I went Street Training in Hoxton last night with artist Lottie Child and assorted trainees. It was great.
Really spacious, unbounded fun and play. By the end I felt relaxed, expansive and somehow clean.
She taught us what a five year old had taught her about how to play and be joyful in the street.
And then we were off.
My favourite bits were the bicycle bell orchestra, where half the group played rhythms on the bells of bicycles locked up to a bike rack while the others danced, and the welcoming committee, where four people did a kind of swaying dance on one edge of a zebra crossing, while a man crossed over towards them. Upon arriving he looked at them strangely. One of the dancers opened her arms: "Welcome to this side of the pavement!"
"...it could be useful to lay down the initial ground rules of a culture which may be less materially based but where more people will actively participate and gain the power to rejoice in moments that are wonderful and significant. These could be where more people grow and cook their own food and maybe build their own houses, name their children, bury their dead, marking anniversaries, creating new spaces for new ceremonies, and producing whatever drama, stories, songs, rituals, images, pageants and jokes that are relevant to re-discovered values."
"In such a context the artist would become facilitator and fixer, celebrant and stage manager, a visionary linking the past and the future, and a shamanic poet, the revelator of what used to be called spiritual energy."
Me! Me! I say aloud, still half through the door, the book just out of its envelope. I've had a strong sense since doing Malidoma Some's element rituals that what my singing is all about is ritual. Somehow. Don't know how. Yet. But somehow this Brionyness that I am is profoundly oriented towards contributing to that.
"Equally of course this kind of artist would also acknowledge the artist in us all and offer testament to the innate creativity recurring in every generation and every community where the intuitive is given freedom."
Yes! Exactly! Me me me! My friend Camilo took a quote I band around and put it on a picture.
Here's a picture of Camilo last weekend. Yep, the guy on the left is Bobby McFerrin. Camilo is now even more my hero than he was last week. Bobby of course remains one of my uber-heroes. And now perhaps John Fox too. He's definitely entered the short list.
And what is play about but "giving the intuitive freedom"?
I'm just back from a trip to the states. It was my third research trip there. I always come back from that country with pockets bulging with useful finds. There's a booming 'healing' industry in the US, particularly in California. A lot of the fun things I've been to have been in this category. I hate the notion of healing. It implies that we are wounded, broken. Imperfect, sub-optimal, bad, needing Work to make ourselves acceptable, normal, good, perfect. Perhaps acceptable is the key word there. I spent four days at a Zen Buddhist Monastary in the mountains of New York State, fighting with Buddhist monks who were trying to force me to wake up at 4.30am every morning (1.30am on the San Francisco time my body was on) and meditate for 2 hours, and not do any yoga. I had a good old fight with them and I think we both won in the end. But acceptance is Buddhism 101. From acceptance grows love, or at least, acceptance makes love possible. The US has a stronger culture of perfection than we do in the UK. Whether it's about Hollywood or a purer form of Capitalism ('you're not quite perfect - buy more stuff and you will be!') I'm not sure. Ask an American how they are and they'll typically say, "Great!" Aks a Brit and you might get "not too bad." In other words, "I'm bad of course, we all are, but I'm not too bad, not bad enough to stop working functionally, don't worry, carry on." For all the perfection presented to us on screens and pages of all sorts, the human reality is one of far, far less perfection. "Take a look around this room," I said to an American friend in a conversation on the topic. "Ain't nobody (humm I do sometimes take a little of the vernacular when I'm over there...) in this room that looks, speaks, thinks, feels and acts perfectly all the time." We looked around at the overweight, pasty, pockmarked, motley crew in our diner and that seemed very clear. In the UK we don't seem to have such a culture of perfection, or - perhaps as a result - of 'healing.' We seem instead to have a culture of 'love the grit' and 'Personal Development.' I like this. I like the idea that we are where we are, and we accept that. Any effort that we put into the quality of our own beings might be called personal development - developing onwards from where we are now, even though where we are now is perfectly acceptable. Acceptable - and so loveable. But - but - yesterday I started to feel that there is perhaps something in this healing notion. I arrived back at Heathrow on monday feeling like a different person. I've had a back to back series of full on, great fun, and sometimes profound experiences. I've cried about ten times, shouted loud in anger (very unusual for me - I blame the raging fire I was instructed to shout into, with two more big fires on either side of me), laughed a lot, felt joyous, confused, and honestly, in love with quite a few people and groups in quite a few different ways. Day 1 (I won't go through all the days) started with a Bodytales session with Olivia Carson. I was in a pair with a beautiful French Californian woman. "Name a body part, and a sensation," instructed Oliva, "and then improvise with sound and movement from there." My partner went first. She stretched forward thoughtfully on the floor where we were lounging, and then said seductively: "Yoni... Vibrating." My British ass was shocked to the wall and it took all my energy not to raise my eyebrows and stretch my eyes open like golfballs as she proceded into a tender and beautiful sound and movement improvisation spattered with words about pleasure, pain, safety, protection, childhood, risk, and courage. Next it was my turn. I started far more safely with the piece of skin between my eyebrows, and tension. Whilst playing with the wall and doing handstands and stuff, my small voice in my tummy seemed to gain direct access to my mouth and started to talk about creature and casing. Creature being the tender singing soul in your tummy that loves; Casing being the protective business woman that keeps the creature away from harm, faces the world boldly and Gets Stuff Done. It became a theme of my trip. The possibility of living in your creature seemed to arise. Here we get tender and I get cautious about writing more. What is the casing, I thought as I wandered into Waitrose on monday dazed, jetlagged and undefended to restock my fridge - what is casing but a bunch of scar tissue that has come up to protect the tender creature? That was the only perspective from which this popular American notion of 'healing' seemed to make sense. If it is possible to live primarily in your creature rather than hiding in your casing... If healing is about mending the wounds and scar tissue that cover your creature up... I get uncomfortable with these ideas now I'm reacclimatising to British culture. A barrage of protestations and anxiety about the development of a culture where people are endlessly talking at length about their own shit comes up. But I'll tell you this. In three weeks of full-time playing-for-a-living, with four days off for a bit of goatherding in the hills above Big Sur (Amazing - I've found my calling...) - my casing thinned and my creature strengthened. And I seemed to develop all these amazing connections with people; was told frequently how much people liked "my energy" and my presence; I faced a bunch of ugly issues in myself and they all came out of a deep pocket in my heart like a troupe of scraggy teenagers who'd been caught and lined up and presented themselves to me and explained what they were all about and we talked and they gradually seemed to dissolve or shower or move on or something, and I found myself loving as much or in some ways perhaps more than I have ever done in my life. "Play makes love," I wrote in an email to the team one delicate morning. "...play is beautiful. Play is magical. Play is potent. Between couples, friends, families and strangers, play makes love." Maybe it's the way that it thins the casing and brings the creature to the fore, or quietens the ego and amplifies the soul, or repositions the truth lines so they're wider apart and lots of truth that was in the hidden peripheries now comes into the sharable territory between the two lines, or repositions the lines of acceptable self-expression so that you can do more before a person than sit and speak in order to communicate - you can do a handstand, climb up the windows, wiggle and shake, scream and jump, shout and cry. Writing this from well-behaved London it sounds scary and weird and hippy and dangerous and threatening. But experiencing it as a free traveller in the states, it felt that way sometimes too to be honest - but the challenging rumble into the strong concrete of my casing did something to me. Our work continues.
Ok my favourite bits were:
Theatre Games with the wonderful Paula Shaw Ecstatic Dance in Oakland the incredible Jejune Institute on 580 California Street, San Francisco. Don't google it, just go if you're ever there, sometime Tuesday - Saturday before about 2.30pm, go to the 16th floor and say you're there for "the induction"... Dance Jam in Berkeley Vocal Playgroup with Aharon Wheels Bolsta the Water Ritual with Malidoma Some Being a goatherd Hanging out on Charlie's off-grid farm with No Motors or Electricity and little bits of everything else.
The Artist/Creators gather and make decorations; the wreaths, the ball-balls and streamers, the holly and ivy and mistletoe, the table decorations and candle decorations and long shiney lametta. Not to mention the costumes and food...
On the telly I’m seeing the Forro and Frevo processions, the Afoxe and Maracutu, the tribal and the samba.
They’ve all got dances! Songs, rhythms and dances that are theirs. We don’t have dances. Let’s make some dances! Let’s make them up! Let’s get people who can do that kind of thing to make them up! And then do them again at special times.
Christmas dances. “Tomorrow will be my dancing day” - What dance was that? I’d like to dance at Christmas. Let’s find or make Christmas dances!
Circus performers are engineers. They play with physics, forces, angles, distances, timing, in an incredibly precise way. Engineers like puzzles, spatial and strategic challenges, tight rules, having to work precisely within the rules in order to achieve something. I think Engineers probably like Achieving something.
Circus lovers are also Kinaesthetes, who love to be in their bodies, and Performers, who delight at their moment before an audience.
So if your child is a kinaesthete, performer and engineer, watch out, they may well run away with the circus.
I did my first fast last summer after I met a man who told me all about his fasting, and it felt like what I needed. Following his model, I just took water and green tea for two days.
I felt great.
Since then I've been doing a one day fast about once a month, and loving it. It makes me feel clean and simple. It seems to dissolve a hard cast of crap and niggles that seem to grow up around me.
Just looked it up on wikipedia, to discover a big bunch of health benefits associated with it, and to learn that fasting is a core part of Islam, Hinduism, Catholicism (funny though, when for a Hindu or Muslim a fast tends to mean no food, liquid, smoking or sex, for a Catholic it's limiting your food consumption to one big meal and two small meals in a day with no snacks...), the Bahai faith, Eastern Orthodox Christians, and an observant follower of Judaism will fast for 6 days a year.
So, in atheist western culture I guess people generally don't fast, or only fast to lose weight.
But there's something very beautiful about it when it's not about weight loss.
"When competition is kept in the realm of play, then it is fun, completely pointless and enjoyed for its own sake. Who, for example, would want to give up playing darts, snooker and croquet? Games are ancient and they are fun. Thirteenth-century Catalan courts, for example, loved games and would throw oranges at each other for days on end. There is a wonderful description quoted by Linda M. Paterson in her study The World of the Troubadours:
"...[The admiral's] sailors had two armed boats prepared, the flat-bottomed kind that go up river. On these you could see orange battles taking place; they had a good fifty tree-loads sent from the kingdom of Valencia ... The celebrations lasted more than a fortnight, during which time no man in Saragossa did anything but sing and make merry and play games and enjoy himself."
They put a big floating stage in the sea about 100m from the shore.
A band started playing and people started stripping off, jumping in the water and swimming out. My friends had come to the beach without their swimming things, a form of self-torture to my mind, so I left them and joined the dancers in the water.
It was blinding. Two reasons I think.
Firstly, there's no precedent for under water dance moves, so you just move instinctively any way you want. You're free.
Secondly, no one can see you. I loved this part. You can shimmy and shake all you want, and it doesn't matter an iota what you look like. I probably looked like the love child of a spastic alien and a mermaid, but who cared? Not me.
Thirdly, you're also dancing with nature. It sounds hippy but it's ace. The sea has its own ideas about where your body is going, and you have to dance with that too. You are dancing with the sea. Under the full moon and beautiful wispy clouds going past.
Ok, one more, you're weightless.
As the set went on the band heated up and we water dancers got more and more wild, till the singer was rampaging round the stage like Dionysus, the guitarist was doing a solo in an almost complete back bend, and we water dancers were hitting and kicking the water like crazy to create a massive, splashy, collective climax.
Samba de Roda totally rocks. "De Roda" means in a circle; it´s samba singing, dancing, drumming and music playing without any audience, everyone involved. Videos to come soon. I´m going to see if we can find it in / bring it to England.
I´d taken my first five steps into town with some brandnew friends when, as if from nowhere, appeared a funky band of female drummers marching through the streets, wiggling and banging out fantastic rhythms. My new friends and I, grinning ear to ear with the delight of finding this place and each other and the music and the fantastic chayasa bar we´d just come from, after whatever miseries we´d all just left behind, started Boogying On Down.
"Eh you dance good" said Sydney, appearing out of nowhere, dancing artfully beside me. "You come my Samba classes," he said, "I teach you good." He grinned and boogied away down the street, revealing his Dance school name and email address on the back of his t-shirt.
I can spot a potential great facilitator a mile off and he was one. He had the perfect fun fed energy.
Well, sir, I thought quitely to myself, You´ve just talked to the right person.
The night rampaged on in an explosion of magnificence generally involving wonderful people, wonderful music, wonderful dancing.
I bumped into Sydney again later and we ran around town, high as kites from each other´s energy, Samba dancing here there and everywhere, him teaching me this and that, everyone staring at these two larger than life balls of energy rampaging around town.
I´ve been trying to go to his classes and it turns out they don´t exist. I asked him for the email address on his shirt the next day, and it turns out it´s not his. He speaks better English by a long way than other potential facilitators I´ve met here, but he can´t read or write, I´ve realised. Many people here can´t.
He was messing me around with info about classes so I made what I realied is a professional mistake and came straight out with what I wanted and why. "I´m here to make connections with amazing people," I said. "Maybe you could come over for a month and teach dance in England. Maybe. But Sydney, I need to see you teach a class. When are you teaching a class?"
That night I saw him lead the dancing in a big procession through town. They do this great thing here where three or four dancers stand in a line at the front doing some simple repetetive moves that the crowd copies and it is GREAT fun. He was fab. "Come see my dance school!" he said afterwards, and I followed him to a tiny favella room, his home, where he sleeps on a thin matress on the floor. "Sydney, this isn´t a dance school," I said. "Yes! Yes! I teach samba here...."
Jesus, I think. This guy´s probably on crack. I´ve got a good instinct for people and I can tell he´s good. I´ve no need to fear. But by this point I´ve 98% rejected Sydney as a person to work with because he´s not always honest and it would clearly be just too difficult to work with him. But that aside, we´ve become friends and I want to help him a little bit.
His friend Macambira has a little drum school I´m going to in a minute. Macambira has an A6 piece of paper with his weekly class schedule printed on it, B&W, nothing special, but it does the job.
"Why don´t you have one of these?" I asked Sydney just now. "I don´t have the money", he said. It´t not really that, though, I think; it´s because he´s illiterate and he hasn´t figured out how to get around that barrier yet. "I could make one for you," I said. "But I need the information about when and where you teach. Can you find a consistent place and time, and let me know, and I´ll make you a flyer if you want."
He looks down, and then tells me that his classes don´t work because he doesn´t have a stereo and people like to dance to music. He can´t afford a stereo. He can´t afford cards and can´t pay rent on an indoor dance space. His face turns darker and his honesty gets deeper and he tells me he hasn´t eaten for three days. He rants about the economic situation behind the happy faces for tourists and how fucking hard life is here.
It´s clearly, famously true.
He reveals a totally fatalistic attitude about the lack of opportunity and support here. I´m struggling to figure out the chicken and egg relationship between his attitude and his situation.
And the entrepreneur in me starts roaring.
People, everywhere, somehow create projects out of nothing. I´ve seen it all over Brazil and India. I´ve done it once and I´m preparing to do it again. It´s fucking hard but if you are worthy of people´s trust, if you are doing something good, you´ll find what you need and you´ll make it happen.
I tell him as much. "You´re letting yourself down with your own attitude," I say. "This city is full of spaces and stereos. If you´re good to people they will lend them to you. If you tell the truth people will trust you. If you believe you can make things work you can make them work. But you don´t believe you can make them work and so they don´t work. Even here, right now, you´ve got an offer of free flyers, and you don´t believe it´s possible, so it´s not going to happen."
It develops into a passionate argument in a garbled mince of English and Portuguese about possibility, attitude and context.
Until I walked away.
I´m leaving the day after tomorrow.
And at some point in the mean time, I´m going to try to find out what it the Salvadorean equivalent of Grameen bank, The Hub, Unltd, the things that make it possible for people with nothing but talent to create something from their talent, like the organisations who have made my career possible, and if they don´t exist here, I´m going to wonder aloud why the hell they don´t.
Holi morning in India was one of the most fun mornings of my life. I didn't look for it. It found me.
I’m done fun hunting.
Fun hunting is no fun, no fun at all. You find simply the absence of fun 97% of the time, hang out with people who are far less fun than your real mates, work in a language so unfamiliar if feels like you’re trying to walk through solid air every day, sweltering heat, everything unfamiliar, all the time.
I’m going to change tack totally.
I’m here a month. For the first two weeks I’ve been working hard, almost incessantly, feeling a pressure to not let people down, to come up with the goods. So I’ve been looking very actively for, to over-simplify, fun.And I don’t think I’ve ever had so little fun in my life.
So for the next two weeks I’m going to try Not Trying to have fun. For he who ties himself to a joy does it’s winged life destroy. Happiness By the Way. And all that.
I’m going to buy a bloody guitar, (I was a fool to come away without an instrument), work on another project entirely, get near to a beach again, and if I stumble across any fun at all, well then I do, and that’s the way it’s always been before, and if I don’t, then speaking words of wisdom, let it be.
The first part of the ceremony was a lot like the Sufi Zikhr I did in California; a proscribed and precise sequence of small, repetitive, rhythmic movements that everyone does together in form and formation, to live music played by people who are also committed participants. No-one has to make any creative decisions. It’s not about any individual. The individual is consumed within the group, which together becomes consumed, ideally, by spirit.
After the first part everyone went and had a jolly good meal, I made some friends and relaxed (having made an entrance like agiant 100 watt lightbulb that set everyone blinking, a foot taller and seven shades lighter than any woman in the room). The friends were an English speaking (yippee!) young Swiss woman who’d grown up in Brazil, and a young Brazilian journalism student approaching her initiation into the Candomble community where she was not to be a Marie Santos, it was already decided, but something else, probably one of the women who looks after the MS trance dancers, wiping their brows, fixing their costumes continuously like fussy mothers… As part of her development into Candomble she’d had to spend two periods of 21 days alone in a bare room with food brought to her, to cleanse her. The worst thing about it, she said, writhing on her seat in an expression of unbearable frustration and desire, was going for 21 days without making love… for a Brazilian, unthinkable!
And then we all went back in for the second part, which was more like the Theyyam rituals they do throughout northern Kerela, India, in December and January. Some people (in this case usually about three men) get to have a pretty wild dance while everyone else watches and then has contact with them afterwards to soak up and perhaps communicate with the spirit that they've channeled through the dancing.
between 50 and 90% of the ‘trance’ states I witnessed last night were some kind of performance, created by expectation, pressure and necessity.
It works like this: some men (chosen men?) drum. Chosen women dance. No-one in the whole community apart from the chosen women ever dances publicly, I’m told. The chosen women are called ‘Marie Santos’. Candomblistas (all or some, I don’t know), live in compounds around the Terreiros, their churches. The communities are deeply hierarchical, with a kind of King and Queen who sat in thrones last night and held most of the ceremony. The Queen / Matriarch identifies which women in the community should become Marie Santos, sometimes before they are born. It takes 7 years to prepare to be a MarieSantos (MS), the youngest of whom are therefore 7 years old.
Marie Santos’ are, I am told, sensitive to spirit and quite good at getting into trances. This is useful because the Orixas (Candomble Gods) have a profound impact on how your life works out, if you’re into them, and you mainly connect with the Orixas through the Marie Santos’ – their energy, words and actions when they’re in a possession trance, and their ability to interpret shells thrown in divination.
Once you’re a Marie Santos, you’re a Marie Santos, and you’re not anything else. You might marry and bear Children, if the Orixas say so, or be celibate, if they say so, but basically it’s up to them once you’re a MS.
Economically, the communities appear to depend entirely upon the MSs, for they generate income through divinations for those interested in their own destinies, and various acts of healing.
All this is to say, when you’ve been trained to be a Marie Santos for 7 years, and that’s your place on this earth, and your community depends on you, and your trance is the way of showing that you’re fit for the job… When it’s time to get into a trance (and it’s a specific point in the ceremony), you bloody well act like you’re in a trance, trance or no trance.
Acting like you’re in trance, as far as I could see last night, involves dancing like you really feel the music, keeping your eyes closed, rocking when the music’s stopped to keep the energy going, and making loud noises from time to time. And occasionally kind of flopping or rolling around.
People like the loud noises. (This comes up again and again and again in the stuff I look into. People LOVE making loud noises. They design them into proceedings at every given opportunity, and if not, they just get pissed and do it anyway.)
If you’re not dancing, you’re probably singing, and you get to do this loud too and have a good old yell at the climax at the end where everybody just basically makes as much noise as possible while the dancers go totally wild.
The lack of freedom in the lives of the MSs feels pretty shocking to my liberal mind, but thinking about it, the alternatives aren’t much more palatable in this provincial economy; look after the kids, cook and clean; work in a shop, restaurant or maybe the bank; for the bright few, work in public services like education, health and local government, and still look after the kids and do all the cooking and cleaning.
So being a bit special and wearing fantastic dresses and getting to boogie like a raver to wicked rhythms probably isn’t a bad end, all in all.
I don’t know what the men who aren’t drummers do. There were six drummers last night, in two shifts of three (it’s intense). (About 40 or so Marie Santos). A handful of men wore ceremonial clothes and sat in the corner being generally encouraging. One of them was a trannie.
The rest stood around the edge in the men’s area (I stood on the other side with the women), holding their hands out to the dancers like you would to a fire, to kind of soak up the vibes. And also, I guess, to say, I'm in, count me in on these shenanigans (and please feed me).
At the end of their bit the dancers go around and hug everyone to share the vibes.
What with dancers and watchers and helpers, the room was totally packed with people crowding at the windows. In a tiny, tiny village in the middle of nowhere, over 130km from the nearest city.
One Candomble Ceremony later... my observations and reflections, in no particular order
1. Candomble is heavy.
2. The drumming is fantastic. Very odd sometimes, very strange. But it peaks artfully.
The peak is led by the increasing pace, volume and, importantly, complexity of the rhythms.
I’ve been to ecstatic dance sessions, like Urubu, where the drummers try to create a peak by drumming harder and faster. It doesn’t work. The rhythms must also develop.
(Ha! Just had my first proper laugh with a Brazilian. [Feels like I’m describing an interaction with apubic hair style]. It’s cheered me up no end. Travelling alone in a town where literally no-one speaks your language, and you can’t speak theirs well enough to joke with them, is totally rubbish. Rosie, the café lady at the bus stand café, and me just had a real joke, of which I was of course the butt, don’t mind, cracked us both up, nice.)
Back to last night... I shared a cab home with the drummer, 2am, wide awake. He was in his twenties, had been playing / studying drumming for 17 years, now he only plays for Candomble, and that’s all he does. It’s a total skill.
I wonder who in the UK can create rhythms and peaks like that, on drums made out of materials that resonate with our insides rather than our temples – wood and skin, not snare drums. I’d like to find them.
Kagura is an artistic expression of the Shinto religion. In Japanese, the term is written with two ideograms, suggesting the concepts of “God(s)” and “Entertainment”. (London theatre blog)
We're in the process of rebranding the Fun Fed. We're doing some deep soul searching about what we're actually about.
I think we're very different to Shinto and Kagura. We're participatory not performative, playful not perfectionist. But there's a thread of connection.
Before, (before before), entertainment, spirituality, and healing were not separate. Now they're largely separate in the UK.
Kagura brings together "God" and "Entertainment". I wonder if we somehow do that too.
Wikipedia says that the Shinto, or 'kami-no-michi', concept of God is fairly animist:
"Kami are defined in English as "spirit", "essence" or "deities", that are associated with many understood formats; in some cases being human like, some animistic, others associated with more abstract "natural" forces in the world (mountains, rivers, lightning, wind, waves, trees, rocks). It may be best thought of as "sacred" elements and energies. Kami and people are not separate, they exist within the same world and share its interrelated complexity."
I’m going in the hope that Candomble can teach me something about peaks.
I have found no peaks in Carnaval.
Graham, my boss, wants peaks.
I like peaks.
European festivities lost their peaks, says Barabara my historical oracle, when they lost their original ‘ritual’ form, were kicked out of the new Christian churches, and turned into more secular 'festivities' in the streets and taverns.
Candomble remains a ritual form, with music and dancing that goes on late into the night until dancers reach ecstatic trances which are felt and reported to be divine.
“Sure, it’s a practice of collective joy,” Jon Hardeman told me when I called, “but no-one would ever call it that, no-one would ever say it’s about the joy." Jon's a British musician and a Candomble initiate. "It’s about a social get-together, it’s about cultural preservation, it’s about feeling a pure connection, to nature, to yourself, to the community, to spirit. Historically it was about African slaves brought to Brazil preserving their animist religious practices by cloaking them in Catholic regalia, allowing them to come together and support each other without the slave masters breaking it up."
The issue is the ratio of fun producers to fun consumers.
Capitalist fun likes a ratio of like 1:1000, or 1:1,000,000. Madonna is the capitalist funster’s dream: One singer, a creative team of a few hundred or so all things considered, and a paying audience of millions upon millions. Sweet.
In the kind of fun I’m looking for, consumers are their own producers. I’ve come to summarize it to people with hand movements. Mainstream entertainment takes the broadcast model: (I span my hands outwards like they’re pretending to be headlights): the entertainment is on a stage and broadcasts the fun to the passive audience.
The Fun Fed specializes in ‘generative entertainment’, I say, thinking that I need a better word than that and making a circular bowl shape with my hands. The people in the room create the fun with and for themselves.
I tried to get into Carnaval spirit last night, I really tried. I drunk a bunch of neat white rum on ice with my friends, danced and wooped around the room, put on make up and a dress I made that was meant to be a halterneck and ended up backless, and we hit the town as a capital-city-troupe (Buenes Aires, Brasilia, London, Berlin, Paris) ready to Party.
And found disappointment yet again.
The issue, I concluded, was one of ratio. A few stages dotted throughout the city hosted bad local pop, to which some people danced. The rest of the city simply held bars, booze stands and thousands upon thousands of people traipsing around looking for fun.
Nowhere was the idea of making fun, any way other than drinking some booze and hoping that did it for you.
I, I thought quietly as we traipsed around, I can, er, sing. And I’m pretty good with rhythm. I can’t start or lead anything because I don’t have the knowledge or the relationships here… but I could, er, I could join in…
I looked at the people going past. What can you do? I bet we had loads of fun capacity between us, loads and loads and loads.
Finally we found a circle of people playing samba rhythms in the street, no electricity. Fun! We stopped to dance by them, in the middle of the dense pedestrian highway the street had become. That encouraged the drummers, who packed a bit more funk into it. That put more funk into our dancing. We fed each other, the way drummers and dancers do. We grinned at each other. Grins all round. A few more people joined in. Then more, and more. Then we had a crowd, a real crowd, playing and boogying away. Wonderful!
A friend dragged us away to look for a ‘real’ samba band, which we found round the corner, four guys in a row, with mics and too-loud speakers, a black man with painted face paid to dance, sweating a lot and looking tired, a manager managing everything, and a tame crowd lolling around. It was ok. But the musicians looked unhappy. Their playing was mechanical.
Then the electricity went off. Sudden aliveness! The crowd took over the rhythm with their clapping hands; helped out with the chorus at top voice. The musicians grinned! The energy raised! Ah-ha! I thought. My hypothesis about electricity being a fun killer is supported! Here at least. Then it came back on. The energy dropped again. I went to sit down.
From the back of the crowd I could see loads of girls doing the samba de peu, and they were rocking. Cute, sexy, grinning, rocking. Moves! They knew the moves. Moves are good.
The boozed up rampaging around is understandable. If people have been making their own fun with carnaval all day, they have to stop at some point, but the party wants to continue. Supply decreases while demand doesn’t.. Also, people don’t want to spend their whole time singing and dancing; they also want to talk, flirt, kiss, rampage around freely.
But the booze and the electrification and the professional bands and the merchanidise all up that little thing called GDP. People who spend their down time practicing musical instruments or dance moves rather tahn watching tv, and get together to make their own joy needing nothing but space and time, don’t really.
Is that why, in Western cultures (I'd include Brazil in that) we've come so far from self-sufficiency in joy?
… said the schoolteacher in the square of the old town as the tribal parades lined up to perform at the Recife Carnival.
“Me, I never could. I’m a square. I can never relax. When I was a kid… My mother… I work for the government. I can’t dance in the street.”
It looks like he’s in the minority. I’m sitting in the café at the bus station, where the TV shows the highlights of todays carnval: thousands upon thousands of people singing, dancing and shaking it in the streets.
Perhaps we need to do this in order to relax. Perhaps we all need, sometimes, to be fools, no longer attached to our reputations or bound by the local social rules.
We talk about ‘letting off steam” at a party; people talk of Carnaval as a “valve” of social release.
Gender roles are very tight in Brazil; the Olinda Carnaval opens with 400 men parading in drag. The gender valve is released. When Bruce Parry, Man, went to Carnaval with his TV show Tribe, he played football in drag and absolutely loved it.
In the Roman Saturnalia celebrations, slaves and masters would switch roles, releasing the power valve. In the medieval European Feast of Fools, cities would have "a brief social revolution, in which power, dignity and impunity is briefly conferred on those in a subordinate position." Party and chaos descends under the eye of the Lord of Misrule, the Abbot of Unreason or the Pope of Fools: again, the power valve is released.
Perhaps we need this.
Perhaps this is what my boss, Graham, needed when he had the yearnings that led him to create the Fun Fed. He’s a powerful businessman. Maybe he needed to open the power valve, to dress as a fool and run through the streets wooping like a beggar for a weekend.
“You have to be a child or a food to do this,” said the school teacher. I’d add a few other routes:
masked; costumed; drunk; prepared with a team, a skit, a song, a practice; warmed up with specific fool/clown activities.
“British people are the wildest people I know,” said Chloe Goodchild, a hippy singing specialist who travels the world ‘unlocking’ people through song.
“Ah yes,” said Rolf the German, owner of the hotel I stayed in on my first night. "Everyone has it inside of them,” he said, “this wildness and this thirst for wildness. It’s opening people up that’s the issue! If you can get people to open up,” he tapped his chest, “this is good work, very good work.”
It started brilliantly when I arrived at noon. The streets of pretty old Olinda were full of young people all dressed up and out for a day of Mucking Around. Almost everyone was in costume. The costumes, and the people in them, were so creative and playful with each other. Blocos wandered around making everyone dance and sing and laugh and the vibe was fantastic.
It ended on a bit of a downer. By 3pm, the party had mainly concentrated in just a few streets, too crowded to move in. Throughout the town, the streets had become messy, the crowds smelly, the faces ugly, the remaining rhythms blurry. The event had not peaked; it had gradually got drunk and melted.
It makes me think about Barbara Ehrenreich's writing on the removal of the ecstatic peak from European festivities. (Brazilian culture is heavily influenced by the Portuguese colonisers [Brazil has roughly three cultural roots; the Portuguese colonisers, the African slaves they brought over, and the indigenous Indians who were here to start with]).
"Inevitably, something was lost in the transition from ecstatic ritual to secularized festivities - something we might call meaning or transcendent insight. In ancient Dionysian forms of workshop the moment of maximum "madness" and revelry was also the sacred climax of the rite, at which the individual achieved communion with the divinity... Medieval Christianity, in contrast, offered "communion" in the form of a morsel of bread and sip of wine soberly consumed at the altar - and usually saw only devilry in the festivities that followed.
"...this relative secularisation may help account for the uglier side of European carnival tradition. Without a built-in religious climax to the celebrations - the achievement, for example, of a trance-like state of union with the divinity - they readily spilled over into brawling and insensate drunkenness." p93
I get stuck, though, when trying to imagine what a peak would look like. What if we were to have a London Carnival; how would we usher it towards a collective peak, and away from "brawling and insensate drunkenness"?