David Bowie’s best-selling record until the day he died was launched 35 years ago today. The move to sing for the many not the few did help his career but would cost him his hardcore fan base who would return to him only on occasion after that when the launched three of his more obscure masterpieces like “Outside”, “Heathen” and the haunting “Blackstar”.
By the time you read this it will be already April 14 in Australia, the continent he took to in order to film the video clip for the song “Let’s Dance”. It was 1983 and there were more folk dancing to David Bowie than ever before. “Let’s Dance” was the main single from the eponymous album and suddenly a considerable part of the world discovered the icon gone global after fourteen albums where he appealed mostly to a crowd that felt motivated to live up to their different music tastes, clothing, sexuality and whatever Bowie stood and stands for ever since he appeared with his new approach to music and fashion. Assisted by funkmaster Nile Rogers, better known as founding member of Chic and producer of major hits from bands like Sister Sledge the record made its way to dance floors. But despite the clear funk influence Bowie did not give up his rock influences having invited Steve Ray Vaughan to add his guitar riffs thereby launching an album with the right funky feel that suited the early 80’s but with a pint of rock here and there. The image, another distinguishing feature of David Bowie seemed to follow the popular spirit of the new Bowie. Wearing immaculate suites in pastel colours and his hair dyed blond Bowie looked rather like an northern-European holidaymaker than the alien he had impersonated in some records.
35 years after being released “Let’s Dance” is still a difficult album to digest for the hardcore Bowie fan and marked a period of some creative decline in the man’s career. The Bowie for the many not the few was not the Bowie the few waited for and he would regain his particular fanbase only after “Outside” which followed the popular “Tonight” and the not so popular “Never let me down” and “Black Tie White Noise”. After that he failed again when trying to have a go with drum’n and bass with “Earthling”, when he launched “Hours” a mild album and “Relity” equally mild, the album that preced “Heathen”, the record that hinted somehow to the path he would follow when he launched “The Next Day” and his final epos “Blackstar”, the record that proved that despite some failed attempts he was still the man he stands for for many – avant-garde, unpredictable and master of reinvention.
The clichés we have associated with autocratic regimes materialised and came back to haunt the country. The social project that was there to try to put an end to inequality appears to have been cancelled. The future does not bode well for Brazil.
It’s 2001 and I am landing for the first time in Brazil. One of my best friends had been in the country for some years teaching English and visiting him before he moved back to Europe presented a good opportunity to know the place. I got on the plane in early June and landed in Recife on a warm night at 9 P.M. My British friend and his girlfriend picked me up at the airport and we got on the car. On the way to the city centre modest and poor houses made of wood dotted the lanscape. That is the first image i had of Brazil, far from the postcard image of the country we see in travel agencies. But then again it was nothing new. Airports are usually located in the outskirts where lack of urban planning is commonplace in many countries. I went to bed exhausted and woke up the next day eager to see the view from my friends’ third floor in that central neighborhood of Madalena, Recife. Trees, lots of trees, buildings and small shacks between them marked the landscape. I left the building past a first guardian and then past a second guardian and had my first contact with a local, a boy throwing stones at a tree to collect some fruit I could not identify, something like a huge walnut. I would see him later that day and everyday selling these nuts by the traffic lights. In a country where people experienced difficulties nature was being generous here. He was probably a regular as he was greeted by his first name by the people entering and leaving the huge building on the other side of the street. Dozens of people I later identified as servants, maids and cleaning ladies walked in and out the building while those I later identified as their bosses left the building in fancy cars. I learned that having a maid or servant or cleaning lady was extremely cheap and should you have a nice salary by European standars you could afford having the whole package. I got on a taxi and took to the beach. Along the boardwalk, sided by huge buildings with penthouses, men and women with fit bodies and fashionable running gear engaged in a number of leisure and sports activities. I got a chair in a designated area, deemed safe for western tourists so I was told. I had a swim and spent the day at the beach drinking bear and eating what was being offered, from bean soup shots to pineapple through oysters and the lot being sold by people from the nearby favelas. The rich and well-off on one side and armies of people selling all kinds of things for 1 real, catering for their leisure needs. How nice and typicall and convenient. I would be back here to Boa Viagem on a number of occasions, mostly to the shopping centre where the affluent people of the city seemed to spend the day, buying European and American clothes, shoes and accessories at triple the price. And I would come back to this affluent area to visit some friends, being stopped every time by man with a shotgun guarding the building. These concrete fortress were the preserve of the white, dominant Brazilian and such wealthy living conditions had to be preserved and protected from those deprived of such riches.
The next day I decided to explore the city centre. The human landscape was entirely different. Most of the people had a darker completion and came from the small towns around, shopping for food and clothing. Others had settled here looking for a job, far from their arid lands where opportunities lacked. The city centre was a vivid melting pot of people from nearly all walks of life. I later learned that the affluent people were scared to come here or simply avodied the place. And so therefore the streets of this city with broad avenues, where huge buildings, reminiscent of the Dutch colonialization combined with typical Portuguese houses were there for the common citizen to enjoy while the rich, the affluent and the tourists were left only with one avenue guarded by armed policemen on either side. In a country with a big class divide the common people had the most beautiful part of town for them, despite the number of derelict buildings that, should they be renovated and painted would make Recife one of the most beautiful cities in the world. Mango beat was a great booming culture at the time, attracting those wishing to dig deep in their roots and popular culture, It was one of the most interesting phenomena, combining tribal beats, traditional sounds from the northeast and electronic music. After samba, bossa nova and other popular sounds here was a sound that cleverly combined tradition and technology. I liked that mix and felt like digging deep in these roots, which I did when I learned to dance a tribal-like dance called caco at a loal party. The next two weeks were spent exploring the city and around, thanks to the curiosity and openness of my British friend whose characteristic I cherish the most is his capacity to adapt to local cultures discovering the best in them. Thanks to him I walked without fear everywhere; I drank in small street bars and had cookies made by big black ladies dressed in white in Olinda, went to parties whose hosts owned half the land around, travelled in taxis and combis and danced in popular parties in the city centre. I had three weeks of fun, met nice people and learned the ways of the place. And I could go on and on. The place was beautiful, the landscape was fantastic and the people were friendly. It could be paradise. But it was clearly not. There was something that I could close my eyes to, it was there all the time. The social divide was huge and I just could not pretend it was not there. And it is still there. The country was extremely unfair. It had rich or poor, practically no middle class. It’s been fifteen years now since I was there for the first time. I got to know more Brazilians in Europe during these years and in recent times the tale being told and the news that came out spoke of a country that was fighting poverty. Brazil was showing a new face. Brazilians from modest families were travelling now to the first world not just to work as waiters, there was a growing number of people who were now studying in European univesites after having had the chance to study in local universities in their hometowns and I told a university was created in the middle of a favela in Rio de Janeiro. Things seemed to be changing and planes were no longer flying upper class Brazilians alone. People from nearly all walks of life now could travel or buy electric appliances. The middle was slowly becoming a reality and 40 million people had been taken out of poverty. In light of this I began considering the possibility of going back to witness it and I even booked a ticket. But in the light of recent events, I fear I will be faced soon with a greater social divide. By the time you read this the president of the country will have been evicted, after having stood there tall and proud in a macabre trial, abandoned to a great extent by her people and by the international community that once praised her . After the sad events all the clichés we have associated with autocratic regimes will materialise and come back to haunt the country. The social project that was there to try put an end to inequality appears to have been cancelled and in the light of the recent events I cancelled my ticket until further notice. Bye bye Brazil!
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