The Finer Details Of São Paulo
The Amazon Basin occupies forty-two percent of Brazil’s land area. Yet its combined population is less than that of New York City. The southern and south-eastern states of Brazil comprise only sixteen percent of the land area, but sixty percent of its population. Forty million people live in São Paulo State alone. Almost one in five of all Brazilians.
Being in São Paulo means being surrounded by other people, all the time. As far as the eye can see there are streets and blocks and highways and traffic. Planes and helicopters are constantly crossing the skies above. I now know what Marlene Dietrich meant when she famously said, ‘Rio is a beauty. But São Paulo…São Paulo is a city.’ Rio is defined by natural landmarks – the sea, the curving beaches, the mountains of Corcovado and Sugar Loaf – but São Paulo has nothing like that. There is, it seems, nothing here but the human race, in enormous numbers.
Difficult as it is to imagine, there was a time, 450 years ago, when São Paulo was very small. Two Jesuit priests, pursuing their quest to bring the local Indians to God, had slung their hammocks here, beside a small river. Not far away, bigger rivers had cut gaps in the high plateau, providing glimpses of the mysterious and possibly fabulous interior of this new land. Missionaries were joined by adventurers less interested in souls and more interested in shiny minerals. These bandeirantes, as they became known, found São Paulo a useful base for their expeditions, and a permanent settlement grew up beside the River Tietê. It wasn’t until the late nineteenth century that São Paulo became something more than just another provincial town.
The increasing world demand for coffee and the start of mass emigration from an overcrowded Europe coincided here. Industrious and ambitious Italians, Portuguese and Spaniards, having made some money in the coffee plantations, stayed on to set up businesses in the city. Their success attracted others, among them Japanese, Jews, Lebanese, Greeks and Koreans. By the mid 1950s São Paulo’s population had reached over two million. But the immigrant boom was far from over. In the forty years between 1955 and 1995 the population of Brazil grew, staggeringly, from fifty-nine million to 172 million. São Paulo bore the bulk of this increase, and today it’s the largest city in the Southern Hemisphere and the eighth-biggest in the world. No wonder there is a whole area of the city called Imigrantes.
To find why so many people seem happy to live here, you have to avoid making sense of the city itself and look instead at the fine detail. Halfway up a steeply sloping road in the middle of an anonymously built-up area is a building you might easily walk past without a second look, except that the brick walls are all sprayed silver and the staff all wear black. It was once a cutlery factory, and has now been intelligently restored to house one of Brazil’s most successful fashion designers. And her son. The work of Gloria Coelho takes up most of the building, but she is in danger of being upstaged by her precociously successful twenty- one-year-old son Pedro.
Under the name Pedro Laurenço, he’s one of Brazilian fashion’s best-known names abroad. He’s had four shows in Paris and his clothes sell in twenty outlets round the world. I meet Pedro as he works in a light-filled room at the top of the building where he’s designing his new collection. He’s fresh-faced, with short dark hair, big dark eyes and a quietly impressive grasp of both fashion and business. His English is immaculate. As he toys with a line of red ribbons and swatches of fabric, and then pins them onto one of his models, he’s the personification of the work ethic. And that, he says, is what makes São Paulo so different from Rio.
‘Rio’s good for vacation, but São Paulo is good for work.’
I ask if there’s any significant difference between Brazilian and European women that he has to bear in mind when designing. He pauses a moment, then looks up from his work. Brazilian women, he thinks, like to dress more daringly than their European counterparts. If they’ve got it they like to flaunt it?
He smiles and nods. As if I hadn’t noticed that already. Cleavage seems almost obligatory in Brazil.
In the afternoon I renew acquaintance with Carolina Ferraz, who wants to take me to meet another young star from São Paulo. Only this time we’re in a completely different part of the city. No silver walls or black-clad staff here. The streets are rough and run-down. The painted walls are smeared black and rubbish is piled up at the side of the road. This is Grajaú, an extensive neighbourhood which is home to 800,000 of the poorer Paulistas. We pull up at the doorway of a concrete shell of a house and ahead, waiting to greet us, is the man we’ve come to see. He’s tall, lightly dark-skinned, quick on his feet and dressed in loose cotton trousers, a white T-shirt and trainers. He was born thirty-six years ago as Kleber Gomes, the son of migrant workers from the North-East of Brazil. Now he’s a rapper, poet and composer and has taken the stage name Criolo, the Creole. Political protest is at the heart of his work, whether it be about police brutality, living conditions in the favelas or environmental policy. He’s gained some formidable admirers, including the hugely respected singer and composer Caetano Veloso, who has described Criolo as ‘possibly the most important figure on the Brazilian pop scene’.
Right now the coming man is leading us towards the house to meet his Mum and Dad. Dad is already waiting at the door, a solid man with greying hair and an instantly likeable face. Warm and wise. I notice Criolo untucking a corner of his father’s shirt which has got stuck in the waistband of the older man’s shorts. A quick bit of tidying up. Then Criolo goes ahead, loping smoothly up a flight of steps ahead of us. There’s building work going on in the house and piles of breeze-block stand about.
The stairs lead out onto a roof with a panoramic view of Grajaú, stretching away on all sides. No one has built tower blocks out here, and there’s a refreshing sense of air and sky. Criolo’s mother is sitting out on the roof. She’s a composed, gently smiling, dark-haired woman wearing a pink cotton top and shorts. Carolina greets her with open arms and introduces us. On the way out here, Carolina had given me some background on this remarkable woman. She was born in a slum, worked as a maid, learnt to read from newspapers the meat was wrapped in and became a teacher, as did her son for a while. In 2006 she was diagnosed with some problem in her hand which made writing difficult and forced a change in her life. Two years ago she opened what she calls a philosophy café, to encourage people from the neighbourhood to come and talk about their lives and their problems. Criolo’s Mum is a firm believer in thinking for yourself, in accepting responsibility for your own life.
Carolina translates for me.
‘She has had a life that most poor Brazilians have had. But she learnt from the beginning how to dry her eyes and find a way out of whatever life had thrown at her.’
Criolo is less easy to talk to. He responds to questions with long silences. His big eyes and expressive face turn down into what looks almost like a pout. He moves his head away to one side.
I realize after an initial concern that it’s not that he doesn’t want to answer, it’s just that he wants his answer to be thoughtful. I ask about his world and the poor neighbourhood in which he was brought up, and how he thinks it might change. The gist of his reply is that it’s hard for people round here to stand back, look at their lives, and start to change them.
‘You don’t realize what’s happening in the pen if you’re stuck inside it.’
He uses a flock of birds wheeling restlessly above us as an image of Grajaú.
‘They’re flying all around but they don’t know where to go. Everywhere is brick and concrete. They’ve lost their north.’
The pressure, he says, is so hard on families here. People have a two-hour bus ride into the city, an eight-to-ten-hour job when they get there, and two hours’ bus ride back. Parents and children become easily estranged. And the politicians are not interested. In fact they don’t even notice. Criolo lets out a cry of frustration.
‘How many poor people do we need to make one rich one?’
He is now an influential voice. People listen to him and he’s becoming known outside São Paulo. But Criolo is no pedagogue, nor ever will be. His approach to social problems is not to dictate but to understand. He believes his songs and his poems connect with people because he’s speaking at a primal level, identifying feelings of loss and loneliness. At this level there can be no leader. Like the philosophy café, his work sets out that real change cannot be achieved by a system or a great leader but by an individual’s awareness of their own potential. Of which Criolo and his mother are prime examples.
I feel as if he and I are edging slowly towards each other, but the world still seems a dark place when suddenly the talk turns to music and, metaphorically anyway, the sun comes out. This is something that Grajaú does not have to be defensive about.
As Carolina puts it, ‘Three things define a culture. The language, the food and the music.’ She stands, gestures at the houses stretching off into the distance and speaks with real feeling, as though something is alive here that is missing in the polite middle-class world she moves in.
‘And they have the most amazing music here. And they play it loud and it makes them happy. They’re not ashamed to let go.’
Carolina is back on the Avenida Brasil set tomorrow morning, so she has to set off for the airport. And in doing so misses what turns out to be a great example of what she was talking about.
‘Musical Pagode da 27’ reads the sign above a strip-lit bar and café, number 27 in an ordinary-looking Grajaú back street. Criolo walks with me down the hill towards it. He’s more relaxed now, full of bonhomie as he approaches the group of musicians setting up outside the bar. A blue plastic awning has been pulled tight across the street to protect them from the storms drifting across São Paulo tonight. Every Sunday these musicians, young and old, white and black, get together to play samba at the Pagode. Tonight Criolo is going to sit in with them. It won’t be recorded, it won’t be filmed. It’s just what they do here on Sundays.
Criolo looks bashful as he settles in behind his music stand, in the midst of ten other players, all regulars. The line-up consists of guitars, sax, trumpet, keyboard and a well-stocked percussion section – drums, tambourines and bongos. It takes a while for them to get going and even when they do there are no more than a dozen people standing around. They play softly to start with, the lilting music warming them up, getting them together. The infectiously persistent samba rhythm is irresistible. I break into a smile and my feet start to move around of their own accord.
People wander down from their houses and the crowd begins to grow. The sky is suddenly slashed with jagged lightning. Moments later a crack of thunder sounds, and it’s not far away. When the inevitable downpour begins it seems to move the band up a gear, and as the rain swells the plastic tarpaulin, the music takes on a new intensity. Everybody’s shimmying about now and when an old black man steps up to the mike there are cheers and applause. He sings softly, urgently, with a delicate swooning swing in the voice.
After a couple of numbers he gives way to a portly white man in late middle age who whips up the audience with popular sing-a-long numbers. As the rain hurls itself at the street, there is a great and joyful surrender to the music. I can see why Carolina was so passionate when she talked about the importance of music to the Brazilians. Here in a modest street in the middle of a cloudburst, in one of the most disadvantaged areas of the city, music and song has, for a few hours, made everything all right. Whatever bad things may happen tomorrow, tonight has been very fine. I catch sight of Criolo, ‘possibly the most important figure on the Brazilian pop scene’, singing along in the back row.