On the serious side, the exams that were going to determine our futures and label our value to society were around the corner and, like everybody else, I was nervous. This rite of passage bothered those of us in Colégio Andrews’ smoky squadron. We questioned what all of that was about and where we were all heading. As Pink Floyd put it, this was our “welcome to the machine”, a money making structure overseeing the way the world functioned, craving for productivity and with an enormous appetite for devouring souls. Above all, we did not want to become elite trained animals, new blood in that circus where everyone and everything was bound to a cycle of working hard to obtain things that they did not really need, but that were presented as fundamental. No one bought the maxim “arbeit macht frei” – work makes freedom – written on Auschwitz’ gates but hammered into our heads with different wordings by our parents, our teachers and other authorities who were already trapped in. They were by no means Nazis, but nevertheless they believed that the only way to escape the inherent injustice of the world was to work hard in order to become a valuable part of the capitalist engine. Like in vampire stories, the moment we became “one of them” there would be no possibility for real happiness, the best we could achieve would be to conform and be content zombies, doing the same as tens of generations before ours did.
No one could deny that we were spoilt kids and that our point of view came from a comfortable upbringing. However, mirroring the perceptions in similar elite enclaves throughout the world, as we detached ourselves from our sheltered but privileged standpoints in society, like paparazzi spotting a celebrity in a surprisingly unfavourable angle, circumstances allowed us to have a clear glimpse of the machine that moved the world, and what we saw was not pretty. There was not much to be done to stop it and there was nowhere and no one to run to, not even to our parents, as they were part of that mechanism. Their rosy view was that the world was experiencing the aftermath of a victory of good against evil where the democratic and socialist forces had crushed Nazism, a hard earned victory that had given hope to the world. For them, despite the unjustified opposition of communist totalitarianism, an explosion of wealth and awareness was bathing the planet and taking it to a better place.
In the minds of the older generations we would be responsible for maintaining what they had achieved through blood, sweat and tears. This post war optimism made most people believe that humanity had achieved something good; a feeling that empowered people to try to fight to improve the world even further. This way of thinking opened a portal of ideals about universal goodwill and freedom that appeared in songs, films, books and all other forms of art and culture. Like Hamelyn’s flute player, these expressions seduced baby boomers and post baby boomers out of a graceless world inhabited by the sour generations that had come before and who had created wars, dictatorships, persecution and so many other horrible things.
However, in many quarters of Latin America the perception of the west’s triumph was not quite like this. After the Cubans had gone too far in their pursuit of freedom, the hand break was pulled and right wing dictatorships had popped up throughout the continent to ensure that those very ideals the US and their allies said they stood for, never happened and that the population remained in the pattern of working hard to buy things that they did not really need. It was depressing when to notice that for some people to be rich many others had to be poor, that all our school years had been spent programming us to serve this faceless tyrant and that this is what our futures would look like no matter what we did or tried. In our semi-innocence, we saw the vestibular as the ultimate trap set by the powerful to make us join their vampire world. As the exam approached, it was as if we were heading towards the exit door from a dream-place where, as John Lennon put it in his song “Imagine”, everyone would live for today.
However, regardless of our clarity about this warped reality, we were still privileged kids from the Zona Sul who were interested in having a good time and the year of 1980 was to be one of exacerbated contradictions. For me, the strangest of these inconsistencies was that being part of the weed/musician club into which my identity had so firmly fused, had a strangely positive effect on my studies. I had no problem sleeping, didn’t have stress-linked skin disorders and was always even-tempered. Also, with some of us playing guitar well and being more street wise than the average student, we were no longer viewed as the school’s weirdos but instead had the status of cool dudes. We had the best parties and even the most attractive girls began to notice us.
In the middle of our most hectic school year, a new Mecca appeared: the region of Visconde de Mauá, a collection of little country villages nestled in Serra da Mantiqueira mountain range right in between the cities Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. When I was a child, before the family set off in the Teresópolis venture, we would rent bungalows and take farm-style vacations there. Many of the Inns and indeed the farms had been set up by immigrants from the Old Continent. This and the more temperate mountain air made the place very similar to the central European countryside where Dad had grown up. He loved to go there as he could enjoy quality time with his children in much the same ways he had enjoyed his childhood. He would take Sarah and I to see cows being milked in the early hours, and delighted himself in explaining how farm life worked, telling us how chickens, pigs, turkeys, sheep and other animals were raised.
In the early 1980s, Visconde de Mauá had become a refuge for pretty-well the only authentic hippies that still existed in Brazil. With their long and unkempt hair, and their unconventional clothes covered with Indian patterns and clumsy drawings of magic mushrooms and cannabis leaves, they were the real thing, complete social dropouts, and were too wild even for us. Their huts had an atmosphere of Celtic tents, with psychedelic drawings, portraits of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and John Lennon drawn on the walls next to hallucinogenic references and the ever-present hippy symbol. Because of the energy around them we experienced something close to the last echoes of Woodstock, after we became closer it was like smoking the roach of a joint that giants of the past had lit up.
Mauá was about four hours from Rio and on long and rainy weekends when there was no beach life, there was no doubt that this was the place to go. The mountains, the woods and the rivers made us feel close to our British rock heroes, or at least to what we saw on the cover of their albums.
On one of our escapades from the pressure of the vestibular preparations, we managed to bring some girls from school. This was a huge novelty: we barely knew how to deal with the notion of female counterparts with the same intellectual outlook as us and, what’s more, who were actually interested in us. When they went topless at a waterfall we all took their initiative maturely, managing to keep our jaws closed.
At night, we lit a fire, opened bottles of wine and passed around the canned food. After eating, we went into our tents, took the guitars out of their covers and started to jam. The atmosphere was special. The only sound around was that of our instruments resonating into the silence of the woods. For us, the chords, the riffs and the solos were a sophisticated and emotional conversation but for the girls this was in a language that they could not understand and which made them feel left out. The original idea was to impress them, but the result could not have been more different: they kept on looking at each other, wondering what we the hell was going on.
I was the kind of guy who never picked up the signs when a girl fancied him, but even I could sense that there was some sort of tension going on between Aninha and me. Although my shyness did not allow a direct approach, I had the cunning idea of placing my sleeping bag next to hers in the tent, my thought being that she would enter the tent, I would immediately follow her and one thing would lead to another. Only the first part went according to plan. Aninha went into the tent and went straight to sleep before the jam session ended. The second part never happened. When I laid down next to her, I tried to wake her up but I was too frightened of how she might react if I insisted.
After a couple of nights, the cold became unbearable. We forgot the Anglo-Saxon rocker rubbish and one of the guys went to Maromba, the nearby hippy village, to see if there was a place for us to stay, even if that meant renting something. After three or four hours, he came back with good news: he had found a room, one room, for all eight of us and everyone was happy.
My social life was contradictory if not downright schizoid. On some weekends, I tidied my hair, put on shirts with collars, shiny leather shoes, a belt and non-jeans trousers in order to go to the gafieiras, or samba clubs, looking good. These were remnants of Samba’s glory days in the thirties and in the forties and had survived in the traditional, downtown area of Rio. They were very much in fashion, though completely separate from the druggy world that was another part of my existence. Left-wingers loved the idea that they could mix with ‘the people’ on their turf. My well-behaved friends liked going to gafieiras, but whoever claimed that they went for the dancing or for the social experience was lying. The reality was that the lure of those clubs was the scores of attractive women some new to the city, and others perhaps from the ‘wrong’ side of the Tijuca forest, but interested in young men from the ‘right’ side of the urban mountain range.
It was not only the architecture that had managed to remain intact, the big bands that played there had managed too. They were authentic, with competent old school sambistas delighted to be playing for a new genration of dancers coming from the Zona Sul. After the cheek-to-cheek dancing under improvised disco lights, there were beers, kisses, exchanges of phone numbers and invitations. Coming from different worlds, anonymity protected both sides and allowed us to have quick flings without the pressure from closer social circles. From our perspective, we were doing what everyone expected Latin American machos to do. As cold as this may sound, it was this that attracted those women to us.
Despite the successes, at the end of the day my approach to the female world was confusing. Being shy with girls who interested me and bold with girls who ultimately didn’t was no path to a healthy inner life. I had romantic expectations built up by what the songs I listened to had told me, and the films that I had seen had shown me my entire life. I had made an effort in constructing a cool persona to be desirable to an equally cool girl. Perhaps because I was not sincere enough, or perhaps because I was too impatient, or too weird, the fact of the matter was that my hopes did not materialize. To make things worse, despite the anguish, there was a part of me saying that I should not worry about these bourgeois expectations; happiness in a relationship was for squares who believed in such bullshit.
On top of the inconsistencies in the romantic department, the success of my guitar playing also added to the internal confusion. The jam sessions and the acceptance at parties projected me to a more prominent status than I had ever expected. This achievement was both a blessing and a curse. Sure, the charisma felt amazing. I sublimated frustrations and passions into my act and this added credibility to what I did. In terms of feedback, music resembled sport: the recognition or rejection was immediate and undeniable, and the buzz of people’s enjoyment was addictive. The curse was that music was to become an unfulfilled promise hovering over my life and keeping me from focusing on other goals. I never managed to translate this gift into material success: the ease of getting things right and of making them sound good is given to you and the best one can do is to be thankful regardless of what one achieves.
Anyhow, as the end of the year neared, the pressure grew exponentially. In order to pass the vestibular, music and partying had to fall into the background. There was only one month left and if I didn’t get down to some hard work there would be no good college and no one would ever forgive me at home. This required a radical step so I went to Teresópolis to isolate myself and prepare for the exams.
The final year at the Colégio Andrews was completely different to the previous ones and one hundred percent directed at preparing us for the ultimate exam. The classes were in a separate building with the students grouped into four classrooms – two for earth sciences, one for biomedicine and one for the humanities. I had chosen the latter. By now, school was pure stress. The methods were intense with teachers bombarding us with infallible secrets to jump over the massive hurdle that was the Vestibular.
Our schools’ programme had a good reputation, and students transferred there from other institutions in Rio as well as from further afield. One of the new students had come from Chile. Kristof was of German descent and resembled the actor Jack Palance, albeit with long blonde hair. A few days after school began; Kristof and I took the usual bus home and started chatting. For some reason, the conversation turned to Teresópolis and we discovered, to our absolute amazement, that we were next-door country house neighbours in the Jardim Salaco. This was a massive coincidence and it helped to make us instant best friends.
We had more things in common: Kristof was also into music and played the transversal flute (he was to become a professional saxophone player), he also had a European edge and in some inexplicable way we both managed to stay academically in the top quarter of the student body despite being members of the “smoke squadron”. Kristof had come to Rio to live with his dad and, after he joined the music circuit, his flat on a hill at the end of Leblon became the new headquarters of our small brotherhood of musical misfits.
Although for us the rock giants of the 1970s still reigned supreme, we were also into jazz-rock represented by a generation of brilliant musicians such as John McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Focus, Jean-Luc Ponty, Jeff Beck, Stanley Clarke and Weather Report. As was the case with so many aspects of Brazilian life and youth culture, we were some five years behind what was happening in Britain and North America and were still completely oblivious to the existence of both punk and reggae. Anyhow, I suspect that even if we had known of these developments, as aspiring musicians, we still would have stayed tuned into those great instrumentalists.
There was also new high calibre local musical talent emerging and our ears were ripe for musicians like Hermeto Pascoal, Nana Vasconçelos and Egberto Gismonti who seemed to be a conduit for the kind of energy I had experienced in the south of Bahia. If Bossa Nova had been a reflection of Brazil’s post-war optimism, this new musical generation reflected a moment of self-discovery and of rebirth emerging from the resurgence of political freedom. Despite being exclusively instrumental these musicians were popular, their concerts attracted respectable large crowds, and for a short while they were the top selling acts amongst the educated middle class.
Of the three, Egberto was my favourite. His talent first became apparent in his father’s musical instrument shop where he demonstrated pianos to customers. As a young adult, Egberto went to France to study classical music. When he returned to Rio, he applied his acquired knowledge and his genius to Brazilian music, going way beyond Bossa Nova. Arguably, Egberto Gismonti became as significant a musician as Heitor Villa-Lobos, Brazil’s greatest classical composer. Among other things, Egberto was unique in experimenting with indigenous music, going as far as to learn sacred music from a shaman in the Xingu area. The story goes that for Sapaim, the musician/shaman, to accept him, Egberto had to camp outside his jungle longhouse for about a month until he was invited in. Perhaps because of what he learned there, the sounds in Gismonti’s concerts were hypnotic, almost like a solid entity, with audiences always giving their absolute attention.
Hermeto Pascoal was born in the remote and dry interior of the Brazilian Nordeste – the Sertão. As Hermeto was an albino, he couldn’t work under the scorching sun, so his brothers would lock him up in a barn where he channelled his fury and energy into music. Hermeto’s long and curly white hair and beard, and his strong facial features covered by thick glasses, lead to the deserved nickname of ‘the Sorcerer’. His band made insane noises, not only with instruments, but also with everyday objects such as broken bottles, saws and pans. In the midst of this madness, however, there was genius, with valleys of heavenly music brewed from the mysteries of the Indigenous, the Africans and the Europeans.
Of the three instrumentalists, the one with the greatest international success was Nana Vasconcelos. The magazine Down Beat, the most important one in the Jazz world, was to elect him eight times as the best percussionist in the world; he also was to receive eight Grammy awards. Being from Pernambuco and the only African descendant of the three he had a close attachment to the spiritually charged Maracatu rhythm. Perhaps due to both he took percussion to previously unimaginable psychedelic heights.
Egberto, Nana and Hermeto were by no means the only expressions of Brazilian instrumental and experimental music in the late 1970s early 1980s. There were also bands such as Uakti – known for using custom-made instruments, made by members of the group themselves – the name derived from a native Tucano myth of a man/instrument. There were also the more electrical bands such A Cor do Som and the guitarist Pepeu Gomes, both offshoots of the Novos Baianos. Anyhow, after their relatively brief popularity in Brazil, the three main exponents of their generation would fall out of fashion at home but would emerge as stars on the international jazz scene.
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.
In 1973 there was a major stock market crash due to the sudden increase in the price of Petrol internationally, and, as anywhere else in the world, people who had made easy fortunes suddenly lost everything from one day to another, leading to a major drop in real estate prices. Dad was either clever or lucky enough to have sold his shares just days before the collapse and for us this stroke was like winning the lottery. Having plenty of cash available, my parents were able to buy an apartment in Ipanema, and to move into Rua Nascimento Silva, only a few doors away from the home of Vinicius de Moraes, the acclaimed Bossa Nova poet.
The new address meant an upgrade not only in our social status but also in our lifestyle. Although the flat did not have a verandah as the rented one in Copacabana, the new home was much larger and, more importantly, it was ours. The previous owners had joined two small three bedroom flats into a single unit. At its centre was the kitchen, which separated my parents’ side of the flat from the one where Sarah and I moved into. Now, each of us had our own room with a privacy that was a dream for most kids.
Regardless of the hurricane of social change going on behind closed doors, with the exception of the beach front Avenida Vieira Souto, in terms of architecture and of environment, Ipanema felt like a luxury version of a typical Brazilian coastal city. The streets were calm, airy and lined with lush trees that almost hid the sky. Its buildings were newer than those in Copacabana but were lower and less ostentatious, giving the district a more residential, down to earth feel.
Our new home seemed to bring sudden changes to our lives. To begin with, in what was surely one of the coolest places to live in the entire planet, Sarah and I went from being children to being adolescents, both of us discovering the delights and set backs of that period of life. In second place, my parents finally gave way and bought a television set, perhaps accepting that elegant society considered it strange for their aspirants not to have one. Our new TV immersed us even deeper into the wider Brazilian world. Like anybody else, now we could watch TV Globo’s four different novelas, or soap operas, Brazil’s main cultural product, five days a week. Although I soon got tired of them, in the beginning I was hooked: at six in the evening, there was a novela aimed at youngsters; at seven there was a pre-dinner comedy; at eight there was the big production for the entire family; and at ten, there was a more adult show. All were excellent: censorship had forced the best professionals in the field to work in them, as there was otherwise very little space for independent voices in the entertainment industry. This concentration of talent gave the genre an amazing quality that would help them be hits all over the world.
Due to my Mum’s complete disdain for the medium, she did not want our black-and-white television in the living room but instead it stayed in a spare room next to mine. Every evening at seven Dona Isabel, switched on the set to listen to the soap operas from the kitchen as she prepared dinner and this sound track only ceased when we went to bed. Apart from knowing what went on in the novelas, I could watch football games, sitcoms, films and imported TV series while on Saturday afternoons I could enjoy seeing the latest international bands on Sabado Som. Suddenly I was no longer a complete alien at school.
Probably the reason why the previous owners had sold their Ipanema flat to my parents was that the neighbourhood’s main street gang used the building’s entrance as their base. Although they had a middle class background, they were the bad boys at the top of Ipanema’s food chain who ruled not only the streets, but also the waves with their surfing skills in the hippest part of the beach, the Pier. Now long gone, the Pier was set up for the construction of an enormous pipe to funnel Ipanema’s sewage out into the deep ocean. Because its construction had altered the currents and the seabed, the waves there were amazing and the specialised press ranked that particular point as one of the best places to surf in Latin America. These circumstances would make the Pier produce many of Brazil’s first surf champions. Anyway, the gang’s constant presence in our entrance way brought the 1970s rebellion right to our doorstep. Mum and Dad felt besieged by a bunch of barbarians.
One of the gang members, Pepê, was to become a world champion surfer and hang-glider, and years later his popularity would help him be elected into the city council. His younger and less talented brother, Pipi, was shot after he jumped over the counter to attack the owner of the botequim, or bar, on our corner. One day I was coming home from school when I saw a peroxide-blond surfer sitting motionless on the pavement, waiting for an ambulance with his blood-soaked shirt stuck to his belly. The next morning as I was leaving for school, our building’s porter told me that Pipi had died in hospital.
Whenever there were no waves, the gang hung out on the other side of the street to skateboard on a garage ramp while blasting out Deep Purple, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin and The Rolling Stones from a cassette player. While none of them could understand the poignant lyrics, I could, which made me somehow participate in what was going on as I watched them from our living room’s window like a sick boy watching other children play from a hospital ward. In those afternoons, the songs’ words, together with the smell of cannabis wafted into our flat. Seeing the cigar-sized joint passing from hand to hand among the suntanned surfers was like witnessing a bank robbery from a privileged position. This was the subversive crime that the authorities were warning everyone about on television now that the fear of left wing terrorism had died off.
Anytime I passed in front of that gang, I would hear them comment, “There goes that little wimp”. The most embarrassing moments were when we went by car to the club and the porter had to ask those surfers politely to move aside so that our car could exit the garage. As we left the building, inside was my middle-aged mum wearing a white mini-skirt tennis uniform and me with my skinny legs and my oversized football gear. Because of them, my parents ended up banning surfing at home but those guys pushed me to prove, if only to myself, I was not the wimpy kid they saw. I am still trying.
An extract of the film Garota Dourada shot at the time.
Rio de Janeiro became the undisputed capital of world football. Needless to say, the players of the national squad became super-heroes for kids of my generation, and playing football was an absolute must for all of us. Supporting a team was also an essential part of the package. I opted for Botafogo, because it was the neighbourhood where I was born and because of its cool emblem: a five-pointed, white star on a black shield resembling Captain America’s. My team was among Rio’s “big four”, competing alongside Flamengo – the team of the masses, Fluminense – the team of the rich, and Vasco – the team of the Portuguese community and their descendants. Botafogo was the odd one out and attracted those who somehow did not fit in any firm social category. The opposition would say that this was the team for the weirdos.
If only for a moment, football produced the magic spell that every totalitarian government longs for: it brought people together as equals. For me this worked; football was the best way to fit into a country that was completely alien to my parents and I took on this mission with absolute conviction. Whenever I could, I would stay in my room following the football championships on the radio, which was altogether far more fun than anything else that went on within the confines of our apartment. Radio Globo’s presenters were funny, clever, eccentric and over the top. When a player managed a great trick, the commentators, Jorge Curi and Waldir Amaral, went wild; when a player scored, they became orgasmic. Mario Vianna, the comentator for the referee’s decisions, would shout “Errou!!!” for mistakes, “La mano!!!, Cadê o echo?? La mano ôo ôo ôo!!!” for an apparent handball, “Banheiiiiira!!!” – Bathtub!!! – for an offside, and, on for penalties, he would make a solemn comment before offering his verdict: “Penalidade maxima”. After a match, it was time for João Saldanha. His considered, hour-long post-match analysis employed allegories of known and made-up folk tales, involving metaphors such as giraffes dating monkeys and elephants marrying ants. He was never boring..
These characters made mini transistor radios an essential gadget for football fans who, even in the Maracanã, held them closely to their ears. During important matches, there were so many that, providing there was a silent moment, all the fans could hear the station’s jingle echo loudly throughout the stadium.
With Brazil’s heightened international status, the two tournaments that the carioca teams participated in – the state’s one in the first half of the year, and the national one in the second half of the year – acquired a special flavour. Rio’s league was only rivalled by São Paulo’s and, as the commentators Waldir Amaral and Jorge Curi liked to say, here was the three-times world champion football being played at the biggest – and greatest – venue on the planet. I was dying to watch a match in the Maracanã. All the other boys who I knew had already gone – or at least they claimed that they had – and I badly needed the kudos. As ever, the obstacle was Mum and Dad’s irritating attitude of “What I don’t know, I don’t like”. Coming from Britain, for them football was for the working class and for the local riff-raff. Going to a stadium and mixing with those types would somehow be a blot on their social position.
My fate changed on the day that Peter, one of Dad’s friends, offered to take me to a match together with his two sons. He was the adventurer of my parents’ social circles: he had crossed Latin America in an old jeep, he smoked, he was toned and suntanned and spoke English with an American accent.
Peter and his two sons, Rob and Tony, came to pick me up in their jeep early on a Sunday afternoon. They were older and supported Fluminense – which was not ideal for a Botagoguense – but the game was against Flamengo, everyone’s arch-rival. This would make it OK to shout “Nense!!! Nense!!! Nense!!!” instead of “Fogo!!! Fogo!!! Fogo!!!”. At first I felt uncomfortable in the car, the two older boys kept on talking about electronics, mechanics and other subjects that were alien to my existence. However, the further we travelled, the more apparent it became that all the traffic was heading to the stadium and I forgot the feeling of being left out. The other cars were filled with Flamengo or Fluminense supporters who would make fun or cheer each other from the car windows. Surely their radio sets were tuned into the same station as us, we were one of the guys!
We arrived about one hour before kick-off time. While Peter negotiated the parking fee with a car “minder” – who would, of course, not be there when we came back, I stepped out to look around. The atmosphere was frantic: people, very few of them from the Zona Sul, were heading towards the stadium. The Maracanã was at least three blocks away but even so, it looked colossal; the batucadas and the cheering coming from inside were loud, and appeared to be attracting the crowd like a butcher’s light attracts flies.
Seat reservations were unheard of – everyone had to queue at ticket booths. Rusty bars separated the ticket vendors from the public and while we waited for our turn, beggars and drunkards came to bother us. Further away, improvised stand owners shouted their lungs out trying to sell their stock of flags, mats to sit on and team shirts to the fans rushing by. After getting our admission, the next step was to make our way into the stadium. This was no simple matter. There were only two gates for our tickets, one on either side of the Maracanã. The mass gathered in front of them and funnelled in like sand passing through an egg timer. The mood was tense and filled with testosterone; this was not a place for women, children or the elderly. Amidst the pushing crowd, I clung to Peter’s eldest son’s shirt and had to be careful not to fall down and risk having hundreds of anxious feet trampling me.
The turnstiles were a surreal oasis of peace separating the madness outside the stadium from the one inside it. Before passing through the turnstiles, frail middle age clerks, guarded by fearsome-looking bouncers, carefully inspected the tickets one by one. Those without a legitimate one – or those trying to sneak in without any – had to choose between turning back and pushing their way through the on-coming mob or being escorted to the police station. I could tell that the inspectors had little patience and no sympathy, as one of them was yelling at one of those trying to smuggle themselves in “Who cares if you have no money!? For f..ck sake! Decide fast! Can’t you see the people behind you?”
When our turn came, the grey haired mulato in glasses examined our admissions, tore the thin blue papers, threw his half in a bin and loosened the turnstile to allow us in. We regrouped and ran with the crowd up the wide ramp that lead to the upper ring. Police officers with ferocious dogs grabbed hold of drunkards and people carrying dangerous objects. At the end of the ramp, the fans separated according to their team loyalties and there were no further risks of fights breaking out between rival supporters. We followed the Fluminense fans and took the left corridor, rushed past the toilet doors and the half-empty bars, the mixture of urine and spilled beer producing a sickening smell. There were entrances every thirty meters, and Peter had to decide quickly which one to choose.
He pushed us into one of the narrow corridors where shadows obscured the light at the far end. We ran up feeling the immense energy emanate from the crowd. When we finally entered into the arena, I was in awe: the stadium was gigantic – I could well-understand how it could take a hundred and sixty thousand spectators. Down below, encircled by the oval construction dressed with all the paraphernalia necessary for the spectacle, with advertising and fan’s banners hanging from the balconies, was the green and impeccably maintained football field that captured the dreams of an entire nation.
In the crowd, the areas around the supporters’ associations were the most fun. Those were the places where the most fanatic fans stood, where the batucadas happened and from where all the booing and the cheering originated. When one of them started, moments later – as in a chemical reaction –tens of thousands of people would be shouting out the same message. The problem was that it was also there where most of the fighting broke out. That was a bad choice for Peter to take three children and, perhaps wisely, he ushered us to the boring neutral zone between the two sides.
As we found a place for four people, there was a preliminary match going on between the juniors from both clubs. Although everyone was more concerned about the main event, there were cheers and the tempo of the drums went up when one of the future professionals scored. Also, things went silent when one of them was about to take a penalty. When the match finished, the stadium woke up. It was already completely full, and supporters began waving their super-sized flags, releasing balloons with their teams’ colours and setting off firecrackers. The samba and the chanting and counter-chanting also heated up. Down on the field, photographers with several cameras and long lenses hanging on their necks, and reporters with oversized microphones and headphones, ran to take their positions behind the goal posts. The uniformed gandulas, or ballboys, sat around the field while policemen with dark glasses and German Shepherd dogs patrolled the aisles and periphery of the field. Now only the players were missing.
The fans sang the same rude tunes that we taught each other at school and threw crushed empty paper cups onto the heads below. The worst thing I remember seeing were guys peeing down onto the lower stands where the poorer fans went. They called that section the geral; it was the cheapest place in the stadium and was certainly a place to avoid. The spectators there watched the game standing up with their field of vision at the same level as the player’s feet amidst gang fights that broke out regularly.
A friend told me the story of a reporter who was in one of the press cabins that hung over the geral. In order to amuse himself, the reporter started shouting out obscenities at them, in the middle of his rant his false teeth fell out and landed on the ground right below him. Despite his pleadings, they trampled his teeth as soon as they hit the floor.
A surprisingly monotone and formal voice sounded out of the loudspeakers announcing the match and reading out the players’ names. The electronic panel was turned on and began to display the “Flamengo 0 and Fluminense 0” score line.
Because it was the team of the white social elite, Fluminense’s symbol was rice flour. In preparation for the team’s entrance, members of its torcida, or fans association, walked around with buckets full of sachets of the stuff, distributing them like farmers throwing feed to animals. As soon as Fluminense came onto the field, the fans opened the sachets and threw the powder up into the air creating a thick, white cloud. When the air cleared, it looked as if the supporters had just come out of a dust storm.
Flamengo’s torcida was bigger than Fluminense’s, covering almost two-thirds of the stadium. The club’s symbol was a vulture due to its colours: red and black. For every match, supporters brought in a real vulture – the tradition was to attach a flag to its feet and release the bird as the players came onto the field. If their mascot flew out of the stadium, they considered this a good omen. At this particular game, the confused creature ran the risk of changing colour because of the cloud of rice powder, and of being mistaken for a white eagle when it returned to its nest.
The two teams walked onto the field together, the referee with his auxiliaries opened their way and the teams’ young mascots came right after. They were free to run around after their squads posed for the press photographers. The next morning those images would be on the back pages of every newspaper in the city and whoever had been in the stadium would feel as if they had taken part of a major event. As the players warmed up reporters ran around the stars in the field trying to get them to comment on the stories they had been working on; now we could actually recognise the owners of the voices that we had been following since we left home.
Once the field was clear, the referee called the two captains to the centre of the pitch to choose who would kick-off the match and on which ends of the field the teams would start. The players took their positions, the referee whistled, and a celebrity player gave the first pass. The match had begun and the tension grew higher. Some of the players had been world champions in Mexico and the fans could recognize them from their haircuts, the numbers on their shirts and their style of play. When they did something wrong, people criticised them loudly as if they knew them personally. When attackers were close to scoring, everyone stood up, and when the opposition did something threatening, they kept silent while the opposing fans cheered. In the second half, Fluminense scored and although I did not support them, I could not contain myself and went crazy as if I was one of them.
Back then, Brazilian clubs did not sell their stars abroad and television was still in its infancy. Our football heroes did not have agents planning golden careers for them in European leagues. Instead, horizons began and ended with the state and national leagues and, for the very best, selection to the national team. They played for the torcida and did what they could every Sunday afternoon to confirm their status as craques, or football idols, not for television viewers or for foreign scouts, but for those present at the stadiums. Therefore, the there and then that was crucial, and this made the quality of those games not just world class, but the best in the world. The Maracanã of that era holds special memories for Rio’s football fans, rather as Woodstock does for rock lovers. There were moments of absolute magic, unforgettable goals, tricks and plays, and outlandish crowd deliria. As in the colliseum in Rome, the aura in those matches is an unrepeatable phenomenon.
In terms of family, we were not completely isolated in the new country. There was my only Brazilian cousin – Bibi Vogel, the daughter of one of Dad’s distant cousins who had moved to Brazil before the war. Bibi was a well-known popular singer and actress, her fragile looks, with green, sharp eyes, dark lips and a hippy-looking haircut, helped make her a muse of her generation. Her voice was similar to that of Joan Baez and she recorded a couple of successful albums. She also starred in soap operas and played one of the main roles in the Brazilian version of Hair, the counter-cultural musical of the sixties.
In the early 1960s, before her Brazilian rise to fame, Bibi had gone to New York to try her luck with a friend’s bossa nova band. After a year or so, she took a break and returned to Rio. While there, she heard Jorge Ben’s hit “Mas Que Nada” (“oooo… Maria aioooo, oba oba oba…”). Back in New York, Bibi introduced the song to the band, but soon after she left to follow a boyfriend. Sergio Mendes and his Brazil 66 took up Bibi’s suggestion and this move projected them to become the biggest Brazilian international showbiz act since Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz appeared with their “Girl From Ipanema”.
As I became a teenager, I was surprised – and slightly amused – to see Bibi semi-naked and covering her breasts on the cover of Status – Brazil’s first Playboy-style magazine. More shockingly, Bibi appeared on posters advertising soft-porn pornochancahada films, chanchadas being the name given to Brazilian, home-grown, mass produced popular musical comedies of the 1950s. Their porno contemporary was a genre that filled cinemas with solitary male members of the lower classes eager to watch actresses showing their breasts in sexual situations. If having a cousin involved in this was strange, to make things even stranger, Bibi’s mum (Dad’s cousin) was the lead singer on the high holidays with our synagogue’s choir.
What was most confusing was that although Bibi’s artistic accomplishments and her image went against everything my parents taught us, they couldn’t help but be proud of her. As with any middle class family, success was more important than virtue. As far as I was concerned, Bibi had a very respectable personality and I always leapt to defend her when my friends came out with rude jokes about her. To me, Bibi was inspiring: if someone in my family could make it artistically, then surely I could too…. though I hasten to add not in the porn industry!
At home, at school and in my parent’s social circles, every one considered me “artistic”; something that I was never sure if people said as a compliment or rather as a polite way of saying that I was hopeless. Anyway, with Mum’s ban on pop music and popular culture, I listened to a lot of classical music and I loved it. The intricate but harmonious music of Johann Sebastian Bach topped my charts, followed closely by the dramatic compositions of Ludwig van Beethoven and by the uplifting melodies of Igor Stravinsky. Music moved me, probably due to a gene running in the family. For decades, my uncle, the composer Sydney Torch, conducted the BBC Concert Orchestra, both Mum and Granddad were accomplished piano players, and Grandmother had been a music teacher. More recently, my cousin from Liverpool, Ben Mandelson, was a guitarist, playing with Billy Bragg in the 1980s.
On weekends, I would wake up early to listen to the musical classics and conduct invisible orchestras with my extendable Japanese pen. My parents took note of this passion, and Mum arranged for music lessons. The school’s teacher was a special person. He had come to Rio through a charity linked to the Church of England and was “spastic”; the name commonly given at the time to the disorder cerebral palsy. Although the symptoms were severe, they did not affect his speech or his ability to teach a six-year-old to play the recorder.
After winning the battle to learn my first tune – “Au Claire de la Lune” – the instrument went from being my hated enemy to becoming my best friend. I played wherever and whenever I could, and the sweet sounds of the instrument connected me to something bigger, something that seemed to escape most people’s perceptions of the world around them. Although my school enemies took my discovery of music as a new offence and as a further excuse to attack me, my neighbours, teachers, family and friends seemed to encourage my playing. Even so, after about a year of putting up with my performances, they were all secretly relieved when I swapped the recorder for a quieter, more outdoorsy, passion: body boarding.
After the toddler stage of running with the foam at the water’s edge every morning, I moved on to a polystyrene board and ventured out to where the waves broke. First, I learned how to slide down straight and then how to cut the waves sideways. As my courage grew the size of the waves kept increasing, I also developed my technique and started to belong to the tough guy’s group. The more respectable I became the smaller were the boards I used, until I dismissed boards completely and used only my bare hands with the help of diving fins. Out there, behind the powerful surf and under the hot sun, everything was pure and calm. There was only the vast ocean, the far away buildings and the single expanse of the beach. When the waves rolled in from the far horizon, it was as if they were challenging us. In order to ride them, we would position ourselves in the perfect spot and swim forward at just the right speed until the ocean’s force allowed us to become part of its wall of water. After this, all we had to do was to guide our body ever so slightly to prolong the feelings of bliss as long as possible.
Big waves were the scariest, but also the most fun. At my peak as a bodysurfer, I mastered swells of up to two and a half meters which, viewed from beneath, seemed massive. There was always a point of no return when you could still look down and analyse what you were about to do. At that point, one had to be a bit crazy to continue, but, in ninety percent of cases, the dare was more than worthwhile.
The highlight of body surfing was to be covered by the wave’s tube. This is surely one of the best places to be on this planet: a dynamic cave of water formed by Nature only for a brief moment in time. There was a subliminal, erotic poetry of being in there, as the stiff body slid through the cosmos’s wet tunnel.
That kind of communion with nature was greater than anything I had learned either at home or at school. After the sessions, I walked out of the ocean exhausted, the body energized by the adventures and feeling proud. Riding waves brought me beach respectability, which in turn began to raise questions of why I should step down from such heights. My parents greeted my achievements with apprehension, fearing that I was on the verge of ruining a brilliant future. They saw physicality and daring as altogether dangerous attributes, and riding waves was for the disrespectful, longhaired, hooligans who my parents, and their circle, believed were spoiling Rio.
The big question in our childhood in the seventies was, what will you be when you grow up? There was no doubt that whatever we chose as a career, no matter how far fetched the dream was, we were bound to make it big. We were the children of the country of the economic miracle, with two figure growth rates for consecutive years, three time world champion in football (or soccer). Brazil and the Brazilians were predestined to glory, this was a nation that had built its capital in the middle of nowhere and that was now constructing the Transamazonian highway which would open further opportunities for growth. The road towards development and wealth was unstoppable and the saying was that God was Brazilian.
I remember vividly a conversation with Marcio, a guy who would commit suicide five years later after several internments in mental institutions, where we discussed our future and had no doubt about the satisfaction of our kids of living in flats by the sea. As the bus passed a fun fair that had been constructed in Sao Conrado, night fell as our prophesies went from strength to strength.
As school started preparing us for university, and adulthood started showing itself up in the horizon, the economic conditions started changing and the unstoppable optimism was replaced by uneasiness and by a growing politization. This was the time of the “abertura”; the military were restoring civil freedoms, freeing political prisoners and allowing exiled politicians back into the country. The result was that the middle class shifted from raving about their future to indulging in an era of cultural enlightenment and personal flourishment.
The novelty of freedom and of open political discussions created what can be described as the “Brazilian spring”. As youngsters we were hit in full by this illusion and believed that our obligation was to question everything and to oppose any restriction to our rights and to other peoples rights. In the immediate spheres the greatest hurdle for our freedom were parents and the police and we took them on like puppies take on their owners.
Reality took some three or four years to bite in. These weren’t the sixties but by nineteen eighty three or four that dream by the Brazilian coast, of a free country with a free and sustainable future hosting suntanned and fulfilled citizens was over. The truth was that these golden years were provided by the military in order to create a smoke screen to cover up the economic disaster that was happening in the background.
Being a huge country with a politically naive population ruled by corrupt leaders who were protected by a military apparatus, Brazil was the perfect ground for economic hit men. These guys come representing big conglomerates with a case full of money and offer it to authorities in exchange for massive projects that benefit everyone except the population. These operations generate gigantic debts which are one of the most efficient ways for the money owners to suck in the riches created in the “real world”.
The results of this time bomb took by surprise an entire generation, and their parents too. Economic strife and personal hardship were not inscribed in the country’s DNA and until the mid eighties this was never in anyone’s radar. As the situation deteriorated so did the country’s mental health, crime and violence rocketed, cocaine abuse became endemic while the people and their government did not know how to deal with what was going on. The international community’s response could not have been worse, they sent in inspectors of the International Monetary Fund to tell the Brazilians that they had to undergo austerity measures to remedy the pains that their economic hitmen had caused.
This unexpected outcome of our formative years poisoned the air and affected personal relationships. People said sod it to who they were in order to climb out of the hole. Now they did not live for the dream anymore; they substituted that for pursuing the false promises that the system offered. A stamp of serfdom was put on their foreheads and the samba was lost.
It is sad to see this pattern happening again in countries that joined the European Union, and there is no doubt that the cycle has restarted in the Olympic and World Cup Brazil. Yes.. History repeats itself, and we ask until when will we allow people to steal our samba.
Johnny was an American/Brazilian friend, perhaps because of this and because he had two older brothers he had a more liberated life than myself; his parents allowed him to surf and to go to rock concerts. The friendship opened doors to a world that I wished to get into, namely the surfer’s one.
Without parental consent he started to take me to where it was happening. We began by surf films: high school student union cine-clubs showed them in sessions advertised on A4 sized posters suck on to walls of the surf shops that were starting to pop up in Ipanema. Teachers and head masters certainly did not know what went on inside those rooms. The first one I went to was in the auditorium of a Church in Copacabana. The girls looked too wild for us and all the guys in the room had long hair and looked, or at least tried to look, like seasoned surfers.
As the lights went off the warrior cries and the surfer’s “yeehaa!!!” began. The first shot was a fly through the Hawaiian Mountains that landed on a beach with perfect waves. From there it cut to “real” long-haired american surfers which all of us knew from imported magazines. I think that was the first time in my life I was in a room where someone smoked weed. At the end of the session, although my parents forbade surf at home and weed was considered as the synthesis of evil I was a few steps closer to the surfing world.
The next step was going to a proper rock concert. Johnny invited me to go to see a really good band with an English singer that everyone was into. The name of the Band was Vimana.
As it happens that band was to represent the genesis of Brazilian modern rock. It featured guys who were to become major names in the Brazilian Rock scene: Lulu Santos, their guitarist and vocalist on some songs would become one of Brazi’ls biggest commercial successes in the 1980’s, Ritchie, the English singer also would become a household name when he launched the classic Menina Veneno a few years later and their drummer Lobao, only 16 at the time, is still one of the most influential names in Brazilian Rock.
The theater was the Teresa Rachel (see article about it in this blog) and the public was the same as in the surfing films but bigger. It seemed that everyone with long hair in Rio de Janeiro’s South Zone was in that hall. There was the inevitable smell of Cannabis in the Theater but what really caught our attention was the futuristic equipment and the similarity of the music that they played to what we heard on our record players: Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes and Led Zeppelin.
The level was deafening and left a hum in my ear for almost a week. As I left the theater I was proud to have been to my first rock concert and that was boasting material for weeks.
Vimana was good even when compared to foreign bands. Unfortunately my pocket-money was not enough to buy the single that they released, the one and only they ever did. As most bands do, they ended up imploding but a few years later they were called up by Patrick Moraez, the keyboard play from the mega British Progressive rock band Yes to work with him, they rehearsed for months but it ended up not going ahead.
The video above is not great but is probably their only live recording ever. Hopefully you will enjoy it.