Organized over the Internet, gringo sambistas from 19
countries invaded the Sambadrome in Rio in celebration
of Brazil’s 500 years. They created
the Unidos do
Mundo escolas de samba. With the gringos parading in the
question became not whether or not
they could samba, but whether or not
actually become Brazilian.
By David de Hilster
This article is dedicated to everyone who made this dream come true and
who made samba history.
I reached the painted line in the Sambadrome that says "final" and the
documentary film crew approached, camera rolling. "So, how was it?" they asked.
Yes, I thought, how was it? How was it after four years of dreaming and fighting for
something and to have it come true? Was it a success? At the moment I had many mixed
feelings. One side of me said it was a great success, but the other side remembered the
long journey to this point that was full of melancholy and uncertainty up to the very end.
With a few weeks behind me now, I realize that it was a super success. Yet it wasn’t
just my dream or success anymore. It was that of Alessandra Pirotelli, who worked 1½
years full time on the project in Rio getting the Brazilian government and the League of
Samba Schools to accept the project while getting money, people, and places for it to take
place. It was that of her husband Ricardo Pavão and hundreds of Brazilians who poured
their heart and soul into the design and implementation of the parade.
It was that of hundreds of gringo sambistas who saved their money for months and
years and traveled many thousands of miles putting their trust in a project that had no
model in the history of samba. It became that of millions of Brazilians in Brazil who saw
the historic event on television and tens of thousands in person in the
Sambadromeall embracing the idea that samba schools truly existed outside of Brazil
and that there are gringo sambistas.
Yet I saw something incredible happen along the way. The question we all asked in the
beginning "could gringos samba?", had changed to "can gringos become
Brazilian?" The answer took me by surprise. In fact, the question not only took me by
surprise, but only appeared one day before the event itself.
Adjustments, Adjustments, Adjustments
Alessandra Pirotelli took on the project late 1998 and was the other person who made
the dream a reality. For the project to be a success, the gringo sambistas and the
Brazilian sambistas in Rio had to work together. Alessandra and I had the same
vision for the project and we worked together like old friends sending e-mail back and
forth at a frenzied pitch discussing our ideas, dreams, and worries about making this
project a reality.
We struggled over many issues: price, format, the samba enredo song to name a
few. People close to us struggled alongside. My wife Doris constantly argued with me about
the important issues as well as did Alessandra’s husband. It was a battle of mind and
heart and more often than not someone went away unsatisfied.
The first obstacle was price. How do we price something that has no model, that must be
coordinated worldwide, and work in a country whose economy is as volatile as a jealous
Latin lover? At first the price was too high. Alessandra worked wonders to lower the price
without knowing how she was going to pay the League of Samba Schools for the right to
parade (tens of thousands of dollars), pay the people to make costumes, the float, people
to push the car, etc, etc, etc. After all, gringo sambistas like their Brazilian
counterparts don’t have very much money, so the price had to be attractive. And to top it
off, we had to collect money from all points of the globe via the Internet.
The second obstacle was format. How many gringos would come? Fifty? One thousand? How
could we assure stability without knowing how many people were coming? And all this with a
budget? This is absolute madness! At first, I wanted to have different samba schools come
together but remain separate. Alessandra suggested one samba school that united the whole
world. It made sense. We couldn’t guarantee that schools would come in force. Most likely
we would get a few from many schools for the first year (that is what indeed happened).
She also suggested adding Brazilians in the mix to provide stability and to fill in the
variable number of gringos that would end up in the event. With this all in mind, the name
of the school came very naturally: Unidos do Mundo (United World). We had a format that
would work with 50 or 1000 gringos.
The third obstacle was really created by my attempt to get gringo samba composers to
compose the song for Unidos do Mundo. After all, it was only right that a foreign sambista
write the song for our foreign school. I started the contest for the song in 1998 and it
ended early 1999. This turned out to be a very hotly debated subject among the
international sambista community and among myself, Alessandra, and our spouses.
Very few candidates were submitted for the samba song during that period and of those
candidates, none were quite up to standard I have come to know during the years from the
better gringo composers. To remedy the problem, we decided to allow the sambistas
around the world to vote via the Internet on several options on the samba song for Unidos
do Mundo. We made this decision only months before the actual event and time was running
The choices were: (1) to go with one of the candidates submitted knowing that they were
weak, (2) to allow for a composer from Brazil to work with one of the samba songs and to
make it better, or (3) to get a guest composer like Martinho da Vila to compose a new song
for the school. It turns out that Doris and Ricardo (our spouses) both were against
Martinho or any non-gringo writing the samba theme song, but Alessandra and I disagreed on
grounds of marketing. Putting Martinho, Alessandra argued would bring much needed
publicity to the project. I agreed as did eventually Doris. I don’t know if Ricardo
finally agreed, but to make sure that we did not make the final decision, I put it to a
vote on the Internet. As it turned out, the option with Martinho as the composer won with
a clear majority of votes. Martinho ended up agreeing to write the song and indeed brought
well-needed publicity to the event in Brazil.
Other adjustments we made included eliminating worldwide tryouts for the bateria
and dancers. There simply was not the money and time to travel the world to pick sambistas
for the event. So a smaller version of the same idea was born: Alessandra would travel to
two places before the event to stimulate interest: in this case, Los Angeles and Portugal.
Our Carnaval for our samba school was in September and she would travel to Portugal
shortly after that.
Her trip to visit our modest Carnaval turned out to be very important for the emotional
well-being of the project.
Virtual to Real
I was visiting the dozens of people spending sleepless nights before Carnaval,
preparing the costumes for our parade in Long Beach, California, near Los Angeles. We had
invaded the house of a friend who had nothing to do with samba and who ended up during the
course of the weeklong invasion, making us dinner and even sitting down and helping hand
sew a costume. In the middle of the day before our Carnaval, Alessandra was arriving. I
was afraid to meet her face-to-face. I’m not sure why.
Maybe it was because virtual communication doesn’t let one judge someone by their
appearance. Maybe our appearances would turn each of us off! I heard she arrived at our barracão
(literally "big tent") and was heading my way. When we finally met, it was very
nice to touch the person you had only talked with virtually over the Internet and
telephone. Her physical beauty matched the beautiful person I had met over a year ago over
the Internet. We were now real friends!
I then became nervous knowing that she was going to see our modest parade and school
the next day. When she asked me if we had a bateria (drum corps), I was shocked. I
said "of course!" Just days before, I was at the national headquarters of Varig
Airlines, a Brazilian sponsor for our project, and heard someone say, "Don’t expect
much there in Long Beach on Sunday". That also shocked me. Heck, we work all year,
have a bateria of 40 people and more, have costumes that we make ourselves that are
very beautiful, and a samba song we write and sing in Portuguese and English. I was
shocked, but nevertheless concerned.
That night I was up until 3:30 in the morning working on last minute preparations for
our Carnaval and got up at 7 am to pick up a van, fill it with our instruments (all on my
own), and receive the portable toilets, booth tents, sound equipment, and inspectors at
the Carnaval site. I would have to sing by myself that day and my voice was hoarse.
Alessandra, our sponsors, and thousands of people started to arrive and Doris and
myself became extremely busy. I didn’t have much time to dedicate to Alessandra and felt
bad that I had no money to even pay a hotel for her. All my money was tied up in an event
that I hoped would loose less than $1000 that year. As we got closer to parade time, the
event was extremely crowded. We had more than double the number of people from the year
before, putting our estimates at six to ten thousand people for the entire day. I went to
the beginning of the short parade route and got the sound equipment ready. I got my
microphone and we started the bateria. The parade was on!
I had three microphones in my hand from television stations and a documentary film crew
and was singing in English and Portuguese, sometimes getting mixed up a bit because of
being so tired. Part way down the avenue, the speakers on the truck began to fall, so I
jumped up and tried adjusting them, all the time singing the song. I looked next to me and
who was there but my wife Doris. The two people who put the entire event on are the ones
up in the truck doing the dirty work.
At that moment, I realized what it was like to be a president or a samba singer in a
samba school outside of Brazil. No president’s office. No president’s salary. No rest
before Carnaval to pamper your voice. Just pure madness. But we were bound to keep things
going no matter what. We are after all, on the front lines of the new frontier of samba:
As I sang and paraded, I saw many important people in the community: the Brazilian
consul, sponsors, VIP guests, all smiling and bouncing to the beat of samba. I didn’t see
Alessandra. We made our way to the stage and with a hoarse voice I continued to
singa total of an hour and a half. SambaLáthat’s the name of our samba
schoolput on a great show and the Carnaval with the other bands for the rest of the
day was a great success.
Only afterwards I met Alessandra and got to talk with her about impressions of our
parade and samba school. It was then that she revealed to me that along the avenue as the bateria
passed by, 50 or more ritmistas (percussionists) strong playing tightly and with
rehearsed breaks, that she cried. She shed real tears. She saw for the first time
something she didn’t expect to seesomething that Brazil would see in the year 2000
in the Sambadrome: real sambistas from a foreign country that had heart, soul, and
the swing of a real Brazilian samba school.
We had several important meetings after our Carnaval about the event in Rio. But after
our parade and Alessandra’s reaction, I knew that the trip had not been only for meetings.
The moment she revealed to me that she had been moved to tears to see our modest 150
person samba school parading that day, I knew the trip’s purpose had a greater
significance. Alessandra now knew that Brazilian samba truly did exist outside of Brazil
and that the project would be a success. Now we just had to convince the gringos and the
Brazilians of this. And more than that, we had to earn their trust.
It had all come done to faith. Faith in that what Alessandra and I were doing would
make samba history.
"Bear", Unidos do Mundo’s own Rei Momo (from SambaLá Samba School) literally
At the beginning of World War II, Bear’s father was an officer on a merchant oil
Miraculously, Brazilians fishing boats found them and took them to Rio de Janeiro.
The First Steps
A journey always starts with a first step. And in this case, the steps for me were big
ones. King-sized in fact. My first goal in the actual journey to Brazil was to get our
King Momo (Rei Momo) onto a plane and to Rio before Carnaval. Our incredible travel agent
Dagmar Sabat had gotten us one free ticket in trade for getting a group of our people to
fly Varig, and managed a discount for Doris, myself, and the extra ticket for our Rei Momo
("Bear" as we call him) who needed two seats because of his kingly size.
We got to the airport and we boarded the plane. Rei Momo had ticket 17A and I had 17C.
Seat 17B was left for overflow. But when we arrived at the seats, the armrest in between
the two king seats did not lift up! In fact, they were the only seats on the plane where
the armrests did not lift up! Some very nice Brazilians behind us switched seats with us
to that we could lift up the armrest and seat our king comfortably. We were on our way.
When we got to Rio, Bear and I settled down in a friend’s house, and then went to meet
Alessandra at their barracão (the place where they were making costumes). There we
met Alessandra and all the people who were involved with the school. We were very tired,
only having slept three hours during our flight. This is where I truly have a difficult
time remembering what day we did and when. We simply did not stop.
We went to Beija-Flor’s barracão where all the floats were stored and where
there was a meeting of all the presidents of the great schoolsBeija-Flor, Mangueira,
Viradouro, Mocidade, etc. We were there to do publicity for Unidos do Mundo. Beija-Flor
after all was helping sponsor the event. We made our way through a thick crowd, meeting
people. One of my favorites to meet was Neguinho da Beija-Flor. He is considered to be one
of the best samba singers in Brazil today and meeting him was a great honor. We talked
briefly and of course I took a picture with him. I couldn’t imagine singing with him in
the Sambadrome. It was a personal dream come true. He was very kind and gentle. We
continued making our way through the crowds, around the great floats that towered to the
ceilings of this vast warehouse. Important samba people were everywhere.
Bear, our Rei Momo, was a "big" success with the waiters. Waiters were
constantly moving about trying to feed the population in the hall but with little success.
It seems that during Carnaval, most people are always eating something delicious and
hunger does not seem to be a problem. The moment they discovered our Rei Momo and his
kingly appetite, they became very animated and happy. Bear was not shy in sampling
everything multiple times until even he had his fill.
Finally, we met some of the presidents of the major samba schools who were there to
choose the judges for the Sambadrome. Right before the private meeting started, we were on
our way leaving what was at that moment, the most important samba meeting on the planet.
Next we appeared at what was to be our quadra or practice area or
"quad". A quadra is where a samba school gets together to play, dance,
and rehearse for their parade. There, Bear was introduced and he gave a speech that I
translated for the public. Next, I spoke and talked about the project and our vision and
thanked everyone involved with the project. And from the moment before and during regular
Carnaval, we were constantly being filmed, videotaped, recorded, and photographed by
journalists, documentary film crews, and television. We were the spokespeople who
represented all the gringo sambistas that had come and were starting to arrive in
Brazil. Taxicab drivers, doorman, and people on the street would recognize us and even
thank us for our "wonderful" project. We were very exhausted but happy with the
reception. Alessandra had just done an incredible job on marketing the event.
Slowly, day by day, gringos from around the world began to arrive. It was very strange
to have someone come up to me who I did not know by face, but who knew me by face and by
name. "Hi, I’m Thomas from Sweden!" "Hi, you don’t know me, but I am from
Chile. Thanks for your work." I was truly astounded by the power of the Internet and
its reach around the world.
Some encounters were very special. One in particular I wanted to meet was Krzysztof
from Poland. It was only two years before that I received an e-mail from a lone Pole who
loved samba and wanted to start a group in Poland but did not know how to go about it. I
told him to do what I knew best: make a Webpage on the Internet. "Then what?" he
asked. "Sit back and wait," I said. A few years later I got a photo from him
showing him and others playing samba along the side of the road in the country. I laughed
a lot because being from a gringo samba school, I immediately understood.
You see, all samba schools outside of Brazil have the same problem: noise. I bought a
decibel meter and once measured the loudness of our percussion or bateria as they
call it in Brazil: 125 decibels. That is just between the loudest rock band and a jet
engine at close range. Império do Papagaio of Finland actually plays in a bomb shelter
below ground so not to perturb their neighbors during practice sessions! Another group in
New York practices in Central Park. Krzysztof was experiencing the same thing with his
group and was forced to play out in the country by the side of a road.
On the Sunday of Carnaval, we all met at the Rio Othon Hotel and I finally met this
Pole. A shy, kind man with glasses came up to me and simply said: "I’m
Krzysztof". I yelled: "Krzysztof!!!", and we hugged. I got tears in my
eyes. I asked, "How’s the group?" "20 and growing" he replied. He
added, "The Internet really works!" It was a wonderful moment that I will always
One by one, Alessandra and I greeted these pioneers who saved their hard-earned money,
and put trust in Alessandra and I and our crazy idea. We all hugged and talked to one
another with a wonderful feeling of kinship, knowing we all loved samba and had much in
common to share.
Little did I know that this ideal moment would not last long. The road to success was
less than a week away, and soon I found it was not all paved with gold. One person from
our group who had just joined our group in Los Angeles wanted out of the project on the
first day. That was hard. This was in part a business and we had to treat it as such at
times. But it was still emotionally hard for me.
There were many other incidents on the first day that showed us that things would not
be as easy as they looked. It is only natural that with so many different cultures
together, there were bound to be misunderstanding and differences of opinions.
Almost all the gringos headed that day for the Sambadrome for the two days of the top
schools parading on Sunday and Monday. Rei Momo ("Bear") and I got to watch the
groups that showed up before the special group that paraded on Saturday. Two schools from
this group would rise to the ranks of the big schools, so this was a very important
parade. Bear and I were virtually alone on the bleacher side while Alessandra and her crew
were preparing the space for Unidos do Mundo’s VIP guests a week later. Bear and I felt
like celebrities with the stadium and private booths all full except for ours. People were
looking at us trying to figure out who we were.
While watching the parade, all of a sudden I felt someone next to me and I got a funny
feeling inside. The guy looked like a student traveler with messed up hair and clothes and
he spoke to me in English. He whispered to me, "Are you the guy who organized all the
schools on the Internet?" At that point I got a bit nervous not knowing who he was or
how he got into the private booth. I didn’t answer the question directly and was more
concerned about removing this funny character before something weird happened. Luckily,
some of Alessandra’s team saw him and started asking him questions. As they approached, he
whispered again to me "hey, tell them I am with you or they will throw me out."
At that point I really got scared and turned around and walked away as the Brazilians
approached him. They took him out and I tried to ignore the incident.
At that point I not only realized that the Internet is a powerful tool where
recognition is worldwide, but that I was no longer sitting safely at home behind my
computer screen and the virtual world of samba that I had helped create. I was now in full
public view and vulnerable. Sure, I’m no rock star, but even on the opening day it was
strange to have so many people know so much about me without ever having met me. Heck, I
was just a computer geek trying to use the Internet to organize samba. I never thought of
the vulnerability I was creating for myself.
Another intruder made her way into the booth, but this one was a young beautiful
Brazilian woman. Now that is not as bad I thought! But I must remember: I’m a married sambista,
I’m a married sambista! She too was escorted away. My second "groupie"
was somewhat more positive but I did become more attentive to my surroundings.
One thing I remember was watching the Brazilian crew cleaning and decorating the space.
It was going so slowly at times for the "American" inside of me that I would
help now and then to speed things up. I was not used to seeing workers sweeping rugs with
brooms while standing next to a vacuum cleaner. I helped remove some of the stadium seats
to clean underneath and took note at to the care at which the holes were made. Alessandra
was standing next to me and I looked at her tired face (she was only sleeping a few hours
each night) and I gave her a concerned smile. I walked up to her and pointed out the holes
in the floor. The chair holes looked as if they were hacked out by a very large blind
chicken. Some were double punched, some where square, some were triangle, and some were
the round shape they were supposed to be. She sort of shrugged her shoulders saying
"I know, this is Brazil!" I hugged her and said "I don’t envy you. I had
the easy job!" She smiled and continued working.
Truly, putting together a samba school and event in Brazil in less than 80 days seemed
like an impossible task given all the obstacles one finds in a third world country. But
Alessandra was pulling it off. She was dead tired even a week before, but she somehow kept
Parading with the Big School
I had arranged for two people from SambaLá (our school) to parade with Beija-Flor.
Alessandra is the daughter-in-law of the president of Beija-Flor, so it was easy for her
to arrange costumes to purchase so that these two could parade on Monday in the
Sambadrome. Unidos do Mundo was purposely scheduled to parade on the Saturday of the
Champions in part to give the gringos time to enjoy the regular Carnaval of Rio. These two
wanted to experience what it was like to parade in a BIG school.
On the day of the parade, I found out a big surprise: Alessandra had also arranged a
costume for me! I was really surprised, expecting to go home and try and catch up on some
sleep, not even bothering to watch on TV. Now I was going to parade for the first time
with a big school! I went home and rested a few hours before getting onto the subway with
the hundreds of others traveling to the Sambadrome to meet up with the two people I
arranged to parade with Beija-Flor. I got off the wrong exit and ended up walking what
seemed like kilometers to find them. After a while, all the costumes started looking the
same to me. I got lost several times among the tens of thousands of parade participants
and passed our group two times before finding my fellow paraders.
When I got there, I had no shoes and my hat was all broken. I ran around trying to find
shoes which I finally arranged with a director. I then found a piece of string on the
ground and used American jeitinho (or cleverness) to fix the hat. It was around 3
AM and extremely humid and our costumes where uncomfortably hot! We were covered with
several layers of costume and clothes including our head and a wig. We looked like 17th
century French royalty. The costumes were gorgeous, but they were hot, hot, hot. We got in
lines with eight people with each and all holding hands. Monica, myself, and Ross (all
from our school) were all together ready to parade.
We found out that right in front of us was the guy that all of Brazil was talking
about: the guy parading in all 14 special groups to break the world record. This was his
second to the last school. The press was on top of him constantly filming and taking his
picture. At least for this time, I was anonymous and could enjoy myself with my friends.
As we entered the stadium, the parade was in full force. Beija-Flor is supposedly the
richest samba school in the world and it showed. The costumes, the floats, even the song
were incredible. As I entered the Sambadrome, I paid special attention to Neguinho da
Beija-Flor who was singing as we passed. I imagined singing with him the coming Saturday.
Now he was involved with his own struggle: to make Beija-Flor the champion. He had to sing
his best and that he did. It was only in November that he found out that samba schools
existed outside of Brazil. He was very surprised about that. So much so, that he insisted
that he help out with Unidos do Mundo.. He was not asked to participate nor was he paid.
He took it on with his own heart. That was to happen again and again during this project.
I danced, I sang, practicing my voice on the avenida (avenue). My voice was
strong and ready. Somehow when I sang in the Sambadrome, my voice was stronger. It was
indeed a special place. Brazilians around me started to look at me funny when I sang and
yelled just like a puxador (a singer of samba). I was proud to be a gringo sambista
and it showed!
Monica and Ross too were doing their thing. They both danced some samba as did I. It
was very hot, the cameras were constantly on the guy in front of us breaking the world
record for parading, but we sang and danced without any great notice. And every time a
camera was in view, I looked into it, hoping to be seen. I was practicing for Saturday.
I constantly looked up into the stands to see if I could find the gringo sambista
group. They were all together in the stands and some of them knew Monica and Ross were
parading. As we neared the end of the parade route, I was almost fainting with heat
exhaustion. But somehow, I kept turning in the direction of the crowd and using my height,
I kept waving as if to someone. And then, my eyes met with our mestre-sala, Byrant
from SambaLá. He jumped up and waved as did the entire group. It was like having family
recognize you. It was great! I turned to Monica and Ross and pointed and we all waved.
Shortly though, it was all over and we were in a cab going home being heat exhausted and
tired from the wonderful experience.
Wednesday, March 8, 2000
After the days of street bands, the Sambadrome, and sight-seeing, we finally met to go
to our first formal meeting and practice. We were treated to a lecture on the history of
Carnaval at the place where we were to call our own "quadra" or quad.
Some people who arrived early were already familiar with the place and for others, this
was the first time. We met in a small auditorium and listened to several speakers. I then
was asked to get the gringos singing the samba enredo by Martinho da Vila. But
being a gringo sambista myself, I knew that few people at this point could sing the
The song was launched on the Internet less than a month before the event and most
gringo sambistas had not even heard it. So I decided to go through the song line by
line and translate it and explain its meaning. I knew that for most, this was the first
time they really had time to sit and look at the song in detail. They would learn it
later, but first, they had to know what they were singing and the meaning behind it.
This is where I began to see my role forming as international coordinator. I knew what
I was to be in their shoes and adjusted accordingly. Alessandra and I became very
confident in each other’s intuitions about the event with my role being the eyes, ears,
and hearts of the gringos. This proved to be very important in the coming days. Very
We then headed to dinner. We were in an enormous space. The place was called Fundição
Progresso and was a theater art space right downtown, next to the famous Lapa trolley cars
and the conical modern Cathedral. After eating, we made our way down into the quadra
where hundreds of our Brazilian counterparts who made up half of the samba school were
gathering. With so little time, many positions that had to be rehearsed and choreographed
were done by Brazilians. There was roughly one Brazilian for each gringo and tonight they
were to integrate.
The bateria was on stage while the groups of dancers were sent to their
respective order in a parade. But because quadras are square and not like a long
street like the Sambadrome, rehearsals in Brazilian samba schools go around in circles.
The order of the groups were arranged on the floor. The gringo group that was in the
spotlight this night were the sambista dancers. Could they dance samba???
Paying Your Dues
I must digress here. For herein starts the tale of the gringo sambista. It turns
out that the Brazilians were scared of the gringos. Not because they would be better sambistas.
No chance of that. But they were scared of whether the gringos would be able to do any
samba at all. There were enough Brazilians to fill in all the functions needed in case the
gringos would pagar o mico ("pay the monkey", roughly translated as
making a fool of oneself). I experienced this myself a week earlier.
When I first arrived on the Wednesday before Carnaval, I did not sing right away. The
director of the school, Ricardo Pavão (Alessandra’s husband) and Walter, a puxador
from Mocidade, were on stage at our quadra and were singing the samba song. They
sort of ignored me a while, giving me the Brazilian signal that they wanted the singing to
be done right. When I was finally given a microphone, the microphone was very low and I
had to have a strong voice to be heard. I didn’t dare ask the sound guy to raise the sound
out of respect.
After all, who was I to demand anything. Two days later, I did a show at a shopping
mall to advertise Unidos do Mundo and was the announcer. I also sang with Walter who sang
as principal with me tagging along. That evening, I sang with him at the rehearsal more as
an equal, having gotten to know him through conversation. But I still did not earn my
The Wednesday after Carnaval, the first day of rehearsal for Unidos do Mundo, Walter
was not there and I found myself as the principal. That evening, I asked the cavaquinho
player from Caprichosos to play the samba enredo in my key, so I could sing
comfortably and for a longer time. He obliged and that turned out to be very good for me.
I sang over two-and-a-half hours as principal singer with a short break. I sang harmony
and even threw in the phrase "I love you" to add a touch of gringo. When I was
through, the Brazilians all came up and shook my hand and said, "Good job, puxador"
(samba singer). That night, I proved myself to the Brazilians that I could hold my own as
a samba singer. I earned my place. And I knew that the gringos coming to Rio were going to
have to do the same.
Back to Wednesday, March 8, 2000
Back on day one, the Brazilians were busy integrating the gringos with the Brazilians.
The most crucial group to integrate were the sambista dancers. There were about
fourteen female gringo dancers and two males. They were paraded around in circles, and
told to dance their best. They were told only some of them would make the position of sambista.
A sambista in the Sambadrome is a place of high honor. Only the best dancers are
allowed to be in that position. There were two other important positions: rainha
(queen) and madrinha (head dancer). But for these were decided that no contest
would be held. They would eliminate some of the gringo sambistas this night.
As they paraded around and around, each gringo sambista did their best trying to
outdance the other. They were in a frenzy and at the same time scared that they would be
cut. Finally, they came to the stage to find out who would be the gringo sambistas
to parade in the Sambadrome. Each one was presented by name and the audience clapped for
each one. And then came the decision from Alessandra: "Because we think you all are
very good, we have decided to include all of you as passistas!". At that
moment, they all became very, very happy. The bateria played and they all danced
with a happiness that could only be described in their dance.
The passistas had passed the test. They earned their place.
Thursday, March 9, 2000
On Thursday before the day of champions (March 9, 2000), we all met at the Rio Othon
Hotel at 2 PM for a field trip to Beija-Flor samba school. After that, we were to head to
the Sambadrome for rehearsals there. We boarded the buses for the hour-long journey to
Nilópolis, a city that is north of Rio’s Guanabara Bay. On the way, the bus drivers got
lost. The gringos at first found this amusing asking how a reputable travel company could
hire professional bus drivers who did not know the way to such a famous destination as
Beija-Flor. "Don’t they use maps in Brazil?", they asked. Some Brazilians
laughed. This simple inconvenience would turn out to be the beginning of culture
differences that were to grow to a pitched frenzy that night.
The two buses finally arrived late at Beija-Flor and we were treated to a number of
talks about samba schools and the spirit of Carnaval. We toured the grounds of Beija-Flor
and we were told of the community work that schools performed in their cities. The gringos
were taught how to open their souls and hearts to the world as they paraded. It was a
wonderful start to the day of workshops. Then came some more cultural annoyances.
Due to the rains, the president of the League of Samba Schools in Rio decided that the
Sambadrome became unsightly and that it needed a new coat of paint. So our trip to the
Sambadrome was canceled. Most gringos did not think much about this at the time since they
had no idea why they would go to the Sambadrome before the day of the parade. We ate
dinner and then headed back to our quadra in downtown Rio and were given an
impromptu tour of the city to kill the time we were supposed to be at the Sambadrome
rehearsing. That is when the gringos started grumbling. "If I wanted a sight-seeing
tour, I would have taken the Love-Boat to Carnaval." "I came to learn samba, not
to see the sights of Rio at night in the dark." The gringos were getting restless. I
could feel the tension and frustration growing. It wasn’t a good time to paint the
Sambadrome I thought.
When we finally got back to our quadra, the sambistas were very anxious
to learn what they needed to know to parade in the Sambadrome. The place was full of
Brazilians who were practicing for the parade. That night, the director Ricardo Pavão was
away busily working on some of the components in the parade. Alessandra was also very busy
doing the same and was away from practice area. I was exhausted from everything and was
not singing that night in order to conserve my voice for Saturday. Instead of paying the
needed attention to the gringos, I walked around, relaxing, letting the practice continue.
Everything seemed in order. But it was not.
My first indication that something was going very wrong was when some gringo samba
dancers came by to complain. They said that they expected workshops each day and were not
getting what they had paid for. They stood around waiting for a class that never happened.
They said they were not sure that they wanted to continue with the project. I understood
their frustration and immediately went to Alessandra with the news. She immediately
started trying to solve the problem by planning changes for the following day.
As the practice began to wind down, the other bomb dropped. Outside waiting for me were
a dozen or so people from the gringo bateria. I was told how that many of them did
not play at all that day and were very upset, some in tears. Those who had brought their
instruments got to play. Those who were aggressive got to play by muscling their way to a
drum. But many did not play the entire night. Again, I listened to their complaints and
they were right to be upset.
I immediately went again to Alessandra and told her we had an immediate crisis we had
to fix right away or there would be no parade on Saturday. She immediately dropped
everything and I explained what was happening. It turned out that this day, Thursday March
9, 2000, was the day everything went wrong.
I relaxed that day because I was worried about my voice and did not check with the
gringos to see that they were happy. That was not normal. After all, I am the
international coordinator. I did not do my job. Alessandra also neglected the gringos. She
was busy with other things and did not check. Each night, Ricardo her husband had taken
care of the rehearsals, but he was gone and did not look after the gringos. We were
supposed to have workshop classes, but it rained and the Sambadrome had to be painted. The
teachers for the planned workshops in the Sambadrome went one way and we went another. The
gringos ended up at a practice that was supposed to be only for Brazilians and directors
did not expect us to be there and ignored us.
Alessandra and I got very depressed. Two workshop days had passed and there was only
one more day before the parade and the gringos were wanting to pull out of the event.
Alessandra was exhausted. I was exhausted. Doris my wife and the show director at our
samba school in California had arrived that day and she was tired from shows she did in
Los Angeles during Carnaval there. We all talked about what to do. Doris and Alessandra
said "we can turn the project around". "Tomorrow we can turn the emotional
state around from negative to positive." I was depressed and less optimistic. The two
Brazilians had faith. The gringo did not. Later I would understand all this. But at this
point, I was very depressed.
Friday, March 10, 2000
I didn’t want to go to the Rio Othon, not after last night. I didn’t want to confront
the gringo rebellion. But I knew I had to go. We supposedly had the problems solved and
the gringos attitudes would turn around today. I knew I had to go eventually and face
them. But I was exhausted and my strength to confront the complaints was quickly leaving
me. Maybe Doris and Alessandra were right and a good night’s sleep would quiet them down
some. I had to go. I started this whole thing, so I couldn’t quit now.
I got there a bit later accompanied by Doris. I was very worried, but I did not let her
know it. As we got there by taxi, I got out and started walking around. The gringos were
there in force and I kept moving around hoping no one would stop and talk with me. A
couple of people talked with me, but there was not the same enthusiasm I had seen during
the first few days. Finally, the gringos that were most upset came up and started
complaining about the first two days and how they were not doing "workshops". I
really began to hate that word: "workshop". What a horrible word.
They told me that on the flyer they were sent a year ago that a workshop was planned
for all three days and that two days were gone with no workshop. I tried explaining to
them that the first day was "integration" and that for Brazilians, this WAS a
workshop. They did not see that. Another cultural conflict. I also explained that the
rains had changed our direction yesterday and that we and the teachers for the workshop
ended up in different places. They still were not satisfied.
I tried various times to explain to them what had happened, but there was not much I
could do to fix the past. I only hoped that today would change their minds.
Doris turned to me and asked if she could talk to everyone on the buses before we
headed out to Beija-Flor and "real" workshops. Being so emotionally and
physically exhausted, I agreed with pleasure. "Please talk to them. I have no more
strength left." After all, they always ended coming to me because I was the guy who
got them into this project and I was ultimately responsible. Doris was shielded from that
exposure until now.
Doris entered the buses and talked with them. I was oblivious to what happened. But
when I found out many days later what she said and what happened inside, the importance of
what she did became enormous in helping save the spirit of the project. (Thanks, Doris!
Doris came off the second bus and said "David, let’s go". I followed her
willingly and we got on the bus for the hour ride to Beija-Flor. On the way there, I
continued my depression. I looked outside the window, watching the Brazilian buildings go
by thinking to myself "Wow, I made it all the way to the day before the event and it
has become a failure." For four years I fought with what seemed to be an eternal
optimism. When I had no one in Rio to do the project with only one year, six months to the
event, I still fought on with a blind faith that it would all work out.
Yet at this moment, my emotions and physical state collapsed into a deep despair. I
imagined a couple dozen gringos joining the 400 Brazilians and the parade going on with
all the Brazilians watching wondering where were all the gringos we promised would be
here. I imagined instead of hundreds of positive messengers of Unidos do Mundo that I
would send hundreds of negative messengers to spread the news of disaster to the entire
world and that the project would be viewed as a failure. I have to admit that at this very
low moment I told myself: "David, at least you tried."
Doris, noticing that I was sad, took my hand and asked, "Are you ok?" I told
her that I was very depressed but did not tell her I thought the project would be a
failure. I was still too proud to give up even though my hope was lost. She patted my hand
and said, "David, everything will be alright. The spirit of this group will turn
around today. You will see." I heard her words, but did not believe them.
I composed myself and tried to get myself back to reality. On the way, some Brazilians
who came from other countries accompanying their gringo spouses and sambistas began
to sing and play their drums. There were only a few people participating. The spirit was
still pretty grim. We were going to turn the spirit around! No more problems right? Wrong.
We got lost again.
I couldn’t believe it. After getting lost the day before, we got even more lost today.
Even the gringos began saying "didn’t we pass this same house three times
already?" The answer was yes. I let the bus driver ask about five people directions
before I started to get really upset. "Jeese!", I said. "I can’t believe
these people can’t get directions to the most famous place in their city!" "Que
país é esse?" ("What kind of country is this?", I quoted from a song). I
went up front and sarcastically asked, "Are we lost?". The guide responded,
"We took a wrong turn here, then there, but we are close. We just have to keep asking
so that we don’t get lost even more". Satisfied that I had made it clear that I was
concerned about the service, I turned around and headed back to my seat. "We lost,
Dave?" they asked. I just signaled to them with the traditional thumbs up and headed
back to my seat.
I knew at that point two things: (1), we were REALLY lost, (2) we couldn’t make them
get there any faster no matter how we tried. We were in Brazil. This is another cultural
difference. We continued to ask directions every street block until we got to a dead end
road where we had to turn around. That process took us 15 minutes. I was really mad now.
Right when we had to show the gringos that everything was in order, the chaos became
almost unbearable. We were over an hour late and we were only showing the gringos more
incompetence. Right when we had to turn the spirit from positive to negative, we get so
lost that arrival that same day was becoming questionable. I smiled in quiet frustration
and sat down again.
After what seemed to be an eternity, we managed to turn around and we were at least
moving again. We passed the same places for what seemed the hundredth time and I went back
into deep depression. Now on the last day before the big event, we were so lost that we
were going to have to go back home. One more day without a workshop. The project was
doomed I thought. But then something happened that I never would have expected. Something
that for me, was the defining moment of the entire trip.
A Brazilian turned to everyone and said: "Let’s sing our song!" He started to
beat the back of the bus seat and began singing the song that Martinho da Vila had so
carefully and lovingly written.
Meu amor, meu prazer, viajei para te ver
My love, my pleasure, I traveled to see you.
I sailed the seas like those sacred navigators
I cruised the skies like the genius Santos Dumont
I will do Carnaval, with the Brazilian flag
I will fraternize in the parade of champions
I came to sing, I came to dance and show off
But I know sambistas parade,
it’s not just to have fun
I love you, I love you, I love you Brazil
I came to wish you happy birthday in the year 2000
Hearing your samba, I came to know your culture
And in whatever country I am in, I try to talk about you
I already have told your history through
your samba songs
I am United World Samba School and
for me samba is no mystery
I looked around and everyone, I mean everyone, was singing the song. They sang as if
they were soldiers marching off to die in battle. They found themselves in an unfamiliar
land in the middle of a war and the only way to lift their spirits was to sing. I got a
lump in my throat. I could not sing. It was not my turn to sing. It was theirs. I was the
general and the moment I thought that my troops were going to abandon me, they all began
singing to lift their spirits.
I held back my tears and got my video camera. I wanted to capture this moment. A moment
of melancholy where happiness and sadness came together. A moment I could have never
predicted during the last four years I struggled to make this project a reality. I never
saw it coming.
At that moment I saw and captured on video, gringos becoming a bit like Brazilians.
They were collectively suffering the same frustrations that Brazilians live day in and day
out. They were in a situation from which there was no escape. They were not from here and
did not understand the system, but they all shared two things in common: they were all
experiencing Brazil like Brazilians, and most importantly, they had samba to raise their
I then began to feel my spirits being lifted by those who had came along on this crazy
journey and who had spent the last day complaining to me about it.
Again I must digress
Days later I found out what Doris had said and what had happened in the morning on the
buses when she talked to the "troops". She later revealed to me that she had
gone into each bus and said (and I paraphrase): "Look. I know things are not going as
you thought they would. I know you are upset about many things. But you have come this
far. David and Alessandra have worked very hard to get us to the place where we can show
Brazil that gringos can samba. Are we going to give up now? Are we going to show them that
we are going to give up right before our time in the sun? No way! Let’s show them that we
can do samba outside of Brazil. Are you with me?" Doris told me that both buses
clapped and cheered.
She gave the old General Patton speech and it worked. It is hard for me to know how to
thank her for what she did. She later told me say that she found the strength by looking
back at how Alessandra and I had worked to get to this point, and could not let it die
just one day before it was to come true.
We humans need each other for sure. I needed her that day.
Two nights before, the gringo samba dancers proved that they could samba well enough to
dance in the Sambadrome. Now it was the bateria’s turn. Seven players and directors
from Beija-Flor’s bateria were on hand with a truck full of drums from Império do
Tuiuti. Each drummer got the drum they wanted to play in the parade. No one was without a
drum. Each gringo was given a drum, a strap, and a stick and were carefully and politely
treated. The samba dancers had one male and one female teacher to teach them samba moves
that they could learn quickly, which they did. Everyone was given the attention they
wanted. Hopefully, we were making up for the attention we did not give them the night
The Brazilians lined up the gringos in the parking lot of Beija-Flor to get them to
play and march while playing. Of course, all the gringo drummers had a lot of experience
with this, but the Brazilians did not know. In fact, they didn’t know if they could play,
let alone play and march at the same time. They spent a lot of time talking and explaining
before they started the gringos playing. Yet, the gringos were restless to play. Finally,
after delaying a good 45 minutes, the directors gave the calls to play. The leader called,
the gringos answered. The leaders called again, the gringos answered. The leader finally
called to start and the gringos started, somewhat tentatively at first, but then they grew
stronger and more confident in a few short minutes.
They marched up and down the parking lot. They then moved inside and played with one of
the official puxadores (samba singers) from Beija-Flor. Again, they played very
well. A break was then given to see a dance demonstration. I stopped video taping, I
happened to pass by and hear the seven Brazilian instructors talking about the gringos in
Portuguese, whispering to themselves. "If I had half of these gringo drummers here
today, I could throw out half our bateria at Beija-Flor!" I guess that was a
compliment. They were truly impressed. I let the gringos know about what I heard right
away. It brought some smiles.
Brazilians have to remember that we gringo sambistas study, study, study samba.
We don’t grow up with this stuff so we have to study it later in life to try and make up
for lost time. Maybe the Brazilians were slowly starting to understand this.
Needless to say, the gringo samba drummers or bateria earned their spots on the
last day before the parade. But one question still lingered: is Unidos do Mundo a gringo
school or a Brazilian one?
Unrest or Satisfaction?
We ate our final dinner at Beija-Flor and I agreed to talk to the group right before we
left. It was time to see if the gringos egos and emotions were repaired from the wounds of
the previous day. Just before talking with them, I sought out Alessandra who was hidden
away on her cell phone making the millions of decisions, plans and adjustments needed for
the huge job of parading 700 people in the Sambadrome the next day.
I found her and waited for her to end her current phone call. She looked at me with
very tired eyes and said: "E aí?" (What’s up?) That was becoming her standard
comment when she saw me. We had learned very early on that we could trust each other and
that our intentions were always good and that communication was everything. I told her I
was a bit worried about opening up the discussion to the gringos about the difficulties of
yesterday. She told me that she had some news that I could tell the gringos. I listened
intently to her and then went to my speech. I was my turn to face the participants. I had
no idea what to expect. I just hoped it would turn out positively.
"Did you like the teachers from today?" The bateria motioned yes.
"They will go with you back to Rio as will all the of drums, and you are to take the
stage. The stage, the quadra, and the school are yours. Unidos do Mundo is a gringo
samba school. Yes, the Brazilians will be there but they are there only to help you. The
school is yours."
There was only silence. But the stares and emotions were so thick that they could be
cut with a knife. People looked at me and at each other thinking. I believe they were
thinking of all the suffering and struggling and work and money it took to get themselves
to where they were today. They were upset, yes, very upset and they had the right. But as
they sat silently, they began shaking their heads in quiet agreement. They could not cheer
or laugh. They were still in a state of melancholy. A state of happiness and sadness and
anger and delight all at once. Their feelings again were very Brazilian. I sense this
having spent three years of my life in Rio and knowing the feeling.
The gringos not only could play and dance samba, they could in some important way, feel
"Let’s go then!" I said and people slowly got up and headed for the buses.
One person I passed when going to the bussesa person who was very upset from the
night beforeseemed to sum up their feelings in one simple word: "Thanks".
I think that was one of the sweetest "thanks" I ever heard.
The Last Rehearsal
That night, the rehearsal was intense and the energy beyond belief. The gringos took
the stage with their drums and they were joined by an equal number of Brazilians.
Celebrities were there this night and one of them, very unexpected.
Neguinho da Beija-Flor is known throughout Brazil as a top samba singer and he was
there to rehearse. He was surrounded by fans and onlookers and I made my way to him to hug
him and thank him again for his support.
But then I saw someone who at first, I didn’t believe could be there. She was there in
great spirits with a beer in one hand and a cigarette in another. I looked at her several
times and she glanced my way but I wasn’t sure. Because of the crowds of people and
reporters, I had people constantly coming up to me with comments, thanks, and questions. A
little while later, one lady who I had met before said: "Let me introduce you to
someone". She walked me over to the mystery person and then I knew. It must be her.
"Beth, this is David. He is one of the founders of the school and was the one who
organized everything over the Internet". "Oh!" she replied with surprise,
turning to her friends. She then introduced me to her friends saying "this is the guy
who started all this over the Internet!" I told her that it was a great honor to have
her here and that she was a legend to everyone including we gringo sambistas. Later
on, she would tell us all why she was there in her own words. Right now, I had to get
ready to sing.
Pavão, the director of the school, introduced Neguinho, myself, and Ricardo from
Portugal as the puxadores for the school. Neguinho and Ricardo talked to the crowd
and then Pavão started putting the parade groups in order to rehearse. Pavão had another
person he said would like to speak to the school and especially the gringos. She came on
stage and called me next to her so that I could translate. She spoke in Portuguese in one
lovely sentence that expressed her feelings of why she was there to help give her support.
She then turned to the bateria and asked me to translate. I did so by first telling
them who she was.
"This is Beth Carvalho". You should have seen the looks of amazement on the
gringo bateria. They were so emotionally involved and charged that they did not
recognize her at first. Now they did. Their mouths hung open in a collective gasp as I
translated. "Beth said that when she came to know about our project Unidos do Mundo,
that it lifted her heart and spirit so, that she had to be part of it." That said it
all. It seemed that everyone was catching the spirit of the project that kept both
Alessandra and I going for so many years despite the obstacles. It was now coming true in
the most remarkable ways.
Pavão then announced that the last rehearsal would be started with the gringo puxadoresRicardo
and myself. This was Ricardo’s first time so I sang as principal. Neguinho was standing
next to us with a lyric sheet to help him learn the song. I started and Ricardo and I sang
the first two times through alone. The bateria came in and the dancers were whipped
into a frenzy. The quadra was truly the gringos quadra and the Brazilians
were there to help and to participate alongside.
Neguinho began to sing and we three sang for a few verses together. There were only
three microphones so we had to rotate as the night went on. Beth Carvalho came to the
stage and I shared my microphone with her for the refrain which she already knew. She then
moved away as we sang the rest of the song, animating the crowd and taking it in. Now I
really knew why she is the first lady of samba in Brazil. She lived and breathed samba and
she knew that we were making samba historysomething already familiar to her.
One Favor, One Chance
Back in late 1998 when Alessandra joined the project, I asked her one favor. It wasn’t
money, or a plane ticket, or a hotel. I paid my way and the way of a few others to get to
Brazil for this project and had no special treatment. But there was one special favor I
asked: not for me, but for someone in my family.
Jairzinho lives in a town north of Rio and is an incredible person. Liked by all, he is
humble, yet very strong emotionally and physically. But most of all, he has a big, big
heart. He had once been called to sing at a big school in Rio when he was younger. He went
to Rio but at the last minute, he got scared and didn’t show up for the meeting. He was
from a small town, was young, and was not emotionally ready for the chance.
My wife and I also tried to get him to come to the United States a few years ago during
Carnaval to sing. He composed some very beautiful songs for SambaLá, which we sang, but
again he declined the invitation. He was still not ready.
But this time, I invited him to a place and at a time in his life he could never
refuse: to sing in the Sambadrome with me. It is the dream of tens of thousands of samba
singers all around Brazil. That is the biggest show on earth for a samba singer. It is the
Carnegie Hall, the Albert Hall of Rio. And this time he didn’t refuse. He said
"David, we’ll show them how to sing, you and I!"
So I asked Alessandra if my brother-in-law who was a samba singer and composer could
sing with me on the avenue in the Sambadrome. She told me, "Of course!". But I
really didn’t know until the week before if it would happen. There are so many politics
involved in putting us in the Sambadrome that I knew that there was a small chance he may
not sing. But she kept telling me that it would happen.
Well, Jairzinho was there that night when I started to sing during the last rehearsal.
When I was singing with Beth and Neguinho, I was concentrating on my singingmy
technique, not singing too loud to ruin my voice for the next day. I was using techniques
I had learned in my lessons from a top singer teacher in LA so that I could do my best.
But this concentration was suddenly broken and the emotion of the moment took hold.
Ricardo from Portugal had handed the microphone to Jairzinho and he moved up front next to
me and put his arm around me.
There we were: Jairzinho do Império with David from SambaLá singing in between
Neguinho and Beth Carvalho. A dream come true for Jairzinho and I. A time to remember.
After a bit, I handed my microphone to Walter, a puxador and composer from
Mocidade who also was singing with us tomorrow. After all, I had to save my voice for the
big day as all of us. We were there until very late.
Saturday, March 11, 2000
We all met at the Rio Othon to go to the Sambadrome. This was the day. It was
threatening to rain but so far had held off. We were to parade at 8 pm, right after the
children’s samba school and right before the Italian Carnaval group. A noticeable portion
of the gringos did not have their costumes and were already letting me know. I told them
they would be sent to them in the concentration area of the Sambadrome and to go with us.
We piled onto the bus and headed out.
When we got there and started to put on our costumes the rains began. SambaLá’s porta-bandeira
and mestre-sala costumes were made of velvet and they began to get very heavy. For
our King Momo, the rain was a nice cooling shower for such a great-sized man. But I really
didn’t even notice the rain. I went with everyone to the concentration area and met up
with the cavaquinho player and other singers. We hid under the side of our float to
keep dry and not to catch cold and ruin our voices.
Alessandra had reached her wits end. This was her first really big event and she could
no longer function. Pavão, her husband, and my wife Doris were calmly solving a thousand
problems a second, waving some off as impossible to solve, others they improvised. I kept
with the singers. I had to have my voice strong so they could feel the presence of a
gringo in the song.
Finally, the bateria entered the Sambadrome and all we singers and musicians
entered behind. We looked down the Sambadrome which looked a thousand miles long filled to
capacity looking as if we were gladiators going to battle. We were pumped! Neguinho came
running up to me and told me that O Globo wanted to interview me before the parade.
I went to them and answered a bunch of interview questions right before we started.
Finally, there I stood, next to the sound car in the Sambadrome, with Neguinho da
Beija-Flor, Beth Carvalho, Jairzinho, and hundreds of gringos and Brazilians ready to
parade. Four years of work were about to come to a head. I didn’t even have time to talk
to Alessandra. It was show time!
A few seconds before the start, another newsperson tapped me on the shoulder. I didn’t
really have time for another interview. But when she showed me her badge, it stopped me in
my tracks for those few seconds. She was a reporter from Brazzil magazine. I didn’t
even know her name but at that moment, it hit me as to how far I had gone during the last
four years. There she was, a reporter for a magazine that was local to our area and
country and produced by my friend Rodney, standing next to me in the Sambadrome. A piece
of home was close by during this historic event. It shook me for a moment.
Then, it started
Sixty Minutes of Heaven
Neguinho yelled out his praise for the school and its members and began to sing our
song. At his side was Beth Carvalho who although did not sing, was there showing her
support. All we other singers bounced in time with the music ready to sing when the time
came. Once the first two lines were done, Neguinho turned to us and we began singing. What
an emotion. We were so ready. We were more than ready. We were super ready. And not one
tear. Just singing, singing, singing our hearts out! Singing the best we could! The clock
moved to zero hours, zero minutes. Our sixty minutes of heaven had started. This was our
time. But would the audience react? Would Brazil react and understand why we were there?
At the right moment, the bateria did its breaks and came in strong without
missing a beat. The paraders on the avenue in front of us began to swing and sway and jump
to the beat. Each person did their part. I watched in amazement as the spectacle passed
by. We were stationary in the traditional holding area for the bateria and sambistas
as the rest of the parade passed by until our place came to enter the avenue. Neguinho was
amazing with his voice and had an incredible respect for our new small school. He turned
to me while singing and with his booming strong voice called out my name:
"Davidgee!!!" (That is the way Brazilians pronounce my name, David). What an
incredible rush! I sang better and stronger! What an amazing person to recognize that this
was our school that he was here to help. Incredible!
To add a touch of "gringo" to our song, during our practices I added the
English phrase "I love you" in between the verse saying "Eu te amo, eu te
amo, eu te amo Brasil." Now that I was in the parade, I shouted this at every chance
that I could at that point in the music to let Brazil know that we gringos were there and
that there was a gringo samba singer.
It was finally our turn to parade and we turned onto the avenue. It was still raining
and the avenue was wet, but I only remember that as a fact, not feeling. Emotionally, I
didn’t feel the rain. What I do remember are two incredible sights, sounds, feelings.
First, looking down the avenue and seeing the Sambadrome entirely filled with our school.
I had always imagined that it would only fill a small part of the 750 meter length of the
Sambadrome, but it filled the entire length!
I was immediately struck by what an incredible job Alessandra, Pavão, and their staff
did to put together such a spectacle! Second was the crowd. They were on their feet
clapping in unison and singing and waving. What a sight! What a feeling! I looked at the
clock and there was still 40 minutes left and I wondered if my voice could hold out for
that long. I hit my stomach muscles with my fist now and then to remind myself to project.
Voice, don’t fail me now!
Doris came around to video tape us singing and I grabbed a hold of Neguinho and
Jairzinho and we paraded past Doris as she filmed. Neguinho was such a sport to let us
sing with him. He made us feel so comfortable. Doris disappeared behind us and we
continued singing. She then reappeared and this time, I felt that I wanted to record a
more intimate moment for our family. I grabbled Jairzinho and we paraded in front of the
Sure, we were live on TV, there was a documentary film crew filming us, and 65,000
people were in the stands, but this was a personal moment. Jairzinho and I sang not for
the audience, but for Doris. A stream of tears larger than Brazil’s Iguaçu falls started
falling down her face. She wasn’t even looking into the video camera’s view finder. She
just held the camera next to her head and was bawling like a baby. I kissed Jairzinho on
his clean cut head and we went on with our bliss.
The parade of Unidos do Mundo made history in so many ways. The one float we had from
Porta da Pedra school stopped in the middle of the Avenue and half the paraders went up
one side and out the other. The float was a huge computer screen and the participants
entered the screen on one side symbolizing them entering the Internet in their country,
and walked out of the computer screen into the Sambadrome on the other side. First time a
parade went through a float.
Another first was the big ball. A flag made up of 19 countries were sewn together to
make up one large Brazilian flag and for the round blue part in the middle, there was a
two meter ball. Once every so often down the avenue, the ball was hit around by the
participants in the parade eventually landing back in its spot. Each flag was supported by
a person dressed as a candle, each representing a country of the participants.
The most spectacular part of the parade however was the front commission (comissão
de frente). There were eight people in 25-foot (8 meter) high wedges that looked like
sailing ships in front when separated, and moon crescents from the side. They all came
together periodically to form a globe of the world which then spun around and around. When
it stopped, people inside would come out and juggle and do tricks, then they went back
inside to repeat their choreography. This part of Unidos do Mundo was so good that the
league of samba schools said it was better than half the front commissions of the top
These incredible creations and ideas came from Ricardo Pavão and his team in Brazil.
Incredible job, guys!!!
Our school, SambaLá made some history that day. We were the first samba school outside
of Brazil to parade the following in the Sambadrome: mestre-sala, porta-bandeira, madrinha
da bateria, rainha da bateria, Rei Momo, and first non-Portuguese
speaking gringo to sing. Something we can tell our grandkids!
And what held everything together and told the millions of Brazilians on TV and the
tens of thousand in the stands why we were there was the song. The song by the musical
genius Martinho da Vila told everyone there that we had traveled far to see them and to
help celebrate their 500 year birthday in the year 2000. It told our story to the
Brazilians as did our floats and our costumes. But it was our dancing, playing and singing
that showed them we are gringo sambistas!
The crowd by the end of the sixty minutes were singing along with us. Beth Carvalho
paraded down the avenue pointing the gringo bateria, dancers, and singers out to
the crowd and applauded along with them for their efforts. Carlinhos Jesus, a famous
Brazilian dancer also joined in the fun and spirit. The TV announcer noted that they had
not seen such spirit of fun in many years on the avenue and of course, never so many
I reached the painted line in the Sambadrome that literally says "final" and
the documentary film crew approached, camera rolling. "So, how was it?" they
"It was sixty minutes of ecstasy between total chaos" I said. And it was.
Carnaval is a moment of bliss between the struggles of everyday life. And the gringos
lived this during this trip. But now it was over.
At the end, Doris, Jairzinho and I found each other and we put our heads together for a
group hug. We had no words. No words were necessary. I then looked for the other half of
this project: Alessandra. We got close to each other and we both let out our emotions in a
flood of tears. We put our hands on each other’s shoulders and pressed our foreheads
together like Siamese twins joined at the head. Our hands linked our hearts and souls.
"Conseguimos" we said in unison. "We did it!"
Thinking back now, time has not diminished my feelings. During the writing of this
article, tears and a lump in my throat were the norm as the words of this piece made me
relive the moments of the last four years over and over. The emotions do not go away but
only get stronger.
But if there is one defining moment during the four years, I would have to pick
something that I already knew defined the entire project, but during the parade, only
reflection would make this clear.
Jackson was born during the first year we started our samba school in the Los Angeles
area back in 1994. His mother is the madrinha of SambaLá and he accompanied her in
the Sambadrome on this historic day. As I watched the video of the parade, I saw little
Jackson for the first time in the parade walking along the entirety of the Sambadrome
playing. People were throwing streamers, which were landing on the avenue along with bits
and pieces of costumes and floats. Jackson was fascinated by these treasures on the avenue
and during the entire parade was picking them up, playing with them, and then throwing
them away. At one point he innocently offered a streamer as an imaginary banana to Beth
Carvalho to eat.
At first I felt angry. Angry that he did not play or dance down the avenue. He dances
and plays samba very well and people are always impressed by his ability at such an early
Yet years before I arrived in Brazil, I knew that Jackson had to be there with us. He
was symbolic of samba in the 21st century. Before, you could only grow up with
samba in Brazil. If you lived outside of Brazil there was no chance to be as good as a
Brazilian sambista. But it was now different. Jackson has grown up with samba all
his life. He thinks that being in a samba school is normal. He danced his first samba show
before he was born and samba is in his blood. When he got to Brazil and played and danced
samba with the Brazilians, it was as if he lived there all his life.
What I didn’t understand when I saw him in the Sambadrome was his complete lack of want
to do the samba. I couldn’t figure that out.
Then it hit me
Jackson didn’t need to samba in the Sambadrome. His samba world wasn’t Rio de Janeiro.
Sure, Rio is the Mecca of Samba and we adults know and feel its importance. To him, the
Sambadrome was filled with fun toys and fun people. To him, Beth Carvalho was just another
ordinary person who needed to eat like the rest of us. Samba is what he does at home at
SambaLá in California, not in the Sambadrome. When he returns to the United States that
is when he will dance and play samba again, not now. Now is his vacation.
Samba is truly becoming universal. Gringos cannot only samba with some of the best
Brazil has to offer, but can "feel" a bit what a Brazilian feels during
Carnaval. Participants of the first Unidos do Mundo had suffered through what Brazilians
suffered each and every daythings not working as well or as fast or at all. But
through this suffering, a universal bond formed between Unidos do Mundo participants and
they not only made history as founding members of the first gringo samba school to parade
in the Sambadrome, but they also experienced a bit of what it is like for a Brazilian sambista
to parade during Carnavala melancholy of all the emotionsgood and badof
A fire broke out a week after the event, destroying everything but the front commission
globe. Everything that was being stored for next year’s event was turned to ash. But
thankfully, no one was hurt and Alessandra’s family business had no damage. Alessandra and
I believe it as a new beginning for next year. But we don’t know how the fire started, nor
does it matter now. Thank goodness it didn’t happen BEFORE the parade!
Unidos do Mundo returns to Rio and parades in the Sambadrome on March 3, 2001 and you
are welcome to join us! Workshops will be bigger and better and will run the days
preceding the parade. Check www.unidosdomundo.com
for details in the coming months. All participants of the first event are considered
founding members and will have special privileges and discounts for all the hardships they
experienced during our first encounter.
We are looking to take Unidos do Mundo to different countries once every so many years,
but always returning to Rio regularly. Maybe we’ll follow the World Cup? Who knows
Unidos do Mundo and samba continue strong into the 21st century and beyond
but with one big difference thanks to our small but historic event: samba is truly
universal and is uniting the world.
David de Hilster is one of the founders and is the International
Coordinator for Unidos do Mundo. He is the founder and president of SambaLá samba school,
a chief research officer of a software company, an accomplished and collected artist, and
is president of a worldwide physics society that is replacing Einstein’s theory. You can
e-mail him at email@example.com