|English | Español||August 15, 2018 | Issue #29|
"The Most Emotionally Healthy Culture on the Planet"
A North American Falls In Love with Brazil
By John Perry Barlow
Well, actually, no: Not exactly. I’ve been in outrage overload for weeks. I’m finding it hard to express myself these days with anything more articulate than gesticulations and sputterings. Lately I’ve been mute as Congress.
(Actually, not everyone in Congress has lost his voice. Senator Robert Byrd recently gave a speech too historic to earn notice in any mass medium but which contains this utterly true line: “I truly must question the judgment of any President who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50% children is ‘in the highest moral traditions of our country’”.)
Of course one wonders what purpose might be served by saying anything.
We’ll probably know which it’s going to be sometime in the next fortnight.
By then, I expect to be dancing in Brazil, far from this heart of darkness and closer to the heart itself.
For the last year or so, I’ve felt a growing intuition that Brazil was beckoning me. Of course, in some senses, Brazil is always calling to those who love music, dance, the sensual pleasures, and open-heartedness. But this seemed more directed than that. With increasing frequency, I found myself meeting Brazilians who became immediately significant players in my life. It cropped up in my dreams.
By last fall, I had decided that it was about time for me to return to Brazil, and I started looking for a pretext, since I rarely go anywhere these days without what appears to be a reason and. generally, an airline ticket that someone else has paid for. By New Year’s, my inner voices were muttering so much soft Portuguese that I had about concluded that that I would be forced to go there simply because I wanted to, and on my own dime at that.
Then, in early January, I got a phone call from my old friend Julian Dibbell who wanted to know if I would be willing to meet with the newly appointed Brazilian Minister of Culture. I was headed to Cannes the following week to speak at a music industry conference called Midem. (This is truly the Trade Show of the Living Dead, but never mind that…)
Apparently, the Minister, a musician and political hero named Gilberto Gil, had read some of my writings on the economics of expression, had seen that I was going to be at Midem, where he was also appearing, and wanted to know if we could get together and talk.
I am now embarrassed to confess that, when Julian called me, I knew next to nothing about this remarkable man or his remarkable work or his remarkable life. Still, he was from Brazil, to which I’m favorably disposed, and he was an official to the new Lula government, to which I’m also favorably disposed. I told Julian I would be happy to talk with him.
A few days later I found myself sitting in the bar of the Hotel Majestic in Cannes, surrounded by a Fear-and-Loathing welter of music biz bottom-feeders, looking for the arrival of an official entourage. When Gil did appear, he was immediately obvious, but not because he came in force. In fact, the most notable thing about him at first was that he seemed like the least self-important person in the room. That, and a kind of light…
A slight black man with short dreads, he arrived alone and dressed in casual hip. I had not seen a picture of him, but I felt like I knew him at once. Indeed, I felt like I had always known him. If Gilberto Gil were a woman, I would say it was love at first sight.
We talked for about an hour and half, rarely losing eye contact. He seemed to me a vastly improved version of myself, a sort of black, Brazilian Barlow, more talented, wise, and accomplished, but saddled with none of my vices.
We found that we agreed in great and simple completeness on a number of important matters. We agree that music – indeed, all of human creation – is an ecosystem that deserves more thoughtful stewardship than it’s getting. We admire the works of Frank Zappa, Andre Malreaux, Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, and Teilhard de Chardin (among many, more obscure, others). We believe there is One Love. We believe that fear is the only problem. We think that the economics of creativity may be very different from the economics of manufacturing.
We believe that there is a great conflict underway between large institutions, most notably corporations, and human beings. We believe that the moment has come round when the human beings must find ways to influence the behavior of these global creatures so they serve human rather than institutional objectives. We believe that, just as the United States has become the capital of Leviathan, so might Brazil become the capital of that which is simple and human.
We believe that there is more reason for optimism than ever. We believe, along with Emerson, that, when it gets dark like this, it’s easier to see the stars.
We believe in common many things, including a few I’m not sure I’ve ever discussed with anyone. We were both interested in extending the conversation. He wanted to know when I could come to Brazil and I told him I’d work on clearing out my calendar in March.
Gil has led an astonishing life. I love his music, now that I’m becoming familiar with it, and has formed it out of a huge stew of musical forms and traditions. In Brazil, I now learn, he is the Pele of song. He has created music with a broad variety of folks, ranging from Jimmy Cliff to the Incredible String Band.
He has also been a notable dissident and political activist. Along with his best friend, Caetano Veloso (also a song-writing superstar), he was imprisoned and exiled by the Generals during the late 60’s. He has been tireless in his defense of the downtrodden but is not a conventional leftist, any more than I am.
Gil is a deeply spiritual guy, though not apparently religious in the usual sense. He is an intellectual without the post-Modern rhetorical garbage that has made the learned discourse of our generation so wearisome. He is Marx without Lenin. (Or maybe with Lennon.) He is Gandhi with a guitar. He is a very cool dude.
Given all this, I was delighted indeed when I got an invitation a couple of weeks ago to come to Brazil and spend ten days around Carnival traveling around the country with Gil and the former French Minister of Culture Jack Lang, himself a pretty interesting fellow.
I can’t think of a better way to get myself out of this winter of our discontent, and I’m now in New York trying to horse myself together for what could be a fairly lengthy summer tour. My return ticket is for March 13, but I don’t really have to be back in the United States until the latter part of March.
I feel like I’m diving off into the next phase of my life. I’m jazzed, I’m grateful, and I’m a little apprehensive.
I expect you’ll hear more from me as this adventure unfolds.
Light and Hope,
I was deep in the heart of Brazil when I got the news.
I was in a serene little jewel of a former diamond-mining town called Lençois. It’s located in a remote part of Brazil’s Bahia state called the Chapada Diamantina, improbably beautiful country that would look like Monument Valley if the buttes and spires of Southern Utah rose from a blanket of rain forest.
I had been completely out of touch with the rest of the world for three days at the International Rainbow Gathering, held even deeper in the Chapada, eight hours of astonishingly bad road away from Lençois.
But even if I’d been in downtown São Paulo, the events in Baghdad would have seemed distant. Brazil is a floating world, a parallel universe of such size and cultural density that little enters or escapes its gravitational field. It is well accustomed to shrugging at Northern madnesses and continuing to pursue its own profoundly complex affairs.
Brazil is the world’s largest Inside Joke. It is, to those who get it, sufficiently involving to render even such external considerations as the possible outbreak of Armageddon slightly irrelevant.
Besides, it seems to have an instinct for peace that runs the length of its history and is wisely aware that even opposing the bellicose behavior of less enlightened cultures adds energy to the cyclone of war. Brazil doesn’t study war no more. The only organized conflict Brazil is likely to enter involves no weapon more lethal than a soccer ball.
The cobble-stoned streets of Lençois were filling with the nightly promenade of beautiful, chocolate-skinned young people when my cell phone rang. “The war has started,” said Lotte, my former Swedeheart, in a voice as bleak as a Strindberg play.
Immediately, I lunged for a fat information feed, but there was little to be had. The pousada where I was staying didn’t have a phone, so I couldn’t jack my computer into the Internet. I found a television, which is never hard to do in Brazil, but of course I couldn’t find one with any English programming. Why waste a channel on CNN? Absolutely no one here speaks English and they certainly don’t need any more hallucinatory propaganda from The North.
What news I could find in Portuguese seemed to regard the outbreak of American aggression against Iraq as just another news story. It was nothing worth preempting the evening’s soap operas over. I went to bed even more in the dark than usual.
I had another 8 hour drive to Salvador the next day. I scanned the radio constantly for news and heard little. I did hear President Lula de Silva making a statement in the matter, which I later leaned contained this perfectly reasonable statement: “All of us want for Iraq not to have atomic weapons or weapons of mass destruction,” he said, “but that does not give the United States the right to decide by itself what is good and what is bad for the world.”
Now I’m Rio. I know everything that CNN and the New York Times web site permit me to know, which seems to include things that might not be true.
It is profoundly impractical, when one considers the larger consequences.
Even if victory is swift and painless, we will have wounded, perhaps mortally, the peace-waging capacity of the United Nations.
We will have sewn deep discord within the European Union and badly damaged relations with two of our most important allies, France and Germany.
We will have destroyed remaining popular support for the governments of Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia, our three most important allies in the Middle East.
We will have established – and not only for ourselves – the legitimacy of preemptive attack.
We will have radicalized half a billion young Muslims, transforming a monster into a martyr in their eyes.
We will have installed ourselves as the rulers of an energy colony that will not be easy to govern, given the bitter – and, to us, inscrutable – divisions that exist between its Shiites, its Sunni, and its Kurds.
We will have brought ourselves to the brink of active hostilities with Turkey, formerly a strong ally.
We will have bankrupted the teetering American economy.
We will have inserted long-term instability in world financial and energy markets.
We will have devalued the currency of American moral authority to the vanishing point. We will have turned America, long the hope of the world, into the most feared and hated of nations. We will have traded our national capacity to inspire for a mere capacity to intimidate.
And for what?
Meanwhile, life goes gloriously on in Brazil. While the North erupted on Saturday in war and angry protests against war, Brazil was mainly concerned with the championship match between São Paulo and Corinthes. Indeed, the only visible war protest I saw were some banners in the audience at the soccer game. (Though Michael Moore got a huge cheer from the Oscar party I attended tonight when he took after George Bush…)
As you might expect, I have much more to report from down here, where I’ve now spent an utterly transforming month. Until now, I’ve been having too much fun having adventures to spend my energies on turning them into information.
I have just taken what is almost certainly the best short course in Brazilian culture that anyone ever received. Just experiencing Carnival – in Salvador, Recife, Olinda, Rio, and São Paulo – in the immediate and continuous company of Gilberto Gil would have been a lot. In addition to being the Minister of Culture, Gil is Brazil in a way. In his music, his open heart, his sweetly melancholy optimism, his energy, he represents everything this place rightly loves about itself.
If Gilberto Gil were a member of our cabinet – if we had the kind of country that would make him a member of the cabinet – we would be waging peace rather than war and the world would be a lot more like Brazil. One can only hope that one day it will be.
Paz e Amor,
Now I’m over the Amazon, headed north. After five weeks in the accommodating bosom of Brazil – longer than I’ve been in any country, my own included, in quite some time – I am returning to the Belly of the Beast.
I can’t tell you how apprehensive I am at the prospect of leaving the most emotionally healthy culture on the planet and returning to the most pathological. I can only imagine how much more pathological it’s become after being “embedded” in CNN and the war for 10 days. Or how mean it will get as the war drags on and sets us all against one another.
In Brazil, on the other hand, they are trying to get as little of this stuff on them as possible. Indeed, the city council of Rio yesterday declared George Bush persona non grata in their city. While this has roughly the same practical effect as Mill Valley, California’s declaring itself a nuclear-free zone, I can certainly see their point. It has been nice being in a George Bush-free zone. But now I am about to re-enter a social condition in which practically every aspect has been sickened by this man’s afflictions, whether personal, cultural, or political.
I am also leaving the company of someone who is, in his essence, the Anti-George Bush: Gilberto Gil. I’ve spent a lot of the last five weeks with Gil (as he is known to everyone in Brazil) and he has only risen in my admiration and affection during that time. This is saying something, since, as you will recall, I was pretty high on the guy when we met.
I feel that Gil glows with the perfected version of my own soul and is the embodiment of all the virtues I would seek to manifest in myself. I’ve learned an enormous amount from him about how to be a graceful human being. If only I can incorporate his examples into my own way of stumbling through this material world…
He may have been born this way, but Gil knows how to be love, giving it freely and sincerely to the crowds that continuously surround him, and, more importantly, accepting it from them with humility, as willing to believe that he deserves it from them as he is to believe that they deserve it from him.
At a Carnival stop in a very poor neighborhood of Recife, the crowd saw Gil and many in it began to weep with emotion. Later, I said, “You have the most amazing emotional effect of people. A lot of those people were crying at the sight of you.”
“Well, I was crying too,” Gil smiled, and I saw the glint of salt on his cheeks.
The people of Brazil do love Gilberto Gil. Universally. They don’t love him mythologically, as fans loved Evis Presley, or Jerry Garcia, or John Kennedy, Jr. or any number of other virtualized mega-celebrities. They don’t simply love him for his lyrical music, though most Brazilians can sing the greater part of his repertoire and do. They certainly don’t love him because he’s now the official steward of their culture, though they love the fact that he is. The Brazilians love Gil for the right reason. They know what and who he is, and they love him for himself. I love him too. I feel better about my species for knowing that we can occasionally produce a Gilberto Gil.
But now I’m flying away from his enormously encouraging company into a culture that is, I fear, incapable of nurturing a heart like his, or worse, specifically inclined to punish such unarmed decency. But, as I mean to follow his example, we’ll see what it does to me now. I fear that to be dedicatedly good in a country that’s gone as bad as ours may require more courage and faith than I can muster. But if I’m to be exiled in America, I’ll just do my best to be a Brazilian missionary, spreading generosity, hope, and the soul of samba. Wish me luck.
I don’t speak Portuguese. This is a problem. Being restricted to English in Brazil is like being a stroke victim. One might as well be deaf and dumb. This country is as monolingual as the United States. Indeed, I would go so far as to speculate that the percentage of Americans who can communicate in Portuguese is probably higher than the percentage of Brazilians who can speak English.
Fortunately, Brazilian body language is eloquent. And they are empathic almost to the point of telepathy. Just as I love the sound of Brazilian Portuguese, I have enjoyed watching it being spoken. They are constantly telling long, elaborate stories or delivering themselves of little orations on the nature of life that are poetic, philosophical, and spiritually complex. I know this despite understanding only about one word in ten. If I am to spend a lot of my remaining life in Brazil – and, at the moment, I intend to – I’m going to have to learn the language. The fact that it is my favorite sounding tongue should at least ease its acquisition a little.
From Rio, I went to Salvador de Bahia, the city which is, for most Brazilians, the capital of Carnival. It is a much more African town than Rio, with all that implies. It’s a good place to learn about patience. Nothing happens very fast. But they dance better in Salvador and they’re sexier, the hybrid vigor having kicked in big time. Also, there are mysterious energies that can be felt erupting there, probably in ways connected to Condomblé, the local religion they’ve cobbled together out of spare parts from Catholicism and the Yoruban Ifa religions of Nigeria. This is the same set of beliefs that became Voodoo in Haiti. Condomblé is less scary than that, but it still has a pretty comfortable relationship with The Shadow. You wouldn’t want to mess with its devotees. But you wouldn’t want to mess with them anyway. They’re much too nice.
Every city and town in Brazil has a different take on Carnival, as I was to learn from the sampler that Gil had prepared for me, as well as Jack and Monique Lang. (Jack was the French Minister of Culture for about 15 years and is, in spite of that, a really lovely and amusing guy.)
The Salvadoran version was my personal favorite since it’s the most participatory and energetic. Carnival in Salvador is almost certainly the best and biggest party on this groovin’ globe. A couple of million people turn up from all over Brazil, putting in 10 hour dance days for nearly a week, discarding their few sexual constraints, and digging one another deeply. Cachaça, a mind-altering local sugar cane distillate, flows like a flash flood. (But, interestingly, despite the strength of this stuff and the fact that everyone but me seemed to be drinking it constantly, I never saw anyone falling down drunk and I only witnessed two angry scuffles.)
The central feature of Salvadorian Carnival is the “trio electrico,” a semi-trailer truck turned into a gigantic mobile stage, full of generators driving eardrum-bruising speaker banks and light shows. The band rides on top of the trailer and is generally crowded in among a mob of distinguished guests, primarily featuring the ubiquitous soap opera stars and other cultural notables. These creep along about a five-mile stretch of oceanfront boulevard, along which about half a million people are dancing in a paradoxical combination of abandon and unity.
(The name trio electrico is an artifact of their original appearance back in the early sixties, when the Brazilian inventor of the electric guitar rented a flatbed truck and cruised along the parade route with a electric bass player, a drummer, and a crude PA. Every band that rides one of these behemoths now is much larger. Gil’s trio band, which included 4 of his kids and an evolving array of guest stars, probably numbered around 12 at any given moment, though I never got a hard count.)
Some of these trios are surrounded by a cordoned battalion of dancers, each wearing an identifying t-shirt. These groups are called blocos, and they are a kind of club organized to celebrate Carnival together. In Recife or Olinda, a bloco would be led by a little brass and drum corps and doing traditional dances like frevo. In Rio, they would be an entire samba club of five or six thousand elaborately costumed (or nearly naked) celebrants with huge floats and an overall appearance that combines Las Vegas, Carmen Miranda, Burning Man, pharmaceutical-quality LSD, and a Terry Gilliam film.
Membership in these blocos can be pricey, up to 700 Reais. Given the fact that minimum wage in Brazil is about 200 Reais a month, this makes for a pretty expensive t-shirt. True to Gil’s inclusive principles, his trio had no bloco, which meant that anyone who wanted to dance alongside it could do so. This made its immediate vicinity about the most hyper-energized zone I’ve ever seen that didn’t have its own solar system. Spontaneous combustion seemed a distinct possibility.
The lightning rod for all this energy was Gil, who has mastered the art of gathering the juice, amplifying it with his own spiritual lens, and spraying it back out into the field. He is 61 years old, but he played at 11-on-a-scale-of-10 for five and a half hours a night, never taking a set break or even refuge in the occasional ballad. I was in his reactor core for all three nights his trio rolled, sometimes down in the boiling samba on the street, sometimes up on top (where there was a lot more oxygen). Despite its full-tilt velocity, his band was tighter than God’s wristwatch. It was an incredible delight to watch them digging him, one another, and the holy gift of music.
At one point, he asked me, somewhat rhetorically, if I were having fun. I considered it for a moment and realized that I was having as much fun as I am capable of having. And I am something of a fun veteran.
I’m not having fun now.
Shortly after I wrote the words above – somewhere over Cuba – I dozed off. When I awoke, I was in America. It feels like waking from a beautiful dream into a nightmare. The people at Customs were all straight out of Brazil, the movie, not the country. Automatic rifles are everywhere.
Eye contact is impossible here and I’ve just spent five weeks in a condition were eye contact is so customary and naked that one could probably live off it. (The only Brazilians who avoid eye contact are the pickpockets – which is why they are pretty harmless to the observant – and some, though not all, of the military police.)
I arrived in New York at 7:30 am and took an extra hour to get into the city since the cops had, to no sensible purpose, narrowed access to the Williamsburg Bridge down to one lane.
I spent a couple of hours regrouping in my apartment, and I took some solace in a visit from from my sweet pal Simone Banos and her old daughter Emma Victoria. I helped deliver Emma Victoria. She is my surrogate infant and has been a luminous presence since her arrival 11 months. They were the only thing that has made this day tolerable.
At the present moment, I am flying back down the Eastern Seaboard to Disney World, the anti-Brazil, where I will spend the next three days trying to edify and inspire the American Society of Association Executives. I guess life is fair, and I have a lot of good times to pay for, but surely it doesn’t have to be so starkly fair as this.
The process involved in my boarding this aircraft makes me seriously question whether I will be able to remain in America.
Maybe I just have to do some readjustment. But I’ve been flying all over Brazil, a free country, for the last five weeks and have only rarely had to produce an ID. My bags were never opened. What metal detectors existed were set to go off in the presence of pistols and not trace elements in the bloodstream, and everyone at the airport was friendly.
This is not how it was at Laguardia.
Despite the fact that I am a Delta million-miler, the counter girl treated me as though I were armed and dangerous. Worse, as soon as I hit security, I found that she had marked me for special treatment. I spent the next 45 minutes watching three of God’s less favored children go through my bags with meticulous literal-mindedness. They weren’t very bright, but they certainly were hostile. And utterly paranoid.
“What is this, Sir?”
“That’s a pen. Here. Let me show you.”
“That’s a battery for my laptop. Look, it has Apple’s logo on it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I, uhhhhh….”
“Sir, could you tell me why you have three cigarette lighters in your bag?”
“I didn’t know I had any cigarette lighters at all.” I didn’t either.
And so on. I’m not kidding. Meanwhile, they went through nitrate detection swabs like toilet paper in a cholera ward. They even swabbed my boarding pass. I knew that neither levity nor irritation would be my friend, so I struggled to maintain a perfectly blank affect. I haven’t felt such a combination of boredom and terror since an occasion, 35 years ago, when I was held for an hour by machine-pistol-toting East German police while their commandant removed all the politically inappropriate features from my maps with a lovely little pair of silver scissors.
I’ll probably acclimate, but right now I don’t know that I can handle contemporary American reality. Even overlooking frequent humiliations by the TSA, I think it will be very hard to behold all these furtive American faces, knowing that behind three of every four resides support for our President’s criminal adventure in Iraq. Then there is the New Grimness. I’ve become so accustomed to smiles. But I detected not a single one at Laguardia. I kept feeling that all this seriousness accompanied a willingness to regard it a necessary evil that we’re using napalm – a weapon of mass destruction by my standards – on groups of Iraqis. See…
Do I have enough love to forgive my countrymen? Do I have wisdom enough to hate only our sins and not those who commit them? Will the presence of this horror simply defeat me?
I must be careful not to guru-ify Gil. He would hate it. Still, I find myself wondering how he – who spent time in jail and exile as a dissident – would relate to this tragedy. I think I know.
At one point, we were driving through a heart-rending zone of poverty. “Gil,” I said, “you seem to have an unusually dilated empathy valve. How do you handle the suffering this must produce in you?”
“Oh,” he said, “I let it be. I do everything I can to change it, but beyond a certain point, I simply have to let it be.”
I wonder if I can let it be. Particularly since it appears I have no choice.
I will re-engage this enterprise as soon as I get some time.
Meanwhile, I’m going to do my best to let it be.
- The Fund for Authentic Journalism