February 21st, 2012
It's been a while since I've stepped off the ship and said, “This place is . . . different.”
That's how I felt in Buzios, Brazil, standing on the bow and looking out over the landscape. Brazil looks like it sounds. Our anchorage was behind a long, hilly peninsula that was covered in green and wrapped in white beaches. Nearby were round, mountainous islands that stretched in either direction – a maze of underwater geography beautiful and (I suspect) treacherous. The town was sprinkled along the shoreline and up into the hills, red tile roofs and white plaster along winding cobblestone roads.
There is no color graduation in Brazil. Everything is exactly one color – shimmering green blades of grass, wet black rocks on the beach, white sand underfoot. I am reminded of a movie I saw a long time ago where the main characters find themselves somehow transported inside a world of paint. One of them picks a deep violet flower; when he squeezes it, it dissolves into thick paint, and he is left with a fistful of pure color. That's what it feels like to be in Brazil – as if I am somehow inside one of Seurat's paintings, except that he's decided to paint the humid, fragrant, powerful landscapes of Brazil.
We're here, of course, for the Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese). Carnival is the Brazilian counterpart to Mardi Gras or any other Fat Tuesday celebration in the world; its roots lie in the pre-Lenten tradition of disposing of all luxuries and sweets before Ash Wednesday and the dietary restrictions that follow. It has grown, though, to something much more than that, especially here in Brazil.
The entire country shuts down for a week. Everywhere I went, I saw signs on businesses saying “closed for Carnival.” Street parties, parades, live music, wild costumes, and general chaos are the order of the day. These parties and parades can be on anything from a local, neighborhood level to the national spectacle that is Rio de Janeiro's sambadrome.
What is the sambadrome? The sambadrome is a stadium constructed for the yearly samba school competitions. It resembles the front straightaway of a automobile racing track, with a long straight path lined on both sides with stands and bleachers. It glows like a beacon, with huge halogen stadium lighting on both sides, and giant speakers line either side of the competition path. This is a permanent structure in Rio, mind you, none of that temporary crap that we have back home for parades, and it was my destination last night.
My friends and I took a cab as close as we could get to the sambadrome, but the police had blocked off several blocks of the city around it and so we followed the crowd on foot the rest of the way. They had already purchased tickets through the crew office, but I had not and so we split up. Scalping tickets is strictly illegal, and so of course everyone was doing it. This is generally how it works:
One guy will be working the crowd, asking if anyone needs tickets. When he finds someone, he'll ask them what they're looking for and have them wait somewhere nearby (I hung out in the shadow of a generator trailer). He goes to his buddy, who has all the tickets but isn't talking to anyone, and picks up whatever zone you're looking for – different zones, different prices. This is a sort of reverse version of the usual pickpocket scheme, where the guy the picks your pocket immediately hands off the goods to someone else, so that even if you catch the guy he doesn't have whatever you lost. In this case it insulates the professional ticket scalpers, as if the police pick up the guy working the crowd he doesn't have any actual tickets on him. If they pick up the other guy, he can just say he's not selling tickets to anybody.
The guy will then come back over, and you'll haggle over the price. He will try to give you the ticket, of course, as then you're already “bought it” and it's harder to back out of the deal. After much wailing and disapproval you'll agree on a price – if you've already grabbed the ticket, waving it around in the air can help speed the process, as the scalper is already anxious that the police not notice what's going on. I talked my particular salesperson down from R$100 to R$60 (that's Brazilian Reals – R$60 is a little less than $40). Don't feel bad for him – these tickets went on sale for R$10 a week ago.
Having purchased my semi-legal ticket (it did work in the turnstile, which was a relief), I made my way into the sambadrome. There are no aisles in Brazilian bleacher seating; there aren't any seats, either, just a stepped expanse of bare concrete. I pushed my way up and in wherever I could, finally finding a spot midway up that was just large enough for me to sit. The crowd was on its feet again as soon as I sat down, as the next school had just started, and so I joined them.
Samba “school” is a bit of misnomer. There are no classes or teaching in a samba school; samba club would be a better term. Each school decides on a song earlier in the year, and depending on which song you like you join a different school. Rehearsals begin a few months beforehand.
As the first school came through, I began to realize the scale of carnival in Rio. I had wildly underestimated the number of people involved in each group – they are more like armies than anything else. A school is divided into units of roughly a hundred, all with the same costume. The stronger units have a leader out front, usually an excellent dancer in a massive, outrageous costume keeping with the theme of the unit (for instance, if it is a group of sea nymphs, the woman out front will be dressed as the queen nymph). A school has dozens of these units, all with different costumes and all dancing their hearts out.
In between the big groups come smaller, special groups of dancers. They usually have special choreography – the first group like this I saw was a group of ten men dressed as the Vatican's Swiss Guard. They had complex marching patterns and salutes that they repeated over and over again as they moved down the street. Another group of magicians told a short story about a prince and a princess through pantomime. There was also a man pushing a comically oversized suitcase down the street and running a physical comedy routine with different props before throwing them into the crowd, as well as a quartet of martial arts masters performing a choreographed fight scene . . . these are just a few examples.
And then, of course, there are the floats. If the samba school is an army, the floats are the tanks. They can be nearly anything. One of the first that I saw was a huge carriage, crewed by men in powdered wigs, carrying someone who looked suspiciously like the queen of England. Another was a set of five huge silver heads, all with mouths open in silent screams. Ships were popular this year – one was drawn by dragons, another by huge golden horses, and a third had a unit of dancers surrounding it dressed as waves (this ship would fire cannons into the crowd on occasion as well). Another float was dedicated to great scientific minds of recent centuries – Einstein, Dalton, Newton, Rutherford, Darwin, etc. One of the more curious floats was some sort of clockwork chicken, covered in people sitting on bikes suspended in midair. There was also a wagon being pulled by groups of dancers that would erupt into a huge dragon which they would then force back inside . . . you get the idea.
Each float was covered in dancers that had been lifted into place by cranes. Costumes were a riot of color and decoration – jewels, mirrors, wings, feathers, headdresses, tails, you name it (I have never seen people wear so much and so little at the same time). These were the better dancers, usually, strong and drenched in sweat by the time they reached our section of the stands. One of my favorite floats illustrated the divide between heaven and hell, and the devils were playfully taunting the angels above.
There was not much drinking going on in the stands. There was some, of course, but no one I saw was drinking to excess. That's because we all had a much more powerful drug on hand – the samba!
Each school has a group of singers and musicians that perform their school's song for the year. Usually, when a school is announced, the guitar will begin. Then the singers enter, going the song once or twice (we could see none of this, of course, since our seats were near the end, but we could hear it all through the speakers). Then, as the first unit of dancers step off, the drums hit like an explosion and you are transported to a state of altered consciousness.
It usually takes about an hour and twenty minutes for a school to transit the sambadrome. The drums play the whole time, and finally follow everyone else out at the end. This is not merely a “drumline.” There were more than a hundred drummers in the first school that I saw – it was the largest single unit there, and they only kept getting bigger as the night went on. The sound is thunderous – bass drums, hand snares, and shakers all combine to form a powerful, powerful groove. The music is totally about the groove – the song repeats around a hundred times over the course of one samba school's performance, inducing a trance-like state in the audience. The samba is everywhere – in the air, in the ground, in your guts – and when a good school is performing you can't even think because it’s taken over your brain. They have amazing stamina – close ups of the drummers on the screen showed them shedding big drops of sweat, lost in the intensity of the music.
The second samba school that I saw had a beautiful woman, dressed in huge golden wings, acting as drum captain. She wasn't just for decoration – I've never seen anyone play the hand snare like that (especially not while dancing the samba at the same time)! She came by the stands afterward and got a standing ovation from the crowd.
(To Be Continued . . .)