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A selection of recommended and not-so-recommended books about South America

27 Apr

My obsession with South America continues to power on, leaving me with little choose to spend the majority of every day either reading about the Peruvian elections, listening to Brazilian music, trying unconvincingly to make milanesas, watching films about indigenous tribes and reading book after book about any subject that has some vague link to South America. Therefore, I thought I would share a few of those books here, the majority of which I would recommend.

Tropical Truth by Caetano Veloso

Start with the best! This is Veloso’s autobiography from childhood upto the modern day, though most of the content is the story of how tropicalia was borne, and then Veloso’s incarceration by the Brazilian government. There’s something incredibly easy about reading this book, Veloso will vary the subject from personal traumas to discussing the avant-garde or even talking about masturbation, yet always he comes across as informal yet incredibly knowledgeable, and with a serious passion for music. The sections about tropicalia and his role within the movement are truly revelatory. Far too little has been written about that particular period in Brazil’s history, but this does help to fill that gap somewhat.

Viva South America! by Oliver Balch

This is a selection of articles by Oliver Balch as he travels throughout South America. Written in a journalistic style, it follows Balch as he goes from country-to-country and subject-to-subject, all the time relating the experience to Simon Bolivar’s idea of how South America would evolve. This is a very interesting book that underwhelmed me for the first three chapters in Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. For some reason the overly-political tone disengaged me and I found it hard to relate to Balch and his stories. This changed though once he visited Paraguay and it’s disastrous human rights record and then Brazil, where he looked into attitudes towards race. Even better though are the last two chapters on Colombia and Venezuela where he somehow managed to show both in a bad light, yet through the warmth of the natives involved, made me want to visit these countries as soon as possible.

This is highly recommended for anyone visiting South America who wants to get under it’s skin and begin to understand how the continent functions.

Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler

A travel diary devoted to Chile, this is a really well-written, well-researched book, though left me cold in places. Yes, Wheeler travelled to many of the most interesting spots Chile has to offer, including Easter Island. But somehow I always feel like I want someone to truly engage with a country and the author never does here. She is great at studying it, and its people, and telling some nice stories along the way, but for some reason it never gets beyond that. All said though, this is very readable and is worth reading if you’re heading to the Chile for the detail alone.

Amazon Watershed by George Monbiot

This is almost the opposite of Wheeler’s book on Chile. Here, Monbiot goes completely over-the-top in his examination of Brazil’s Amazon. At times he is chased by landowners, caught by hired gunmen, beaten up at one stage, etc., etc. Monbiot knows how to be a true investigative journalist, and thankfully his writing is as thrilling as his research is thorough. Through the book Monbiot looks at some of the factors that have led to the destruction of the rainforest, and goes to both the people who the destruction is affecting and those that are doing the destruction.

In short, I can’t recommend this book enough. I can’t imagine a more evocative and informative book on this great rainforest.

Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life by Alex Bellos

All I need to say about this book is that if you have any interest in football or Brazil you will love it. Months after reading it I am still boring my friends with all the ridiculous anecdotes I have taken from this one.

We all know Brazil is crazy about football, but it’s not until you read this book that you really just how crazy!

The Condor and the Cows by Christopher Isherwood

Isherwood is an old-school author – this was written in the 40s – and it shows. This is a South American travel diary from a time that I struggle to evoke. Isherwood travels across South America (minus Brazil and Uruguay) staying with dignitaries and fellow authors and artists. The sections which talk about the social circles he finds himself can be a little suffocating but there is something very warm and erudite about his descriptions of the landscapes and cities, especially as his often barbed, sarcastic tones are the perfect antidote for anyone sick of the normal hyperbolous guff that finds its way into many travel journals these days.

Brazilian Popular Music & Globalization (edited by Charles A. Perrone & Christopher Dunn)

A selection of essays about Brazilian music. Some of these are very interesting, i.e. those on tropicalia and mangue bit, but some can be a little analytical. I don’t really want to talk about this book too much as it’s really only something that people with an academic nature and interest in Brazilian music will enjoy. If you’re not interested in the academic style but want to know more about Brazilian music then you should buy Veloso’s Tropical Truth instead, it’s far more enjoyable!

Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, the most respected of all outdoor clothes manufacturers. This autobiography tells how he started out rock-climbing in South California, got involved in surfing as he started selling his own climbing equipment, until eventually starting Patagonia and making millions with an ethical business model. The first half of this book is very interesting with Chouinard’s tales of the early days of surfing and climbing, includes his first experiences in Patagonia where he climbed Mount Fitz Roy. It was these experiences in Chile which led to his company being named after the region. However, the book tales off as Chouinard dissects one too many detail about how his ethnic business model is able to work and succeed.

Bloco da Lama in Pictures

15 Apr

Okay, so I have been a bit crap in posting up some of my Carnival pictures – I can’t believe Carnival finished over a month ago!

In order to make amends I thought I would post some classic shots of the Bloco da Lama mud party in Paraty. This happens on the first Saturday of Carnival and is one of the most surreal yet incredible things I have ever been involved in.

Bloco da Lama

“Uga Uga” is what the people chant as they parade through the streets.


This is an actual person.



This guy was in the back of a horse-drawn carriage, which was legging it around the streets. His dog always looked quite confused.


Bloco da Lama

I think you get the picture. It’s ridiculous!

Preparing for Carnival

2 Mar

Two things have coincided heavily in Sao Paulo this week. The first is the fact that I have suddenly realised that I am off to Trindade for my proper holiday on Friday, and suddenly needing very much to get all my writing assignments in this week. Annoyingly Time Out have pulled in their deadline to early March for their April edition, which makes trying to find independent gigs to write about extremely tricky, and has also culminated in a deadline that ends with the carnival, which seems a ridiculous idea!

Thankfully this has also coincided with the return of bad weather in Sao Paulo. The weather has in fact been so bad as to be English. Instead of the normal sunny mornings, stormy afternoons and ridiculously warm nights we are simply getting drizzle 24/7. If I was just in Sao Paulo for a couple of days I would be pretty pissed off, and telling everyone I met not to come here, which I might do anyway.

On a productive note, an article I wrote a week or so ago has just gone online at Rio Times. You can read it HERE. Unsurprisingly the editor took away my criticisms of the Rio government for trying to stop anyone ever promoting something set in the favela, when they in fact should be promoting these very films. O Samba Que Mora Em Mim, the film I wrote about here, is one of the films, and lets you eavesdrop on all the amazing people living within the Mangueira favela in Rio. It’s one of the most arresting and visually appealing films I’ve seen in a long time. It’s just a shame the government only wants people to see the carnival queen!

Discovering Sao Paulo’s music scene on the web

27 Feb

I recently found a few social media sites on the web which reflected parts of the Sao Paulo music scene that I had not really encountered, mainly because they revolve around electronic music, but I thought I would share them here, as they do also show how people are trying to design different kinds of websites in order to connect people and ultimately connect a few bucks with their bank accounts.

SoundCloud, which is a pretty cool service for uploading a few tracks for people to listen to. It allows for folk to download the tracks, comment on them and also allows for people to upload music simply by the old drag and drop. It seems like they’ve begun trying to communicate with people via a blog service looking at music from different places. This week they chose Sao Paulo of all places. All of the acts chosen are new to me and they seem okay, but they’re in no way as creative as some of the other artists currently working in Sao Paulo at the moment. You can check out this article HERE. There is also a group page where people from Sao Paulo upload music, much in the way that on flickr you can throw your new photos into a Sao Paulo group.

There is also a page at City Sounds (or which features plenty of music from Sao Paulo. This is a service similar to but works geographically. I.e. I can check out London or Paris or Sao Paulo and find out what the people in those cities are listening to. It seems like everyone is listening to house and techno at the moment. Although this may be affected by the fact that mainly dance aficionados are signed up to the site, it may also be fact that dance and techno is more popular than the incredible, inventive pop music happening in Brazil right now. Why do people always take the safe option? Why are Coldplay so popular? I will never understand these things. For an update on what people are listenining to Sao Paulo right now just click HERE.

In way of respite, I would recommend checking out this article at Museyon, an interview with Flavia Durante, which reflects my kind of thing a little more, and also reveals a few more of the interesting things about Sao Paulo’s nightlife. She really does know her stuff.

And for an even greater respite just check out this video from Bodes e Elefantes:

Tom Ze at SESC Vila Mariana, Sao Paulo (25/02/11)

26 Feb

Like an excited schoolgirl awaiting new gossip on Justin Bieber the prospect of seeing Tom Zé in the flesh almost brought me out in hives. If I ever had any doubt this man is a genius this has now been put to bed.

The concert in Sao Paulo was to celebrate the release of Studies of Tom Ze: Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You, a compilation by Luaka Bop that combines three of his albums; Estudando o Samba, Estudando o Pagode and Estudando a Bossa. It’s songs from these albums that he would be playing, although he did stray into other albums quite a few times. One of the highlights was “To”, which is the video above, and also contains the line “Eu To Te Explicando Pra Te Confundir,” which is where the new collection gets the second part of its title. For some reason “Explaining Things So I Can Confuse You” just doesn’t quite have the same rhythm to it.

Here’s “Jimi Renda-Se,” one of those songs that isn’t actually on the Estudando albums, but is simply too good to miss out:

And here’s “Brigette Bardot.” It is said the cover of this album is actually a photo of a marble stuck up someone’s arse, something Zé did to amuse himself while the military dictatorship was at its most dominant.

For me, the concert at times was quite tiring. Mainly due to the fact that every song had an introduction, that would involve Zé pulling out a letter that he had written to Ronald Reagan, or explaining the contents of his new release, or putting a new jacket he had just made that he wanted everyone to know about. I’m pretty certain Ze’s brain works at 10 times the rate of mine, so even if he had been speaking English I would have struggled to keep up. As it was, in a rapid-fire of Portuguese my brain started to fizz and crackle trying to understand every nuance. It was these intros, which would often segue into the songs, that made the performance half theatre/half song, especially as he was playing with just a small quintet of performers, as opposed to some of the larger groups he’s been helming lately.

And for a bit more background information, this is the little promotional nugget Luaka Bop put together for the release.

Hostels and recommendations in Sao Paulo

24 Feb

My opinion of Sao Paulo has changed dramatically. The first time I came here I stayed for two days, felt my lungs, head and life clog up and quickly got the hell out. I wasn’t ready for the city. When my passion for Brazilian music started to take full hold I knew this was the place to come and buy cheap vinyl and discover music. Now that I’ve been here for a few weeks I can honestly say that I quite like the place (which is a lot easier to write after three days of sunshine (with 5 minutes of rain each day) than a full three hour rain storm where you have to hide under a 10-foot concrete awning which doesn’t even really help as the rain is hitting at you from everyone one of the 360 possible degrees).

A small village like Trindade is easier to fit into straight away. The people you meet on your first night are there on the second. The bars that you go to soon become favourite spots, partly due to the fact that they are only two bars ever open and so one simply has to become a favourite. It’s taken a couple of weeks of being in Sao Paulo but I’ve now got to the point where I can go to shows and know two or three people there, and on the occasional fortuitous amble to the shops meet someone familiar.

Yet for most tourists, myself included on my first visit, Sao Paulo is just here to be explored for a day or two before heading somewhere with a generally more appealing demeanour. The only guest who has stayed here at Oca Hostel for more than three nights was a Dutch guy who had already met a lovely Paulista girl, and was dead set on partying, which is pretty much what this place is all about anyway. This did leave the guy with a final weekly hostel bill of R$800 (£300) on top of whatever crazy prices he paid for drinks, club entrance fees, meals, and all the other high-priced fare he got upto.

Which always leaves me puzzled when new guests arrive and ask me what I would recommend. Get down the fruit market, go to a few museums, have a walk in the park – these are the main suggestions. Yet none of them will really endear Sao Paulo to someone anymore than any other city which has parks, museums and markets (which is in fact all other cities). Maybe the Paulistanos who say that “Sao Paulo works so that the rest of the country can play” has some logic, as even if you want to come here and party you need a pretty flexible bank balance and this rules it out for many travellers as well as people from Rio and other states, as well as many of the people from Sao Paulo itself.

Lucas Santtana at the Sonoridades Festival in Rio de Janeiro

23 Feb

Hey, I just saw my review of a Lucas Santtana gig is up at the Rio Times website. You can read it HERE. This one will be in the print edition in March also. Somehow it went a bit corporate that review, but it’s a hard publication to write for. They are very serious generally, maybe because they’re always looking for advertising and don’t want to upset anyone.

Anyway, I actually had a point about this concert. There is a very common practice in Brazilian concerts which is to have “convidados” or special invites whenever possible. What this basically means is that the main act will play a few songs, then a special guest will come on for a couple of songs, then they will do a couple more just with their normal band, then another special guest will come on, and so on, and so on, depending how famous the main person is or how many records they are hoping to sell (if the concert is going to be made into a DVD they will probably have at least 5 or 6 “special” guests (but how special can they be when there are so many of them is questionable!).

Ultimately this results in annoyingly disjointed shows where the main act spends half the time telling the audience how good their special guests are, and where the band never really get the chance to get juiced up as they have to spend half the concert just standing there. On the flip side, the promoter knows that all the internet people will send loads of excited tweets saying how excited they are that ? and ? and ? and ? and ? are all going to be playing, that they will get loads of photos of musicians together looking very happy. Somehow the quality of music at the show seems less important than these two things.

I watched Karina Buhr perform last week. It was an unbelievable show; amazing band, great performance, really good songs. At the Lucas Santtana show she played one of her songs, sang back-up on one of Lucas’ songs and then danced around at the back during one of the others. What a waste!

As if to prove I also can’t resist a cheap promo shot, here’s Karina with Lucas at the show (photo by P Eduardo):

Relaxing in Sao Paulo

23 Feb

These guys have worked it out. On top of the Coban building is the place to take a break from the mayhem. Just look at ’em:

Don’t they look content? Apparently they do this once a month, it enables them to get a bit closer to the streets of Sao Paulo. Presumably they tried sitting on the main road but struggled to get the peace they were after. Ya know I was sitting in traffic the other day. Got hit by three cars. And on that note, I’m out!

This image was stolen from HERE.

Sao Paulo = Hell de Janeiro x 10

22 Feb

My friend Fabiola often refers to Rio as Hell De Janeiro, which seems a little unfair because it is pretty much the best place ever. And, aside from that, there are places where hell seems a lot more apt, and Sao Paulo is one of them. Or at least it is between the hours of 4pm and 6pm everyday when the heavens open and each gloriously sunny summer’s day seems like just a myth. I was in Rio on Saturday and that was the first day of my trip without rain. The six-hour bus journey was a joyous trip through sun-kissed mountains, and then we got to Sao Paulo. You could in fact see it in the distance; a dark, angry cloud hovering above our destination. As soon as we entered the bus terminal, which is on the city’s outskirts the rain started pouring down, huge rocks of water with odd bout of thunder and lightning in case you weren’t quite feeling the hellishness enough yet. It all reminded me why at 4 ‘o’ clock every afternoon, when I see the darkness circling, I run back to the hostel to hide for a few hours. It’s very possible that the huge amount of pizzas consumed every day could be related to this stormy predicament, but I don’t want to draw any conclusions just yet. It’s either that, or the unbelievable amounts of concrete, cars and heat that just cause some kind of unbearable tension to break in the atmosphere each day.

Sao Paulo in Numbers

22 Feb

Numbers are great. Well for certain things anyway. Try telling someone that 3 is a better number than 2 and you’ll get in a whole heap of trouble though. But that’s another story really. These are a few numbers about Sao Paulo, taken from a Brazilian blog. I figured they may help paint a picture.

  • 11,244,365 inhabitants
  • 12,500 restaurants
  • 15,000 bars
  • 1 million pizzas a day
  • 17,000 items of sushi per hour
  • 1,950 banks
  • 148 universities
  • 3 million passengers per day in the Subway
  • 169 thousand public phones (public phones)
  • 4,500 public squares
  • 5,954 intersections with traffic lights
  • R$320 billion is the GDP (15% of Gross Domestic Product of South America)
  • R$5.3 billion is the average volume of the stock exchange / day
  • 3rd largest budget in the country (second only to the Union and State of São Paulo)
  • 300 thousand motoboys (but who are the motoboys?)
  • 6.5 million cars
  • 15 thousand buses
  • 32,766 taxis
  • 600 thousand companies
  • 51 malls
  • 410 hotels, with 42 one thousand quarters
  • 205 hospitals
  • 3885 private schools
  • 3153 public schools
  • 110 museums
  • 160 theaters
  • 600 new buildings per year
  • 4 thousand properties sold per hour in town

I’m not sure about the 1 million pizzas. That seems a bit much!