Recife Antigo seemed kind of like the French Quarter
in New Orleans. They were playing MPB with
on locals. This was great. There was no
rock within at least a few thousand miles.
I am hooked on Brazilian music. Though keeping one foot firmly planted in Americano sound, I’m absorbing more
and more of the lovely sounds emanating from Brazil. I normally spend an hour or two a day, hooked up to my earphones
with a hot MPB (Música Popular Brasileira—Brazilian Popular Music) CD blaring away. I have been following MPB
vicariously, here in the U.S., for a while. I had wanted to experience
Brasileiro music firsthand for a long time. I reasoned that the
essence of Brasileiro music could be found at Carnaval. I decided to take the plunge and make reservations for Carnaval. It
would be a pilgrimage.
My first choice, for this pilgrimage, was Salvador, Bahia, because
axé blows me away—I even admit to owning a
couple of É o Tchan CDs, though this is considered “bubblegum” music to most Brazilians. My choice to visit Salvador was
thwarted, however. I called to reserve a room in early November, 2000 for the upcoming February, 2001 Carnaval. My travel agent
told me “nothing was available.” I didn’t want to go to Rio de Janeiro where a hotel stay, tickets to the sambadrome and
transportation were all placed together into package deals—just a little too touristy for my tastes. I vaguely had a Plan B
formulating in my head, though. I asked the agent about Recife. “How about a room in Boa Viagem?” “Do you want an ocean view
with your hotel room?” was her response.
Bingo—axé be damned this year!
I began reading about Carnaval in Olinda and Recife. I soon found web sites with colorful pictures dedicated to the
Carnaval of Pernambuco. From what I read, Recife was popular with Brazilian vacationers—that must count for something, I
thought. I remembered I had a couple of
forró CDs. I had always cherished those CDs but now I listened to them more closely.
My exploration of the land of the
Nordestinos had begun.
I have a thing for music, being a quasi-professional player. I’ve gone on musical pilgrimages before (one such
pilgrimage resulted in my living in New Orleans for seven years). As far as traveling to Brazil was concerned, I was a novice. I
needed to get past the language barrier. Where would I eat? I could forget about going with anyone—my friends know nothing
about the Brasileiro beat, Americana women I know could care less about Brazil—besides, why bring sand to the beach? I
began listening to conversational language tapes. Not too hard, but then, these were only elementary level tapes. I soon found
that there were a number of sources for Brazilian colloquialisms on the internet and also in book stores. My language texts
identified how the rules of Portuguese grammar had many exceptions—especially in Brazil. Things started to get complicated in
the language department.
Carnaval season arrived soon enough and my Portuguese was pretty sketchy. What the hell, my reservations were a
dead cert and I was now determined to become a seasoned,
Americano carnavalista in one trip. Though I read what I could
about Recife and Olinda, I could not imagine what was in store. The travel books said that the
Nordestinos of Pernambuco spoke in a high, fast dialect—hmm, not good for my poor language skills. These books also said that the people in Pernambuco
were some of the friendliest in Brazil—hmm, that may just balance itself out.
I was working on one last detail, prior to my trip. I e-mailed a note to a young lady who lived in Recife. She had posted her picture on the internet. I told the young lady where I would be staying. My sketchy
Portuguese was put to the test in the note. I threw in a little colloquial speak (as best I could muster). What the heck, she looked
very good. I’ve been attracted to
Brasileiras since the first time I set eyes on Sônia Braga in the cinema. I had no way of
knowing if this lady was interested in me. I was just hours away from my flight to Brazil.
Upon arriving at Guararapes Airport, I noticed the heat. It was full summer in Recife and I was coming from
mid-winter in the States. The weather was warm, but not uncomfortable. I’m from the Dallas-Fort Worth area. I know a little bit
about uncomfortable heat. The DFW area has recently become a hellish extreme with constant ozone alerts and deadly hot
summers (the local news programs tally the body count during the full blaze of summer). This heat in the airport was reassuring. It
had an organic, primordial warmth to it. The little sweat that formed on my brow was there to demonstrate that the mighty
sertão was a few, scant kilometers away from where I stood.
My first language test came early. I requested a cab for “Boa Via-gem.” The receptionist looked puzzled, thought a
second, and retorted, “ah, Boa Vee-ah jee.” The only thing was, she said it so fast that I didn’t hear any of the accents, at the
time. Bewildered, I boarded my cab.
The cabby was a pleasant man. He began to loose his cool when we crossed over the canal into Boa Viagem,
though. This was the Sunday of the week prior to Carnaval. We encountered a Boa Viagem
bloco who had held their parade/street party that very afternoon. Thousands of people were on the streets. The
bloco’s tee-shirts were orange, blue and
yellow, I think. The streets were covered in empty half-liter water bottles. Little street kids were carrying massive sacks full of
aluminum beer cans. These kids were working like ants, scouring the avenues and alley ways for the precious metal cans.
My cabby was gettin’ crabby. We were making no progress. When we got within a few blocks of my hotel, he was
practically begging me to get out and make my own way to the hotel. I thought “what the hell?” The streets were buzzing. No one
cared about a gringo carrying luggage along the avenue. This suited me just fine. Come to find out later, the street outside
Hotel Lucism, where I stayed initially, is on the route for the neighborhood
blocos of Boa Viagem. Cool.
When I came through the doors of the hotel, I must have looked more than a little disheveled. The cabby let me off a
little further than I thought and I was tired from the 14 hours of overnight and midday plane riding. The receptionist was a
little frosty when she was giving me my keys, explaining the in-room safe and so on. My sketchy Portuguese was not serving
me well, while listening to her. If I didn’t know better, I’d have thought she had an attitude. Then, she handed me a phone
message from Rosana. This was definitely cool.
Rosana knew absolutely no inglês, whatsoever. Our phone conversation was painful, but we met. I’ll keep most of
the romantic prose to myself, but the sight of Rosana was intense. Her cinnamon color was something new to me. She had
an exotic smell. We began a conversation that has not ended. If I have any luck whatsoever, for the rest of my life, may
that conversation never end.
We didn’t have a plan for the evening. Only after entering the cab did I mention that some food and
forró would be nice. Rosana looked at me strangely—like I had said something either stupid or profound. She thought for a moment and
began an interesting exchange with the cabbie. She gave the fellow instructions to head towards Recife Antigo, then she went
into the Recifense practice of
pechinchar, or haggling, over the cab fare. Cool. This meant she liked me.
When we arrived, it was all noise. Recife Antigo seemed kind of like the French Quarter in New Orleans. A cover
band was playing in the street. They were playing MPB with an emphasis on locals like Alceu Valença and Geraldo Azevedo.
This was great. There was no Americano rock within at least a few thousand miles (I’m to the point where rock cover bands
induce projectile vomiting). Later, there was an acoustic impromptu band in the middle of a narrow avenue, with
bandolins and cavaquinhos. Everyone was singing along and dancing
frevo. This seemed to me to be Recife’s version of
pagode. My head swam the entire evening.
Rosana explained a few rules about the
Recifense class system, that evening. I admired her candor. She considered
herself “raça negra,” though she looked like she could belong to a tribe that makes its home along the Amazon. Sometimes
now, she speaks of her desire to experience the Amazon and the jungle and I think, perhaps, there is credence in the theory of
By the way, we didn’t experience any
forró that night. Wrong season. This was Carnaval!
During the week before Carnaval, Recife Antigo is like the mid-Atlantic during hurricane season. Small funnels of
Carnaval frenzy merge into larger gale force currents. The Carnaval frenzy gathers considerable force each week night to subside
in the small hours. With each passing night, the force intensifies. By Friday night, the energy is unstoppable. All the
elements are in place. On Friday night, there are dozens of
trios elétricos, small and large stages replete with performers, marching
brass bands, you name it. The frevo dancers act like cheerleaders. They are limber and lithe. Whenever a strolling brass band
starts up a jazzy march, costumed frevistas follow. There is no basic
frevo step. The object is to defy gravity through sheer
mirth. The more air-time, the better. I believe that the
frevo dancers provide the final push, the remaining catalyst whose role is
to ignite the storm. Their whirling and jumping is the signal that Carnaval has commenced.
I was now absorbing Portuguese language and
Brasileiro culture in tiny droplets and mighty torrents at once.
Rosana, a friend of hers, and I met late Friday. We all danced. It seemed like minutes, but turned into hours. I learned that a
proper Carnavalista stops every 15 or 20 minutes to have a beverage or a snack from the street vendors. The object is to pace
one’s self, in order to keep up with the frenzy. One doesn’t slam down a dozen brews and act crazy, like in New Orleans.
The hurricane was now at critical mass and would sweep through Recife tomorrow with the Galo da Madrugada.
Persons of firm or even shaky religious resolve would do well to avoid this natural force looming on the horizon, lest he be swept
into the maelstrom of paganism.
In Recife, I heard one fellow, who was playing with a marching brass band, rip into a clarinet solo which was the old
slap tongue technique used by early jazz pioneers here in the U.S. He jumped up on a platform which had a toilet bolted to it
(I still haven’t figured out its significance). The platform had four handles which a mischievous group of guys tilted ever
which way they could. The clarinetist had to maintain his sense of balance while soloing. I know that this raggedy looking
Recifense clarinetist had never dug into music from 1920s America, but here it was. He was playing like a latter day Wilbur
Sweatman or Wilton Crawley, only in frevo tempo. Talk about music as a universal language.
Did I forget to mention that a similar hurricane was blowing in nearby Olinda. Some of the texts I read went on about
how much more lively Carnaval was in Olinda than Recife. I wish to go on record as stating that the Carnaval in Olinda is
definitely crazier. I don’t know about better. I think the object, in Olinda, is to slam down a dozen brews and get crazy. There is an
abundance of boom boxes and a frat crowd, there. Some people may not like that.
Though the streets in Olinda are so crowded that marching bands have little room to maneuver, the
maracatus clear themselves a path with the thunder of primal drums. The dancers practice a deliberate, swingy dance which, unlike
frevo, conserves energy. Maracatu is hypnotic.
Maracatu is the root from whence Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, Muzenza, etc. came. Thinking back, I heard
more live music in Recife, but the
maracatus of Olinda left an impression. I don’t recall hearing the
maracatus in Recife having so many drums.
Now that my language skills are increasing, there are many musical idioms which need investigating. I found
that Pernambucanos are fiercely loyal to their musical traditions. New musical ideas must stand tall to find place in their
established Carnaval repertoire.
Pernambucanos are keenly aware that the “pop”
axé sounds currently in favor in Bahia have been
borrowed from Nordeste musical traditions. There is an undeclared competition between Bahia and Recife over whose music is
better. Brazzil itself recently published an interview with an Olodum member who couldn’t resist making a dig at Pernambuco. I
say let the competition heat up and continue, while we the listeners benefit.
Carnavalista or Not?
I had first-hand experience with thievery in Recife; Rosana experienced it in Olinda. Mine was the near theft of my
cheap digital watch in Recife the morning of Galo da Madrugada. The thief attempted to tear the watch from my arm. The Velcro
strap prevented the thief making off with my watch. I shoved the fellow and he made out like it was some other perpetrator.
Rosana had her strap-on carrying bag rifled in Olinda. She was wearing it across her belly. All they got was lipstick and her
identity papers. I remember that she was cooler and more philosophical about the incidences than I was
(desculpe, sou Americano).
The thieves work the heaviest areas of congestion during Carnaval. When you’re in one of those conga lines, which
people use to push through the congestion, beware. The two instances we were accosted occurred while in the conga lines.
The thieves work high (my arm was raised) and low (Rosana’s belly pack). They also work by distractions. My biggest
problem with the petty thieves is that they can kill your party buzz. Nobody wants to be brought down from a good time by
common petty thievery.
I definitely enjoyed meu tempo na praia (my beach time). I burned badly my first day out, though I was sitting under
one of those big rented umbrellas. The intense, near equatorial sunlight reflects off the sand. Informed
Recifense go to the beach early. Beach activity starts at day break. The sun doesn’t really begin to cook till after 10:00 am. The beach is also fun
after sundown. There are huge flood lights which go down to the water front. The
coco gelado stands are open all night.
I admire the Pernambucanos. They are friendly and fun to be around. I found that, to most
Pernambucanos, Carnaval was just so many party days which occur during their summer. Life there is one long mellow party that continues long
after Carnaval. Several Recifenses I conversed with felt cheated that the Brazilian school system hadn’t offered more English
classes. To know English in Recife is to have access to better paying jobs. I think that knowledge of English also fits into that
Recife class system I mentioned. Some of the English speaking Recifense have loftier senses of self worth. It’s as if, speaking
English makes them more worldly and better informed.
I didn’t run into one fellow Americano during my whole two-week stay. This was the epitome of “cool.” I survived
two weeks in the raucous world that is Carnaval. My broken Portuguese was enough. I have to give Rosana credit for my
happy stay, however. She provided me with insights I would not have had. I might still be lost on the bus system without her.
Her and my story continues.