preserved nineteenth-century buildings, elegant avenues bordered by lush trees and old-style lamp posts. I was looking forward to our stay in João Pessoa as fortunately a friend from university would be spending her vacation there with her family. They, like many other members of the local upper class, were of Italian descent. Francesca, my friend, had been elected as the muse  ofthat summer by a carioca magazine, attracted, no doubt, by her striking looks, with blonde hair and blue eyes .

Francesca came to meet us at the hostel with two cousins, both obviously part of the local elite, and Pedro and I were driven away in their expensive cars. She told us later that her cousins had taken us for a gay couple: when we tried to look smarter, in our neo-hippy clothes, we most probably gave out the wrong impression. In fact our clothes looked ridiculous and if I had been looking through local eyes, I would probably have thought as they did.

The reality was that I was looking forward to seeing Fransesca, hoping, who knows, that a summer romance would light up. Back in Rio, there had been some flirting, using my guitar-playing to impress her when we skipped classes together. However, with Francesca’s family now around – and with me looking so weird – the chances of anything happening were absolutely zero. Other than Francesca and the João Pessoa elegant architecture, there wasn’t much to keep us in the city, with even the beaches being unattractive compared to the ones we’d seen before. Slightly disappointed, after a couple of days we continued northwards to Fortaleza, the capital of the state of Ceará, where we knew that we could stay with one of Pedro’s uncles.


Joao Pessoa

If Francesca’s cousins suspected that Pedro and I were gay, Pedro’s uncle had no doubts at all. The strange situation kicked-off with Pedro’s aunt showing us to our double bed and then continued with the uncle throwing food onto my plate instead of serving it. I can’t remember acting camply or wearing neo-hippy, fancy clothes but, through his lens, I was a communist, pot-smoking queen, leading his young and healthy nephew on a journey of drugs and perverted gay sex.

In that part of the world, the same guys who spent their money on lovers, on prostitutes and on booze, and who beat up their wives, considered the youth of the South to be degenerates. I couldn’t help imagining what would have happened if he had seen the scuba guy in Vitória come out of the bedroom with his blonde friend hanging on his neck saying that he had lost his virginity. Anyway, from an anthropological point of view, that situation gave us an insight into how things must have been for the generations before us in Rio. That world was tied around a corrupt ruling class that had been in power ever since the city was founded, and it provided an unbearable universe of oppression and hypocrisy for anyone with half a brain and a critical eye as well as anyone who did not belong to those traditional circles.

In spite of the heavy domestic atmosphere, I was able at least to appreciate other aspects of Fortaleza. It was the wealthiest capital in the Northeast and had an attractive modern buzz to it. Fortaleza’s dry, windy weather and wide avenues made the city resemble modern Middle Eastern ones, such as Tel Aviv and Beirut. Perhaps Pedro’s uncle’s demeanor was an exception for Fortaleza, as its natives had a reputation of being sharp and funny, providing Brazil with some of its best comedians, like Chico Anysio, Tom Cavalcanti and Renato Aragão.

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Hermeto Pascoal

He is more than a musician this man is a natural phenomenon. He has avoided stardom and has created a ring of musician followers who have refused to become mainstream to live the adventure of playing with “the sorcerer”.

A few have defected to become some of Brazil’s best musicians.

This is what Lost Samba says about him:

“Hermeto was born in the deep interior of Brazil. As he was albino and could not work under the sun with his brothers, he was locked up in a stable where he channelized his fury into music. His long and curly white hair and beard and his strong traces covered by thick glasses gave him the deserved nickname of “the sorcerer”. His band did insane noises, not only with instruments but with objects such as broken bottles, saws and pans but performed valleys of heavenly music.”

Lost Samba is available at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00791OM34

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