Discovering what Lies in the Swamps of Northeastern Brazil on a Sweltering Carnaval Night

Carnaval in Recife, Brazil So there I sat. Garbage, beer cans, and confetti littered the streets of Recife Antigo. The sweeping crews were starting their work as the crowds slowly dispersed. It was Wednesday morning, 3:00 am. The “official” week of Carnaval had ended a few hours earlier, and thus I had “officially” survived my first one in Pernambuco.

Uneager to leave, I sat one last time soaking in the spectacle that I had witnessed over the past week. All around me everyone was smiling, laughing, cheering, still celebrating. Where else on this good Earth, I pondered, could there be so much alegria amidst such growing despair? Welcome to Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil – the party at the end of the world.

As I slowly, finally, got up and began the long journey towards my apartment on the southern outskirts of the city, my mind raced to remember the images of that week; to understand the history of that place that had created this most spectacular of experiences.

The grungy, gleeful atmosphere of Old Recife is something that one must fully embrace to comprehend the invigorating effect it has on its population and its more observant visitors.

It was this utterly un-suburban atmosphere that struck me with such awe as I lived Recife’s Carnaval for the first time. It is intoxicating before you even touch your first cerveja.

The Portuguese thought Pernambuco and Bahia would be the center of their new world empire, so they flooded the countryside with African slaves to work their sugar mills. What they never anticipated was that this African soul would explode with the sort of passion, creativity, and resistance that indeed makes the Northeast the heart of Brazil, if not all of South America.

Five hundred years later one cannot help but be swept up in this passion as the maracatus thunder through the streets crowning their old African kings and queens; as the afoxés honor their ancestors with frenzied dances; as the samba and samba-reggae beats roar with the hum of hundreds of surdo drums; as the repentistas dazzle crowds with their lyrical tongue twisting and smooth coco beats; as the caboclinhos and coboclos de lança mold Africa with Native America into something uniquely Brazilian, uniquely Pernambucan.

Add this arsenal of traditional music to a contemporary mixture of everything from hard rock to hip-hop to drum n’ bass to soul music and it is easy to reach the conclusion that I reached on my way home that sweaty tropical night in February: Recife is the New Orleans of South America. The root, the source, el dorado negro! Or maybe New Orleans is the Recife of North America?

“Recife! City of mangrove swamps, where the mud is insurrection…” sang the legendary Chico Science, now an icon to the new Recife, the new Northeast. Yet even today it seems only the most tuned in of travelers take the time to discover what lies waiting for the world to enjoy in the swamps of northeastern Brazil (most, it seems, only end up wandering through touristed-out Bahia – so close and yet so very far.)

The circle of local artists, musicians, writers, DJs, and dancers is a very accessible, but also a very tightly knit community, and you must earn their acceptance before being shown this underground plethora of creativity. But it is a trade-off. The always visible poverty is a constant reminder of the harshness of life there today, and it feeds all that I have described.

You cannot pretend that it does not exist, as we tend to here in the North. Even as I sat on that curb in Old Recife that last night of Carnaval, in every back street around me lay the homeless, the forgotten, the prostitutes, all trying to simply survive.

It is the reality of a world that has forgotten how to care for itself. As such, are we not indeed living in an era demanding insurrection? So where better to tap into this artistic rebellion than in the old capital of a slave empire?

After spending many months in northeastern Brazil I came to understand that, as the new generation of travelers, we need to take the time to slow down and not always go racing off to the next destination. We need to explore where we are, befriend people, study the surroundings, become a part of the communities.

When we do, that invigorating, grungy, gleeful energy will challenge everything that we think we know. We’ll finally come to understand the places we visit – and, in turn, our own land – for what they truly are.

In place of shot-gunning through the Brazilian countryside to superficially see a hundred new places, I rarely left Recife and Olinda the entire time I spent in Brazil.

In doing so, I learned that the responsibility we possess, as part of the very few blessed with the privilege of travel and “first world” economics, does not end when we leave these far off “exotic” places. It merely begins. Because, if we’ve done our jobs right, we have indeed become a part of these communities.

Living in Latin America showed me that ours has become a world without borders, whether we want to believe the xenophobic paranoia taught to us by the right wing U.S. media machine or not.

As well as demonstrating that everything we do in an increasingly volatile world can have global effects, whether we recognize them or not. Our brothers and sisters of different lands are waiting to meet us and learn that we, too, oppose the growing shadow of Uncle Sam’s Empire.

I came to understand that, as respectful travelers and artists, we are the real ambassadors of our country and undoubtedly contribute more good to international relations than any politician could ever dream. Most certainly more than bombing half the planet back to the stone age and then sending in the marines, don’t you think?

A generation earlier, I bet the people of Iraq would have appreciated a few of us a whole lot more than the thousands of guns and bombs that Mr. Reagan and Mr. Bush I so eagerly sold to Mr. Hussein. Imagine, if you will, where we might be today.

These lessons speak to us in a hundred different ways; in a hundred different languages. For me, that sweltering old Brazilian city by the ocean became my teacher. Music and dance merely being the highlights of the marvelous yet tragic, humble yet proud place called Recife. It is intoxicating before you even touch your first cerveja.

The author wrote his master’s thesis on the revitalization of the music scene in Recife, Brazil and to date has spent four Carnavals in the “mangue.” He is a part time musician (drummer!) and full time music and travel fanatic. After years in the Southwest US, he currently lives in Brooklyn, NY and can be reached at jduneman@yahoo.com.

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