Zé da Guiné – Lisbon’s King of Cool

 The man with the nice smile and a very particular and unique style will remain in Lisbon’s collective memory as one of the grooviest people the city has ever seen. 

Lisbon is currently one of the most visited cities in Europe, attracting hordes of tourists from all over the world. You see them nearly everywhere, in museums, photographing monuments or taking to the nearby beaches. But when the night comes they venture in the narrow streets of Bairro Alto, the liveliest part of the city. After 11 p.m. the streets are packed with young people getting in and out of bars and clubs and drinking in the streets. You may wonder whether this has always been like that. Yes, to a certain extent, but where you now find clubbers, common people and curious tourists there was once a different crowd. This neighbourhood with narrow streets was once a discreet red light district, became the preferred hang-out for left-wing conspirers against the fascist regime. And around 1980 things started to change and a new crowd began conquering the place. One of them was José Barbosa, also known as Zé da Guiné who decided to open there the first club, named Souk. Suddenly, a new kind of clientele started venturing the streets, mainly actors, writers, journalists and young people delighted by the new sounds and trends from abroad. Punks, new punks, new romantics, fashion designers, art students, journalists and intellectuals now had a new place to go. Rock House was the place to go and once again Zé da Guiné was part of it, the cool bouncer from a tiny club where we used to dance to the sounds of Killing Joke, Residents, Sex Pistols, The Cure or David Bowie. The Bairro Alto was suddenly living its most creative days and it was the right place for a new cultural elite wanting to break the conservative rules. Records had to be bought abroad, shoes like Doc Martens and Creepers were ordered from England, France or Germany and everyone shared a passion for the likes of Joy Division and Echo and Bunnymen. Style and attitude were rather important these days and everyone tried to have a style of his/her own and buying second-hand was a good solution and one of the hippest things to do. Besides his entrepreneurial spirit Zé da Guiné was also known for his unique style. Tall and elegant you could see him wearing all kinds of outfits with an astonishing nonchalance and that is why he is today and for many Lisbon’s king of cool.

Zé da Guiné, dressed by Portuguese fashion designer Filipe Faísca. Photo by João Silveira Ramos.

Zé da Guiné, dressed by Portuguese fashion designer Filipe Faísca. Photo by João Silveira Ramos.

His venture in the Lisbon nightlife did not stop here, at the Rock House. Around 1985 more and more people flocked to the Bairro Alto to bars such as Café Concerto, Artis, Frágil, Ocarina or Três Pastorinhos. Those places, along with Rock House, later renamed Jukebox, were the highlights of the Lisbon movida. They all had one thing in common: alternative music, from electro-pop to new punk through to the new trends in dance music with some hints of jazz and new jazz. Bars closed around 4 o’clock but that was not enough for this eager crowd. And once again Zé da Guiné, together with Mário, owner of Artis, and Hernâni, PR and bouncer in places such as Cafe Concerto came up with the idea of hosting Friday events in an old palace. Every Friday the eager crowd descended the cobbled streets of Bairro Alto and took to Longas Noites (Long Nights). Every night was a surprise. Climbing up the stairs the main room would host all kinds of events, from punk concerts to transvestite shows or dodgy magicians performing with snakes. Nearly everyone could go on stage and make a performance. An near the main room in the main bar there he was, Zé da Guiné, this tall elegant black man with a huge smile and that strong handshake and its impeccable style.

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This example of cool Friday decadence lasted only four years and after which Zé ad Guiné went back to the Bairro Alto where he opened Be Bop, a bar where you could have drink to the sound of jazz and buy second hand clothing in pop up events he used to host there. Gentrified, the Bairro Alto now lacks creativity and has become a place to make easy money. Zé da Guiné is no longer to be seen. He is ill, suffering from a disease which is affecting his mobility and that is why today, October 29, 2010, a club named Maxime and a dozen musicians are hosting a fund-raising party to help the man. We owe him a lot and we do want to see him back in the streets of Lisbon. Despite being ill he claims he will be there tonight. I do hope so as I miss the man with the nice smile and the strong handshake.

PS: Zé da Guiné died today, three years and 3 days after the publication of this article. Meanwhile a movie on the man was released under the name “Chronicle of an African in Lisbon”, directed by José Manuel de S. Lopes, a well-deserved tribute to the man released while he was still alive and with testimonies by those who knew him and admired his work as the man who was the pioneer of a  groovy Lisbon nightlife.

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