Lost Sambista

A Brazil never seen.

Archive for the tag “Sao Paulo”

Lost Samba – Chapter 30 – Running Away to São Paulo


Photo by Carlos Cazalis

The pressure at home had become unbearable. I decided to leave for São Paulo earlier than I’d planned with the excuse of having to prepare for the vestibular, the university entrance examination. There was no drama, probably because my parents agreed that this was a good idea. As I packed my clothes and other essentials, I felt that I was entering a new and harder phase in life, that from then on nothing would be as it was.

São Paulo was only a six-hour bus journey from Rio and there was a departure every fifteen minutes. If I travelled at night, I would arrive in the morning and would then have the whole day to find the university’s student hostel. Friends had told me that getting a place would be easy, but no one could confirm this information that as it was impossible to get through by phone.

I got to the bus terminal at about 11pm. Although it was quiet, there was still a queue at the stand for São Paulo. I stood in line and out of the blue a well-dressed guy came over to ask me if I wanted a lift to São Paulo. I said no but he insisted, explaining that he had been driving for twelve hours from up north. He was exhausted but needed to reach São Paulo the following day to work in a hospital and he was looking for company to keep him awake. To reassure me, he showed me his credentials: he was a doctor. I still wasn’t convinced but he took me to the car and opened all the doors, the boot, lifted the carpets and the benches to prove that there was nothing strange. There wasn’t, he looked like a doctor, the story was plausible and, as the ride would save me the bus fare, I said, “What the hell…OK”.

In the middle of the journey, the doctor started to say that he was tired and that he had to stop. I responded by offering to drive and showed my driver’s license. He responded by giving me a strange look, grinned and with a gentle voice he explained that he wanted to pull off the highway and spend the rest of the night with me in a hotel. “No sir!” I said firmly, “Gay action was not in the contract!”. From then we engaged in a battle of nagging versus refusal. As this went on, I started to get worried when he refused to stop to let me out of the car. When dawn broke and we had reached the outskirts of São Paulo, he realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere with me. He dropped me off at a bus stop on the edge of the highway next to a place that looked like a favela.

The next twenty minutes were to be a crash course on Brazilian urban reality. I had always known that people struggled, but it was still a shock to actually see, first-hand, what life was like.

It was still dark and it was freezing cold but there was already a crowd gathered around the unsheltered bus stop. The ramshackle canteens by here were packed with people having breakfast, the aroma of coffee being the only comforting thing around. It was obvious that most, if not all, of the people here had migrated from the Northeast in search of a better life. Their faces were similar to the ones that I had seen in my trip but their complexions were greyer, the lack of sun, the cold and the effects of life in this huge metropolis grinding them down. Although I was tired, feeling dejected, cold and a bit hungry, as I looked at the people here I couldn’t help but believe that a Higher Force wanted to show me the flipside of my adventures in the Northeast.

When my bus arrived, my fellow passengers and I crammed in like sardines. Without being able to move a finger, we passed by the massive factories of Ford, Volkswagen, Gessy Lever and other multinational companies. As the bus passed these isolated complexes in the periferia of São Paulo, some passengers got off the bus, but most were bound for the city centre. The entire journey that took at least an hour and a half. I could only begin to imagine what life was like for those souls who had to do that same journey every single working day of their lives. At night, they returned home from work in the same bus, enduring the same conditions. All this effort was to gain a miserable wage, to be treated as second-class citizens at work without any prospect of improvement.

I got off at the last stop and after getting lost several times in the city centre’s web of streets and I managed to find a bus to take me to the campus. All I wanted to arrange was a place to spend the night and get some sleep. However, when things are somehow destined to go bad, they only get worse. A strike was on and there were clashes between the students and the police over the dormitory where I was planning to spend my next few months. It had been shut down. Not knowing what to do, I went to the university’s administrative offices to explain my situation and ask for help. Despite my predicament, perhaps put off by my playboy aura and my Carioca accent, I couldn’t convince anyone that I was indeed in trouble.

Lacking any other option, I went to the student’s union. Suddenly luck smiled at me. I bumped into Carlinhos, a friend from Canoa Quebrada, the remote dream-like fishing village that I’d visited in Ceará. I explained my situation and after a few phone calls, he invited me to stay at his parents’ place, a comfortable and spacious apartment looking out across São Paulo’s skyline. His family’s hospitality was overwhelming. They treated me as if I was one of their own: They gave me a room for myself, invited me to eat and to watch television with them. In addition, there was Carlinhos’ attractive older sister, Alice, who I’d met up north. She was glad to see me again, but the last thing I needed was to mess things up by risking making a move on her.

São Paulo was much more sophisticated than Rio. Paulistas were more polite and better dressed. Everything appeared clean and well organized with elevators, buses, traffic lights, the metro system and the shops all working as they should. People were more formal than I was used to and intellectual standards seemed to higher than in Rio. I felt as if I was in a first world country. The people of my age were urban, not like the beach bums of Rio who behaved as though they were the royalty of the Zona Sul. Their trendy British-like punk-rocker styles suited them. In São Paulo, the 1980s made sense.

After a week with Carlinhos, I phoned home and explained where I was and what was going on. As expected Mum panicked and minutes later a wealthy American friend who was living in São Paulo rang up to ask why I hadn’t already looked him up. I knew Johnny from Bar Mitzvah classes and we had studied together at the Escola Americana the main reason for not having called him was that our friendship only existed because when we were kids my mum kept on pushing me as his dad was the CEO of the Brazilian branch of an important American bank.

Johnny had recently returned from Miami. Although his two older brothers had successfully established themselves there, he hadn’t liked the place and now wanted to go to college in Brazil. He was desperate for me to stay with him because in his mind I represented Rio and, believe it or not, his parents saw my presence as positive because they considered me a good student. The invitation had to be accepted because I didn’t want to risk overstaying my welcome with Carlinhos’s family. Both  Johnny and I needed to prepare for the vestibular and with my parents’ help we ended up going to the same crammer, the Objetivo on Avenida Paulista, where most of the headquarters of banks and of the big corporations were located and where Johnny’s family lived in their huge apartment. My new situation was excellent. I didn’t have to lift a finger – there were two maids and a chauffeur, I had a room and free food and sometimes Johnny and I enjoyed hanging out together to chase Paulista girls impressing them with our carioca mannerisms.


In São Paulo, even the vestibular was of a higher level than that of Rio. First, there was a general multiple-choice test and a week later, there was a paper specifically focusing on the candidate’s chosen course involving writing an essay. Included on the test were subjects that weren’t in Rio’s curriculum and when I was confronted with four or five questions on Portuguese literature, which I’d never studied before, I knew that was the end of the road for me.

This was my first defeat after a long run of achieving everything that I had set out to do. I considered staying on in São Paulo for another year to try again but, amidst the height of the economic depression, even I could recognise that this was not a viable option. Also, things had taken a turn for the worse at home. Dad had suffered another heart attack and I knew that it was time to go back to Rio to be a good son for once.

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Lost Sampa

Beautiful Brazilian story

Lost Samba – Chapter 17/01 – The end of the dictatorship in Brazil


Protest for going topless in Ipanema 1980

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?

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Wladimir Herzog, the “suicide” that woke Brazil up.

Lost Samba – Chapter 15/01 – Carnival in Recife part 01

Part21The holidays in my new Brazilian School, the Colégio Andrews on Botafogo Beach, were enormous: if you achieved good grades, the holidays began in early December and only ended in mid-March. However, the classes were in Portuguese, and on top of this I had subjects such as Chemistry and Physics which were new to me; the result was that these shortcomings made me stay back in December and January while most of my friends were travelling and enjoying their vacations. Anyway, body surfing the entire morning and then going to school for an hour or two was not a torture.
When the support classes finished, I passed my exams and there were still almost two months of holiday ahead. Out of the blue, Edu asked me if I wanted to go with him to Recife and spend a month with his relatives, carnival included. He was one year older than me, had just passed the college entry exams and was from a respectable Jewish family so my parents had no problem in giving me approval.

For us, the Brazilian Northeast, or the Nordeste, was like an exotic country within Brazil lagging five to ten years behind Rio and São Paulo. Going there would be like revisiting the city that we had grown up in but as pre-adults. What also made the trip exciting was a new wave of artists from that region – Alceu Valença, Fagner, Zé Ramalho, Geraldo Azevedo, Robertinho do Recife – making the head lights, and transforming the Nordeste into a trendy destination. Also, everyone said that Recife’s carnival was superb. The draw back were the 2,300 kilometers between Rio de Janeiro and Recife; aeroplanes were for the very rich and the only way to go there was a 48 hour bus trip.

On a hot January night, we went with our parents to the interstate bus terminal. It was packed with people of all classes, colours and walks of life wandering by ticket counters, cheap food booths, newsstands and souvenir stores. The hustle bustle made the place exciting and familiar for us but the excess of humble people made the experience uncomfortable for my parents. The information system was confusing and we took some time to find the terminal for the Nordeste. When we finally found it and went down the steep metal stairs that took us to the busses, we encountered the aisles full of rural folk loading their old suitcases and gigantic bags onto the luggage compartments. Among them was also a small number of youngsters with long hair in colourful T-shirts together with girls in flowery dresses, wearing handmade bracelets and bead necklaces who were also preparing to get on to the buses.

After hearing our parents’ embarrassing recommendations, we went in, found our seats and waved goodbye as the bus left. We had a chat, managed to sleep and when the day broke, we were already far away in, what was for us, unchartered territory. As the bus passed through the first small villages, we looked out of the window and began to see people riding donkeys on earthen roads, semi-naked children running around, old cars and mud huts with straw roofs. The complexion of the population had changed: there were fewer Europeans, and more descendants of natives and of slaves.


Forest devastation on BR-101

As we continued up the BR-101 and progressed into the remote countryside, the extent of the forest devastation was striking. At school, we had learned that the Atlantic forest covered this area and we were expecting the bus to pass under trees with monkeys jumping from one side of the motorway to the other. Instead, on both sides of the road, there was a melancholic landscape of endless empty fields. The only trees still standing were the ones made of a wood too strong for the motorized saws.

After close to an entire day in the bus, things began to change; the further north we went, the more it felt as if a weight was leaving the other passengers who now could be themselves. They started talking louder and lost the shame of their accent. The roadside restaurants also began to change and went from bad to worse: the food became cheaper, harder to accept as eatable and the quantity of flies around our plates and glasses began to bother us. The radio DJs began sounding northeastern and playing the local rhythms that our favourite artists had stylized.

After they opened up, our fellow travellers treated us well, offering food, drinks and starting up conversations. They knew who we were but for them, we were nice boys from the educated elite, the pride of the nation, and there was a lot of respect. I was not sure if they could differentiate us from the majority of the youngsters of our age and social bearing: we respected them and we were interested in what they had to say, something that was not common.

Anyway, the trip was not a political exercise and our intentions were not noble at all – as every teen male on the planet, we had only one objective in mind: to score. We were off to Recife’s carnival to have unpaid and hands-free sex. Our expectations were high: coming from Rio gave us an edge as cariocas had the reputation of being street wise, trend setters and sexy.

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Boa Viagem beach – Recife

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Diretas Ja, Fora Collor and the Brazilian Spring.


It was Karl Marx who said that when history repeats itself, it repeats itself as a farce.

As a politically conscious person, this is the third protest en masse against the Brazilian government that I have witness. The first one was the Diretas Ja, in the early eighties. This was a movement demanding the vote for president from the military regime. Slumping into economic hard times and after enduring fifteen years of dictatorship, the country was hungry for democracy and for regime change. Many of the politicians who the current protesters hate were the voices of freedom of those rallies, in particular the ex-president Lula who at the time a true working class hero who had defied the military by stopping the powerful foreign based automotive industry in Sao Paulo. Still a central figure in Brazilian politics he would disappoint the country when in power for refusing to prosecute corrupt allies. Much of the current discontent falls back on him, although one must never loose sight that the success of his left wing party’s governments may guarantee them a fourth term, they are the favorites.

The second wave of protests my generation witnessed was the Fora Collor! (Out Collor!) one, where the country united to oust its corrupt president. Fernando Collor had confiscated the population’s savings accounts in order to end hyperinflation while he himself was constructing mansions with public funds. The Brazilian nation was again in the streets throwing huge pressure for his impeachment and was finally successful, despite the many questions that remain unanswered. During the campaign, the first presidential race in 25 years, he was the young, good looking and energetic candidate who was brought in to hold the left’s certain victory after a series of catastrophic old school and right wing, military sponsored governments. His opponents were Lula and the late Leonel Brizola, two heavyweight champions in the struggle against the Brazilian privileged. After his victory, when Collor started to change things and excluded traditional power brokers from important deals, his former allies turned against him and opened the doors for the popular will to be fulfilled, generously supplying the press with all possible incriminating details and not moving a finger to save him. The final step in this episode was the very badly explained assassination of his treasurer, PC Farias, when he seemed disposed to talk to the press.

This year, once again, protesters flooded Brazil’s streets. The underlying theme was the same as always: impunity, corruption and injustice; plagues that time, new parties and new governments seem unable to eradicate, not only in Brazil but all over the world. The reasons are clear and need addressing and young people are the best to do the job.  It is very healthy that they are alert to what is happening and that they are renewing the country’s political blood. However there are questions, the biggest one is that we know what they are against but what are they proposing? what do they want?

Before there were clear issues: we wanted to vote for president, we wanted a corrupt leader who confiscated our savings out, but now what is it about? Trials? That suspect politicians should be tried and put into jail? That money should go to hospitals and schools instead to the construction of stadiums? A moralization of the country?

OK, Brazil is far from perfect; there are thousands of reasons to protests and a population has the obligation to stand against the wrong doings of their authorities, no one would ever question this, but it seems weird to us that a tropical “anonymous”  uprising should erupt in the wake of the failed Arab springs. OK, there are people being dislodged from their houses to build new stadiums. OK there is A LOT of money going into the wrong pockets at the moment, OK politicians have gone too far by voting laws that make them immune to public investigations. This is wrong and it is right to protest against this.

However there are other aspects to take into consideration. The first one is that, under the two previous administrations, apart from having paid out there gigantic external debt and having growth rates that popped the world’s eyes, Brazil has been derailing out of the American sphere of influence and is becoming an independent world power with ever closer ties to China, who is challenging the western formulas of economic administration . The second point to consider is that although the Dilma administration is being considered by Brazilians as too open to foreign pressure the truth is quite the opposite and that other parties would facilitate even further the intervention of foreign big money. Whoever has tried to do business with Brazil, or even tried to get working permits in Brazil, knows how protective its regulations are and one has to be very naive not to consider that there are powerful forces wanting to “open Brazil up” who would be very happy if the current ruling party changed or, even better, if the democratic regime that the Brazilian people managed to obtain though many sacrifices disappeared.

The fact that these movements, similar to the tragedy of the Syrian “spring”, do not have a defined leadership nor a defined goal other than destabilization, leads us to pose the following question: are they just spontaneous and innocent initiatives of nerdy kids wanting to change the world? We would like to believe that the answer is yes..

Carnival Pictures 2013

Sources – O Globo, Folha de Sao Paulo, Journey to Brazil and Rio de Janeiro Guia Oficial, ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

Images from Sao Paulo

Cool images from Sao Paulo








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Adoniran Barbosa


With a career spanning from the 40’s to the 70’s Adoniran Barbosa was a very different kind of Sambista, way beyond his time.

His life history and his work set him apart from his contemporaries; first of all he was from Sao Paulo, a town that is, and was, considered as infertile ground for quality Samba, due to its strong economy, its urban soul and its great amount of immigrants. Vinicius de Moraes the godfather of Bossa Nova and of Ipanema’s coolness called that town the “grave of Samba”

Adoniran’s real name was Joao Rubinato, the son of an upper middle class Italian immigrant who would never accept the career. A sambista from his social background was something unheard of in the forties and fifties when the door was wide open for kids like him to become rich in the booming Brazil. Yet Adoniran dropped out and despite not having a great voice, after a lot of suffering and effort, he finally made it.

His songs talk about the humble folk insisting in a poetic life way of life despite the harshness of Sao Paulo’s money-making reality. His work was not essentially political, his posture was more like the one of a reporter talking about a world he was not born into but came to discover and love because of his artistic vocation. As most Paulistas he took that suffering in a candid way and with a good dose of good humor.

He died in 1982, but is still held by the the people of Sao Paulo as a representation of their true soul. Below are some of the examples of his work:

With Elis Regina, one of Brazil’s best singers of all times:

Demonios da Groa ( the band that made most of his songs famous) playing Adoniran’s most famous song, Trem das Onze:

Very nice insight to what is cool about Sao Paulo

born again brazilian

Sunday, day 134 of my Brazilian immersion experiment, was a doubly Brazilliant day!

First, (as requested by Stephanie ) we went to Bixiga (or Bexiga or Bela Vista depending on how you feel), a neighborhood which was home to a large number of Italian immigrants. Evidence of such remains with a whole heap of Italian restaurants and markets hanging around. It was Mother’s Day, which is a big day for the Italians, so the chances of us getting to eat at one of the fabulous restaurants in the neighborhood without a reservation was pretty much zero.

But we did find a little Italian market with loads of great stuff so we could have our own little Italian dinner at home later that night.

On Sundays, Bixiga also is home to an antiques fair in its square. I’m no antiques dealer, but it seemed to me that the prices in this…

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