The other day as I was trudging up the hill in the rain (it has rained just about every day since I arrived), I looked up and saw a billboard with photographs of people in brightly colored carnival costumes. From what I could tell, the billboard was advertising the weekly rehearsals of the Rocinha Samba school, suggesting that we could all come “experience carnival ourselves” on Thursday nights from 8 to 10.
Rio is home to many Samba schools, nearly every neighborhood has one ans ROcinha is no exception. I had read in my guidebook that its very fun to attend the rehearsals of the samba schools as Carnaval draws near. So I made a mental note to try to check out this rehearsal on Thursday.
The rehearsal was held right next to the surf school so I headed over there a little after 8pm with my roommate Charlenes, but it was totally deserted. As I wandered around in circles wondering what to do, another car pulled up and a woman jumped out and poked her head into the deserted rehearsal hall. I asked her if she knew where the rehearsal might be, and she said, “Oh, if they’re not here, they must be at the beach.” At the beach!? Cool…. And of course, this being Brazil, and everyone being incredibly friendly and fun-loving, she said, “Hey come in the car with us, we’re heading over.” So Charlene and I jumped in the car, and met our new friends for the evening, Wagner, Paula, and Lourdes who all worked in a beauty salon nearby. We got to the beach just as the rain was starting again, and as far as I could tell it was deserted. But then I looked far down the road, and in the distance I could see bright lights and hear some distant drumming. It’s down there Paula said. So we hurried down the street, and soon came face to face with the biggest, most frenetic and exciting traveling parade of Samba I have ever encountered. Literally hundreds of people are drumming extremely complicated samba rhythms in perfect harmony. It is impossible to describe the power and such a thing – so much sound, so much precision, so much swing and thump. 30 enormous bass drums. 30 medium bass drums, 30 snares, 30 little tambors, a random crew of pots and pans hitters, an army of shakers, and a vanguard of cuica players. The sound literally makes you drunk with excitement. And these drummers are only part of the action. They are playing in unison with a few amplified guitars and cavaquinhos (a mini samba guitar) and singers who are travelling behind them, on top of a bus covered in loud speakers. The singers are a crew of burly almost frat-boy like Dudes, who appear to have consumed an entire refrigerator of Monster energy juice, as they jump around with seemingly undiminishing excitement, literally shouting the samba songs into their microphones.
The musicians are only the core of the parade. It extends far out in front of them, starting with the old ladies, the Baianas, dressed in white dresses with white head scarves, who dance around gleefully as if they were 50 years younger than they are. Then the community – this is just hundreds of people who chose to march with the samba school, and get to dress up in costume and learn the official Rocinha samba song. Old people young people, rich people, poor people, little people, big people. They all look fit to burst with happiness as they dance down the street singing along to the band. Then there are the passistas – these people are my heros. These are the dancers, both male and female who move their hips, butts, and feet at the speed of light in the quintessential Brazilian samba dance. It seems that only a country as vivacious, fit, and well-coordinated as Brazil could handle having a national dance that was so damn hard to do. They are mesmerizing, the men in white pants and sparkly shirts and shoes and fedora hats, the women in very very little dresses, high heeled shoes, flicking their hair about flirtatiously (the hair flicking seems to be a very important part of rio samba). Then there is a beautiful lady in a sparkly dress – I think she might be the queen of the passista’s who gets her own special place, processing and dancing in front of the bateria of drummers.
As you can imagine, I am pretty much losing my mind with happiness. The sidewalk is full of enthusiastic onlookers, many of whom are samba dancing with similar skill to the passistas. I decide that perhaps one of my alternate life goals is to become a passista and I start dancing along trying desperately to get my feet and butt to wiggle back and forth as fast as theirs do. And then again, because Brazil is so awesome, everyone is super nice and encouraging, and all these people who dance 100 times better than me are taking me by the hand and showing me the moves and twirling me around. This is perhaps the most exciting energy filled event I have ever been to, and here’s the crazy thing, this is just a REHEARSAL. My new friends Paula, Lourdes, and Wagner assure me that this does not even COMPARE to the real thing at Carnaval! I can’t believe it!!! I wonder if my body can physically handle how exciting Carnaval is going to be.
After the parade ends, Charlene and I spend the next two hours hanging out at one of the beach kiosks with our new pals, hearing stories of carnival and life at the beauty salon where they work. Finally sore-footed and exhausted, we head back up the hill to our little house in Rocinha, feeling a little bit more like part of the neighborhood.