Saturday, October 10, 2009

Thumbs up for Paulinho da Viola!

It's still raining, outside the hotel, and, in a manner of speaking, in my room as well, the bathroom, I mean. Ate something the other day that has caused a lingering storm in my gut. Not pleasant at all. So I'm gonna have to mull over the last couple of days for highlights.

Something I saw last night reconfirmed my statement a few days ago about Brazilians not trusting each other. A store that seems to specialize in cookies and other sweets called A Casa do Biscoito (House of Cookies) was getting ready to close. As each employee exited the store, they had to submit any bags or purses to a thorough search by a security guard. No, you don't want to loose too many bags of cookies to internal corruption. Amazing.

I saw this happen from my seat in a restaurant that specializes in galetos, spit roasted game hens (which are, of course, just baby chickens. I watched a few other customers eating their tiny birds in the Brazilian fashion, that is, with knife and fork. Now these are tiny birds, and using a knife and fork just doesn't seem very efficient to me, so I picked up the tiny drumstick with my fingers to harvest what little meat was there. DAMN! The looks I got from fellow diners! As if I had been committing an act of child molestation instead of eating chicken in the manner of my people!  Fingers! So convenient, and so handy, much less cumbersome than any metal utensil. Brazilians, as discussed earlier, will not eat anything, in public at least, with their fingers. I saw a guy at breakfast this morning who had a very interesting technique for eating a banana. He held the banana, still partly enclosed in the peel, then, with his knife, cut a slice. He then put down the knife, picked up his fork with which he stabbed the banana section to carry it to his mouth. Totally crazy! Others were at least peeling the banana and cutting it on their plates. Needless to say, I ate my banana in the, apparently, crude American style, directly from the peel held in my hand. A prison term may be in my future if I continue with these barbaric eating habits!

You can't walk around Rio, at least when any other people are around (like in bars, restaurants, markets, on the street) for more than a few minutes without seeing someone give the thumbs up sign. In Brazil, far more than in any other place I know, it is an amazingly versatile gesture, all depending on context. A guy walks into a bar: thumbs up to the guy behind the bar, meaning "howdy". A guy walks out of a bar: thumbs up again, meaning "goodbye, see you soon". A guy sees a nice bunda: thumbs up to his friends, meaning "nice ass". (Don't get the idea I'm obsessed with bundas, ok?) Someone does a favor: thumbs up again, this time meaning "thanks, brother".

Someone sees someone on the street they know, but doesn't have time to stop and chat, once again, thumbs up, signifying "good to see you, but I'm in a hurry".  Other contexts create other implications: "everything's great", "wow, that's fantastic", "sorry, I understand", "I'll take care of it", "no problem", "you're cool". The list goes on. And on. Thumbs up! (After I wrote this, I found this quote from Wikipedia: "According to Luis Camera Cuscudo, Brazilians have adopted the "thumbs up" from watching American pilots based in northern Brazil during WWII" My pop was one of those guys, he stopped in Belem, way to the north at the mouth of the Amazon, flying his B25 bomber to Africa.

Another hand gesture I love, and which makes me giggle, sometimes audibly, every time I see it, is a slightly cupped palm used to cover the mouth, which in recent years has now come to serve a new function. Originally, I observed it mainly in restaurants, or even in peoples' homes, at the dinner was a very polite social observance utilized to mask the obviously grotesque act of using a toothpick in public. I've seen it in the most humble hole in the wall, and the most expensive bistros. What's funny is, to me, it seems like they are trying to cover up, not just the gapping mouth and the probing toothpick, but they're making a vain attempt to conceal the very fact that they are using a toothpick. "I have my hand, casually covering my mouth, almost flat against my face, save for the twenty degree angle, like a salute, for no particular reason..." But I think, by now, everyone's caught on. I know I have. Now, in this day of cell phones, I see it, usually in restaurants, used to, again vainly, try to protect others from the one-sided end of the cell phone conversation. But they don't seem to understand that the hand is not very good soundproofing, but rather, just might serve as a megaphone, making the yapping even more obvious. I just love it.

Ok, Paulinho da Viola. It's because of Paulinho that I met my dear friend Celso here in Rio in May (or was it June?) of 1980, nearly 30 years ago. (Please refer back to my first post "Portland to Rio" which traces this all in detail.)  Anyway, my adulation for Paulinho drew me to his concert way back when, and it was backstage that I met Celso.

Paulinho da Viola is simply Brazil's greatest living sambista (which could mean samba composer, or samba singer; he is both). It's just that simple. The best. The top. What else can I say? He writes sophisticated sambas that appeal both to the upper class, but to the lower, often illiterate classes as well. The music is both simple and complex, based firmly on long-standing samba forms and traditions, and the lyrics speak to everyone, easy to understand, but in a sophisticated style that makes his work great poetry. I fell in love with his music the first time I heard it back in about 1977 or so. I listened to those now old records over and over, digging deeper with each listening, to the music, the poetry. He helped my learn Portuguese, his band helped me learn the sambista's method of playing the pandeiro (tambourine). Little did I know the guy playing the pandeiro on the more significant (to me) discs was none other than Jorginho do Pandeiro, Celso's father, with whom I had lunch even today. To this day, I never tire of his art. Never. Each time I put on a record or a CD, it's almost like hearing it for the first time, always fresh, but now, of course, very familiar. I still cry when I hear certain of his songs, they are that moving. Can you tell I'm a fan?

So I feel very lucky to have entered, however slightly, into his world. When he and the band were playing two weeks in São Paulo, in June of 1980, not only did I attend the performance 5 or 6 times, but I invited the band over to our apartment on their two off-days, Sundays, to have lunch. Everyone but Paulinho came over (he's the star, after all), and that included Cesar Faria, Paulinho's dad who played guitar with the group.

Now that in itself was an honor, especially when he and the bass player, Dininho (Celso's cousin) picked up guitars and played till late my house!  But I have had lunch with Paulinho on two occasions, once in about 1983 when they were recording a TV show in Rio, during the break, Paulinho and the piano player, Cristóvão Bastos invited me to lunch, I can't remember the conversation, but I'm sure I got in a few words. The next time was in 2001, more filming, but this time actual movie-making, in the house of Luciana Rabello and Paulo Cesar Pinheiro who were hosting a feijoada one Sunday, before some filmmakers shot some footage of Paulinho performing with Epoca de Ouro, his dad's (Cesar's) group. Way cool. I remember he talked a lot about his woodworking hobby and artisanal cachaças.

So, when I finally got my visa and plane ticket settled, I was delighted to learn from Celso that Paulinho would have a concert Oct 11, the day before my departure for home. What great musical bookends for the trip: Epoca de Ouro at the beginning, Paulinho at the end. Even more exciting for me was that I would be able to attend the group's rehearsal a few days before the concert (yesterday). So Celso picked me up at the hotel around 1:30 for the 2pm rehearsal to take place in a music studio in Botafogo, in the very neighborhood where Paulinho was born back in about 1942.

Wow, it was like old home week: several of the guys from the 1980 band were still around. In addition to Celso, there was Dininho, the bass player, and Celso's cousin and son of Dino Sete Cordas, one of the world's greatest guitarists of any genre; also Hércules, the drummer and band clown. (Cesar passed away a couple of years ago, as has the reed player from that period, the legendary Copinha. Paulinho's added to the band since then, bringing Cristóvão in permanently, augmenting with an additional percussionist, replacing César with his son this time, João Rabello, as well as pulling in a female chorus which includes his youngest daughter and Cristina Buarque, sister of Brazilian music superstar, Chico Buarque.

Scheduled for two, music finally began at about 3:45...Paulinho himself didn't get there until nearly 3 himself. But when it started, it was magical! I was totally enchanted...Paulinho da Viola was playing for an audience of exactly ONE!  That would be ME! How friggin' cool is that, Brazilian music lovers? Touch me for a bit of sizzle! They worked though, at least partially, most of the tunes scheduled for Sunday, some more than once, but since they have played these tunes together a million times (including for a Brazilian MTV music special in 2007, which, I think, is available from Amazon, and worth every penny of credit card principal and interest you have to pay for it!). I was floating on a cloud!

When it was over, some folks hung around talking for a bit (the accompanying photo shows the stragglers: Cristóvão Bastos, Jorginho Silva, the father of Celsinho Silva, Celsinho Silva, Paulinho da Viola, Dininho Silva, Hércules (Pai João)).

Then a few of his headed across the street to a very old, traditional bakery where the band always goes after rehearsals to get a particular bread, small and buttery, to take home. We waited around for the bread to come out of the oven, Paulinho joined us after a few minutes, and he and I got a chance to chat, and that was fantastic. He told me about a tea that might help my diabetes, a tea made from the leaves of sweet potatoes and the northern Brazilian fruit, graviola. Not likely I'll find graviola leaves in the USA, they're hard to find in Rio!  But a guy at the bakery had a batch made up for himself and shared a cup with me (he supposedly no longer needs insulin for his diabetes). It was pretty neutral in flavor, and I offered a taste to Paulinho, which he accepted. Now I've drunk from the same paper cup as Paulinho da Viola! I should have kept the cup and sold it on Brazilian eBay! He told me about his childhood in Botafogo, and that he started coming to that bakery when he was just a tot. I was delighted to be able to hold a conversation with the guy who, 30 years ago, didn't have to patience to wade through my then-very shaky Portuguese. And even though it's much better today, I found myself forgetting words and grammar. Shit, the guy's a big deal! Who wouldn't be nervous???

Now I'm really looking forward to tomorrow's performance since I haven't seen a "proper" concert of Paulinho in a long, long time, probably not since 1980! A BIG thumbs up, meu amigo!

Here's a sample (not my very favorite song, but it's really nice, and features the current line-up in an excerpt from the MTV program).

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