For four years now, you've been working on a digital documentary "Quilombo Country" (www.quilombofilm.com) a story of the present day quilombos in Brazil. What's a quilombo?
A quilombo is a community founded by escaped slaves. It is also a community that was begun on the remnants of an abandoned plantation. You see, in Brazil a lot of plantations went out of business in the late 19th century because the sugar industry was a lot more efficient in the Carribean and many landowners just abandoned them. Of course, the price of sugar wasn't the only thing going on. There were upheavals and murders and mass unrest. The word itself derives from an Angolan word which simply means encampment. So when the slaves in Brazil ran away the first thing they did was set up camp.
There's a popular misconception that traditional Africans of this time period were nomadic or semi-nomadic hunters and gatherers, etc. but the truth of the matter is that most Africans weren't and aren't. They were sedentary and they practiced complex forms of agriculture. But when they ran away they had to adopt a more nomadic style of living similar to some of the indigenous people of the region because they were on the run.
Was there a driving force that inspired you to make the documentary?
I'm hoping that by presenting the quilombo people in their normal everyday lives that the public will not see them as inferior or less deserving; I'm also hoping to reduce the otherness currently attached to the people living on quilombos. I want people to see their uniqueness but realize that an otherness doesn't really exist.
See, Brazil has a history of fucking over people who can't protect themselves. It's changing but you have to remember that this is a country that had a military dictatorship from the 60's to the 80s. There are a lot of poor people in Brazil. More poor people than anything else. The difference with these people is that they're rural, they've kept certain traditions and yet they're isolated more than anything else due to race.
But Len, there are a lot of poor people in the world. A lot of social injustice.. Why quilombos?
Purely elective on my part. I was in Salvador Bahia in 1995 for Carnival and there was this bloco, which is basically like a samba school, and this bloco was marching these teenage girls and there was this whole routine of drumming and dancing that was really hot. It happened to be the 300th anniversary of the death of Zumbi. Zumbi was the leader of Palmares which was a very large and evolved quilombo of 20,000 or more people during the 17th century. He's very important in quilombo history. So I'm there on the streets of Salvador seeing these posters for Zumbi and I'm wondering who the fuck is this guy. Well, I found out. And I began thinking "man oh man when I make my film this is going to be it."
So you went back to New York and began planning this film?
Well, I finally got my hands on a few bucks. There's a story here but basically what happened is that I got hit by a truck while riding my bike. It was hit and run but in New York State there's a pool where you can get up to $25,000---I got $20,000. My head was cracked, it was a $100,000 injury but I took what I could get.
You've got the money and the time and you bought a camera and some film equipment---what happens next?
I had some time off and I started researching Quilombos. There's a lot of information online, much of it in Portuguese which I couldn't always read. I went through the information and at some point I started corresponding with a professor in Niteroi which is a college town right next to Rio and arranged to meet her. So I flew down there and she recommended that I meet with this activist group in the city of San Luis, which is an old colonial city on the coast of northern Brazil with a population of about 700,000 people.
So I flew up there and one of the activists guys I met I particularly got along with. His name was Ivo Fonseca da Silva and he showed me on a map all these different quilombos. Some of them already had books about them. Then he showed me a place where no one had really visited too much and I said "Great, I'll start there."
Were the quilombo people receptive to this guy from New York coming into their villages with his camera?
For the most part everyone was really nice. But in the Amazon region I went to a quilombo that had had a lot of outside contact by activists, church people, journalists---they were a bit more jaded than the other communities. I was shooting a bunch of people watching TV and this one guy just pushed the camera away. But I want to stress that the vast majority of these folks were very cool people with great parties: drinking, dancing, singing, reggae music, saxophones—and friendly.
Any customs or rituals that these groups practice that might at least seem alien or exotic to New Yorkers?
Well let me tell you about the Macumba ceremonies I filmed. To some people Macumba is a dirty word like voodoo or juju or whatever. However, where I was the local people called it Macumba. I wanted to capture the wonder and exoticness of these ceremonies but I was careful as well because I didn't want to exploit these people in a David Lynch sort of way. As far as the rituals themselves, they seemed no more strange to me than walking into a Catholic church…which I personally find kind of creepy.
The ceremonies consist of dancing and drumming and singing and drinking---all undertaken to enter a state of trance. There are candles. There is a Pae de Santo (Saintly Father) or a Mae de Santo (Saintly Mother) and these people are in charge---they assist the subjects during the trance. The subjects thrash around, they pass out and let the spirit take over. You can call it the subconscious but to the followers of Macumba they're letting some spirits out and some others in to do the necessary work.
Let's go back to the whole slavery angle for a second. Any interesting parallels to draw between America's experience with slavery with what went on in Brazil?
According to the Cambridge University Press, during the history of colonial Brazil approximately ten million Africans were enslaved. Half a million Africans came to The United States. In Brazil, you have perhaps 100 million people with some African blood; here in America you have maybe twenty or thirty million people of African heritage. So the numbers are much greater in Brazil but you have all these racial categories: you have whites, you have near whites, mulattos, amarelos, pretos----all these names for racial mixes that tend to obscure identity and so now people want to put an end to that.
Yeah, how can a people seek agency if they can't mobilize under a common thread like race?
Exactly, all these categories just serve to fragment these groups. But if everyone with African blood stood together in one group it would total about 100 million people. That would mean that for every African uprooted and taken to Brazil there would be ten descendents. Now in the United States for every African that came you have like 60 descendents. In other words, there was six times the survival rate for slaves in America as compared to Brazil. It was just brutal down there. That's why I call it a concentration camp in my film. They just killed people like flies, worked them to death and then got another slave. It was actually cheaper for the plantation owners to do this then feed them proper rations over a long period of time.
So we should think of Brazil as a place that had a more menacing and heartless system of slavery.
Absolutely. But in America you had the one drop rule. This essentially said that one drop of African blood made you black and you were therefore subject to all sorts of racial discrimination. Why? Because America didn't have enough slaves to do all the work. In Brazil it was different. There they had a surfeit of bodies.
Also, in Brazil there weren't enough white women around so if you needed a wife and couldn't find one you just went ahead and married a black woman. She became your wife. She was then no longer a slave and your children were mixed but they had much more social mobility than the equivalent coupling in America. In fact, we're just getting to that stage now in America where that kind of inter-racial intimacy has become acceptable. Thirty years ago that wasn't the case. It doesn't mean everyone wants to do it but they're starting to approve of it. But in Brazil, despite the brutality, you had this kind of intermingling going on for hundreds of years.
So should we be learning from them what to do or what not to do?
Well, I guess both. What I think people might get from my film is that people are all the same---we are all the same. Not even that. How interesting you are does not depend on where you are in the great society. How worthy, how interesting, how cool you are has nothing to do with your place in the hierarchy of mass society, it just has to do with how you are.
As an aside, we're just kind of curious. How was the food? Any pythons, alligators or other fare beyond what we might find at the local butcher?
They eat a lot of rice. Also there's meat but not a lot of meat. Actually there are not a lot of vegetables either. I guess it wasn't in the culture. But they do take the yucca root and make a kind of flour from it. It's called manioc flour and it's a bit like gravel. You know, good tasting gravel. But you have to be careful when you're chewing or you'll beak your jaw on it.
We hear a rumour they eat armadillos?
Well, it's just another thing they eat. They hunt it, they kill it, they skin it, they clean it, they cook it and make armadillo stew---tastes just like chicken. Well, not really. It's a lot gamier than chicken.
You ate their food, witnessed their culture, experienced their ceremonies, even danced with their women…
Yeah, there was one girl who I danced with a lot who looked particularly untroubled by the troubles of the world. I'm looking at her and finally I ask how old she is. She tells me she's fifteen. I was like "homina homina…"
Guess folks will have to see your film to know, but, anyway, were you daunted by the size and scope of the project you were undertaking as a first-time filmmaker?
One thing I learned a long time ago is that if you're not sure what you're doing, fake it. It's the best thing in the world. Say I am this, I can do that, I take this mantle upon myself. And you just go right ahead. That's how I started the East Village Eye and that's how I started this film.
What was the East Village Eye?
The Eye was a hybrid newspaper-magazine that came out monthly in tabloid size and focused mostly on the East Village and popular culture. I called it Avant Pop, kind of like leading edge pop culture. And then I got into some local politics with the real estate dilemma and the drugs and the clean-up efforts.
Was it strictly a Leonard Abrams vision or did you co-author this brainchild with a team of editors?
I started it myself but was heavily dependent upon other people right from the get-go. After three months I was so burned out but when I managed to incorporate more people they were quite enthusiastic to carry the weight. It was then that I realized what a difference one person can make. Maybe someone else would have done it, maybe not, but it was a clear example to me what one person can do.
Give us some chronology of the East Village Eye.
First issue came out in May 1979. I was just feeling my way through it. I had worked for a community paper and the punk scene was morphing itself into the new wave scene and all these people were coming out of the woodwork---it was a great time. There were performances, there was art, there was rock and roll and people were just showing up and meeting each other. These people who would work together, party together, have sex or maybe be at each other's throats were all just getting together and forming the East Village scene.
Sounds like a fun time. So you just decided you needed to get a publication out there to document the ever-expanding scene?
I wanted to do a newspaper. Even in high school I started an underground paper. What I was looking for was a milieu, something to hang it on, something exciting. But the mid 70s were kind of dismal. The hippie era was really fizzling, going right down the toilet. Sure, it was hot in the late 60s but the East Village scene really burned out with drugs and all sorts of shit. The hippies went to California, they went upstate, they fled and all of a sudden in the mid 70s things got real quiet which was actually pretty pleasant but also a little depressing. I mean all you ever heard at parties during this time was disco and The Stones, disco and The Stones.
But the energy around you was building…
Yeah, the main thing was the galleries and the music. The art kids started imitating the punk rockers. The art bands arrived and I just thought that this was definitely a scene that needs a paper. So I just started it. I pre-sold ads for the first issue and just began hustling, hustling all the time. I had a basement space on Ludlow Street around the corner from Katz's Deli that served as the office. All these people turned up and we had something going. But it was really really tough. The print bill was the main thing.
So it was a real struggle for the first couple years. But in 1982 The Soho News folded and there wasn't really anything else around except for The Voice. We picked up some steam from that. But what really helped us was the East Village art scene which was just taking off at the time.
What were some of the more memorable pieces in the Eye?
There are a lot of things but here's one: we had a guy---and as far as I know we were the first ones to do this---who wrote a regular alternative style obituary column. We did satirical obituaries. We had this guy who was really rather brilliant, T.X. Erbe, a defrocked priest and junkie and who used to write these satirical articles about dead people.
I remember when the Shah of Iran died he wrote" All the Shah's riches and all the Shah's men couldn't keep the Shah's cells from growing again". Stuff like that. But what was particularly ominous was that Urby predicted in our January 1980 issue that the 80s would be deadly and they were. AIDS, overdoses, people jumping out of windows…
But even with all that darkness moving in there was still so much to draw inspiration from. Any specific recollections?
Yeah, a lot of us artist types were really inspired by the Times Square show in 1980 which was a very seminal show. Keith Haring was actually in it I think. So beginning around '82 the East Village art scene started to explode and it was really big for a few years. Scores of galleries just sprung up like mushrooms after a spring rain---they were everywhere. And our original art editor was leaving and there was this guy Walter Robinson who was writing for Art in America and I said what am I going to put around all these adds? He said don't worry I'll be your art editor. So he hooked up with Carlo McCormick and Sylvia Falcon and the Eye really began in earnest to create this scene, this whole East Village art scene.
Are you saying the East Village Eye helped create this scene?
Oh, Absolutely. The Eye created the vehicle but a lot of it was a happy accident. All the regular writers contributed but especially Walter and Carlo who went to all the gallery openings, getting free drinks and making fun of everybody, goofing around and making the scene happen.
And your role in all this?
Just keeping the Eye going. Getting those art ads to keep the paper going and bringing out as much important stuff as I could, stuff that wasn't always seen as specifically East Village art.
So the larger art publications were ceding you this territory?
Well, it started that way but they jumped on it pretty quickly after us. In the mid-80s there was a big shake out in the gallery scene. What happened is that most of the serious galleries---of which there were probably only about ten---moved to Soho or Noho. And the "me too" galleries, which amounted to about 90% of the remaining spaces just evaporated.
Did that hasten the demise of the Eye?
Absolutely. It hurt us a lot. We lost a lot of art advertising. The serious galleries, now that they were being covered by Art Forum and Art in America, didn't want to spend money on the Eye anymore. They basically dropped us. The Eye folded in January 1987.
In the summer of '87 you went from writing about scenes to creating a scene. Tell us a little about that.
I hooked up with one of the guys from the Eye, Chuck Crook, and we opened this club and started throwing warehouse-style parties which was not a big thing in New York. It was already a huge thing in London for like ten years but not yet in New York. Chuck named it the Milky Way. But I broke off from that and opened Hotel Amazon down in the Lower East Side in a former school building. We probably had about 6,000 to 8,000 square feet.
So what went on there on a typical Friday or Saturday night?
We had a nice mix of hip-hop, reggae, funk and soul and a little house music. And we started booking all these people like Queen Latifah---she was like sixteen years old at the time. It had to be one of her first gigs. We had the Jungle Brothers, De La Soul. We had the Zulu Nation party with Public Enemy, Mele Mel and Fab Five Freddy. The Beastie Boys were there all the time, Kid and Play, Matt Dillon, a lot of folks.
Why didn't it last?
Well, some of the less sophisticated kids, the local ghetto kids I guess, just kind of took over once they felt comfortable there and the violence escalated. We had to shut things down because we just didn't have the security to deal with it. It was great when it was a nice mix of the East Village kids, the hip hop kids, the art kids just all coming together. What I really liked about Hotel Amazon at its prime was that you had all this racial mixing going on. There were kids who were maybe children of Vietnam vets -- black mixed with Asian or whatever, and everyone was comfortable there, everyone had a good time.
Sounds like a theme of yours--- getting all these different people together.
Oh yeah, I guess so. Kind of like an unspecified theme. I like to upend things and turn things around. In The New Museum show on East Village art in the 80s that recently ran in Chelsea, they pointed this out about The Eye. We were great at doing this story on the most flipped-out person you'd ever want to meet, you know, the guy that had no idea what he was doing but he did something that was great and we just put it out there and said to the public "Hey, you don't know this guy?" We made the artist legit by just speaking about him, which in a way is kind of what I was trying to do with the quilombos. I think they're already totally legit, but they aren't in the eyes of Brazilian society. I merely presented them as a people who are as articulate and together as anybody and I hope that comes across.
Interview by David Insley