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Brazilian E-stories and Everything You Need to Know About Peteca

A Brazilian peteca

A Brazilian peteca Modern technology has been a fabulous boon to our get-it-now society. Just think of all the electronic wonders available to us, and within our easy reach: webcams, laptops, routers, BlackBerrys, iPods, designer cell phones…why, the list is endless and protracted. Apparently, there’s nothing better than state-of-the-art, cutting-edge devices to bring people from diverse backgrounds together. It’s almost like taking an electronic trip to a foreign land, but without the discomfort and delay associated with our present-day air travel (ugh).

From a communications standpoint, though, one of the more practical innovations, and a blessing in disguise (to this writer, at least), is e-mail. It can also be a wolf in sheep’s clothing to anyone who’s ever opened an innocuous looking attachment by mistake, only to discover that the health of one’s terribly expensive hard drive has been irreversibly compromised by some hidden virus or other – the high-tech equivalent of a mail bomb.

On the other hand, heretofore-unknown senders of what passes these days for spam can likewise turn out to contain some quite pleasant surprises.

In my own case, I get dozens of messages a month from any number of individuals, some of whom have perused my online content and been sufficiently moved to write me about them.

Letters, We Get Letters

To illustrate my point, I once received correspondence from an artist manager who resides in the windy city of Chicago. He began his letter by stating that he made regular quarterly visits to my home country of Brazil:

"I read your articles on www.riodejaneiro.com. As always, you are enlightening and entertaining. I especially enjoyed today’s article, "Did Bossa Nova Kill the Opera?" Keep up the great work, and I hope to meet you in person one of these days in New York."

Although I haven’t visited the Big Apple (or dear old Sampa) in quite some time now, I certainly intend to take him up on his kind offer one day.

Another writer possessed the most elaborate résumé imaginable: a consultant to Lockheed Martin Corporation near the nation’s capital, he claimed to have had a 30+ year relationship with Brazil as a career diplomat, a naval officer and well-heeled business traveler.

Interestingly, this gentleman wrote me on July 4th after having participated in an Independence Day gathering at nearby Reston, Virginia:

"Yesterday I saw a show of Brazilian music and was surprised by the enthusiastic response of the audience to a program of bossa nova and MPB, and equally impressed by the number of Brazilians and Brazilian-wannabes present.

"The next time you come to Washington, give me a call and we’ll get together for lunch or dinner and shoot the breeze."

That’s two invitations in a row for yours truly – and I didn’t even know these guys! Still, the unusual aspect of this American’s friendly demeanor was his excellent written Portuguese, which put my own stale efforts in that department to shame.

One of the most touching compliments I came across lately, however, was this fairly moving one sent to me on New Year’s Eve:

"Last night a dozen friends came by for pasta, wine, a couple of Jeannette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy films. After which I pulled up your delightful writings of Carmen Miranda and Bidu Sayão ("Two Brazilian Charmers" and "The High Price of Fame in Brazil").

"We all have a little bit of film, jazz music and opera awareness and it made for a wonderful roundtable discussion…I, of course, included more of Ms. Sayão’s second husband. It made for a special evening of old friends. Many thanks. Have a great New Year and my best regards. Fred Danise, Oceanside, California."

I found out later he was the grandson of Italian baritone Giuseppe Danise, who was indeed spouse number two to the Brazilian nightingale, soprano Bidu Sayão.

Coincidentally, just before Fred sent along his e-mail message, another of Danise’s relatives wrote me about the same pair of Carmen-Bidu pieces. To be exact, he was interested in anyone who could provide him with information leading to missing or lost Danise family members. Immediately, I referred the writer to long-lost relative Fred, and the Internet website dedicated to his grandfather’s operatic legacy.

I truly hope they were able to make the electronic connection and "link up" at some point.

But that’s not the least of my e-stories. It was around this same period (November 2005, if I recall correctly), when avant-garde theater director Gerald Thomas – the perennial "enfant terrible" of the contemporary Brazilian stage – took it upon himself to make contact with me as well:

"Dearest, I’ve just read a very impressive article you wrote ("Getting to the ‘Bottom’ of Gerald Thomas"), and would love to have more info about you and how to obtain a hard copy, if there is such a thing…Would love to hear from you. LOVE, G."

He left me his telephone number to call. Naturally, I simply had to oblige and buzz Thomas back. One thing led to another, and within a relatively short time he graciously consented to be interviewed for a longer follow-up piece ("Brazil’s Brightest ‘Prima Donna’: A Candid Talk With Gerald Thomas") – a rare opportunity for a budding author such as me.

Not only that, he went as far as publishing my original article on his personal website, www.geraldthomas.com, and even sent me a complementary video compilation of some of his best-known theater presentations. Bravo, Gerald!

Along different but no less memorable lines, there was this poignant message from a reader, written in delectable Brazilian Portuguese:

"I just finished reading, ‘Brazil: A Fever Called Corinthians,’ with tears in my eyes, for I am the daughter of Professor Júlio Mazzei [the former coach of the New York Cosmos and much-beloved mentor to Pelé and countless other Brazilian sports figures].

"My father now has Alzheimer’s disease and no longer recognizes me or even speaks, much less talks about futebol. Can you believe it? I try looking for anything at all about him para matar as saudades ("to satisfy the longing").

"I loved what you wrote about your father. I’ve always wanted to do an homage to my father, but do not write well in either language. God bless your talent for writing! Your dad is very proud of you, wherever he is. As my dad used to sign off: ‘Your friend in soccer,’ Marjorie Mazzei Raggo."

No amount of rhetoric on my part could possibly have captured the feeling of satisfaction I sensed after having been the recipient of such a positively glowing testimonial. I thanked Marjorie for her warm words, especially concerning poor Professor Mazzei, who my dad had once met and spoken to back in the mid-1980s.

I then told her about my own father’s troubles with debilitating stroke and dementia, and his eventual passing in 1993, to which she replied: "I feel you know exactly what I’m going through. To lose such a wonderful dad whose passion for soccer may no longer live in his memory, but will never be forgotten…I’ve always admired writers because they can keep memories alive forever so that other people can share in [them].

"Please add me to your list of fans and keep me posted on news about your wonderful writings. If ever we decide to write a book about my father we will call you!"

I was most flattered. Not to be overlooked is the fact that I, too, have often wound up on the sending side of the technological equation.

Yes, in fact, it was probably due to my long-winded retort to Scottish journalist John Fitzpatrick’s eye-opening exposé, "For Job Seekers Brazil is No El Dorado," in April 2003, and its subsequent appearance on an Internet website – which led to a well-received series of writings devoted to my experiences as a teacher in South America’s largest city, São Paulo ("How I Taught English in Brazil and Survived to Tell the Story") – that my "career" as a cultural commentator took off in earnest.

Thanks, John! By the way, we still have a long-standing commitment for a tall, cold one in Pinheiros. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that.

The Fabulous "Feather Game"

Speaking of cultural commentary, I was solicited last June 2006, via e-mail (what else?), by the program events coordinator of Exploris, a local interactive museum devoted to world cultures, to give a lecture on, and show my long-dormant "skills" with (ha!), something called peteca, as part of the museum’s focus on "inspiring interest in our ever-evolving global society and how it touches [our] lives here at home."

The peteca talk and live demonstration would be concurrent with that of a visiting capoeira troupe, the Abadá Capoeira Raleigh, run by a large, muscularly built fellow called Fabiano Cunha (nicknamed "Mago," in accordance with capoeira tradition), a native of Paraná State in southern Brazil.

What is peteca? Peteca (pronounced peh-TEH-ka) is a traditional Brazilian game of "hand shuttlecock," which is probably the best way to describe the activity to someone unfamiliar with its origins or the obscure-looking object of everyone’s desire, the peteca itself.

My brother and I learned to play peteca not on the shady alamedas of our native São Paulo, but on the concrete pavements of the South Bronx, where we both grew up.

Our citified friends were suitably intrigued by peteca. In effect, they used to call it the "feather game," mostly because of the way it looked: the peteca has a flat, rounded, and weighted leather base around three-to-five inches in diameter, depending on the type of peteca used. It’s topped off with a flowing crop of stiff, brightly colored feathers – somewhat like the worn headdress of a Guarani Indian chieftain (you get the idea).

Whether on a tennis court or a playground, at the beach or in the park, inside the office (don’t let the boss catch you) or outside during break time, peteca can be played practically anywhere and by almost anyone, regardless of age or condition.

One strikes the flat part of its base with the palm of one’s hand. No feet are allowed, which in our case, as former juvenile players of street soccer, was pretty hard to resist. The trick was to steer the peteca towards your partner without ever letting it touch the ground, ergo its similarity to badminton in that respect, but without the net or racket.

There are professional peteca leagues and federations (with standardized rules and regulations) not only all across Brazil, but also in such remote regions as England and France, and as far away as The People’s Republic of China (!).

Perhaps the peteca had invisible wings (to go with the aerodynamic plumage) for it to have reached such great distances on its own.

In any event, the program was set for Saturday, on the afternoon of November 4th, 2006, right after the capoeira exhibition in the Global Village Square, or great hall, of the museum.

Capoeira by Way of Peteca

Arriving early in order to beat the traffic, I left the car in the street with my wife and quickly went inside to ask about parking privileges for the museum’s invited guests.

"Parking privileges? Oh sorry, we don’t have a specific parking area," was the attendant’s rapid response to my query. "You’ll have to find one of those two-hour parking spaces outside in the street. Good luck!"

"Thanks a lot!" I grumbled through semi-clenched teeth, hoping the police at least would show this ignorant novice some needed sympathy and not tow my precious vehicle away (with my all-too precious spouse still in it).

As I was leaving to go tell her the good news, I noticed a bulky, dark-colored van that had previously pulled up to the museum’s curb. On the sidewalk were what appeared to be drums, pandeiros (tambourines), exercise mats, and a foreign-looking instrument I knew to be a berimbau, which is used exclusively to accompany capoeira sessions.

"These must be the guys," I thought to myself. "Now we’re really in for a good time!"

Much relieved at this familiar sight, since I wasn’t all that worked up to begin with about giving a boring lecture to some bratty preteens when a real, interactive demo was clearly within the museum’s reach, I waited for my appointed hour (after having finally stumbled upon a convenient location for my car).

Moving on to the Global Village Square, I introduced myself to Fabiano, who was even bigger close up than I expected but exceedingly friendly and approachable nonetheless. He mistook me at first for a publicist he had talked to earlier in the week, but after the ice had thawed between us he animatedly spoke about the abiding Abadá Capoeira culture and philosophy – in 30 words or less:

"Abadá is the oldest capoeira school of its type in Brazil," he explained in southern-flavored Portuguese (he also conversed in pretty decent English, I might add). "There are Abadá Capoeira schools in almost every state in the U.S., and all over the world as well."

"Wow, I didn’t know that!" I replied in amazement. And to hook up with a paranaense right here in downtown Raleigh was even more of a welcome surprise for me personally.

Soon a modest but well-behaved crowd of middle school children and their parents shuffled their way in, while one of the museum’s assistants, a sprightly lass with the appropriately labeled moniker of Ariel, came by and handed off to me a small, unassuming contraption I correctly deduced to be a fairly worn peteca.

Unfortunately, this pathetic little guy had seen better playing days, for it was now held together with safety pins instead of the original stitching. What was left of the damaged "feathers" wouldn’t withstand a mosquito bite let alone a decent whack on its weightless bottom. So much for my aborted peteca talk!

Oh well, on to capoeira. As my wife and I hugged the sidelines, instantly Fabiano and his group (made up primarily of a few African Americans and some intermediate non-native practitioners) straddled forth and began their timely display, to the off-key plucking of metal strings on the berimbau, the smacking of pandeiros, rhythmic hand clapping, and a heavily-miked CD of classic capoeira songs.

"Pa-ra-na-weh, Pa-ra-na-weh, Paraná," they chanted in unison (and in typical Northeastern Brazilian communal-singing fashion). "This is capoeira," shouted Fabiano to the assemblage, as he showed to the startled spectators some of the standard moves and fancy footwork common to the sport.

"It comes from here," he cried out, bending down and pointing to a conveniently placed, hand-painted outline of Brazil on the floor. "Capoeira is from right here, from Bahia, and is both a martial art and a dance. It’s not from Africa but from Brazil."

He then called on each of his troupe members to demonstrate their capoeira "chops," and in no time Fabiano, with his outward-going personality and charm, was able to ignite a high degree of interest among the onlookers, many of whom I am certain have never before seen capoeira in action. He even got some of the shyest ones to come out of their shells and move onto the museum floor to practice the steps involved – no small feat, I don’t mind telling you.

Afterwards, the parents of those same kids were busily engaged in getting directions to Fabiano’s school and arranging with him for some future lessons. So what happened to peteca? Well, as I told the fleet-footed museum assistant, nothing I could say or do would be able to top the performance we had just witnessed, so that was the end of that.

We’re All Connected

While Fabiano and friends were getting the boys and girls together to join in the capoeira chants and ritual "baptism," I seemed to recall a recent TV special broadcast in my area not too long before this live exhibition. That special, which was shown on the Discovery Channel and transmitted in wide-screen high definition, was part of the "Discovery Atlas" series of programs devoted to different countries and their respective cultures.

The show I had in mind, "Brazil Revealed," was an excellent two-hour excursion into various aspects of the country’s social life, among them an all-girl soccer competition in Manaus, an elaborate Carnaval presentation in Rio, one of the few women helicopter pilots in São Paulo, a Brazilian-style Easter parade in the North, and, of course, a local capoeira school in Salvador da Bahia.

What grabbed me most about the capoeira segment was that it started off telling the story of Jackson dos Santos, a bright but troubled 13-year-old who had lost his father in a drug shootout and was himself tempted to deal drugs on his neighborhood’s meaner streets.

At his estranged mom’s insistence, the sullen and directionless boy, who now lives with his grandmother, was taken under the wing of a robust senior citizen named Boa Gente ("Nice Guy"), a decent and protective soul more interested in the welfare of the wayward youth placed in his care than the ever-present danger of drug lords he, too, once had to battle.

"I’ve been asked to sell drugs, to use drugs," Boa Gente confided to the camera, "but I had the chance to take different paths." These paths, he explained, ultimately led him to capoeira, and to the discipline and stamina required to successfully achieve his goals in life and in this uniquely Brazilian dance and martial art form.

In no time as well, Jackson’s confidence in his own capoeira abilities were kindled, as we watched him evolve from a dour street dweller (with the dead-end potential of another Pixote in-the-making) into a normal, smiling teenaged boy full of eagerness and hope in a better future for himself, thanks to Boa Gente’s firm-but-gentle guiding hand and his active involvement in the cultural and social life of his community.

Looking at how Boa Gente, on television and in Bahia, and Fabiano, in the flesh and at a North Carolina museum, were able to so quickly take their charges’ raw talent and energy and organize them into something constructive and sound – while at the same time give these kids a structure and foundation in something as distinct as capoeira – drove the message home that we are indeed living in marvelous times where people can be truly connected to one another by more than just Ma Bell.

As an endnote to the story, one of the persons involved in the post-production work on "Brazil Revealed" turned out to be former DJ and radio announcer Julinho Mazzei, Marjorie Mazzei Raggo’s brother and the son of soccer legend Professor Júlio Mazzei.

Talk about a small world, this planet’s shrinking by the message unit.

Joe Lopes, a naturalized American citizen born in Brazil, was raised and educated in New York City, where he worked for many years in the financial sector. In 1996, he moved to Brazil with his wife and daughters. In 2001, he returned to the U.S. and now resides in North Carolina with his family. He is a lover of all types of music, especially opera and jazz, as well as an incurable fan of classic and contemporary films. You can email your comments to JosmarLopes@msn.com.

Copyright © 2007 by Josmar F. Lopes

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