Tuesday, March 04, 2014

You dropped your eye

I was awakened at 2:30am Saturday night by a gentle knocking at my bedroom door. I thought for sure I must have dreamed it, but no, there it was again, a gentle tapping.

I staggered out of bed to find Olivia whispering "The guys from Mocidade are here with our costumes and they need the money right now." 

Mocidade (moh-see-DAH-jee) is a beloved Rio escola-de-samba - one of the huge parade groups - that we have signed up to parade with. It's a storied escola, with a great history, that we both have personal connections to.  It's had a rocky road recently, but Mocidade has a truly great song this year, and they've also just had a very exciting change of leadership. They have been struggling under the directorship of a very controversial escola president for years, and a few scant weeks ago they actually somehow got rid of him. I don't know the whole story but it was big news in Rio, and the general sensation is that "Mocidade is back." That the people of the Mocidade community have reclaimed their escola. So we've both signed up for a costume in one of the parade sections.

But, two-thirty in the morning? And a sudden demand for close to US $300, cash on demand? Seriously? It feels like a drug deal, but we open the door and there are two very tired-looking guys with big black trash bags full of mysterious costume objects, one of them whispering "Sorry about the time" and both of them looking absolutely exhausted. It turns out they are doing FORTY last-minute home deliveries tonight. They hand over two very large strange silver cross-shaped things about four feet wide that I decide later are supposed to be crab carapaces with four gigantic silver lightning bolts shooting out of them; and also two extremely strange-looking hats that seem to have giant fuzzy orange lightning bolts shooting out the top, plus fake fuzzy orange sunglasses; and large trash bags containing clown suits, clown shoes, a truly enormous shoulder harness of some kind, and some other objects I can't figure out.

Yeah, so, it's two-thirty in the morning, Sunday morning really, and the parade is at nine pm Monday night. There is an unmistakable air of last-minute-ness about this. I wonder if money came through at the very last second, if the costumes were thrown together last-minute; I wonder if it's got something to do with the recent change in leadership. Or, possibly Mocidade's just super disorganized, which (knowing the Rio escolas) is also possible.

Anyway, we heap everything on the floor and everybody falls back asleep. It's Saturday night, after all - meaning, it's our last night of sleep before the Grupo Especial escola parades. Grupo Especial will run all night Sunday and all night Monday, till dawn, and I don't expect to any sleep at all either night. So all day Sunday we sleep, and all night Sunday we're at the Sambodromo watching the six Grupo Especial parades. And by "up all night" I mean the last parade ends AFTER dawn and I don't get to bed till after 8am the next morning.

So it wasn't till mid-day Monday - the day of the parade - that Olivia and I woke up and finally had a moment to take a serious look at the costumes.  Okay...

This is going to be difficult.

Rio Carnaval costumes are not the "sexy samba dancer" costumes that everyone always seems to imagine. They're more like bizarre modern art sculptures that are wrapped all around your body, almost smothering you in layers of strange headpieces, shoulder-pieces and strange accessories. The idea is that they're illustrate some aspect of the escola's parade theme that year, but the theme could be anything (South Korea, environmental destruction, the history of photography, whatever). You might end up dressed as a satellite dish, a fish, a newspaper, Mahatma Gandhi, you name it. And you don't have much choice - you sign up for an ala and you have to wear exactly the costume that ala is committed too. (everybody in the ala has to wear an identical costume.) Anyway, this time Olivia and I are in an ala (parade section) that is supposed to be "manguebeat", a genre of Brazilian music that we both love and that is often represented by a crab, so it's sort of a crab costume except with lightning bolts added everywhere. Nice idea but as we get a look at the costume it becomes apparent the hat is horribly designed, unbelievably tall and top-heavy and there is no possible way it is going to stay on our head. The costume's also already falling apart. It looks like it was indeed glued together at the last second, with not enough glue, and the silver lightning bolts are shedding their silver tips even as we hold them up to look at them. Not a good sign.

Also, I begin to notice that we will be wearing, in 90F heat: a one-piece clown suit made of thick black plastic; on top of that, a huge foam chestpiece that drapes down nearly to my knees; attached to that, a the big silver carapace with the giant lightning bolts; on top of all that, a choker around our necks; tall socks and closed shoes; crab claws on our hands; and the giant hat.

We're just kind of idly looking at all this and haven't said anything to each other yet and Olivia says calmly, "Kathleen, you know we are going to die, right?" 

In true Carnaval fashion the thing we are most worried about is not our impending death, but rather the fact that the hat won't stay on. Because the escola doesn't get marked down if people die but DOES get marked down if the hats don't stay on. And, of course, the Rio Carnaval is a competition. There are 3 levels of competition. Some escolas, the heavy hitters, the rich ones that can afford to blow seven million dollars on a parade, parade to win. Others - the "poor" escolas that only have the two or three million dollars in base annual funding that the city of Rio provides them with - fight just for a chance to finish in the top 6, which get a position of honor in the champion's parade next week. 

And some escolas just fight for their lives, trying not to come in last, because the last escola is demoted to the "second group", which is a terrible blow. Mocidade, unfortunately, has been the last group recently, the escolas that struggle just to stay in Grupo Especial. We want Mocidade to do well. That means the hat needs to stay on!

We're so worried about the poor design of the hat, and the impossible crab claws while we're at it, and the costume falling apart, that Olivia actually calls up the ala director (director of our parade section) to warn him about the unfeasibility and poor construction of the costumes and tell him he's got to bring glue to the parade assembly point tonight, just to help glue all the pieces back on. Plus string to help tie the hats on.

Olivia hangs up and tells me "He knows, he apologizes, and he said, the whole escola is like this." Apparently every ala has been complaining that ALL the costumes are too huge, all the hats are too unwieldy, everything's just unbearable and everything's falling apart. Right then. On with the show.

The evening starts off with the perpetual problem of "how the hell do we even get to the Sambodromo, which is clear across town, when all the taxis are taken by the 300,000 drunk college kids who are all running around town going to the street parades, all the buses are either re-routed or stuck in the street parades also" etc. There's the rush of panic as we realize we are late, the usual additional panic as we realize that no free taxis exist in the world, the usual last-second plea for a friend to drive us to a certain subway station that we think is open, the additional excitement of accidentally getting on the wrong subway line and then missing our station and going one station too far and having to walk back. Finally, an hour later we are staggering with all our heavy costume pieces to the Sambodromo and I finally have to confront a huge complication that I've been thinking about all weekend: I am trying to do two completely incompatible activities at the same night. These are: (1) be in one parade, (2) watch the other five parades. 

If you are thinking "those don't sound like completely incompatible activities", you have never paraded in the Rio Sambodromo, have you? 

Here's the jigsaw-puzzle pieces I've been thinking about since Thursday, when I first had the bright idea of trying to parade with Mocidade:

- you cannot carry any personal possessions in the parade. At all. Of any kind. Unless you can completely hide them under your costume (where they will get SOAKED with sweat and when I say soaked, I mean dripping).

- you cannot wear your own shoes in the parade. You can only wear the costume shoes.

- but the costume shoes are very badly made and don't fit and will give you hideous blisters within minutes; and the costume itself is going to make you die of heat stroke and sweat like a stuck pig, so you can only wear your underwear underneath it and you are going to need to take the costume and the shoes off IMMEDIATELY after the parade or you will WILL die of heat stroke (and I'm not even exaggerating, you would actually need medical attention)

- ok, that leaves you standing there barefoot in your bra and panties at the end of the Sambodromo, doesn't it? But where can you leave your clothes and shoes during the parade? There is nowhere to leave your clothes. Nor your phone, keys or money.

- Yay, you have a ticket to a private seat! Perhaps you can leave your stuff there? But not without your friends to watch it, and since you're in the first parade and have to arrive early for it, your friends are not there yet to hold your bag for you.

- But yay, Dudu can hold your bag for you!

- But Dudu is in Sector 6 and your own ticket is for Sector 10. And for a completely inexplicable reason, people in Sectors 2, 4, 6 and 8 can all walk freely between each other sectors, and people between Sectors 10 and 12 can intermingle too, but there is a heavily militarized zone between Sectors 8 and 10 and it's absolutely impossible to walk from one to the other. So if Dudu has your bag and he walks into Setor 6 with it, how will you ever get it back if your own ticket is for Setor 10? 

- Also don't forget you have to get a Magic Bracelet to re-enter the Sambodromo. But to get the Magic Bracelet you have to walk TWO FRIGGIN' MILES in your damn costume shoes (all the way around the Sambodromo through infinite warren of tiny little back alleys, following a taunting series of "Sectors 10 and 12 This Way" signs that seem to be laughing at you as they lead you further and further south, practically down to Argentina)

... and there's about 10 more things I need to add to that list to explain how I finally managed to retrieve my bag from Setor 6, but never mind, just trust me when I say that (1) being in the first parade and (2) watching the rest of the parades, just those 2 things, represents a feat of Rio logistics that has to be experienced firsthand to be believed. Anyway, I end up limping all the way to Setor 10 dragging my whole huge impossible costume there, limping in my damn clown shoes - and why am I not surprised that the elastic on one of Mocidade's knee-high clown socks broke instantly and is dragging around my foot, and that I'm already getting a blister? Or that the entire Mocidade costume is disassembling itself as I haul the damn thing five thousand miles to goddamn Sector 10 to get my goddamn Magic Bracelet so that I can re-enter the goddamn Sambodromo later?  This HAT, my god, it's supposed to be sort of a crab, remember, and it is in the form of a gigantic and incredible heavy crowd about 2 feet tall and 2 feet wide, and on top are 2 long eyestalks (each two feet long), each with a black eyeball at the end surrounded by silver sequins. Obviously the crab also has 2 orange lightning bolts on top of its head and a huge pair of bright fuzzy orange sunglasses, plus a sequinned silver ball on top of everything, because, well, obviously that is what crabs look like, right? (And obviously crabs have a gigantic silver carapace with four ENORMOUS silver lightning bolts shooting out of it that are about four feet wide) Anyway I'm dragging my huge carapace-with-lightning bolts in one hand, the other hand has the trash bag with my gigantic shoulder harness and also the hat, which is upside down, and I'm wearing the black plastic clown outfit, and clown socks and one sock is down and is dragging around my foot, and I'm like an hour late and by the time I get my wristband, I'm at least a million miles from the north end of the Sambodromo where Mocidade is assembling and I am LATE. So I'm RACING up the side of the Sambodromo - did I mention it is a million miles long? - really starting to panic about the time, when a man comes running after me and says "You dropped your eye."

He hands me an eyestalk. With a black eye at the end. He also hands me the bright orange giant sunglasses. I look down at my hat and realize it must have been literally falling apart as I walked, because it's now missing:

- both orange lightning bolts

- the sunglasses

- one eyestalk+eye

- the silver ball.

All that is left is one lonely eyestalk + eye (also, the lonely remaining eye is trailing a long string of silver sequins that is coming unglued). Plus a spray of pointy pieces of wire and it is a damn miracle that I haven't put somebody's eye out. Plus, one of the green ribbons at the side is unraveling and I'm trailing a thread of green polyester that is probably 15 feet long. It's tripping random people behind me, but it's so thin that they can't see what they tripped on and they're all looking around in puzzlement. Also one of the silver lightning bolts has fallen off the carapace. I'm like a one-woman walking disaster area.

I rip off the green string, stuff all the pieces in the bag, tie the trailing edge of the clown sock to the clown shoe with the shoelaces, ignore the blister and keep on going.

Anyway, I finally find Mocidade, and am soooo relieved I just drop all my stuff in the street, buy a bottle of icy-cold water (from a kid who seems to be selling beer and water on the street all by himself and who can't be more than seven years old), pour half the water over my head, and chug the second half. The Mocidade gods are smiling on me and I actually find a porta-potty with a working door lock that is not entirely disgusting! Truly I am blessed. I retrieve all my stray costume pieces and make my way into the Mocidade "concentration" area, where the paraders are assembling, and, oh my god, MASS CHAOS in all directions. CHAOS. 

Mocidade's got about 3800 paraders (not a typo... I'm not sure of the exact number but know it was just under 4000) and every single one of them is jammed into this single stretch of street that is only one block long, and it appears that every single costume is falling apart and everybody is in a panic and there are costume pieces all over everywhere, and we're all wedged into that section of street so tightly I literally cannot turn around. (especially not with that carapace thing, which I am beginning to hate with the force of a thousand suns) There are dozens and dozens of alas, each with nearly a hundred people, every damn ala with huge weird hats and huge pointy backpieces, and it is JAM-packed and nobody can get anywhere and everybody is frustrated and panicky and I can't find my ala. I'm dragging my lightning-bolt carapace, my sock is tripping me up again, I can't get anywhere. I finally nearly get bowled over by a band member who is hauling an enormous first-surdo that's nearly as wide as my crab carapace. He's got a Mocidade director who is acting as a kind of snowplow for him, charging ahead hollering for everybody to make way, and that's who's just shoved me aside. I take advantage of this and I wedge myself in right behind the drum guy and basically follow in their wake for as long as I can.

And then I see them! Silver carapaces ahead, and orange sunglasses and orange lightning bolts! My people! I have found my people! I'm so relieved. I still can't actually GET to them but I can SEE them up ahead. About ten minutes of struggle later I've actually gotten to the ala and located Olivia and only then do I realize what deep shit we are all in:


They're supposed to connect together. The silver carapace thing has 2 little metal prongs that are supposed to fit into 2 metal holes in the shoulder harness. But the prongs are way too short. They were all made incorrectly. The ala directors seem to be utterly baffled by this and Olivia's trying to ask one of them about it, but he seems to decided to devote all his mental energy just to gluing broken silver lightning bolts back together (which, granted, also needs to be done) but it seems to be taking 15 minutes per lightning bolt, there's hundreds of lightning bolts, people are starting to really despair about the metal prongs, and the parade starts in less than an hour.

A pause here to remind everybody that the Rio Carnaval is a competition, that Mocidade has been in trouble recently and it has only escaped being demoted by the skin of its teeth. Last year it came in 11th out of 12th. If it comes in 12th, it gets demoted to the second group, loses two million dollars per year of city funding, and, most of all, it would just break everybody's heart.

And one of the categories it's judged on is costumes, and one of the things the costume judge looks for is that all costumes have all their pieces.

We have to get the carapaces attached somehow. We have to. It become apparent the only thing that will work is if we all, all of us, stab 2 holes in the thick fabric of the costume with a pair of scissors so that the too-short metal prongs can reach their little metal holes. But does anybody have a pair of scissors? Of course not. Did any of the ala directors think to bring a pair of scissors? Of course not. I actually overhear one of the ala directors screaming "FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DOES ANYBODY HAVE SCISSORS? OR A KNIFE? ANYTHING SHARP? ANYBODY?" I dig out my house key but discover it's one of those weird Brazilian keys that doesn't have sharp teeth. I try tearing the fabric, I even try biting a hole in it - no dice.

Perhaps it will not be a surprise if I tell you that everybody's hats have been shedding orange lightning bolts and silver balls and eyestalks and eyes every which way. There's carapaces underfoot everywhere, giant fuzzy orange sunglasses, people are putting orange lightning bolts on only to have them fall off again instantly, and DID I FORGET TO MENTION THE CLAWS? I haven't mentioned the claws? the two claws that are attached to each costume by 3 separate colored long pieces of rubber - so, just to be clear, that's SIX long things-to-trip-on attached to each costume, that trail across the ground and tangle in your feet and tangle the feet of the person next to you? I'm just not going to mention the claws anymore because I'm trying to erase them from my memory.

Olivia and I start out sort of confident and determined, certain we will be able to solve all these problems, but after a half hour drifts by and it's creeping closer to 9 and none of our efforts work and the ala directors disappear searching for scissors, we end up sort of standing there in slack-jawed disbelief. It is beginning to sink in that the parade is only minutes away, we only have half our costumes on, each of our costumes is missing half their pieces, the carapace cannot be put on the costume, the hat has more problems than I can even describe.  I'm starting to laugh, but Olivia has this heart-breaking expression on her face of stunned shock mixed with near-fury (because, you have to understand, it MATTERS how well Mocidade does). I'm trying to tell her something like "You have to laugh, otherwise you'll cry," when there's screaming and yelling behind us and somebody's hollering "GET THE HELL OUT OF THE WAY! THE BAIANAS NEED TO GET THROUGH!" 

Baianas are the older women in hoop skirts. One of the Rio Carnaval's more peculiar rules is that each escola is required to have at least 70 older women who are all wearing large hoop skirts, and they generally have the hugest costumes. And for some reason, some of Mocidade's baianas have showed up late and they've decided that the best way to get to the front of the parade is not to use the same path everybody else has been using all along, but instead to simple charge straight through the middle of alas that have all their costume pieces spread out on the floor for assembly. They charge DIRECTLY across the middle of all our stuff, actually yelling at us, and trample right over our carapaces - which till now I've been detesting but as I see the baianas walking ON OUR CARAPACES I suddenly become extremely protective of the stupid hideous carapaces and just can't believe that anybody would DARE step on my silver crab carapace!

The baianas plow right through my ala and destroy everything we've been working on. Till now the whole situation has seemed sort of sad but also sort of funny, but now the mood goes truly black. For a second there it's teetering on the edge of either murder or suicide, I can't decide which.

But as I look at the carapaces I discover the damn things have been through so much hell already, and have lost so many pieces already, that a little baiana-trampling hasn't really done any detectable additional damage. Everything looked like shit before and it still looks like shit, that's all.

I begin to accept the fact that we are not going to be able to get the costumes together, and I ask Olivia, "So, if we can't get our costume together, what do we do, should we stay out of the parade?" and she gives me sort of a fierce look and just says "We are going to parade." 

The fireworks go off. The parade is starting. There's no way. We look at each other again.

And then suddenly there's a different ala director with us, a young guy who's working at nearly the speed of light, and - unbelieveable, unbelievable - HE HAS A PAIR OF SCISSORS, he's hacking holes in Olivia's shoulder-piece, he's GOT HER CARAPACE ATTACHED to her back, holy Jesus, he's hacking holes in my costume too, he's GOT MY CARAPACE ATTACHED TOO, he's hacking various essential holes in the hat, he's got strings to put through the holes to tie the hat on, he's gluing things on, he's found some stray orange lightning bolts on the ground and stray orange sunglasses, he's jamming them on the hats, suddenly we've got our huge shoulder things and silver carapaces on. All the little pieces are suddenly reappearing and getting jammed on the hat, he's wedging lightning bolts onto Olivia's hat, he fixes somebody's eyestalk, we figure out how the damn claws work, I feel hands on my foot and I don't even know who it is (I can't look down) - somebody is fixing my sock! Well, they're trying to, and they fail, but the sock problem has caught somebody's attention (clearly somebody has been ordered to crawl around and inspect the socks) and pretty soon I've been handed a little piece of string and I manage to tie the sock up around my calf. And the floats are moving and the song is starting and it turns out we're all in entirely the wrong place (why am I not surprised?) and we're all being hustled over to the correct float and we all get in line behind it and an ala director gets us all in line - Olivia has advised me to drift into the back line where we'll have a bit more space and air, and the ala director arranges the back line in a certain order.  Then a 2nd ala director appears and he is appalled at the order we are standing in, and he puts us in an entirely different order, and a 3rd director shows up and gets agitated and puts us in a different order, and a 4th director appears and is very upset about the order we're in and puts us in an entirely different order, and we're moving and the parade's happening and we are turning now, the gigantic float in front of us is slowly wheeling onto the parade route, and we follow it around the wide turn and the millions of lights hit our eyes, the stadium full of thousands of people, and - oh my god - we've made it!

We're on the runway! We're in the Sambodromo! I look around and, holy Jesus, EVERYBODY'S COSTUME IS ASSEMBLED. Everybody's hat has 2 orange lightning bolts and orange sunglasses and 2 eyestalks and a little silver ball. Everybody's got their silver carapace. Everybody's socks are up.

We look incredible!

We did it! We did it! We did it!

At the very last second a 5th ala director is horrified at the way the back line is arranged and puts us in an entirely different order, and then we're dancing, we're singing, we're walking under the first judge's booth and it's ON, we're being judged now, we sing like our little hearts depend on it. My goddam hat is still trying to fall off and I have to keep my little crab claws up the whole time, hanging on to the green ribbons on either side to keep it level, trying to pretend the hat is fine and that I'm just holding my little crab claws up because it makes me happy to have my little crab claws up, but honestly, I think this the best song I've ever heard in my life and it is suddenly the most amazing parade I've ever been in, in my entire life.

I honestly, truly, love the song.

As I take the very last step off the parade route, my sock falls down.

At the end Olivia manages to sneak us off to the side, to a place we're probably not supposed to be, and we wait there and watch the rest of the parade come pouring over to us. We're in the area where the gigantic floats go right after they come after the parade route. A huge float full of mostly-naked, very sweaty, extremely good-looking men comes by and they all pile off right next to us and stand all around us. Several destaques (the girls in the amazing glitter bikinis with gigantic feathery wings) are also standing around. We stand there with the gorgeous mostly-naked guys and the gorgeous mostly-naked girls, in our weird crab outfits (we've already jettisoned the carapaces and hats and I've ripped off the detested claws), we watch the parade pour off the end of the parade route and I begin to realize that somehow, by the skin of their teeth, at the last possible second, against all odds, Mocidade has pulled off an incredibly good parade. I hear the crowd actually SCREAM when the Mocidade bateria does an exceptionally beautiful break. (As Pauline points out later, Brazilians don't usually scream like that.) The bateria is the last group off the parade route and when they come off we all go running up to greet them, and start leaping and dancing and singing with them, the whole crowd just ecstatic. My god; Mocidade has done it. And as I tell Olivia later, "I am never, ever, going to forget this parade."


I just want to get this one down quickly before I forget it. Dudu's new group was supposed to play at a little bloco parade in Botafogo last Thursday (the evening of Carnaval, which officially started Friday), but - very long backstory here that I am skipping - we ended up having to throw a tiny bateria (drum group) together at the last second. Anyway, the result was that on Thursday night, Olivia and a friend of hers and I are all piled into a car looking for this unknown little parade in Botafogo and we can't find a parking spot. Olivia's in the back seat on the phone with Dudu and she starts laughing to us "There's only going to be 6 people." So... a bateria for a parade is normally at least 30-40 people - for the big samba escolas it's over 400 drummers - and we're going to be just 6 people total? With more than 6 instruments parts to cover? With a repertore that none of us knows? And I haven't been playing any of this stuff in years.... Olivia jokes, "I think we're going to be the entire surdo section". (Bass drum.) We break up laughing over this because the surdo section is actually pretty damn critical, there are 3 separate parts to play, it's almost always big tough guys and here we are just 3 girls (and me a gringa). And you really need to have players who know the repertoire solid to cover the 3 different surdo parts. Olivia says to her friend, who is driving, "You're going to have to be second surdo". The look of sheer panic that flashes over the friend's face sends both Olivia and me into hysterics. The friend comes out suddenly with "Did I ever tell about the time I ended up in this bloco full of these experienced escola guys and somehow they put me on first surdo and I was the only first surdo and I'd never played first surdo in my life and they nearly killed me?" She launches into the story, we're getting into more hysterics, we still can't find a parking spot, we're circling around and around. Olivia gets another call from Dudu. She reports, "He says they really need us! He's not joking! We have to get there NOW!" More dithering about parking. The friend is thinking now about what she will actually play - maybe snare drum? perhaps shaker? Olivia yells from the back seat, "GALERA!" (one of my favorite Portuguese words - literally "gallery", it means something like, "Hey gang!"). She yells, "GALERA! WE ALL HAVE TO PLAY SURDO!" - and something about the mock-desperation in her voice gets us all laughing again.

We manage to find a tiny dead-end street, clearly resident parking only, patrolled by a parking guard of some kind who looks at us suspiciously. Olivia's friend puts down her window and pleads to the guy, still nearly choking with laughter, "For the love of god can you find us somewhere to park? We're supposed to be in that bloco on the next street over and it's starting right now!" Olivia yells from the back seat, "WE'RE THE ENTIRE SURDO SECTION!" and we all bust out laughing again, including the parking guy. He actually manages to find us a spot and makes us move the car a few times till it's wedged up onto the sidewalk.

Anyway, we get there, and WE ARE IN FACT THE ENTIRE SURDO SECTION just as Olivia predicted. This is getting too surreal for words now and I can't believe that we are, in fact, the entire surdo section, and am further horrified when Dudu makes me.... the only first-surdo player. (It occurs to me right about now that he doesn't know I haven't played surdo in five years). It also turns out we are playing for a modern-dance group that starts off with a choreography to "Age of Aquarius". There's a singer standing up on top of a tiny pickup truck festooned with flags, and she starts belting out out "When the MOOOOOOOOON is in the seventh HOOOOOOUUUUSE" (in a Brazilian accent) and we're trying to drum along with the recording, and the modern dance group is leaping around and a huge number of drunk people with funny hats on their heads have appear out of nowhere and are starting to follow us, along with a dozen or so beer vendors, and somewhere in there I realize that this parade is going to end up on my "Weird Gigs" lifetime list. 

Later, the dance group do a piece about "filth" that for downright mystifying reasons seems to require the dancers wearing trash bags on their head and rolling around on the ground. I wish I were joking; I am not; they put trash bags on their heads and rolled around on the ground; I have proof, I took a video; and it goes on for over three minutes. It was about at this point that the gig shot to #1 on the Weird Gigs List.

But then a miracle happens. Dudu drafted some of his excellent musician friends to play along with us (i.e., actual melody instruments), and as soon as the dance group turns us loose to play on our own (rather than trying to play along to an only-half-audible recording of "Age of Aquarius"), a huge crowd accumulates around us and everybody is dancing and suddenly it becomes one of the most unexpectedly fun parades I've ever done. Dudu has me playing a sort of doubled part at first - both first and second surdo on one drum - then switches me to first, then switches me to second, I guess because he doesn't want me to get too comfortable or anything (or possibly I was screwing up too much). Olivia and her friend are both on third beside me and thank god they actually know a lot of Dudu's surdo repertoire, but I'm of course completely clueless about everything and Dudu's having to mime parts in the air at me. I'm doing pretty well though (I think?), except for a slight rush that keeps creeping into my hands out of nervousness, but not too bad really, for my first time on first or second surdo in five damn years! - and alone on the parts in a Carnaval parade with some of Rio's best musicians at my side with a bunch of dancers rolling around on the ground with trash bags on their heads. Not too bad at all. Now, you gotta understand, I've played with Monobloco, I've played with Banga, I've played with Rio Maracatu, I've played with a lot of great groups; but this weird little Botafogo gig ends up being my favorite bloco experience of the entire 2014 Carnaval.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Batuca's first show!

I'm staying with my friends Eduardo and Olivia, who I met years ago when I first came to Rio. Eduardo's a professional musician and directs Carnaval street bands here - his specialty is bands that play a variety of Brazilian rhythms, not only samba - and Olivia, who is professionally a film director, loves to play as well. Anyway, the next morning I'm blearily awakening at mid-day after my late-night Tijuca adventure, when Eduardo comes knocking on my door saying "Vamos tocar?" ("Let's play?") and saying something about terceira. Ten minutes later I've chugged down some coffee and Eduardo's saying in Portuguese, "So, I've got this brand new group, about forty drummers, and we've got our first ever public show, and since it's a brand new group it's mostly beginners so I think we need you on terceira, is that okay? You don't mind playing terceira do you? It'll be simple. Very easy. There's only four pieces and each has two or three different patterns and just a few hand signs and a couple of breaks and an entrance and an ending thing, and sometimes a little weird thing in the middle, okay? Very easy! Don't worry, you can just watch Vanessa and you'll be fine!" 

An alarmingly short time later I'm in a little van full of excited chattering Brazilians heading over the long bridge to Niteroi, the city on the other side of the bay from Rio. The group turns out to be called "Batucalacatuca", or Batuca for short. (Eduardo's previous group, a group I played in for years, was called "Bangalafumenga" and I'm trying to figure out what his deal is with these extremely long names that start with B?) Several of the bell players adopt me for some reason and give me a variety of festive little hats to wear and help me cut up my t-shirt. (you always have to wear the band t-shirt when you are playing in a Carnaval street band, but it seems to be required that the girls all immediately cut pieces off of the t-shirts and re-work them into much sexier little tanktops decorated with festive little colored ribbons.) Then suddenly there we are in Niteroi, milling around on a little street by a new hostel that is hosting our little Carnaval show. Ages pass with no clear plan apparent, everybody wandering around chattering, drums piled up all over the street. We start drifting over to a tiny street bar that has sprung into existence on the corner and start chugging down coconut-smoothies, which are absolutely incredible.  I see a cluster of perhaps a dozen black guys coming drifting up the street. They're all wearing identical green t-shirts and I realize they must have just finished parading in one of the local Carnaval groups here in Niteroi. They stand in a bunch with their arms folded over their chests, watching us with that skeptical "can these white girls actually play?" sort of look. I'm starting to get a little worried that I've stupidly agreed to perform in a group whose repertoire I only saw for the first time a couple of hours ago, but Eduardo zips by a few times to mention again "Just stand next to Vanessa," and "You'll be fine, just watch Vanessa", except I he forgets to point out who Vanessa is. Then all of a sudden we're starting! I think, well, hell with it, I strap on the terceira, I get in the middle of the 35 or so drummers, suddenly we're playing and I realize that next to me is a slender, tanned Brazilian woman who also has a terceira on, and she is playing like HELL. Strong and clean, and wonderful technique. All her syncopations are spot on. I decide "I'm just going to assume this is Vanessa", and I play next to her for the entire show. Watching her for every break. Laying out of the 1st measure of each piece and coming in on the 2nd once I see what the pattern is. She realizes what I'm doing and shoots me a grin now and then.

Pretty soon I've got hold of the rep and - My. God. It is so magical playing terceira again. I feel like I've come home after years of exile.  Even though it's a new bloco, even though it's mostly beginners, this is SO much fun. The repertoire is fantastic. (Eduardo has a particular skill at devising arrangements that are not too technically difficult, and are achievable by beginners, but that have a truly intense fun groove once all the different instruments are playing together). We're not playing all that fast or anything, but the whole crowd is dancing. I look over to the side at one point and spot all the black guys in the green t-shirts again, and they're all dancing now. One of them actually holding his beer cup in his teeth just so he can clap his hands over his head while he dances.

Partway through the parade I realize it was definitely a stupid idea to jump in on terceira without having played it in years. There's certain back and leg muscles you need just to be able to carry the thing, there's stamina you need to build up, there's calluses you need on your hands, there's arm muscles that need to strengthen. An hour into the show I'm dripping with sweat, my legs are shaking, my back aching, I've got bruises on both knees and blisters in 3 different places on my right hand. I also have a POUNDING headache that I have not managed to shake since the plane flight, I dimly realize I haven't really had much sleep in the last forty-eight hours, I feel basically like hell. And yet I'm so happy, and I keep thinking: This is where I'm supposed to be. Playing terceira in Rio. 

If there is a Heaven, if you go to your favorite ever moment, this is where I'll be: playing terceira in Rio. Perhaps right at that gorgeous moment in the maculele when we switch from pattern 1 to pattern 2 and the terceiras come rolling in like thunder, like wild galloping horses. Everybody dancing, all my friends around me.

At the end the slender Brazilian woman turns to me. It turns out she is indeed Vanessa. She says with a smile, "Toca bem." (You play well.)

Watching terceira

I'm finally back in Rio and simply can't believe it's actually been THREE YEARS since I was here. Everything seems so extremely familiar; I feel certain I must have been here just a few months ago, and have to keep reminding myself that I was last here in 2011. 

I started a new marine biology job in 2011 that requires a certain amount of commitment, and I could only come for a short trip in 2011, and only a short trip now in 2014. The great thing about short trips though is they take the pressure off. I've arrived just 1 week before Carnaval, which is way too late to join any of the major groups. They've all been rehearsing for months by now. The major escolas closed out their final rehearsals of the year on the weekend that I arrived (last weekend before Carnaval). But that's actually really relaxing because it means I don't have to dash around like a madwoman from one rehearsal to the next. I don't have to feel like I "have" to parade in the Sambodromo, or "have" to play with a Grupo Especial escola, or any of that. I'm purely here to see my friends. I'm just here for fun, and I think: I'm just going to relax. I'll do a bit of work for my job, I'll go see the Monday parades, I'll go to the beach... I won't even try to play anywhere.

So of course the second I arrive, bleary-eyed and exhausted after a six-hour delay in New York due to a sleetstorm, an extremely long red-eye overnight flight and then a bewilderingly long taxi ride ("Apologies," said the taxi driver, "there's a parade group in the street up ahead"), my friend Olivia greet me with a huge hug and then says immediately "Oh, before I forget, my mother's playing with Unidos da Tijuca this year [one of the very best groups] and their last rehearsal is tonight at midnight and she could take you along if you like? Oh and - my new band is playing our first show tomorrow afternoon... do you want to play?"  

What else can you say but "yes" and "yes"?

So off I went to Unidos da Tijuca. This is an escola rehearsal, which of course means, it STARTS at midnight and goes till four in the morning. This is completely normal for the weekend rehearsals of hte major samba parade groups. And the whole community shows up: eighty-year-old women, tiny little kids, the hot sexy passista dancers, and everybody in between - everybody's there, from midnight to four in the morning.

So once again there I was camped out at the foot of Tijuca's bateria stand (the elevated bandstand), watching Casa Grande ("Big House", the tall white-haired director of the Tijuca bateria) call in the band with that thunderous breathtaking entry. Once again squeezing my way through crowds of chattering Brazilians to buy an Antarctica beer or two, a few waters, a mysterious little pastry full of mysterious something, maybe a caipirinha. It was a full-on rehearsal, complete with passista dance show, a quite long practice sessions for the baianas. (The baianas are older women who dance in hoop skirts. In one of Rio's more peculiar parade requirements, every parading group in the competition is REQUIRED to have a large section of women over the age of 40 who are all wearing hoop skirts. The ingenious thing about this old rule is it makes women-over-the-age-of-40 a valued group of parade members.)  They also have 2 pairs of flag-bearers practicing their mesmerizing spinning dance (this is another parade requirement, with its own set of peculiar rules). But, as always, I ended up drifting over to the bateria. It's the first time I've been able to be with a real Rio bateria in years and I'm blown away by the crispness of Tijuca's tamborims, the incredible clean, locked swing of the snares, the strength and power of the third-surdos.

The third-surdos (terceiras) kept catching my eye. Terceira is the smallest of the bass drums and the one that does the most complicated patterns. It typically does a lot of fill and syncopations and it's a tremendously exciting part to play. There's also usually competition to play terceira; you have to be very solid technically and pretty strong too, and there's constant jockeying for who gets to play it. It actually used to be my specialty - I was surdo section leader ages ago back in Seattle, and have played surdo in several groups here in Rio in my 2006-2008 time when I was mostly living here. But I haven't played it in years now. 

So I kept standing at the base of the Tijuca bateria section, looking up at the terceira and thinking, aw, I'm just here on vacation, but.... jeez, it would be fun to play terceira again, wouldn't it?

By the time two-thirty rolled around I was really staggering with fatigue. Olivia's mom Tanit eventually decide to leave "early" (2:30am) and drove me back home, weaving her way in and out of huge amounts of construction, which she says is all World-Cup and Olympics related. We spent the whole drive back talking about escolas, and Tanit launched into one of those Rio-samba-fan discussions that I love so much: All the gossip from every escola, which group has the best song this year, why on earth Mocidade's songs have been so bad recently and how wonderful it is that they have a good song this year, who's got the best parade theme and who has the worst, which band has the best snares, who's got the best swing.

She says, "Two weeks from now it will all be over. And then I'll be thinking, now what do I do on Saturday nights? For months and months now, I go rehearse with Unidos da Tijuca on every single Saturday night! Everybody goes into a little bit of a depression after Carnaval, you know, because suddenly we don't know what to do with ourselves."

I'm still thinking about terceira the next morning when Eduardo pokes his head in my door and says "Can you play terceira today? We kind of need you on terceira at our show today. You don't mind, do you?"