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The Dom Phillips I knew: A sensitive and selfless soul with a gift for lifelong friendships

Tom Hennigan remembers his journalist friend who was murdered aged 57 in Brazil

It was 2008, at a monthly social for journalists in São Paulo, when I first met Dom Phillips, the British journalist murdered last month in the Amazon. As the former editor of Mixmag magazine, the monthly bible of 90s dance culture, he was by far the most successful journalist at our humble gathering.

I seem to remember pestering him with questions about hanging out backstage with the likes of Fatboy Slim and other DJs I had once queued up to see. But he was already far more interested in all things Brazilian, having landed in the South American country just a few months earlier. Originally from Merseyside, his connection with São Paulo dated back to 1998 when he came on a four-day reporting trip for Mixmag. On it he met Henrique Cury, one of the partners in a club at the heart of the city’s emerging electronic scene. It was the start of another of the lifelong friendships Dom seemed to specialise in.

He made several return visits while Henrique and his friends stayed with him in London until, in 2007 having left Mixmag and looking for a change of scene after the end of his first marriage, he upped and moved to São Paulo. Initially he came on a year-long sabbatical to write Superstar DJs Here We Go! — his superb account: part comedy of excess, part insightful sociocultural analysis — of the golden years of club culture. But it was quickly apparent to his new friends that he would not be leaving any time soon. He was too enamoured with his new home. Brazil had seduced him.

The book was delivered and he stayed, quickly mastering Portuguese so he could start working as a freelance correspondent here. I was glad he did. We had become close having hit it off straight away, though a lot of people say the same about first meeting Dom. At the time I was going through a divorce and in truth my enthusiasm for hanging out together was because I was a little lost. Dom, who had gone through something similar himself in London, recognised this. As well as all the fun we were having — attending football matches, going to gigs and joining the circuit of cultural happenings he immediately seemed to have plugged into — he was also looking out for his new friend. I came to know him as a sensitive and selfless soul.

Then the next year I got a phone call from him: “I think I am at a party on your street.” So he was. I dropped in on my way home and there he introduced me to Roxy, a DJ friend he knew through Henrique, who had been one of his earliest guides to life in the city. We hit it off straight away. One day as our romance blossomed Dom had a quiet word with me. “There is one thing you need to be aware of.” Oh? And then the music journalist who coined the term progressive house leaned in and said, rather gravelly: “You know she’s really into trance, right?” That issue proved surmountable and 13 years after he introduced us, we are happily married.

When Dom left for Rio in 2012 we were both desperately sad to see him go. The city was getting ready to host the World Cup final and Olympic Games and he knew for a freelancer it was the place to be. Also, for all its cultural vitality, São Paulo lacks easy access to Brazil’s exuberant nature. Dom, since childhood a keen hiker, was eager to balance his hectic social life with more time in the great outdoors. In Rio he became a keen stand-up paddler on Copacabana and hiked and biked in the forest-clad mountains that towered over his new home. Even though we still saw him regularly we missed knowing he was just a few blocks away, perfecting his moqueca stews as his cats Ronaldo and Marta supervised.

Then on one visit back he came with his new girlfriend, Alê. The four of us went out for a lunch that lasted all afternoon. Dom was, to borrow a clubbing term, all loved up. On our way home Roxy said now she finally understood why he had to go to Rio — his romantic destiny was awaiting him there. In 2015, we all gathered to celebrate the happy couple’s wedding in Rio’s bohemian Santa Teresa neighbourhood where they had made their home.

Dom was by now one of the best foreign correspondents working in Brazil. His work would appear in the Washington Post, Financial Times, New York Times and The Guardian among others. It was a remarkable journalistic second act to follow the first which had seen him go from founding an underground fanzine about England’s emerging rave culture to becoming editor of Mixmag. This Brazilian success was a byproduct of his personality. Roxy once remarked to him that she had never met anyone who listened so attentively to what she said as he did. He responded: “Because life is interesting and everyone has something interesting to tell.” It was this sensibility, his inexhaustible curiosity about people, allied to stylish prose that produced the work that was so admired by his peers.

After the Fifa and Olympic bandwagons rolled out of Brazil, Dom increasingly came to focus on environmental questions and the fate of the Amazon rainforest. It was another demonstration of his keen news sense. No Brazilian story has greater global implications. But this intensifying interest also spoke of his passion for nature. He had come to love the jungle and its guardians and was researching a book looking at possible ways to save it from destruction when on June 5th, aged just 57, he was murdered there, alongside renowned Brazilian indigenist Bruno Araújo Pereira, by criminals involved in illegal fishing on indigenous territory. Their deaths are tragic testimony to a region in the grip of lawlessness after 3½ years of misrule by Brazil’s far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, a man who once lamented that Brazil’s cavalry had not decimated the country’s indigenous peoples like the US cavalry had, and in power has gutted the federal agencies tasked with protecting Brazil’s Amazon and its original inhabitants.

At his humanist funeral last Sunday, Dom’s instructions for no religious observance were briefly set aside for a prayer by an indigenous holy man. Then his great friend Michael Smyth, with whom he had enjoyed so many holidays hiking in the mountains around the colonial town of Paraty, told mourners of a link Dom had sent him to an online post by Nick Cave. In it the Australian singer discussed whether he believed in signs, aware that to admit to doing so “may appear deluded” but how after the death of his son “I have made, for reasons of survival, a commitment to the uncertain nature of the world”. At the end of the text Dom just added: “One day you can tell me about your signs and I’ll tell you about mine.” Michael never got to hear about Dom’s signs.

Like many of Dom’s friends around the world he is instead left with the sudden, violent, final interruption of a friendship that should have lasted years more. But Dom’s infectious enthusiasm for life, the great generosity of spirit with which he shared it, the way he loved to bring people together means that regardless of our thoughts on the afterlife, there will be many of us who will in the times ahead be seeing signs of Dom’s presence in our lives.

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan

Tom Hennigan is a contributor to The Irish Times based in South America