Thanks to the helicopter lift, we arrived in Sao Paulo earlier than planned. This hotel is something else! It’s in one of the jardin (garden) neighborhoods, some of which resemble a more tightly packed version of Beverly Hills—the same mish-mash imitation of fake chalets or small palaces. Here, they are wrapped by high walls, which function like the high hedges in those LA neighborhoods. You can’t see more than the tops of the houses, the tops of Corinthian columns or fake Tudor roofs. The inhabitants must have this experience in reverse—the front windows of some of these mansions are barely a meter away from the wall. Passersby may be excluded, but those who live behind the walls are prisoners.
These neighborhoods are surrounded by the more typical Sao Paulo high-rise apartment and office buildings, which are hard for a foreigner to identify one from the other. The buildings stretch to the horizon, covering the low, rolling hills that lie underneath this city. The transition from garden districts to high-rise zones are sudden and abrupt, and from a plane (or helicopter) one can see the borders easily.
The hotel, Unique, lives up to it’s name. In the lobby is a rough painted statue of St. George slaying the dragon. St. George has been syncretized by Afro Brazilians, and to interpret the inclusion of this statue as strictly Catholic might be a mistake. St. George is also the patron saint of Sao Paulo. Anyway, like a lot of things here, it’s a mish-mash—the St. George himself is an old carving, the horse was created more recently, and the dragon was commissioned from a Japanese artist.
Here is the hotel:
It’s tucked into one of the garden districts, and you can see the high rises all around in the distance. The waitresses in the hotel restaurant wear some kind of Comme des Garcon bondage trousers—all in black of course. The first night I woke up in what seemed to me to be the middle of the night (I’d fallen asleep early), to the sound of a woman screaming. I immediately thought something terrible was happening outdoors on the street, and I began to get up. Then I realized it was coming from the next room. Her screams were high-pitched, shrieks really, and if she had a male partner he was keeping a low sonic profile. Was she having a great time? It was hard to tell. For such a fancy place, the walls must be paper-thin.
We went to dinner with Fernando Andrade and Luiz. Fernando directed Quebrando o Tabu (Breaking the Taboo), a doc about alternatives to the war on drugs. The Brazilian group Afro Reggae and I did a song that plays during the end credits. The film begins from the admission that the ‘war on drugs’ initiated by Nixon isn’t working, and never did work. In fact, it has caused suffering to increase, while failing to eliminate the drug trade—and has cost the U.S. and other countries plenty of cash as well. As Fernando pointed out, it’s one thing for people to accept that the war on drugs is a failure (most folks, even North Americans, do), but quite another to agree to abandon it. Most folks shudder at the thought of abandoning the failed war, saying, “if we stop there will be chaos, the disease will spread, so we have to continue, we can’t give up.” The film shows that there is in fact a third option—actually, more options in general—that some cities and nations are trying. There are alternatives to the war that aren’t 'giving up,' and the film interviews and examines the communities that have tried these approaches, with varying amounts of success. The ex-president of Brazil, Cardoso, appears prominently, and acts as a bit of a guide. He has taken this cause on since leaving public office. Good for him, but sad that so many politicians only find their spine and balls after leaving office. Those body parts get checked when you get elected, I guess.
Others make appearances—Bill Clinton, who admits he was wrong about needle exchange programs, and public officials in Zurich, Amsterdam and Vancouver. In many cases, it is the decision to view addicts as people needing help, rather than simply as criminals, that motivates a lot of changes. Needle exchanges, treatment, testing for STDs and providing methadone or other drugs are controversial, because the public sometimes views these programs as coddling addicts—at the public’s expense. The fact is these programs, and Hamsterdam programs like the one depicted in The Wire, not only contain the spread of addiction, AIDS and crime, they’re cheaper than throwing addicts in prison. In the U.S. prisons are big business, so it’s no surprise that imprisonment is widely accepted as the best option.
The film also brings up legalization. It’s been said that if marijuana were legalized and taxed in California, then that state wouldn’t be in the nasty financial state it’s in. The crime and killings in Mexico and elsewhere would be wound down, and the use might even be managed to some extent. This seems to frighten a lot of people—when I mentioned the film in Brazil people reacted by saying "it’s very controversial." Some of that controversy has been generated by the press, who have simplistically painted the film as a 'legalize drugs' polemic. It’s not—but it does propose that legalization might be one of a number of better options than what we’re doing now.
Recently, Hillary Clinton was interviewed on Mexican radio and was asked why the U.S. didn’t take legalization seriously as well as stemming the tide of guns flowing into Mexico from the U.S. Her response stunned the Mexicans; she said that the U.S. couldn’t consider legalization because “there is too much money in it.” Too big to fail, or something like that, eh? Of course, this drug (and the associated gun) industry already has a huge influence in U.S .communities, cities and government—so why not make it at least a little more transparent? Anyway, the Mexicans, their jaws now on the floor, didn’t quite know how to react. The U.S. press ignored her statement.
Fernando said that as a result of all the controversy his film got a fair amount of press in Brazil, and he was told that had he had ready a bunch of 35mm prints, a lot of theaters around the country would have booked the film. Unfortunately, he didn’t—his budget was tight and the price of prints is around $20K per print (for a 60 minute film). And then there’s the price of ads and marketing, which local theaters don’t completely cover. Digital prints are cheap to reproduce—the cost of a serious hard drive, but unfortunately there are few digital projection cinemas in Brazil, so that wasn’t really an option.
The song I did was an expansion of an unfinished song idea I had on file. I sent a few of these to Fernando to see what seemed appropriate to him—which wordless beginning had the right energy, or an uplifting or dark vibe. Whichever seemed right to send the audience out on. Fernando didn’t like any from this first batch I sent, so I sent more, and one clicked. It happened to use a Brazilian beat as a foundation, so it was appropriate in that way too. I then began to work on it more—expanding the song and adding to the arrangement. All of this was done at a room at my home. I wasn’t in a recording studio yet.
I began writing words. They weren’t directly related to the film—I wasn’t going to lay out a message, but they did touch on it obliquely. Oddly enough, when it was all done, the lyrics seemed to actually respond to the subject. I may have done it intentionally, but it almost seemed to happen just as much when the two were connected in sequence—that a continuity from one to the other seemed to be present.
At one point I suggested that I could either hire Brazilians and other drummers in NY to create the groove as it should be, or we could ask the group Afro Reggae—who are featured in the film as an example of a community based initiative that turned a favela away from drugs and crime. I couldn’t go to Brazil to oversee their recording, but basically they’d be covering the groove as it was sketched, and would have a song structure and my guide vocal to follow and overdub to. It would cost me—it would be more that half of my recording budget, but as a way of tying things together musically and culturally it seemed perfect, and worth the risk.
The night before we were scheduled to mix in a proper studio in NY, they uploaded their tracks from Brazil. I was a little nervous—it could have gone all wrong musically or technically, but other than the fact that they had a slightly earlier song arrangement to work on, it fit perfectly.
We heard the story of the movie release over dinner at a nice restaurant that billed itself as a mozzarella bar. Besides other dishes (pasta, pizza, etc), you would approach a long salad station at the rear manned by two attendants. There were about 8 different kinds of mozzarella available to choose from—soft, small, herbed, smoked, chewy, and then a series of leafy greens and other options that could be added to make a really tasty salad.
All the museums are closed on Monday, so we decided to bike (the hotel has loaners) to Liberdade (the Japantown here) and the old downtown. Sao Paulo, based on this first foray into biking, comes close to ranking as one of the worst biking cities in the world (a second foray would temper that impression a little).
We got a little lost, as we attempted to stay on side streets or streets that run parallel to the large Avenidas that criss-cross the sprawl. Eventually we made it to Liberdade, and ducked into a Japanese fast food joint that was pretty tasty. Downtown there were older buildings, plazas and even some pedestrian streets.
The streets are filled with people down here. The nearby Praça da Sé (Se Plaza) is at least half nice—the part with trees. The other part—similar to the concrete plazas all over the world, was devoid of people except for a couple of homeless sleepers. The buildings around here have some character, and it isn’t too hard to imagine it becoming a vibrant area at night, as well as at lunch hour.
I love the various lunch counter joints we passed everywhere. Inevitably, these use displays of colorful tropical fruits to entice you in—as a kind of edible décor. These, as opposed to the gated community look elsewhere in Sao Paulo, were wide open to every passerby. They were welcoming, and while the food in them might be diner food, they feel comfortable and friendly.
The next morning, we rode to the modern art museum that is in the middle of the park—they were installing a new show, so it was closed. The Afro Brazilian museum nearby was open, and is choc-a-block with stuff: shrines, banners, offerings, slave ships and shrine/costume combos (like this one below). Having done a documentary on Candomblé years ago, I was familiar with the iconography—I love it. And some of the artists, like Mestre Didi and Pierre Verger, were people I’d met back then.
The museum was, to my eyes, overcrowded. They’d shoved everything—wonderful stuff—into the two floors, and there wasn’t a lot of order to it. Glad to see it gets a showing though, and that it’s about a vibrant culture—not just a story of slavery.
In the afternoon we were escorted on a group bike ride to the venue. We rode along the fairly quiet streets of one of the garden districts. I could see that these neighborhoods could be good conduits for getting from one area to another. There were about 20 of us, which tended to inhibit aggressive cars, and a local department of transportation cop on a motorcycle, who occasionally stopped traffic when we crossed an intersection. We were privileged, and though it made for a lovely ride, it gave a completely artificial sense of how well one could get around in this town. Ronaldo’s (the Brazilian football star) house was pointed out—that’s how fancy and expensive some of these places must be. Someone told me that after a period of partying, the press was reporting how out of shape he was getting, so he was seen riding a bicycle in the neighborhood. I couldn’t find any pictures.
We did pass through a newly revitalized neighborhood that seemed to have some real street life—Vila Magdalena. Granted the street life there seemed to be mainly bars and restaurants, but it’s a start, for Sao Paulo anyway.
The presentation went fine, though we all talked a little longer than we should have. I vowed to do some editing of my own presentation before Buenos Aires. There is a small grass roots movement to re-think the transportation situation in Sao Paulo, but there’s so much inertia there it’s hard to imagine much will get done unless things get worse than they already are (I was stuck in traffic for 3 hours once when I was there to do a TV show with Caetano—the traffic can be unbelievably bad). A mayor who can cut through some of the corruption and bullshit might make some headway, and the support from the ground is there—but the grassroots folks can’t do it be themselves, not here.
Tom Zé was there and it was great to see him. He was in rehearsals for a NY show at Lincoln Center—getting a new guitar player up to speed, and seemed preoccupied that the new guy could get the feel of his material in time.