A letter from Rio tells of the thrill of dancing the samba in the festival parade
RIO DE JANEIRO — IF I ever have grandchildren, I'll be able to tell them that their grandma not only saw the larger-than-life Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, but was in it! Really, my plan was just to see it after I'd spent some time in Rio in the fall watching the escolas de samba (samba schools that aren't really schools but huge social clubs which promenade at Carnival) get ready for the big parade - which is also a very important competition between schools - the following February. But after I got back home, I received a fax from my Brazilian friend Maria da Conceicao Ferreira de Almeida (Conceicao for short!) saying that one of Rio's oldest and most traditional samba schools, Mangueira (the one I had liked best when I was there in the fall) had some space in one of their sections (called alas, or wings), and would I like to be in the parade with her? Would I! I zapped back a fax immediately with my measurements, and she responded with a rough sketch of our costume: a fluffy pink and green (the school's colors) lace dress with puffed sleeves, topped off by a sequin-trimmed pink turban with towering pink and green peacock feathers - Wow!
Off to Rio. The night of the day I arrived there was to be a "rehearsal" - more like a huge party - at the quadra (rehearsal hall) of Mangueira, located at the foot of one of the Mangueira favela, one of Rio's most famous shanty-towns. So it was off the plane, a quick nap, and on to the quadra, where we samba-ed around with hundreds of other future parade participants and anybody else who felt like joining in, singing at the top of our lungs our samba-enredo (theme song) for 1991 - "The Three Lacemakers of the Universe," a fanciful story of creation - while the composers sang along with us and the huge bateria (percussion section) played a thunderous, swinging samba rhythm on their drums, tambourines, bells and shakers. Men, women, and children of every age, class, and color danced and sang in the joyous preparation for Carnival.
A few nights later, we went back to Mangueira, this time to the seamstress Dona Norma's house, for a costume fitting. A tuck here, a dart there, and we were done. Then it was a question of waiting for our shoes and turbans to be delivered. Afterwards, there was a "technical rehearsal" in the quadra - supposedly a more organized affair where we would find out what to do in the parade. But when we got there it was the usual confusion, on a smaller scale (this rehearsal was not open to the public), and the leader of our wing never even showed up! So, once again, we danced around the quadra countless times, singing our samba-enredo.
There were a couple more rehearsals, and then, before we knew it, Carnival was upon us. I was surprised to see how little activity there was in the streets. I had expected to see a continuous party, but the natives that I spoke with said that Brazil's poor economic conditions had put a damper on things, and that many tourists were afraid to travel because of the war. But in spite of that, Conceicao and I managed to find several small street parades and percussion groups to help get us in the mood. The s ambas-enredo of all of Rio's samba schools poured from record stores, car radios, and the lips of the cariocas (Rio natives).
There's something about Rio in the summer - it rains a lot, it rains hard, and there are serious floods all over because drainage is poor. After getting stranded in a car in one of these floods, with the water pouring in through the doors onto Conceicao's and my feet, I wondered how cariocas can spend all year planning for this huge, expensive Carnival, when mother nature can spoil it all in the twinkling of an eye? But later I read that in more than 60 years of Carnivals, the parade had only been raine d out once. Yet the threat of rain was constantly with us, postponing one event, and nearly canceling another.
THE big parade, the one where the Special Group schools parade, was to be on Sunday and Monday, with our school scheduled for 1:15 a.m. The parade takes place in the Sambadrome, an avenue in the center of town especially constructed for Carnival, with cement bleachers on one side, and viewing boxes on the other. TV cameras run along a wire strung high over the avenue, capturing every move (especially the famous scantily clad women) for TV and the videotapes that will be out in the stores right after Car nival. But Carnival is much more than topless or bikini-clad women. They make up a very small part of the splendor of a samba school parade, with its enormous, glittery floats, group after group of breathtaking costumes decorated with sequins, embroidery, beads, and feathers, and the overwhelming, irresistible rhythm of the bateria - 300 to 400 strong.
Carnival night - Conceicao and I put on our costumes and makeup, gluing pink and green glitter to our earrings and our eyelids, and set off for the Sambadrome. When we arrived, Mangueira was already setting up behind a couple of other schools on a road that leads directly into the Sambadrome. We were early, so we passed the time ogling the other wings and their costumes, examining floats, and having our picture taken with one of the baianas - the older women of the school, who swirl and twirl down the a venue in their wide hoop skirts.
Finally we found the other members of our little wing (we were only 24 women), arranged ourselves rather sloppily in front of the velha guarda - the oldest members of Mangueira - and waited for the word to move forward. When it finally came, we were suddenly running down the road toward the Sambadrome, with one of the directors blowing his whistle and screaming, "Hurry, hurry, we don't want a lot of holes in the parade like we had last year!" Unaccustomed as I am to high-heeled shoes, my already aching feet nevertheless obeyed. We ran, walked, ran some more, and then - suddenly we were on the avenue, blinding lights beating down on us, thousands of people shouting and waving from the bleachers, the ground beneath us strewn with bits and pieces of the costumes of the paraders who preceded us.
I took a deep breath and let myself go with the flow of the swingy rhythm of the bateria and the singing, led by the puxadores - the men who sing the samba-enredo over loudspeakers while we all sing along. The avenue looked a thousand miles long, hot and airless, and we were obliged to stay on the avenue for about an hour and 20 minutes - would I make it? I relaxed and moved easily along, giving myself over to the hugeness, the brightness, and the wonderfulness of it all, twirling, singing, waving my ar ms in the air, catching Conceicao's smiling face every now and then amid the swirling pink and green. Then, just as suddenly as it began, it was over. I wanted to shout, "Wait, wait, I'm just getting warmed up!" They had to order us off the avenue, a multitude of pink and green lace gyrating, singing, and not wanting it to end - ever.
The next night we were back at the Sambadrome, watching the rest of the schools parade. After a few hours, it all started to look alike, but then the school which was to become the champion for 1991 entered the avenue - Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel (which means, loosely translated, the independent young folks from Padre Miguel, a Rio neighborhood). Immediately everyone started yelling "J 135&gt; ganhou! J 135&gt; ganhou!" (They've already won!), because Mocidade's parade was so beautifully organized, so imaginative, so luxurious, and so clever. They had won the previous year, and they were on a roll this year with a very simple theme, "Water," which covered everything from Rio's famous beaches and floods, to Noah's ark, to a human embryo floating inside a huge transparent globe of the earth. The members of the bateria were dressed as deep sea divers, surrounded by hundreds of sea horses and fish of every sort - all glittery silver and blue.
Mangueira lost - badly. It's not that we didn't put on a pretty parade - everyone agreed that it was pretty. But Mangueira is a poor school, unsupported financially by the illegal numbers runners who help many of the other schools. The issue of whether or not to use a bookie's money (bookies do it to improve their image) has split the participants in the parade, and there has even been talk of the poorer schools breaking away and forming their own Carnival. The general assumption is that if you don't ha ve a lot of money, you can't win.
Originally Carnival in Rio was an event unique in the world - the only major event of its kind where the poor give something to the rich. This has shifted, however, as more and more wealthy people have gotten into the samba schools, while the parade continues to be entertainment for the rich and moderately well-to-do. Many poor people can neither afford to buy a costume, nor a ticket to even see the parade. Some of the ugliness that happens around Carnival time - gangs of young men mugging rich people a nd tourists, excessive beer drinking, etc., have been attributed to this problem.
One of the many things I love about Rio, though, and about Brazil in general, is the spirit of its poor people. In Rio, samba had its roots in the favelas - this beautiful music and color and dance came out of the lives of these people. Favela life certainly has its down side, but Mangueira, for instance, has been and continues to be the cradle of some of the finest samba Rio has ever known.
Next year I'll go back and I'll parade again - with Mangueira, of course!