Carnaval, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil
15.02.2007 - 21.02.2007
So Carnaval has come to an end, and after weeks of anticipation, excitement, construction and the final explosion of energy that was Carnaval everyone is feeling the loss. I can safely say that Carnaval was one of the best experiences of my life, mainly due to the new passion that I have for Samba Reggae…
How it all began…
3 years ago when I visited Brazil for the first time I fell in love with the energy of the people and I also fell in love with a sound, the sound of Samba Reggae. Salvador is the birthplace of Samba Reggae and there are a number of different groups who take to the cobbled streets of Pelourhino every Tuesday night and more with their drums and their music. The energy that these bands have, the euphoria and the freedom that their pounding beats create are very hard to describe but when playing they attract crowds of dancing, smiling people. The music of Samba Reggae is simple, repetitive and rhythmical, there are 4 types of drum that are used and each has it’s own place in the group.
Samba Reggae is a mix of the cultures of Brazil and Africa and one of the most important cultural expressions of the black community here. Three years ago I watched the bands in wonderment and coming back I was eager to hear them again.
Then about a month ago I went to the Lavagem de Bonfim, an important festival here for the washing of the steps of one of the most well known churches in Salvador. As with all things Brazilian, a religious festival also means an excuse for a huge party, for a days holiday and plenty of music. For the Lavagem you walk from Pelourhino to the church, about 6km and the Brazilians are ready early. For the whole walk you are accompanied by different groups of musicians and their entourages. One of these groups was called ‘Sempre Negroes’ and they were incredible. The music that they create lifts everybody’s spirits and there is a ‘forca’, soon enough we were dancing and sweating behind the band, learning the moves. One of the guys behind the group was a real character, a tiny man, made entirely of muscle, with a white Nike visor, huge sunglasses and Bling earrings. His dance moves were fast, energetic and use every part of the body and he got everyone joining in. This was my first sighting of Samuel, a person who makes things happen, who sets his sights on a goal and who gets there, someone who has helped me out and introduced me to a world which I only ever dreamed of joining.
We followed the group until they stopped and the words that I wanted to learn how to play the drums just fell out of my mouth. ‘Okay, you can start now’, within minutes Samuel had strapped a huge ‘fundo’ drum around my waist, put a ‘baqueta’ in my hand and had me banging out a rhythm with the group. ‘We’ll meet on Sunday’ he said ‘and then on Tuesday you’ll play’. I didn’t make the Sunday meeting but the next day went to see Oludum play. Oludum are the biggest and most well known Samba Reggae group here, they have one of the most popular trios at Carnaval and have done a song with Micheal Jackson, there are 200 male musicians in Oludum and singers. Their sound is tight and they have troupes of fans who know the words of all the songs and all the dance moves.
Samuel plays ‘fundo’ for Oludum, which is basically the bass, the fundo play the simplest beats but carry the band, keeping the rhythm. As well as playing the drum, these guys are incredible dancers, they dance with the drums, spin their baquetas, hold the drums in the air and do all sorts of tricks. After Oludum Samuel was outside making good use of his outgoing personality and charisma to sell CD’s, Samuel knows how to work the crowds and always has an eye on the money as with all people here. He remembered me and promised to buy my equipment, introducing me to his ‘Maestre’ Ivan who has a group called ‘Swing do Pelo.’ Tomorrow I’ll play with you and Swing do Pelo he told me.
The next day I turned up to Pelourhino and Samuel was nowhere in sight, I kept the faith and eventually sported a guy who I knew, knew him and who turns out to be his brother – Carlos. We found Samuel who handed me a belt, knee pads, shin pads and drum sticks. He took me down to the office of Swing Do Pelo promising to be back and play with me. He didn’t come back.
Let’s remember I have never played a musical instrument in my life since a disastrous attempt at learning the guitar about 15 years ago and certainly have never had the confidence to do anything in the public eye let alone something which I do not know how to do. My heart was pounding, I felt sick, I couldn’t believe I was going on to the streets and would surely make a complete fool of myself. The rest of the band eyed me with a mix of curiosity and suspicion. As with all things here involving ‘gringoes’ and Brazilians, there is always an expectation that you are either sleeping with someone or paying a lot of money to participate. However, one young guy took me under his wing, helping me with my belt and shin pads, he was going to play the first part and I the second, so basically as long as my drum hits followed his everything would be fine. There was something incredible about this night, I could feel the energy flowing through my hands and I seemed to play without problems, I had someone to follow and we played for about 2 hours, a huge crowd generated behind us as we walked, dancing and flying. The energy of the group carried me and suddenly I was doing something that I had only ever dreamt of and I was experiencing the biggest buzz of my life. The music of Samba reggae, gets into your blood, into the very core of your being and flows there.
After this there were various halts and starts to my playing, On embarking on such ventures I was entering into a new world, I had to dig in my heels and avoid getting too close to Samuel, as a gringo people are always trying to get you into bed. I still question the real reasons why people try to do this. I could see that he wasn’t genuinely attracted to me but I think it is a machisimo thing and again the idea that in sleeping with a tourist you have somehow won something. It is almost a hobby of people here and of course free sex without strings is probably always on most men’s minds. Then of course there was the question of money, why do so much for someone without asking outright for any money, here in Brazil this is an anomaly – you pay for everything, With Ivan it was the same but with Ivan I paid for lessons, I paid a price which I thought was fair although up to now I have only had two private lessons with him. What I have since realised is that the more I play with the group the more I learn and these experiences are more valuable and more enjoyable than private lessons. After such an explosive begin, my fear of taking on something new and performing in public began to take over, I begun to worry about the thought of playing again, change lesson times, easy when Ivan forgot all our lesson times until I eventually realised that this was something that I love to do, I wanted to play in carnival and I had to make the effort.
So I started turning up to lessons without calling first. The first time I did this Ivan had indeed forgotten and was going to play in a show with the Bloco ‘Colletivo Entidade Negros’ – the name speaks for itself. ‘You’re playing’ he told me. My mind raced with excuses to get out of it, I didn’t have my kit with me – Ivan gave me shin pads, belt and baquetas and I remembered my promise to myself that this was something that I loved. We went and got dressed and joined the rest of the group, a guy called Mascara – another huge character and person who keeps Swing Do Pelo going promised I’d be fine, ‘Relax!’ he told me. I had a few hostile looks entering the show – I was the only white person in the group, the only white person in the show, which was very swanky, audience and all. It was incredible, we played the streets again and then later inside the show. I had to leave and the leader of the group (not Ivan) who had originally been unsure of my presence asked me to stay. It seemed I had been accepted, people were smiling and friendly and asked when I would be playing next.
After this things started going my way and the next big gig I did was the opening of Carnival. I turned up to the office at 5pm, we were meant to play at 6pm, but here in Brazil and especially at Cranival timetables are meaningless. Samuel turned up as well, we were now becoming firm friends and are currently working on a project with another English girl I know to get him over to England to teach Samba to kids in Manchester. It was great to see him although with him I am always distanced from the group somewhat and there are definite power struggles between him and Ivan. Samuel is confident and cocky and has been playing for 15 years, he believes in organisation and respect for the players and is not afraid of kicking up a fuss. Eventually we started the walk to Campo Grande where our drums were waiting on the outskirts of Carnival. It was raining and we waited in the rain for 4 hours without any real indication of what was happening. I was cold and wet and the anticipation I had had for playing was wearing off, I was tired of battling to understand Samuel’s rapid fire Portuguese and on the verge of going home, also aware that my friends had been expecting me to start playing at 8pm and were waiting in the cold.
Then suddenly the rest of the groups arrived, there were 200 drummers in all including a Japanese troupe who are out here. We armed ourselves with our instruments and were off, despite the rain the crowds were out in force… I drummed for 6 hours that night, until 4am in the morning, we walked from Campo Grande to Pelourhino playing all the way. By the end of the night I was exhausted but happy, it was heard to believe what I had just done. As I sat with the group on the cobbled alleyways of Pelo, decorations swinging overhead and the strange green light that always occurs there I thought what beautiful photos I could take if I had my camera. I had the strange sensation of being an outsider looking in and had to remind myself that this was not a photo opportunity but in fact my life.
Carnival is huge. There are approximately 3,000,000 people in Salvador and numerous tourists from other countires and states who take to the streets. There are 3 main carnival routes, one along the beach from Barra where I live to Ondina, one in the centre of town from Canela, Campo Grande up to Prace da Se and another parallel one from Praca De Se towards Campo Grande and a smaller one in Pelourhino. Along the first 3 routes drive the Electric Trios, huge lorries with soundsystems and buit in stages on their roofs where some of Brazilians biggest musical names sing. Along the routes there are ‘Camarotes’ scaffolds and closed off areas in buildings for which you pay to enter and watch carnival as it passes. You can also buy ‘Abada’s’ (t-shirts) for the Bloccos that you want to see and with these you enter into a roped off area around the Trio that you have chosen and walk/dance with the lorries for the whole route or as long as you want to stay. The third and final way to participate in Carnaval is as ‘Pipoca’ (popcorn) on the street, where you pay nothing and are free to do as you please as long as you don’t enter into the Bloccos. Every Blocco has an army of ‘Cordeiras’ who hold the ropes and keep the crowds inside and an army of security guards who keep people without Abadabas out. The Trios leave their starting points every 20 minutes from about 11am until 2am. I have never in my life seen so many people partying in the same place at the same time. The streets around the main routes are also full of people selling beer, ‘barracas’ or makeshift bars selling fruit cocktails and caipirinhas, churrasco, acaraje… The streets are full, it is an overwhelming experience. It can also be a terrifying one, in points where the roads narrow or when there is a particularly huge Blocco people cram into you and you feel like you’re feet aren’t touching the ground, people try to pickpocket you and men grope you – luckily I only experienced this the first time I went to ‘observe’ carnival. Each area attracts a different crowd of people and has a different vibe, as usual here, Barra, despite being the smartest area of Carnival in terms of the population who live there also felt the most uncomfortable and hostile. Fights break out, the police are out in force, marching sporadically among the crowds in lines and at this carnival 3 people including a 9 year old were shot dead, 21 deaths in all. The papers proclaim that there was a 60% rise in violence at carnival this year and yet the people on the streets are saying there was less violence than usual it’s hard to say.
Carnival is an experience that is indescribable with words, it is incredibly commercial and at the same time incredibly free. The streets fill with litter during the day and at dawn after the last trio has passed, are cleaned by an army of workers with hoses, considering the amount of work involved and considering that we are in Brazil, it is incredibly organised although it appears to be chaos. After the trios stop the streets are full vendors sleeping camped out on the pavements under umbrellas, at bus stops under cardboard boxes waiting for the next day of sales. Carnival is also a time for making big money if you have the stamina to keep going.
So I played on Thursday and by Saturday I wanted to play more. We had been to see the Saio of Ilhe Ayae, the oldest and greatest percussion troupe in Salvador in Liberdade, the biggest Black community ourside of Africa. We were virtually the only white people there and walking amongst thousands of people singing ‘Black Power’ was an incredibly powerful experience, hearing the drums also made me want to play more. Sunday I called Ivan ‘you disappeared!’ he told me, we play tonight… I played twice more in Pelourhino, the second time with Samuel and his brother who then took me to Ondina to watch the trios and dance ‘Pagode’ a form of Samba, Pagode is all about shaking your arse as much as you can in every direction possible at triple speed – for me it is impossible. Carnival is all about sex, the sweaty bodies, the close contact, men grabbing women, there is a carnal hunger in the air.
The last day of Carnival has to be my best. I arrived to play as usual, bang on time and approximately an hour ahead of everyone else. We were going to play with CEN again, 100 drummers, this time going out in the day. I was now really getting to know the different drummers, the way things work and feeling more accepted, the sun was shining and although I was entirely exhausted it was going to be good and indeed it was. The sound was a lot better than the first time we played with so many drummers, tighter and the fundo’s were in their element.
We were told we would be drumming for approximately 2 hours up to the beginning of one of the Carnival routes, however, once we got there we hooked up behind the trio and the masters kept going, descending into the madness. At this point the Fundo’s rioted, they refused to go any further.
If we had gone into carnival at this point we would have been walking for approximately another 3 hours, with a huge drum strapped to your waist, with dancing, spinning and walking this is not a mean feat. I have realised that playing for a Samba Reggae band is very hard work, Samuel for example had played for 9 hours without break the day before. The good players play with a number of different groups and get paid for each ‘Saio’ that they do, it is no surprise that these guys are wiry and made entirely of muscle. According to Samuel for Swing Do Pelo they get approximately 30 Reais, or £15 and bus tickets, I was never expecting to be paid and was never offered any money to play and barely knew that they get paid. Unfortunately corruption is rife in these bands as across Brazil. For example the first day we played we played with virtually no water, on returning to base at 4am in the morning Samuel discovered boxes of water and soft drinks which were meant for the musicians but had been hoarded by the Mestres to re-sell. It seems like Ivan is the worst of the masters, the other guy Timalira always providing water to his players.
The Samba Reggae groups are given money for Carnival and throughout the year by the government as they help kids stay off the streets and are also one of the main tourist attractions in the city. According to my friend Paula they didn’t receive any money this year as so much of it went missing last year, but this stream of corruption and robbery is unfortunately the way of Brazil from the top politicians to the people on the ground. Everybody wants the money and when you see people living in such abject poverty it’s not really surprising to see why.
So drums were downed and our plunge into Carnival ground to a halt, half the band, still riding on the buzz of playing to thousands and who had much smaller drums to carry kept going but without the Fundo there was nothing going. There was a moment of panic, we sat on our drums in the middle of the carnival route, the mestres screaming at us to continue from one side, the drummers shouting back about their rights and how we had been told we were only going to drum to a certain destination and the carnival organisers shouting that we either had to play or move as we were holding up all the trios.
The main problem that the drummers have is that they are not organised enough and don’t have the structures in place to really fight for their rights. The buzz of playing for crowds and the pleasure that the musicians get out of it also means that they keep going back to play for their groups again and again even when they know that they won’t get paid on time and most likely won’t get paid the right amount and so the problems continue and outbursts like these are the only way the musicians have of expressing their feelings. As you can imagine there is also a real sense of showmanship and kudos in playing, every week you have an audience and the guys love to wear huge sunglasses – whether it is day or night- do funky stuff to their hair and generally look cool and of course it gives people a focus, an outlet, a sense of belonging, participating, entertaining and makes you feel good. It is predominantly a male profession, the women usually playing the smaller, lighter instruments or dancing – I play fundo as it is the most simple drum to play and after only 6 weeks or so of playing there is still a lot to learn.
So with a final flourish the drummers won and we started the long walk back to bass, drums balanced on the heads of their players, fighting through carnival crowds, the first part of my day was done. We returned to camp and more hot-headed discussions around the day’s events. Unfortunately my Portuguese is not yet good enough to make any valuable contributions to such arguments and often I still only understand 50% of what is being said.
And so the final and climatic end to my Carnival experience was going to the last Saio of Oludum with Samuel. Before Carnival all I had thought was that I wanted to expereience Carnaval the Brazilian way and I wanted to see a saio of Oludum, this up to now had evaded me and now suddenly here I was going to Oludum, I was virtually in tears but realised that Samuel and his brother would probably not understand such an outpouring of emotion!
As I said Samuel is someone who makes things happen, the Adaba for Oludum was a yellow vest and a skirt, he had brought me half his sister’s Adaba to try and get me in the Bloco. There were problems, he told the guys my vest had been pulled off me, spoke to some people in the know and got me on the top of the Trio! He returned 20 minutes later with a vest at the snip price of 50Reais (£15) bear in mind that the usual proce is 180Rs. Once again there was a wait of about 3 hours until the Trio set off but once it did there was no stopping us. We danced and we danced and we sang and we laughed and we walked and we jumped for the cameras and it was the greatest party atmosphere I had ever been in. Everyone at carnival gives 100%, you have to have your wits about you to keep your feet on the floor and any self-consciousness flies out of the window, I felt free and happy – carnival had given me all that I could ever have expected and more.
My 15 hour day marathon eventually ended at 3am in the morning, my knees, my whole body was aching and my legs could barely move although my brain was saying more partying there was just no way. Samuel walked me half the way home and returned to the mayhem whilst I hobbled home on a natural high.