thoughts on carnaval 2010

No, I wasn't there. But I put these thoughts together with help from a few folks who were, plus internet videos, news, and other flotsam...


Thought on Carnaval 2010

Eric Crawford

The major samba schools in 2010

Before the results of Rio's Grupo Especial samba schools were released today, American blogger Kathleen Hunt
(riostories.blogspot.com) predicted a win for Unidos da Tijuca because of the "unique creativity and playfulness" of their theme, "It's a secret." Perennial favorite Mangueira also seemed a likely winner, given their MPB theme and gorgeous fantasias, while stalwarts Portela and Salgueiro celebrated the high-minded rewards reaped, respectively, from Internet connectivity and from books.

Hunt noted the poignant presence of a wheelchair-bound Elza Soares in the procession of Mocidade Independente de Padre
Miguel. With a paradisic theme, Mocidade included a "financial paradise" of "money-laundering with washing machines
that tossed fake money into the crowd". Drama ensued, though, when Mocidade's abre-alas float gave up the ghost a few
feet past the finishing line. Thousands of audience members were almost as relieved as Mocidade's members to see it
cleared away by dozens of frantic volunteers.

When this year's results were officially announced, Unidos da Tijuca was the winner for the first time since 1936.
Mangueira took sixth, to the apparent disappointment of many. Radio station MPBFM immediately responded by celebrating
Mangueira via Twitter: "Depois de falar de Braguinha, Dorival Caymmi, Tom Jobim e Chico Buarque, a Mangueira foi a
primeira Escola a falar da Música Brasileira."

Moralists were surely satisfied to see that Viradouro, who named an extremely young girl to the sexy post of rainha da
bateria, took dead last and they will exit the Grupo Especial next year.

Remaining true to their roots is the foundation of Mangueira's national -- and now international -- appeal. A pillar
of Mangueira's fidelity to the Afro-Brazilian heritage was the long-reigning puxador Jamelão. Caetano Veloso noted his
presistent presence in Bahia every year to connect with Iemanjá:

Pensando em Jamelão no Rio Vermelho
Todo ano, todo ano
Na festa de Iemanjá
Presente no dois de fevereiro
Nós aqui e ele lá
Isso é a confirmação de que a Mangueira
É onde o Rio é mais baiano.
- Onde o Rio é mais baiano (1997)

To maintain it's real or perceived fidelity to its roots after the loss of the seemingly eternal puxador is surely a
challenge for Mangeuira now. One nod backward was this year's enredo recording, which included a sample of Jamelão
exulting in "minha Mangueira". Expect the single-surdo technique to continue and more enredos that celebrate shared cultural
fundamentals like MPB.

But the march of time has transformed this samba school as much as any. For example, all schools now post their samba enredo lyrics and recordings on their web site, YouTube videos abound, and potential participants can even select their fantasia online. One would like to imagine that at least the aging baianas still chat on the front porch about how to afford their costume and who's up to what, but clearly -- rehearsal season aside -- most of the escola participants gather via Orkut, Facebook, and Twitter.

Of course, virtual community and the electronic memory also work in tradition's favor. Any mangueirense can now dig deep into 1981's documentary, Fala Mangueira!, or classic Cartola performances. Video pirates might download the recent Portela documentary, O Misterio do Samba, or another recent one about Paulinho da Viola, Meu Tempo é Hoje. And sambistas around the world can "attend" Carnaval the way a great many Brazilians do: watching Globo coverage live via cable and satellite TV.
Typical Misconceptions

Of course, experiencing only television coverage of the major Carnaval celebrations is terribly misleading and leads to many erroneous conclusions:

1. Carnaval is always about sex and alcohol.

2. Carnaval in Rio is about Rio-styled samba, while Bahia has giant sound trucks slamming your eardrums with samba-reggae and axé pop.

3. Samba is about flashy costumes, media attention, and organized "message" themes.

4. Carnaval in Rio is about the samba schools.

4. Carnaval is something that can be "watched," like a football game.

5. Carnaval lasts for about a week.

In fact, adult pleasures are not everywhere in Carnaval. Children's parades, for example, are popular throughout the country. The infamous Banda de Ipanema even puts on a program for tots called Bandinha de Ipanema; drag is traded in for a day for children's songs and marchinhas. I believe that Carnaval is about regressing to childhood innocence (and the creative freedom that implies) as much as it is about the better-known excesses and vices that get far more coverage in the press and on television.

The popular stereotypes of Carnaval miss another, similar phenomenon as well. Music figures in Salvador's festivities engage in countless musical encontros of Salvador's festivities. And as common as bawdy kisses and embraces are in the pipoca of the Carnaval crowd, delirious embraces marking spirited reunions with long-lost friends, who are addressed frequently as "brother" or "sister", are perhaps even more common. Even complete strangers become one's family. In other words, Carnaval is a bit like the Christmas holiday that precedes it: a chance for a family reunion.

And the national media pounce on any hint of familial sentiment. For example, superstar Gilberto Gil wept in the middle of the festivities as a little-known singer paid homenagem; in North America such a moment would have hardly been commented upon, but in Brazil the filial piety suggested in Gil's sentiment made it headline news across the country. The inclusion of a wheelchair-bound Elza Soares on a parade float, the lionization of each big school's velha guarda, and universal mourning when a elder figure such as Dorival Caymmi passes away are other examples of a kind of nationalized filial piety that is strongest during Carnaval.
Who Needs Samba?

Samba is far from a requirement anywhere in Brazil. Recife's Carnaval, according to carnavaldepernambuco.com, features frevo, afoxé, ciranda, côco, several forms of maracatú, and other regional specialties in addition to samba. In Bahia's Pelourinho before and during Carnaval, old fashioned neighborhood brass bands play marchinhas from the 1940s while local theater groups put on comical shows that would not be out of place in a medieval festival. Down towards the beach from the big trio elétricos, you might hear Gilberto Gil shouting "Rock Around the Clock" or a Bob Marley reggae sandwiched between Toda Menina Baiana and a duet with Daniela Mercury.

To the extent that Brazilian carnaval is about samba, it does not last a week or less. In fact, the "samba Carnaval" is a lengthy season of rehearsals, hanging out, jamming, and so on. This is not only true for samba school participants; anyone involved in the smaller groups, such as neighborhood blocos, as well. And bars, restaurants, and other music venues book more and more party music events in the months leading up to Lent.

Participation vs. Observation

Two tracks run side-by-side throughout the Carnaval experience and understanding the event is impossible without sketching out the differences between the two: the participatory and the observational. The early entrudo on the street and the mascarade ball imported from Venice are inherently participatory. In the first model, there is no show except the show you yourself "put on", literally and figuratively. The second model apparently came about with the rise of television and the construction of Niemeyer's Sambadromo, which encourages you to see and hear, but not to jump in or dance or be seen. In Bahia, the analog is the camarote where the well-heeled insulate themselves from the sweaty masses.

Alternatives and Rejuvination
The enormous samba schools remain immensely important to the "observational" Carnaval, and for their participants of course, but they are no longer the sole focus of Rio's Carnaval; smaller groups have seen a huge resurgence. According to Texas-based sambista Robert "Jacaré" Patterson,

During the Carnaval season of January and February every year, Caricocas turn off their TV’s on Saturday nights and head for the street corner to see friends and support their bloco. The blocos have roughly the same structure as the big schools. They have directorates, composers, drummers, dancers and so forth. They select a theme and have a samba competition where they select the best samba for the year. They rehearse for a couple of months, make costumes and, during the 2 weeks or so around Carnaval, they take to the streets to celebrate and sing their samba. These songs become part of their collective consciousness and heritage. Participants range in age from babies to older folks with all ages in between and all taking part in some way. Almost all of the great players, dancers, etc. in the big schools got their start and still participate in their local blocos.

This is not to say that all blocos are small and intimate. The 900 lb. gorilla, as Jacaré calls it, is Monobloco, which performs, teaches workshops, and boasts fans across the planet. At the other end of the scale are truly neighborhood-based samba blocos that actually reflect the literal meaning of bloco as a block. These include Volta, Alice from Rua Alice in Laranjeiras and Boemios da Lapa. According to a February 15 piece by Chris McGowan,

The festivities begin at designated time and place where members meet up (the concentração), wearing the bloco's T-shirt and fortifying themselves with beers and caipirinhas. The bloco winds its way slowly down the streets of a particular neighborhood, with crowds trailing behind or lining the parade route. Most blocos play samba and marchas, while some add funk carioca, samba-reggae and maracatú to the mix. There are now some five hundred blocos in Rio, with two hundred just in the Zona Sul.

This list is hardly complete; I would add the example of Bloco da Asiedade, which attracts a tremendous following with Pernambuco-styled frevo, complete with wailing brass.

Of course, the resurgence of blocos in reaction to the scale and real or perceived loss of local connection in the large samba schools is nothing new. In the late 1970's, the samba-enredo was speeding up, the great early composers were dying off, and the personal expression that had been the hallmark of great sambistas no longer seemed to have a home, yet singers like Clara Nunes, Leci Brandão, and Beth Carvalho, as well as the composers of pagode and "classical" samba composers of a younger generation such as Paulinho da Viola, emerged to fill the void. (And speaking of Paulinho's "classical" tendencies, at least twice in the last hundred years, choro has experience a renaissance of popularity and he's excelled in composing those as well.) João Gilberto had already revived samba with the bossa nova and, through it, returned numerous songs by Ary Barroso and other composers of the "Golden Age" back to popularity. And Martinho da Viola even revived the first hit samba recording, 1917's Pelo Telefone, in 1973.

Final Thoughts
For me, Brazilian music seems to revel in circles and cycles that are asymetrical and swinging enough to be interesting, yet accessible and immediate. This is true on the level of rhythmic patterns like samba's teleco teco as well as on the level of the interplay of roots vs. innovation. This is the country that defined cultural cannibalism, where African gods became saints, where the leading classical composer of the last century turned his back on the academy and hung out with the sambistas, where its leading poet dropped out of a diplomatic position for free love and a career as a pop singer, where a military dictatorship somehow saw the often irreverent form of samba receive official blessing as the foundation of national culture, where another strict military dictatorship brought about a renaissance of sophisticated, uninhibited songwriting.

Of course Carnaval is both an expression of familial bonds and paternal sentiment as well as a bacchanal. Of course Mangueira celebrated composer Tom Jobim one year, even though the nightclub world of Jobim had nothing in common with the favela lives of their members, and of course every mangueirense knew all the words from his songbook. Of course samba and Brazilian music in general retains tradition and even clichés while countless attempts, with varying degree of success, to reinvent and hybridize it are attempted. For a music such as samba to live and breath and develop, all this is probably necessary to make creative progress. Paulinho da Viola said as much in Argumento:

Sem preconceito ou mania de passado
Sem querer ficar do lado de quem não quer navegar
Faça como um velho marinheiro
Que durante o nevoeiro
Leva o barco devagar.

As the boat moves on, of course, some of us inevitably want to get off. Jacaré complains bitterly about the efforts to clean up Carnaval:

The big news this year is the effect of the "Choque de Ordem"; ...they essentially are trying to teach Cariocas that they can't just do whatever they want at any time... Blocos must now provide porta-potties, security, and traffic control. It has lead to severe limitations on spontaneous street vendors, one of the best parts of the whole scene. Some nice fresh grilled cat on a stick for about a buck is harder to find these days.

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