MPB on drugs

Planet Hemp reminds the relationship of Brazilian music with drugs, dating back to Noel Rosa

Julio Moura
There’s a scene in the movie Doces Bárbaros, by Job Tom Azulay. Busted for marijuana possession, Gilberto Gil arrives at the Florianópolis (south of Brazil) court to be sentenced. The judge starts: "Gilberto Gil has declared that he likes marijuana and that it doesn’t do him any harm nor makes him do wrong". In front of the cameras, the embarrassed singer expects the worst: "Gilberto Gil’s words may fit rhythmically and poetically in his song Refazenda. But they are not acceptable neither by our laws nor by the human experience", sentences the judge before determining that the singer be committed to a psychiatric clinic "for as long as it takes to recuperate him".

Consequently, the tour was immediately cancelled and Gil, committed for a long period, described in the song Sandra, recorded on the album Refavela (1977). Artists and jurists have always disagreed when it comes to weed. Rhythmically and poetically, ganja has always permeated Brazilian music. The latest controversy involved the Brazilian rap/rock band Planet Hemp and the polemic judge Siro Darlan, who prohibited the band to perform for underage crowds in the Rio de Janeiro state. The reason is the alleged drug induction through the band’s lyrics.

The first reference to drugs (besides the samba Cocaína, by Sinhô, from the 20’s) can be found in the song Quando o Samba Acabou, by Noel Rosa, recorded by Mario Reis in 1935. The samba tells the story of two rascals disputing the love of a girl called Rosinha. The loser, "losing the sweetheart, / went away to smoke at the corner, / and spent hours meditating". The effects of the smoke in the head of Noel’s rascal would terrify judges: "when the sun rose / he was found / lying down the cliff / with a knife in his heart".

Composer Wilson Batista identified sociological aspects in the "northern herb" smoked by Chico Brito, famous in the voice of Dircinha Batista: "Here comes Chico Brito / coming down the Hill in the hands of the pigs / it’s another law suit / it’s another deed. / Chico Brito made the cards his sport / In the hill they say he smokes the northern herb".

In spite of courts and judges, a lot of marijuana was smoked in Lapa (bohemian neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro) in the 30’s and 40’s. Before being considered evil, in the 50’s, the drug was freely commercialized, especially among lower classes. It was only natural that cannabis be part of the life of some samba composers, and even enhanced their inspiration along glasses of beer and cachaça.

According to author Ruy Castro on the book Chega de Saudade, the young João Gilberto, then an aspiring singer with the vocal group Garotos da Lua, was known as Joe Marijuana in Lapa in the 40’s. Not to mention morphine (used by singers Sílvio Caldas and Orlando Silva, among others), cocaine (singer Nelson Gonçalves’ favorite) and alcohol, evidently.

After World War II, with the institutionalization of American morals throughout the continent, marijuana was transformed into the public enemy of the Brazilian family. There wasn’t much drug dealing in the bossa nova train, and whisky was the main fuel for the trips of Tom Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes, Ronaldo Bôscoli and company. Vinicius coined the frase "whisky is man’s best friend. Whisky is a bottled dog".

In the beginning of the 60’s, the jovem guarda group Golden Boys made two "tributes" to cannabis before the image of the herb was indelibly associated with youth and the protesting movements around the world. The Golden Boys released the hits Erva Venenosa - a version for Poison Ivy, recorded by the Rolling Stones - and Fumacê.

In the 70’s, the Novos Baianos were smoking a lot of pot in their hippie community in Jacarepaguá (outer skirts of Rio de Janeiro). Os Mutantes preferred acid, which would eventually take composer Arnaldo Batista on a permanent trip. The same acid tabs, according to author Nelson Motta on the book Memórias Tropicais, were distributed to record executives by Tim Maia, "to see if they could expand their minds". Raul Seixas warned those who didn’t have eye drops to wear sun glasses, in Como Vovó já Dizia (1973). A decade later, in Metrô Linha 743, the singer was still paranoid: "Go smoke elsewhere. / Two men smoking together might be very risky".

One of the last acts of the dictatorship silenced the nucleus of Novos Baianos. Censors vetoed the biblical parody O Mal É o que Sai da Boca do Homem, by Galvão, Baby and Pepeu. Galvão’s argument in the lyrics, as Gil’s before him, were not poetically compatible with the censors’: "you can smoke pot / you can do almost anything. / As long as you posses but are not possessed".

The political opening in the 80’s didn’t keep rock singers Arnaldo Antunes and Lobão from being arrested for heroin and cocaine use, respectively. The association of marijuana with the underworld, and drug traffic produced many hits for samba composer Bezerra da Silva. The verses "I’m gonna roll / but I’m not lighting it up right now / hold on rascal / it’s not time to get a buzz", contained in Malandragem Dá um Tempo(1986), softened race and social class divisions that could segregate drug users.

With all this background, when the 90’s came around, Planet Hemp’s Marcelo D2, Gabriel O Pensador (in Cachimbo da Paz) and Fernanda Abreu (in Veneno da Lata) could speak out their legalizing speech to huge and tireless audiences. That is, until an attention-grabber judge came along to try to show off more than the artists.