Sunday, 28 February 2010

Under Water Rock Out

An AMAZING night last night

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

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 met Sydney on my first night here in Salvador.

The night was electric. Magnificent.

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.


I recommend friday nights in Salvador, Bahia, and staying at the Centro Cultural do Bispo

Friday, 19 February 2010

I'm done hunting fun

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 End.

Holi festival, India

I'm not in India. But the last post made me think of it.

Holi is super fun. A city-scale colour and water fight. Thanks to the good people via flickr  for pics

What Candomble is like

The Ceremony was in two parts.

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 a  giant 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.

Candomble 2

I think that something 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.

Candomble 1

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 a  pubic 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.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Shinto, God and Entertainment

I've just stumbled across Shinto, the main Japanese religion, that sounds very pagan. Kagura is the name of Shinto dance - think Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

                                                       thanks to tinonthewing for the pic

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.[2]"



Farewell Recife.  Thank you for all you have taught me.

I’m on a bus to a small town called Cachoeira. I’ll arrive in about 20 hours I think.

Cachoeira is reputed to be the soul of the Brazilian Candomble religion, the place where the practice is at its purest and most intense.

(thanks emilio for the pic)

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.

thanks Jucafil for the pic

“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."

(thanks judester for the pic)

Julianne, My German friend, is scared of Candomble she says, for it seems too foreign, too intense.

I think Graham, my boss, is looking for something intense.

His thinking is always, if he wants it, probably other people do too.

He wants to run around and be silly and free and let it all go.

But when that’s all it is, he’s not satisfied.

He wants a feeling of spiritual upliftment as well, and a peak.

I'm hoping Candomble, and the small Bahian town of Cachoeira, can teach us something about that.

Maybe Capitalism and fun don't mix

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?

“You have to be a child or a fool to do this”

… 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.”

Ego, Soul and Joy

I get home, full of white rum, about 2.30am and scribble this in my notebook:

Without soul there is only ego

Without soul there can be no true joy

A spiritual practice is, by my definition, that which amplifies the soul and quietens the ego.

Joy needs spiritual practice. Not necessarily next door, but in the same building, the same town, the same week, the same life

Wednesday, 17 February 2010

Saturday, 13 February 2010

Madrugada: the dawn parade

Today, my last day of Carnaval, was a mixture between the wonderful first night and the terrible second night.
(thanks to interstar for the picture)

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.

pic 1 from irishpolyglot
pic 2 from f. a. photography
pic 3 from alex

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]). 

She writes:

"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"?

So many people, so little fun

Last night was the bit I was dreading.

We left late. The night before had been an early one. This was a late one. Everyone talks about downtown at night. That's the place to be, they say.

Three busses went past, too full of partygoers to stop, before we found one we could squeeze onto, more intimate than the Northern Line in rush hour.

Downtown was mainly crowds. And beer. Thousands upon thousands of people were packed into the old city. A concert was going on, Glastonbury-like with a big stage and big speakers and big screens dotted around, and voluminous, endless crowds.

Trying to move, we found ourselves in one of those crushes where you start thinking, this has the potential to turn into one of those headlines, '17  killed in Recife Carnival crush.' You start playing the scenarios in your head; what would you do, try and scramble out? I looked around. That would probably involve standing on that short woman's head. Then she might die. What else would you do? I tried to imagine a co-operative, non violent approach to surviving a crush and figured it was probably not to be there in the first place.

Observing the crowd, two things:

1) Everybody loves a chrous

Hands in the air, everyone singing, doing the dance, on the chorus. Everyone, everyone loves a chorus.

2) Apart from the chorus, and apart from the people actively involved in being in the concert audience,

there was no joy on the faces.

I'd seen it as we walked over the bridge towards the old city. Throngs were walking away with heavyset, joyless faces. Entering the city we saw these faces everywhere, along with the smell of sweat and beer. "So many people!" someone said. And so little fun, I thought.

So why on earth does everybody do it?

I could think of three underlying reasons: mating, bonding, and liminality, the pull of each all greater, apparently, than the cost of handling horrible fun-less crowds, and tomorrow's hang over.

Mating: single people are here on the pull.

Bonding: Couples, friendship groups, the entire city, the local culture, is bonding, having unusual experiences together. It's like the annual running of the boundaries in the Andes, or Mayday in Padstow .

Liminality: "Liminal" spaces are the spaces in between, where normal rules don't apply. We can shed the restricting bonds of social norms and be free.

We need these spaces. And it feels like booze has kind of taken over from other forms and practices as the active ingredient that creates the liminal experience.

I think that's a shame.

Friday, 12 February 2010

Carnaval 4: and then...

I followed the tribal processions to the performances, and watched the dance in which about 200 dancers divided into men and women, boys and girls, and I thought, what an experience, to be a boy dancing in the line of boys between the lines of men doing their electric men dances, seeing all that power and strength and rhythm, picking your favourite guy, thinking, I’m going to be like him when I grow up. Ditto the girls, and how the women might feel, we are Women, and the men, we are Men, and imagining the kind of unity they might all feel doing that.
(pic from christiano)

Hunger dragged me away, via a few conversations, till the sky had grown dark and the crowds had grown big and all I seemed to be able to find was drunken noise.

I decided to go, turned the corner and stumbled across some incredibly beautiful singing. I went closer and found a singing bloco doing their warm up party in their backstreet, complete with kick-ass rhythm section.

Still singing, they began to walk and I was swept along with them. Their token English speaker befriended me and told me they were a group of tax administrators and other professionals who shared an office and had a sing together every day after lunch. The woman playing the accordion was their composer and conductor, he said. Others later told me that my my translator had been King of Carnaval 4 years in a row in his day.

Their music was Just Beautiful. I started to hum along and a tax administrator in heavy makeup and a bright red wig put her face in my face and sung the words very loud and clear at me. I hadn’t a clue what they meant but tried my hardest to copy her, I think that was what she wanted. Then the guitarist was taking my hand and looking into my eyes and singing something about the stars and it was all getting a bit much so time to turn the corner and find that bus.

A couple of streets later I was lured off course by the sounds of rhythms wriggling out of clapping hands, and it was such an alive clapping, not a mandatory clapping but an animated clapping, the sounds of a characterful group of clappers who really want to be clapping right now. I turned the corner to see hundreds of clapping hands raised above a procession of clowns, all rednosed and dressed up each in their own funny way, wiggling and tiggling down the street.

(thanks to Doutores de Alegria for the pic)

Behind the clowns were the sounds of a brass-and-drums marching band, some distance behind.

The clowns carried me away with them and they played with me and I played back and we turned the corner and under a street light the marching band - all straight and dressed in black and playing the local Frevo music really well and really loud - caught up with the clowns, who stopped and danced.

A pretty clown woman found a little clown girl dressed in an almost identical pretty maroon strapless satin dress with flouncy skirt, and they danced together. Each had such a sway to her, such an understated, captivating elegance, that a circle formed around them and suddenly there it was, a party under a streetlamp by a pavement café, the marching band and the dancing clowns, delighting everyone and themselves inside their spontaneous eruption of form out of chaos.
(this pic from christiano too)

I stayed with them awhile before my tired feet dragged me home. I don’t know how long they stayed under that street light, or when they left, who else bumped into whom and what happened then, but I do know this: what a fantastic form for a city-scale party. Get some music styles that everyone likes and knows. Invite everyone to make a group, however they want. Make sure there are enough musicians, drums and brass instruments to go around, and somehow have a historical precedent such that everyone has high hopes for Carnaval. Set an entire city free from normal life for five days: give each group their starting positions and times, and simply, simply, press go.

(pic from cristiano. )

Carnaval 3: The Fun Killers

As far as I can see, there are three (or maybe four) things that kill the fun.

1. Big Cameras

There haven’t been many of them. But they make people self-conscious. Self-consciousness kills fun. Good fun seem to involve the loss of self-consciousness.

It’s not so much the little point-and-shoot cameras that revelers fling around. They’re fun, and used in the spirit of fun.

It’s the people with big cameras who don’t participate but just take pictures. They’re taking from the proceedings without giving anything. To take more than you give traverses a fundamental principle of life.

Good fun needs contribution, not documenation. Let it be and let it go.

I haven’t taken any pictures yet. I feel I should. I don’t know what to do about that. I’ll see what I can find on flickr.

2. Stages

So, I went last night to see the Tribal processions. I’m really interested in tribes, because if research suggests that play is a human need at all ages, that there’s some kind of singer and dancer in all of us, but we’ve been smothered by a Protestant Capitalist thing that says work is more important than play – if that is true, then I’m really curious to see what people do when they haven’t been smothered by a protestant capitalist culture.

And given the dominance of a North American economic and cultural model, the main people who potentially haven’t been thus smothered are tribes.

So, I went to see the tribal processions and they were just fantastic, powerful dancing and drumming and costumes. They weren’t contemporary tribes, an old schoolteacher told me; rather, contemporary Indians reviving practices now dead. Their feathered headdresses and skirts were made of gowdy coloured synthetic feathers, but my do these people have rhythm.

Their parade was FUN, but then it culminated at a stage where each group gave a performance of the dance they had been parading. The joy ended there. It drained from me. It drained from their faces. It drained from the whole palpable experience. They did the dances, sure, but the fun was lost.

(pic from cristiano)

3. Electricity

As the night went on more and more blocos joined the party, and some had electricity. Microphones and speakers. That killed the fun. It made some people’s fun drown out that of others. It hurt the ears of anyone too close. And when the speakers played unlive music, it broadcast a kind of deadness, an un-liveness, across the whole feel. It killed the fun.

There were no carnaval vans. They weren’t needed; everyone danced down the street.

Lights were useful though…

4. There was kind of a fourth. Groups of men just trying to make as much noise as possible. Crappy vibe. No fun.

Carnaval 2: Form

As far as I can tell, the form of Carnaval here works like this.

Anyone who wants to forms a ‘bloco’, a parading group. They come up with whatever they want to do, but a bloco usually includes a marching band playing funky local rhythms, some great costumes, a big sign telling everyone what they’re about, and some kind of story that they all share.

In their allotted space and time, organized by the government, the bloco gets together and warms up. This seems to take a couple of hours and involves having a great big party together, with whichever onlookers come and go. The onlookers don’t matter here: it’s all about the team and their energy.

When they’re hot, they start parading around. Yesterday the parading started organized and ended up totally chaotic, with blocos crashing into other blocos, battles for power with the strongest veering through while the weaker disintegrated, joined in with the stronger as it passed, then regrouped their parade afterwards.

In this stage onlookers are important and there’s no barrier and only the very occasional policeman so you get swept along and away with the bloco.

In some cases there’s some kind of culmination, like a short stage performance of each group. In other cases people just wander around with their bring-your-own-party blocos and the city descends into wild, chaotic revelleries that go on until the small hours, under the peeling old colourful buildings and the tall trees and the bright stars and the warm indigo sky that takes everything into itself with something of an endless, calm, all-night smile.

Carnaval 1: Frevo

First taste of Brazilan Carnaval last night. It rocks.

Or should I say, Recife Carnaval. The Carnavals are very different in each region. More on that later. Let’s talk Frevo.

The bus dropped me off in the old town, by hundreds of people milling around, chatting, singing, dancing, playing in a couple of scratch bands, in a big open space by the sea.

Carnaval starts today. Yesterday was…. Was everyone not being prepared to wait for Carnaval in order to have a Carnaval.

So they did.

Let’s start where I started, with Frevo.

It was 5pm, and people were gathering before processions started. I wound my way through the leaping children and huddling teenagers and big men with big brass instruments wrapped around their bodies, towards the funkiest sounds I could hear.

It turned out to be coming from a group of purple t-shirted women, with a bandstand area at the top end,  lots and lots of them, dancing to an all
girl band. Girls on drums, girls on brass, girls singing.

And the women were getting down! I stood at the edges and started bobbing away. I couldn’t help it. Some of the women were my mother’s age; most were something in between us, some older than her. And they were funky! They all knew the same moves, which they played with amid their general getting down.
(pic from cristiano)

The young girls were at it too, and running around whilst singing and dancing. The band struck a popular tune and the women started singing along at the tops of their voices, as a lively conga of twelve year olds came skipping past in a line singing the same song as their mothers like it was the latest from the Spice Girls. God I’m old. Beyonce?

There’s so much to say about this one thing.

Let’s start with Tradition.

The music was Frevo. Everyone knew the words and the moves. Everyone felt they owned it; it’s the music of this region, the music of this ‘people’ whatever that means now. No-one seems to reject it, the way my parents and I rejected one another's music for so many years.

I don’t think we’ve got music like this in our culture, in the UK, have we? Songs that everyone knows the words and the dance moves for and can get down to together, regardless of age, class or race?

A tall skinny kid wanting to practice English sidled up to me. “Frevo
started 103 years ago”, he declared.

A-ha! I thought. So, like planting a big tree, it might be possible to seed an encompassing music now and in 103 years time, everyone will get down to it together, feeling that these sounds are our shared home.

A little later, I shared a beer with a professor of social Geography in a big square. “Frevo was dead until ten years ago.” It was a forgotten music, he said, until Chico Science, a young musician from Recife, picked it up and mixed it with contemporary beats and sounds. That created Mangua Beat, and it spread bigtime. “It’s post-modern hybridity. It’s the same as Manu Chao in Europe, Massive Attack in England, The Gotan Project with Argentinean Tango, The Tinariwen Movement in Africa. Mangue beat put Frevo back onto the radio and into people’s lives.”

“That’s rubbish,” said an old school teacher who cornered me for some English practice a bit later. “I love Frevo. We have always listened to Frevo. It’s just that the media, ruled by the southern power centres of Rio and Sau Paulo, only started playing our music ten years ago. Until then it was not on the national radar.”

“Frevo wasn’t dead ten years ago,” 27 year old Giovanni told me today, “but it was dying. Mungabit helped to bring it to life. But it wasn’t just that. The Refice authorities banned the playing of Axe, the music of Bahia (the neighbouring state), during carnaval, to preserve Frevo and the local culture. If you want to play it in the street, that’s fine, but there can be no Axe concerts over Carnaval.”

So in sum it sounds like, as a result of some combination of the above, these people of Pernambuco, Recife’s state, share a music called Frevo that is 103 years old. It’s a happy music that makes you smile and dance, and it’s cool, to me, to the 12 year olds, to the grandmothers, to the teenage boys, to everyone. I like that.

So, back to the women in the purple t-shirts. I’m the only tourist. Some of them look at me, and I grin, and they grin back, and we seem to agree together that everything’s cool, and we get down some more.

It’s only when I stop for a breather that I look more closely at their t-shirts.

They read: “Nem com Uma Flora: Pelo Fim Da Violencia Contra as Mulheres.”
It means: "(You don't hit a woman), not even with a flower: For an end to violence against women.”

I shiver.

There are hundreds upon hundreds of women here in these purple t-shirts, dancing and singing away, grinning from ear to ear. I wonder what they, or their sisters or their friends or their mothers, may have experienced.

Lonely Planet says that "Instances of domestic abuse are frighteningly common (one report stated that every 15 seconds a woman is beaten in Brazil)." (p59)

I don't know how that compares with other countries, and I know we’re getting away from talk of fun here but here’s the thing:
Each of the groups in this Carnaval carries a story.
A reason why they sing and dance.

It is variously the story of their own culture, their club, their cause, or a mixture of all.

Every one of them has it.

So the fun is not fun on it’s own; it is fun that carries and weaves stories that help define a person, a group, a people. The fun is a cultural heartbeat, cultural blood flow, cultural aliveness in action.


As the plane touched down, everyone erupted into woops, cheers and applause.

Apart from me. I looked around, astonished.

The man behind me shrugged. "Every time," he said, grinning. "We are in Brazil now."

("Brazil, a country of almost everything." Thanks to Ju! for the pic)