At Samba School, a Visitor Finds Happy Folks - and an Irresistible Urge to Dance

IT's early autumn in Rio, and even though carnival is still months away, the samba schools I had come to visit are already coming to life. Imagine my chagrin when I found out that the apartment I'd rented in Copacabana was miles away from any of the samba schools, which were all in the north zone, Rio's poorer area that's never mentioned in the tourist guide books. Without a car, I was sunk.

I took a better look at my map and realized that Rio is a city of amazing contrasts. The beach areas that all the tourists know about (Ipanema, Copacabana, etc., otherwise known as the south zone) are separated by enormous hills from the north zone. When I started asking the best way to get to the samba schools, the answer was, ``You shouldn't go there; it's dangerous.'' Yet it was obvious that my only choice was to move to the north zone as soon as possible!

Before long I met a charming woman who readily agreed not only to put me up at her apartment (Brazilians are famous for their hospitality), but drive me around to the samba schools, and any other samba events that we might find. So we set out with a group of her friends, and I entered the world of samba.

I soon found that all the schools were set up in much the same way. Each quadra (the big semi-outdoor spaces where the schools reside and members rehearse) has a stage for the composers, from which they sing the sambas-enredo; another stage, usually high up, for the bateria (percussionists); and a huge open space, lined on either side with tables and chairs for spectators, where the rehearsal of the dancers takes place.

The feeling in each quadra was unique: There was the garish red-and-white neon glare of Salgueiro, where stylishly dressed people stood around trying to impress one another; the pristine blue-and-white of the famous Portela, looking like a small city within a city, with its super-organized, precision bateria; the loose, disorganized Beija-Flor, which, although it's one of the richest schools, was also the dirtiest (our feet stuck to the floor); the festive, youthful Uniao da Ilha, which had the feel of a rock concert; and the Mangueira, the one we had been most warned against (``It's dangerous!'') and which turned out to be our favorite.

``As Tr^es Rendeiras do Universo'' was the theme chosen by Mangueira for the 1991 carnival, which means ``The Three Lacemakers of the Universe,'' the idea being that the earth, sky, and sea are bound together, like beautiful lacework. The composers of the sambas-enredo expanded on this theme in their lyrics, and the best songs were in the process of being chosen during my visits.

Even with commercialism creeping in, the spirit of samba lives on, especially at Mangueira, which has a reputation for being one of the most traditional. The quadra of Mangueira is located in the shadow of the Mangueira favela - the hillside tar-paper shacks and brick dwellings that house the people who live there.

An upstairs room was filled with men, women, boys, and girls of every age and various shades of black, brown, and beige, with a few whites mixed in, some sitting at tables and singing, others dancing wherever they could find a space. Members of the Velha Guarda (the veteran members of Mangueira) took turns singing older sambas, and then the new ones, while the band - tambourines, surdo (large bass drum), cavaquinho (small guitar), guitar, and shakers brought the vibrant rhythm to life. It was obvious that everyone knew everyone; there was a warm feeling of camaraderie and comfortable familiarity.

At around 11 p.m., everyone samba-ed their way downstairs to the main part of the pink-and-green (the school's colors) decorated quadra and the rehearsal began. Once the fila das baianas, the parade of the older women, was in swing, controled, sort of, by an efficient-looking fellow with a whistle hanging around his neck, everyone who felt like doing the samba joined in: men, young girls, boys. Oh joyous chaos!

It was the bateria that made us do it: It lifted us right out of our seats. There are no words to describe the sheer power and joy and energy of the sound of a samba school percussion section, and Mangueira's is one of the best. And this was only a rehearsal, with probably less than one quarter of the players who will actually parade at carnival.

At one point a group entered the room carrying pink-and-green flags, marching as confetti swirled around their heads, and we felt like we were getting a real foretaste of carnival.

When we left the quadra of Mangueira, the sun was rising. Confetti covered the floor, the members of the bateria were packing up their instruments, and we filed out into the street, reluctantly. Sleep? Who needs it? All we can think about is the next Saturday, and which samba-enredo will be picked for carnival '91.

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