The man at the helm

This week we have lost Zé Pedro, the guitar player and one of the founders of Portuguese Rock band Xutos & Pontapés; a charismatic figure.

At 61, he still had a boyish charm – tall and slim, you could only tell his age by some silver streaks in his hair, but from a distance you’d think time had stopped as he very much seemed the same young boy who, together with the band had given his first concert in the late seventies. What began as a Punk band went on to become one of the most famous, and certainly the most enduring, Portuguese Rock band of all time. Their famous songs, from “Contentores (meaning “Containers”) in the eighties to “Não sou o único “(I’m not the only one “) in the nineties, and so many other hits, have been sung by several generations; even today young people flock to their concerts and love their music. Most of their songs have become so familiar that everyone knows them by heart.

Someone once said that Zé Pedro was the “Mick Jagger” of the band. Physically they had some similarities, both being slim with mid-long hair and a fringe, but to be fair one must say Zé Pedro was the most handsome of the two! When you looked at him you saw a rebel and he certainly lived life to the full going through many experiences that included a crazy period of drugs and drink that left its scars: a few years ago he had to undergo a liver transplant. As for love, he found the love of his life a few years ago and they were married. At first it was an improbable union, of an “uptown girl” to the guitar player of a rock band, who had never lost his rebellious streak. But it was true love after all and they were very happy together. The day he died I watched a previous interview with him on TV and one of the questions was about how did “sex and drugs and rock and roll” presently fit in his life. He smiled – his beautiful engaging smile –he replied something like: “Well, drugs are out of my life; as for sex – I have the love of my life, my wife Cristina; and rock and roll – you all know what it means to me!”

One of the band’s most famous songs is called “The man at the helm” (“O homem do leme” in Portuguese). This expression has a special meaning to us Portuguese as it is related to the maritime discoveries and the indomitable spirit of our navigators who five hundred years ago bravely faced the unknown terrors of the vast seas. In a beautiful epic poem by our great poet Fernando Pessoa, the monster Adamastor – who was thought to keep watch to the Cape of Good Hope (then called the Cape of Storms because the sea was so rough there) appears before the Portuguese ships that are rounding the Cape on their endeavour to discover the Maritime route to India. He rises, gigantic and horrifying, before the man at the helm as asks him how dare he invade his territory. The man at the helm is terrified, but still he replies “At this helm I am more than myself, I am the will of a nation that will conquer your sea; I am the will of my master, King John II!” showing great spirit and courage. And so the legend goes that the Portuguese managed to pass by the giant and pursued their quest arriving in India some time later; the discovery of this maritime route brought wealth and greatness to Portugal, and our country became one of the most powerful in the world at the time (late 15th century).

And it was this very special song that the other members of the band, Zé Pedro’s colleagues and friends, chose to play today at his funeral. As his coffin passed before the hundreds of people gathered there the sounds of “The man at the helm” were heard, and everybody was singing. It was a heartrending moment.

I cannot think of a better way to say goodbye to a man who spent forty years of his life “at the helm” of a rock band, a man who loved music above all, a man who made music his life. A man who left us all a simple word of goodbye on his Facebook page. Below his black and white photo, looking at the sea, a simple word “Thank you”. Thank YOU, Zé Pedro, for all these beautiful songs that have become part of our life, of our Portuguese soul. And when, from above, you hear a crowd singing them together, raising their voices to the sky, you will know that you and your band have your place in Portuguese History, side by side with the brave navigators of long ago.

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