Monday, September 3, 2018

A Brazilian Horror Story

Yesterday, Brazil's national museum burned to the ground, taking with it millions of artifacts and artworks, including the skeleton of the oldest hominid found in the Americas. All their formative national documents, everything, completely gone, reduced to ash.

Let me tell you about a trip I once took to Brazil. My Brazilian girlfriend was headed home for a few weeks, so I grabbed my trombone and a bathing suit and joined her for a couple weeks of fun in Rio-by-the-sea-o. Here are some snapshots from the visit.

The first curiosity is that in Rio, everyone’s famous. Over and over, I'd pass seemingly regular-looking people and be told that they were elevated and...fabulous. One lady was known far and wide for her bumbum (the local term for butt), which struck me as good-not-great; another for being the mistress of a billionaire; and a slew of people were simply famous for being famous. They weren't canny stokers of their personal brands, ala Hilton or Kardashian. That requires skill and effort. These folks were simply anointed, period.

I spent an afternoon drinking shots of cachaça with this guy, "Tim", no last name, just Tim. He was an American who'd insinuated himself within some TV star’s entourage, and had become famous for the connection. He was so impossibly Kato Kaelinesque (this was a few months before the OJ trial) that he actually lived in a guesthouse by the pool. He was perfectly down to earth with me, but whenever a Brazilian came within range, he'd change all his mannerisms along with his language, becoming the haughtiest and most affectedly languid straight dude you've ever met. He was rocking it old school...ala 15th century. I hadn't realized anyone could still do "princely". I suppose my own caché increased from having hung out with him, not that I'd have even noticed. I imagined locals pointing at me and whispering "he drank cachaça with Tim!"

Most nights, when she wasn't out on the town preening in her tight black dress amid the hoi polloi and the faux-famous-polloi, my girlfriend would get quietly drunk in front of the TV, puke, and fell into bed. We hadn't done much of anything during the day either, as a crippling dull lethargy gripped her, her family, their apartment building, the neighborhood, the city, and the country. But one morning she rallied and told me she'd bring me to a jungle paradise, full of waterfalls, a few hours out of town, and she'd decided - over my strenuous objections - that we'd hitchhike there. The first car that picked us up was driven by a creepy drunk who we forced to drop us off a few miles later. We walked back to the apartment. Drink, puke, sleep.

Music-wise, I expected a vibrant scene, with streets full of samba and clubs full of bossa nova. What I found was the shiny music of everywhere-but-Brazil. You know how when you hand a kid an open microphone he'll do his version of the most obnoxious and affected sports announcer? All I heard was the most exaggeratedly vapid American-style pop, hip hop, and fusion jazz, and equally vapid Caribbean Latino pop, performed, always, with blindingly white teeth. Flashy trashy bullshit.

We went to a concert by renowned singer/composer Chico Buarque (billionaire mistress chick - who weighed like 17 pounds and survived on mints and cigarettes - had scored primo tickets from her "boyfriend"). Like Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso, Buarque had done some good early work, though a bit pop-ish, but all three were now caught in the same shiny tractor beam as everyone else, producing lame bloodless affected pap. The entire nation seemed a couple pints low on plasma.

It made no sense. This was a great and beautiful country, with a cultural heritage of pure poetry. But, unable to live up to that heritage, it had been captivated by empty, shallow flash, which felt  more current and fabulous than their own stuff, which felt local, dowdy, and unfabulous. Above all, one felt a thick restlessness. Something similar is subtly experienced in other has-been countries like England or Spain, but here it was full-blast. Brazilians have a love/hate relationship with Brazil, and they choose 180° wrong, loving the hateable and hating the loveable.

Finally, I hit the streets, searching for a vestige of the real Brazilian spirit to rescue my trip. On a mountain in the outskirts of Rio, in a very dangerous neighborhood very late at night, I heard, to my shock, live real Brazilian music. I entered the restaurant, where they were playing chorinho, the style which had preceded samba and bossa nova, sort of analogous to our ragtime. It's great. Get a sense of it here:

There was joy. There was bloodedness. I whipped out my trombone and played all night. And returned the next.

The players sat informally around a table in the restaurant strumming myriad guitars and shaking percussion and stacking their shot glasses. They were alcoholic vagabonds who did little else but sleep all day and drink and play all night, and only a few dozen people knew about them. There was a fuzzy dream quality to the whole scene; no one ever talked to me or asked my name. There was no time for it; I never once saw them take a break. And the entire room - musicians, audience, and servers - perennially hovered near the point of alcohol poisoning. Booze was their Popeye spinach.

I hear they're still there, still doing it, decades later. In my mind, I view it through the wrong end of the telescope as a tiny, distant, sharply focused gem, the final glowing ember of the national culture and soul.

I've written about how depression is caused by a frozen perspective. Brazil - a place where even the recent past seems faded and crusted - is an entire society cursed with frozen perspective. Nothing really works, and no one really cares.

As a disconsolate Brazilian raged on Twitter this morning (read her short thread, please):
If you are not Brazilian, it may be difficult for you to fathom the fact that the museum had absolutely no mechanisms that could possibly help extinguish the fire.

Not even the hydrants were working properly when the fire brigade arrived.
To her, and to me, this wasn't so much a tragedy as the culmination of a tragedy. García Márquez would have rejected this development for being overly heavy-handed. Too damned on-the-nose.

I've been wondering lately what to expect from the ongoing decline of the American empire. While I've never felt particularly jazzed to be part of the Number One Country, and would be perfectly happy with #20 or #30, I worry we'll congeal into a hellscape of ennui, corruption, soullessness and incompetence. That we'll foresake indie rock and blues and jazz in favor of shitty English language versions of the latest Chinese pop. That we'll wind up lost, restless, and too distracted by our own self-loathing to prevent it all from burning down.

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