Photos by the author (top right)
To find the Amazon surf gangs and their incredible music you have to go to Belem, in the state of Para, several days up the river from Manaus. One surprising thing about these cities is they used to be among the richest in the world. In the late 1800s they had a monopoly on the rubber boom, and they were considered “boomtowns”.
People wanted the best of everything—both cities even have elaborate, ornate Opera Houses, with ironwork from Britain and Italian marble. Once the British worked out how to set up rubber plantations in Malaysia by smuggling seeds out, the cities went into a long decline, although there are signs of revival now. The Manaus Opera House was used for storing oil and as a football pitch for years (it was the inspiration for Herzog’s film Fitzcarraldo.
On my first night in Belem, I met Marcos, a DJ who has a world music show out of Belem at worldmixradio.org, took me out to one of the techno-brega clubs where I heard the first Amazonian surfer music aka “Guitarrada” of my trip.
In the dark, techno club, surrounded by half-naked, leather-clad “sexy dancers”, it sounded incredible.
I thought to myself: “Somebody should put this music out on a compilation CD. Oh wait, that’s why I’m here; to get bands for an Amazonian Surf compilation. D’uh.”
A couple of days later we piled into a van and drove the next morning for three hours and got a boat to the island.
There are windswept beaches and lots of anteaters and ocelots. It’s only in the last year the surfer gangs and their families have got electricity and there used to be only one phone box on the island where 2,000 or so people live—previously you’d have to ring and anyone passing by would pass a message on.
That night, the “godfathers of Amazon surf” Mestres Da Guitarrada were playing so I was pretty excited. Their music is a strange throwback to the 60s—to Dick Dale, the Ventures and the Shadows and given a Brazilian swing. It’s mainly instrumental and guitar-led. Their frontman ldo Sena threw some nifty guitar moves much to the delight of the crowd who were dancing on the sand with the tropical night sky acting as a kind of light-show.
I spent the next day crashing at the beach with some of the surfer gang. Dressing kind of like the Beach Boys in their Kokomo period, they were a super-friendly bunch. Probably the nicest gang members I’ve ever come across.
This is probably because, unlike regular gangs who rob, steal and kill, they just hang out on the beach and listen to this amazing music all day.
Hardly anything of the new wave of their stuff has been released yet (which is why I’m putting out a compilation), so I went round the studios in Belem (such as at Funtelpa), and met Pio Lobato, who is I think a world-class musician. He played me his latest tune “Tema Da Moura”. Moura is a designer who had given him a shirt, so he wrote her a song. She got the best end of that deal. It’s clean-cut guitar instrumental music with delicious melodies. Another Amazon Surf band who have pushed the music into a psychedelic realm is Colectivo Radio Cipo, whose music is deranged, while others like La Pupuna (whose hit song is “Sao Domingo Do Surfe”—written for the Surf Championships) are more playful, throwing in Caribbean beats. Some of the music is immersed in older Amazon music forms, like the carimbo played on log drums goes back centuries, maybe millennia. This rhythm still runs through everything from techno-brega to surf music.
Belem is the portal to a vast hinterland of the Amazon, with the richest diversity of life forms on the planet. And the hothouse of the Amazon is producing some strange, rich new music forms too. I flew out of Belem looking at the vast greenness below and listening on the iPod to Totonho’s new album—a science fiction concept album about how, as we’ve messed up one planet, we might as well travel to another one and screw that up too.
Peter Culshaw’s compilation Pororoco: Surfing The Amazon will be released later in the year