A short film by Rodrigo Amarante editing together his family’s Super-8 films shot during a Carnival in Saquarema in the 1970’s.
A great illustration about what Lost and what Samba.
Our hopes were only half-fulfilled: the only girls who gave us any attention were the good ones from good families who were committed to post-marital sex. They gave dirty looks and we got into a lot of snogging, but the advances always ended short of the last stop. Kissing a stranger from the South was audacious enough and, if that alone required effort and patience, the rest was unthinkable.
There was one exception: a fake blond wearing no bra who we chatted up on the seaside promenade while a pre-carnival parade was passing by. We did the usual thing, flattering her as she walked by and waiting for the reaction. Unlike the others who smiled or frowned but continued on their way, she stopped to talk to us. Despite her being alone, she accepted coming behind a construction site and sitting between us. Her tight jeans revealed a slim and well-shaped body, and her perfume and her varnished toenails were a complete turn on. There was a lot of excitement in the air, but neither Edu nor I wanted to leave the other with the prize. She showed no preference and ended up not being able to cope with the attack of four adolescent hands, and got up and left.
Despite these frustrations, Recife’s carnival was fantastic. In Rio, the middle class ran away from the partying to relax, but there everyone made a point of taking part in the revelry. At night, there was the Mela-Mela (“smear-smear”) tradition where people went around the streets spreading a homemade paste of water, eggs and flour on everyone while groups paraded the emptied streets making music and dancing. Our hosts made a few bags of it for us, but it was predictable that two guys with out of town looks would be on the receiving end. We did respond but, when our ammunition finished, we had to go back home looking like two unbaked loaves of bread, happy to be exhausted from the fun.
During the day, people drove around in cars with no doors and in hired trucks throwing buckets of water on passersbys. On the pavement, the victims stood prepared to respond with three foot long wooden water jets defending themselves from onslaughts while attacking every car that passed by, with or without doors. The clashes happened with a lot of shouting and laughing. Edu’s aunt warned us to be careful with the things people could put in the water but we were never left with a strange smell.
The first proper carnival of that summer was in the rundown part of town by the old port. The area looked like the background of an old black and white film in the Middle East but with European looking buildings and populated by a Caribbean people.
Recife’s rhythm was not the samba but the frevo, a fast military-like beat with an African twist, performed by brass sections sounding intricate arrangements accompanied by a sizeable rhythm section. The traditional way to dance to it was to kneel up and down to the rhythm waving an umbrella, but the rabble at Praça do Marco Zero square was too drunk for acrobatics and the experience was closer to a punk rock concert, where no one was sure if they were in a fight or if they were having fun. The energy was intense and we had to hold our elbows high in that flood of musical insanity. At one point the organizers stopped the music and held up a bottle of Brazilian whiskey, announcing that was the prize for the best dancer. The band resumed and the crowd went even more berserk.
A couple of weeks later the Carnival officially started and we had two options: the first one was going to Olinda, a historic town where the authorities barred cars from circulating during the entire four days. On its streets and squares, there would be four or five big bands playing in different locations at any time. We could switch from one carnival to another and join crowds never smaller than a thousand people.
The other option was to go to the carnival balls in Recife. The biggest venues in town hired sizable frevo orchestras that made people dance wherever they could – on the dance floor, on the tables and on the chairs. On the first day we went to Olinda but as we were not successful with the girls we kept our energy for the bailes de Carnaval, where there seemed to be more feminine receptivity. The way to pull girls was to grab them by the waist, dance a bit around the rink and then take them to a corner outside and try to get as far as one could. After weeks of frustration, and a lot of beer, the qualifying standards fell and we were quite successful.
Edu stayed on with some other friends who had come up to Recife, and I went back on my own, in the dawn after the carnival ended. By coincidence, some of the members of the band that had played at the Spot Club Recife, where we had spent our carnival, took the same bus and the partying continued for the next forty something hours with a lot of booze, frevo and samba going on until we arrived in Rio.
The holidays in my new Brazilian School, the Colégio Andrews on Botafogo Beach, were enormous: if you achieved good grades, the holidays began in early December and only ended in mid-March. However, the classes were in Portuguese, and on top of this I had subjects such as Chemistry and Physics which were new to me; the result was that these shortcomings made me stay back in December and January while most of my friends were travelling and enjoying their vacations. Anyway, body surfing the entire morning and then going to school for an hour or two was not a torture.
When the support classes finished, I passed my exams and there were still almost two months of holiday ahead. Out of the blue, Edu asked me if I wanted to go with him to Recife and spend a month with his relatives, carnival included. He was one year older than me, had just passed the college entry exams and was from a respectable Jewish family so my parents had no problem in giving me approval.
For us, the Brazilian Northeast, or the Nordeste, was like an exotic country within Brazil lagging five to ten years behind Rio and São Paulo. Going there would be like revisiting the city that we had grown up in but as pre-adults. What also made the trip exciting was a new wave of artists from that region – Alceu Valença, Fagner, Zé Ramalho, Geraldo Azevedo, Robertinho do Recife – making the head lights, and transforming the Nordeste into a trendy destination. Also, everyone said that Recife’s carnival was superb. The draw back were the 2,300 kilometers between Rio de Janeiro and Recife; aeroplanes were for the very rich and the only way to go there was a 48 hour bus trip.
On a hot January night, we went with our parents to the interstate bus terminal. It was packed with people of all classes, colours and walks of life wandering by ticket counters, cheap food booths, newsstands and souvenir stores. The hustle bustle made the place exciting and familiar for us but the excess of humble people made the experience uncomfortable for my parents. The information system was confusing and we took some time to find the terminal for the Nordeste. When we finally found it and went down the steep metal stairs that took us to the busses, we encountered the aisles full of rural folk loading their old suitcases and gigantic bags onto the luggage compartments. Among them was also a small number of youngsters with long hair in colourful T-shirts together with girls in flowery dresses, wearing handmade bracelets and bead necklaces who were also preparing to get on to the buses.
After hearing our parents’ embarrassing recommendations, we went in, found our seats and waved goodbye as the bus left. We had a chat, managed to sleep and when the day broke, we were already far away in, what was for us, unchartered territory. As the bus passed through the first small villages, we looked out of the window and began to see people riding donkeys on earthen roads, semi-naked children running around, old cars and mud huts with straw roofs. The complexion of the population had changed: there were fewer Europeans, and more descendants of natives and of slaves.
As we continued up the BR-101 and progressed into the remote countryside, the extent of the forest devastation was striking. At school, we had learned that the Atlantic forest covered this area and we were expecting the bus to pass under trees with monkeys jumping from one side of the motorway to the other. Instead, on both sides of the road, there was a melancholic landscape of endless empty fields. The only trees still standing were the ones made of a wood too strong for the motorized saws.
After close to an entire day in the bus, things began to change; the further north we went, the more it felt as if a weight was leaving the other passengers who now could be themselves. They started talking louder and lost the shame of their accent. The roadside restaurants also began to change and went from bad to worse: the food became cheaper, harder to accept as eatable and the quantity of flies around our plates and glasses began to bother us. The radio DJs began sounding northeastern and playing the local rhythms that our favourite artists had stylized.
After they opened up, our fellow travellers treated us well, offering food, drinks and starting up conversations. They knew who we were but for them, we were nice boys from the educated elite, the pride of the nation, and there was a lot of respect. I was not sure if they could differentiate us from the majority of the youngsters of our age and social bearing: we respected them and we were interested in what they had to say, something that was not common.
Anyway, the trip was not a political exercise and our intentions were not noble at all – as every teen male on the planet, we had only one objective in mind: to score. We were off to Recife’s carnival to have unpaid and hands-free sex. Our expectations were high: coming from Rio gave us an edge as cariocas had the reputation of being street wise, trend setters and sexy.