Friday, 12 February 2010

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.

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