In a working-class suburb of Rio de Janeiro, an Ethiopian-born mother hopes that her son will grow up to become a pediatrician. The boy’s Brazilian father, a dockworker, wants him to be a lawyer. The youth’s own ambition, initially, is to play professional soccer. In fact, he is recruited for a popular local team until an injury sidelines him. During a spell in the Brazilian Army he teaches himself to play guitar. Back in Rio as a civilian, he starts to perform in small clubs. On his very first performance at a larger venue, he is signed by a producer from a major record company. One of the songs he writes becomes an international hit and he joins a popular group for a tour of the United States. All goes extremely well—the singer-songwriter even gets a cameo in a popular American TV series—until one day in Los Angeles where the group is booked to play at a famous jazz club on North Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood. Unexpectedly and inexplicably, he suddenly leaves the tour and flies back to Brazil.
Two years later, an explanation of sorts is given in the liner notes of his first U.S. album. He hasn’t spent more time in the U.S. chiefly, the notes claim, “because he likes to play soccer on the beach.” Also cited is “a lesser reason”: the singer “spoke little English, so that life in the States was hard for him.”
The truth is that on that day in Los Angeles the 21-year-old musician decided he wanted to get a haircut and found a barbershop on Vine Street not far from the venue where he was to perform. The premises were empty except for two barbers who were reading newspapers as they waited for customers. The young Afro-Brazilian man sat down in one of the empty chairs and asked for a shave and a haircut. The barbers looked at each other and then at him. “We’re busy,” one of them hissed. He left the barbershop and went directly to the Varig Airlines offices where he purchased a ticket on the next flight back to Rio.