Ipanema entered the world’s consciousness as a dream-like place in the mid-1960s when Frank Sinatra discovered Bossa Nova’s laid-back melodies. However, by the 1970s, Bossa Nova, Frank Sinatra and the positive outlook of the Brazilian society had become something of the past. Living under a dictatorship and recovering from the wounds of democracy’s failed resistance, Ipanema would now take centre-place in the country’s process of digesting the new reality. It would do this with a twist of rock ’n’ roll. Although the neighborhood was the embodiment of the middle class comfort that the so-called “Brazilian economic miracle” had ushered; there was an awareness that the newfound wealth was for a privileged minority and that this status quo was backed by a harsh political clampdown. In the early days following the 1964 coup, Ipanema seemed like an independent republic, an island of critical thought where talented and comparatively wealthy, bohemian artists and intellectuals congregated. Their resistance to the military regime began early when, in 1969, a group of them launched a satirical weekly called O Pasquim. This seminal publication would land many of its contributors in prison for varying lengths of time, but would also position them into the elite of the country’s intelligentsia.
O Pasquim was ahead of its days: not only did it firmly position itself against the military but it also lampooned the bourgeoisie and their values. There were ground-breaking interviews, many of them fuelled by bottles of whisky, with all sorts of football players, artists, politicians, actors and other celebrities. In a time of heavy censorship, they exposed these public figures from previously unexplored angles, encouraging them to talk about their private lives, their views on controversial subjects such as drugs and sex and to confess their sins. They also approached people who the mainstream media ran away from, such as Luiz Inácio ‘Lula’ da Silva – Brazil’s future president but in the 1970s just a rising leader of the “inconvenient” metalworkers’ union in the outskirts of São Paulo.
Battling the heavy hand of the government, O Pasquim was one of the very few remaining independent journalistic voices following the suppression of the mainstream media. Somehow, this publication succeeded in being both humorous and penetrating and the weekly sold solidly right across Brazil. Their contibutors became household names throughout the country and had the effect of making Ipanema a synonym for a free, resistant and happy bohemian zone. This image would be a key to how Brazil would eventually handle its return to democracy.
On the other hand, if one was to leave aside the political void during the early years of the 1970s, with double figure annual growth figures the middle class was by and large content, not only in Rio’s Zona Sul but throughout Brazil. As far as they were concerned, the economy was sailing along nicely and the new prosperity had a very clear impact on middle-class lifestyles. Sales of cars, televisions, Coca-Cola, records, contraceptive pills, electronic gadgets, music and surf magazines, and marijuana all rocketed in Rio.
As the new generations began to enjoy the fruits of prosperity, strange long haired and socially unclassifiable characters started appearing on the streets and, via television, right across the country’s living rooms. In Ipanema, the rock ‘n’ roll spirit was omnipresent and the youth embraced the new genre with conviction, making the neighborhood unique in relation to the rest of Brazil. Groups of hippy-like youngsters walked around with upper class girls who, in what was still mostly a conservative society, looked sexually available, their t-shirts and lack of bras turning heads wherever they passed. Something new was in the air: a feeling that was alive, menacing and with strong sexual overtones.
With Ipanema at the eye of the social hurricane, its teen boys discovered surfing and did what they could to emulate their southern Californian contemporaries. For local residents, something strange happened. There was an uneasy but very real blend of its political edge and a pioneering rock ‘n’ roll way of life. Life was an exciting adventure for young Ipanemenses; in the 1970s the Rio’s youth had not yet split itself up into “tribes”. It was possible to surf in the morning, go to an underground musician’s gig in the evening, then listen to a Led Zeppelin cassette in a car heading to a disco, and finally end the night in the Tijuca forest smoking a joint while listening to Pink Floyd or to an old Caetano Veloso cassete. In people’s minds, worlds, tastes and practices all crossed each other. You belonged to your particular circle of friends and no one ever thought about re-defining himself or herself because of a specific musical trend, or political or ideological movement. Life was like a box of chocolates full of novelties, so why not try all of them? These were circles of privileged young people, a minority with a considerable trend-setting power, who liked to believe they rejected bourgeois values and were unsympathetic towards the military regime.
At the same time, with Copacabana becoming less socially desirable, a new wave of very wealthy people were moving into Ipanema. They would make its beachside promenade Avenida Vieira Souto the most expensive address in the entire country. Its main commercial strip, Avenida Visconde de Pirajá, absorbed the moment and had hippy-looking burger houses, pinball arcades, surf shops and boutiques selling flower-power inspired clothes. Meanwhile, old-style bars scattered along the side streets leading to the beach, attracted an older generation of bohemian left-wingers. With feelings of condescension, amusement and worry, the rich observed all this from the back seats of their chauffeur-driven luxury cars.
Long haired surfers wearing imported Hawaiian trunks and t-shirts took over street corners in this new Brazilian California. In order to look like their North American counterparts, those guys dyed their hair blond with surf wax or peroxide, and overall they seemed healthy, wealthy and wild. Although the intellectuality and the dogmatism of politics put them off, they believed they were resisting the system by doing whatever they felt like doing – mainly drugs, sex, rock and roll and surfing – and by looking the way they wanted to. Ipanema’s girls were part of the second generation to be liberated by the pill and displayed their tasty bodies on the surfers’ turf – the beach – giving birth to the tanga, or the Brazilian G-string bikini.
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.
Surf appeared in Ipanema in the early sixties via the children of american executives sent over to Brazil. In a beach town where the best way for a male to show off by the sea was to do headstands or human pyramids with his mates, the novelty caused a stir.
The surfer pioneers mesmerized beach goers with their long boards and blond hair, and as any other colonizer they stood out and did were not interested in mixing with the locals. It didn’t take long for local rich kids to want to do the same and the first Brazilian surfers appeared. Even in its earliest days practicing the sport was a statement; in a decade marked by politics, dedicating one’s life to glide waves was looked down by the militant students as a symbol of Yankee imperialism. But its charm and beatify and the good looks of its practitioners only made it more popular among the girls and in consequence among the guys who wanted to impress them.
By the seventies the political fever had died down due not only to harsh repression but also due to the economic boom that gave the Brazilian middle class access to live in the expanding beach neighborhoods and to the state of the art comforts. Surf culture took over the youth with its sex, drugs rock and roll and gave the sport a bad name, this time not with the intellectuals but with the parents and the police of the better areas of Rio. Surfers with their long hair and their wild attitude shocked traditional households, and were considered as drug loving, virginity snatching thugs, which, to be honest, wasn’t far from the truth.
It was at this time that my generation appeared in the scene, the long-haired guys were older and more street wise than us and next to them most of us were skinny nerds although we aspired to be like them. Many ended up buying surfboards and joining the club so to speak but in most “respectable” households, such as mine, a surfing son would be a motive of gossip and of shame among friends. Kids like us had to be content with body surfing or body boarding. This reaction to surfing came to a point that it was forbidden at certain hours of the days to allow the beach to look decent and the sea to belong to the nice boys.
The mornings consisted of arriving at the beach at nine, after which surfing was banned, looking for the best spots for waves, riding them until two, after which surfing was allowed again, and only coming home for lunch. We took body surfing seriously and on the summer holidays we’d be at it almost on a daily basis and many became quite good. However, independent of if you surfed or body surfed, there was an important side effects of such a close relationship with the sea and its forces: an understanding and an integration to the environment that few other sports or activities could bring. As the seventies ended, the more radical surfers had landed in jail and/or away from the sport while the survivors and the new generations took the sport more seriously and pioneered in health food and in living a healthier and more holistic lifestyle. Surfing became more accepted and found itself mixed up in the new-age way of life ideology, and that is where the term Zen-Surfism appeared.
There was a good reason for this; along with fishermen any person who rode, or who rides, waves will know about the tides, about the effects of the different kind of winds, about the different currents and about different kinds of waves and how to deal with them, and brings the environment he lives in into his consciousness and his daily life. The forces of the sea have never been in or out of fashion, but they have always been an indomitable force that can only be mastered to a certain degree. Life, society, politics, the economy, the work place are also unpredictable seas and knowing how to ride their waves that they throw and how to stay in the tranquility beyond the surf is important.
Nowadays the sport is considered what it should be: a healthy activity and people of all classes practice it. All of them goes on in the most democratic leisure centre on earth: the beach where, for the initiated, the waves are its fun fair, all of this is for free and provided by nature and ultimately its maker. Join this aspect of Rio with the Tijuca Forest, the biggest urban one in the world, and one can realize why so many people of that town possess a subtle wisdom and knowledge of how to live that is difficult to find in other urban centers of the same size around the world.
Rio de Janeiro is, among other things, a surfing town. Don’t underestimate this statement: Rio has produced several world champions and Brazil is considered on of the world’s strengths in the sport. It all began in Ipanema in the sixties and the seventies. Although before surfing was imported from the USA by American expats there were other more indigenous forms of riding waves.
Catching crocodiles, pegar Jacare, means riding waves without the help of a board and it never fell into the same category as surf or body surf. As it did not have any expensive accessories attached to it, there were no commercial interests in promoting it so it never has been considered cool, although back in the day it was “the” way to affirm one’s masculinity on days with high waves. Nowadays there are many surfers from the favelas, but when surf arrived in Rio the rudimentary sport was a substitute for those who couldn’t afford a board. In some cases it went beyond the economic limitations: it was the best way to feel the power of nature on the body and to test one’s courage in the water.
When the red flags were up there would be always some crazy guys who went out there and, as the photographer of the picture above, they held everyone’s breath on the crowded sand. Some unaware tourists could try to join them and but not knowing the secrets of the currents and of the waves they would end up giving work to the life guards.
From those days crocodile catchers share with Rio’s surfers the glory of ruling Rio’s waves.
If there is one place that can be pointed as the source of Rio’s cool, this is the Arpoador.
The huge rock is situated in the beginning of Ipanema and means harpoon thrower in Portuguese; it is named like this because fishermen actually hunted down the whales that roamed the coast of Rio de Janeiro from there.
In the late fifties and early sixties surfboards started arriving in Ipanema and the best waves were by the rock; it became the first hangout point for young people bearing looks that would be recognizable in this century; long hair, surfer trunks and bikinis.
In the mid seventies a Pier was constructed one kilometre away and stole the best waves and the coolness away.. Also, around the same time, buses started coming from the Northern Zone to the Southern Zone’s beaches and the final stop was close to the Arpoador. Slowly but surely it became the area where the “invaders” went and an uncool place to hang out.
The early eighties witnessed a revival of the Arpoador when the group Asdrubal Trouxe o Trombone (see my article about them) set up the Circo Voador (the Flying Circus); a venue that was to be the cradle of modern Brazilian rock.
Those days were short lived and the city council closed it down because of complaints about the noise at night.
In the nineties a skateboarding park was constructed next to it making it cool once again. The beach spot however remained a no-go area for the golden youth of the Southern Zone until recently when apparently it has revived as a trendy hang out point ( I haven’t lived in Rio for more than 20 years now so it’s just hear say,… can’t confirm it)
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The military dictatorship was in its peak and prisons, exiles and censorship were part of the country’s day to day life. The left had been decimated, or at least silenced and there was no outlet for protest. Meanwhile the surf culture was growing in the vacuum left behind the shutting down of the left in Ipanema, a neighborhood known for its leftist residents. This culture had been imported from California and been introduced to Rio de Janeiro’s middle class by students of the American School of Rio de Janeiro.
So were the surfers really relevant? Did anything they say really count for anything?
Most of the Brazilian intelligentsia would say no. This was an insignificant byproduct of a repressed era.
Well, it wasn’t. First of all it did not come from the military apparatus, nor was it well seen by the American mainstream. In the Coastal towns of the US the kids who were making it the king of sports among the youth came from the lower classes and were dropouts specially in the late sixties and early seventies.In this environment, being a long haired surfer was being against the establishment. The anti Viet-Nam war protests were at their peak, and protesting in the seventies was not theoretical, it was about taking on the mainstream by actions. The kids who were dropouts were closer to home, they could be anyone’s kid who was engaging into something outside the system, it could happen in any family, it was the real thing…
The generations who came after the surfers can still relate to them and the freedom that they represented. They sought a personal detachment from the logic that everything in life should be attached to a production system that has profit as an ultimate goal.
Surf culture in Rio was to give birth to the rock movement of the 8O’s that took the country by storm. For that generation they were like the stronger older brothers who told parents to shut up, who broke ties and who were radically alive. These were the precursors of Brazilian Punk, but healthier, more charismatic, sexual, and less hateful than their British counterparts.
If no one liked them in the middle class, it is because everyone wanted to be like them but did not have the inner strength to do so. In Rio some were spoiled rich kids, but this group certainly were not accepted into the surfing elite.One you had to earn their way into being respected by being good at the sport and by tough in the water. They were not dumb blondes, they were just too big for this world.