27 February 2012

Feijoada Recant

I recant. Back in a January blogpost I stamped my feet and, in a fit of pique, declared to the world that I had eaten my last feijoada, the national dish of Brazil. I didn't feel good after such a heavy meal, didn't like it, didn't want it anymore. I was mostly referring to the authentic feijoadas, the ones with those unappetizing pig's ears, tails, feet and tongues. The ones you need an entire weekend to recover from. But, I even pooh-poohed the "finer" feijoadas, the ones with delicate, individual portions of recognizable "noble" meats, with some rice, beans, kale and prettily-arranged orange slices. That was a mistake. I got carried away. Last Saturday I ate such a "delicate" feijoada and it was g-o-o-o-o-d.

Walk right into the store....
...and find a table in the garden

Around the corner from our house is a high-end furniture store called Domme that has a restaurant called Bistrô Entre Folhas nestled in its lush garden. Some people think of it more as a restaurant called Bistrô Entre Folhas with a furniture store set up all around it. But however you experience it, for a mere R$25 ($14.50) per person they serve a really, really fine feijoada in a super lovely setting.

Looks good, smells great, Brazilian comfort food at its best. At this restaurant the meats are all smoked, the kale is good and garlicky, the beans full of surprise flavors.

The first helping is always very nicely arranged on the plate, restrained but artistic.

By the second  helping, all hell breaks loose.

It doesn't matter, because this is how it all ends up.

Not a whole lot left to scrape up. And it's better that way, because right now I'm thinking those sofas in the store's living room are looking pretty good...

23 February 2012

Judging Carnaval

Getting ready to read the scores
That's it, carnaval is over. Yesterday was the apuração, the judging, the final tally, the crowning of the winner. The apuração is always broadcast at 4:00 p.m. on Ash Wednesday, and anyone who calls me during that time gets a "she can't be disturbed" from Mark. I love watching the apuração almost more than watching carnaval itself, even though I don't really have a dog in the fight. I love the guy who reads out the scores in his deep, stentorian voice, with his carioca accent. I love all the self-important rustling of papers and whispered, last-minute consultations behind hand-covered microphones. The heart-wrenching emotions of the samba schools. The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.

And it's not as if the judging is easy. All the samba schools in what's called the Special Group are excellent, or they wouldn't be there. This year, an astonishing eight of the 13 schools vying for the title had near-perfect presentations, and this is not just the opinion of a foreign lay-person. The results were tight, and depended more than ever upon fractions of points and the subjectivity of the judges. Here's how the final judging went:

My tally sheet

Champion — Unidos da Tijuca (The samba school of my favorite carnavalesco, Paulo Barros!)

Vice Champion — Salgueiro (How? Why? This school had loads of technical problems that caused huge holes in their parade . . . they should have lost points left and right! But they didn't.)

Unidos da Tijuca —
Standard-bearer and Master of Ceremonies

Another live float from Paulo Barros

I've dedicated a good part of February to carnaval blogposts in the hopes of introducing aspects of the spectacle that are barely known outside of Brazil. But for those of you who have had your fill of carnaval, and of my carnaval posts, rejoice! Not one more carnaval  peep out of me until February of 2013. Those cars that jammed our streets since the day after Christmas have turned around and gone home. High season is officially over, life officially returns to normal. Deep breath, everyone, and let's all let out one long, big "Whew!"

Bye-bye for now

20 February 2012

The Tree Guy

We're naked. For years, well-meaning visitors have been telling us that we`d have a better view of the bay if we cut back the three beautiful poinciana trees that rise up from the little green area below our terrace that sits between us and the beach. But we love our poincianas (known here as flamboyants) and, when we did cut them back last week, it was absolutely not done on a selfish whim, merely to improve our view. We cut them back because these normally gorgeous trees didn't flower well last year or this year. They were getting sick. We thought that a careful but drastic pruning would give them a new lease on life. We thought it would help them grow better.

Angelo, the tree guy
I don`t know about tree surgery anywhere else in the world, but if you just merrily lop off branches here in Brazil you make yourself liable to some heavy fines. Lucky for us, then, that poinciana trees are not native to Brazil. In the authorization our muscular, good-looking tree surgeon Angelo got from city hall, they are identified as an "exotic" foreign species and we were at liberty to do with them whatever we wanted to, as long as we promised to do it safely. No site inspection by the environmental people. Nothing. At 8:45 in the morning, Angelo climbed up into the branches with his motor saw. By three in the afternoon, we had that open, cleaner view that so many people had wished on us. But now we were totally exposed. There was no more shade on the terrace. There were no more birds flitting from branch to branch. We hadn't made things more beautiful. We had made things ugly, awful. But we had no choice. We had to do it.

In a way it was amazing that Angelo was willing to prune our trees just a day before the start of carnaval weekend, because Angelo had other things on his mind. Angelo beats the huge surdo drum in the bateria (percussion section) of a neighborhood carnaval group, Cocotas de Tucuns, based in Tucuns, a beach on the Búzios periphery. Easy to figure out where he got all those muscles. Anyway, as he sliced and diced our trees, he spoke so passionately about his carnaval group, he was so eager to have us come to their pre-carnaval rehearsal, that it was hard for us not to accept the invitation. I didn't really think it was how I wanted to spend last Friday night, but off we went to Tucuns and — even though it was really late for me (their first downbeat started around midnight), and even though traffic was pretty bad, and even though I'm famous for not liking crowds — Mark and I haven't had that good a time in ages! This was carnaval at its best and at its roots, all locals and families and children coming out to enjoy the festivities. And though it was loud and driving and the beats reverberated in our bodies, and I had to take aspirin when I got home, I'm up for a repeat visit next year. Angelo says our trees will have grown some new, beautiful, flowering branches by then.

16 February 2012

Some Carnaval Rules and Regs

Okay, this is it, carnaval weekend looms ahead. I've been to the Sambadrome in Rio three times to see the 12 main Rio samba schools do their thing first-hand, but this year I'll be staying home to watch from the comfort of our living room or at least until I fall asleep (the excitement starts at 9:00 p.m. and usually doesn't end until 7:00 the next morning). A few blogposts back on the subject of carnavalescos, I wrote that the Sambadrome parade is actually "an aggressively-fought competition." It is indeed, and to my surprise the contest aspect has become my favorite part of carnaval. I'm actually amused that a person as averse to competition as I am relishes this competitive side of carnaval. But I do.

The judges . . . they look harmless enough
It took me a couple of years, but now I'm into the nitty-gritty. The schools are judged in ten categories, or quesitos — percussionists, samba (music and lyrics), harmony,  evolution, theme, overall effect, floats and props, costumes, the opening vanguard and the boy-girl couple that are the standard-bearer and master of ceremonies — with four judges per category. Some snippets for those following along at home:

Percussionists — these guys are LOUD. They are responsible for maintaining the rhythmic pulse of the samba at all times during the parade. I'm still not sure I hear all the subtle differences myself, but each samba school has a unique, identifiable percussive sound depending on the number of drums and the way they're hit. Take Mangueira's percussionists. They are known as Surdo Umsurdo is a large drum — because they hit only on the second beat, with no answering surdo on the downbeat, like all the other schools. When Mangueira's percussionists begin, the crowd goes wild. And I get goose bumps.

Harmony — in order to score high in this category, the music, rhythm and singing must all meld seamlessly with the choreography and dancing of the participants. Points can be lost if the judges catch any of the participants not singing. And here lies one of the annual controversies: to allow or not to allow foreigners to participate in the parade. As non-speakers of Portuguese they can't sing the samba, and as non-dancers of samba they don't get the rhythm. So that group of hulking, blond Swedes jumping up and down alongside the group of Americans energetically waving their pointer fingers in the air, Broadway-style, inevitably end up costing the schools precious points. On the other hand, foreigners pay upwards of $1,200 for a costume and a space in the parade, so . . . what's a fraction of a point here or there?

The standard-bearer and master of ceremonies couple — this elegant and graceful couple carries and protects the school's flag while dancing an intricate "minuet-samba." They might have the biggest responsibility of anyone in the school, because they mustn't under any circumstances let that flag touch the ground, or even dip below the standard-bearer's shoulders, for 80 long minutes. And that is one heavy flag (99 pounds/45 kilos!). But they make it look so easy, and they're lots of fun to watch.

Down she goes!
This year will no doubt see the usual dramas: a couple of floats will break down at the entrance to the runway and spoil the school's chances; at least one float will catch fire; several people will fall off their floats and one passista will fall off her mercilessly high heels; one or two schools will have the unfortunate fate of having to parade under a torrential downpour; and one celebrity parader, or destaque, will lose her tapa-sexo (you figure it out). Although the destaque herself will get lots of publicity, the school's directors will be furious. Total nudity is prohibited and she won't be invited back next year. And who knows but that there won't be one of those last-minute censorship controversies that will cause one or another school to parade with a float covered in black plastic (see photo below). So there you have it. I've got my follow-along judging card. Let the games begin!

In 2004, the samba school Grande Rio paraded with a censored float. Underneath the plastic? Various depictions of the Kama Sutra.

13 February 2012

Dance Dance Dance

I used to do a little of this dancing-in-the-dark stuff with my father who — at least when partnering me — kept to the safe and easy steps, dipping just a bit here and just a bit there. He showed off his fancy footwork only when he danced with my mother. But whether I was good or not, whether I looked as much like Cyd Charisse as I imagined, I did enjoy dancing. I would waltz around the house with the vacuum cleaner and practice my cha-cha-cha while folding laundry. Throughout the 50s, 60s and 70s I tried to learn every dance craze out there, from the twist to the hustle, from the mashed potato to the swim, from the watusi to the pony. I was also pretty good at the limbo dance, which was de rigueur at all parties back then. Wouldn't try it now even if you offered me fifty thousand shares of Facebook.

When I was in the 4th grade our class put on a show that included a spectacular — if I do say so myself — hula dance. This constituted my first public dance presentation. To this day, just start singing  "I wanna go back to my little grass shack in Kealakekua, Hawaii," and a certain friend of mine (she knows who she is) will jump up with me and go straight into our number from all those years ago. Back then there was no YouTube, but I'm sure we nine-year-olds looked exactly like this:

And if it weren't for Mohammed el-Bakkar and his album Port Said, which my parents owned for some reason, I would never have fallen in love with Middle Eastern music, taken belly dancing classes in New York and ended up dancing at private parties and a couple of times in restaurants under the stage name Amira. That was a fun time. And I got paid for it! But what I'm coming to is this: with all my wiggling and waggling and shimmying and shaking, why, oh why, oh why can't I samba? This is the signature dance of my adopted country, you'd think I'd have absorbed it naturally by now.

But I haven't. This is extremely frustrating and embarrassing. I've tried and tried. I've tried slow, I've tried fast. I even took lessons for heaven's sake. I watch two-year-olds samba like veterans, and I'm amazed by my inability to come anywhere close. You'd think I had two left feet, which I don't. I'm not talking about ballroom samba, I'm talking about walking samba, which is danced individually, particularly during carnaval. Well, I've analyzed the problem every which way and I've centered my focus on the hips. The gentle, linear sway of the hula and the vibrating circular swivel of the belly dance just don't cut it in samba. Samba is more open, freer, looser, it combines both linear and circular movements with a fast bounce and wide-open arms. And even as I focus on the hips, I sense there's something going on in the knees, too, but I don't have a clue. Nine years of trying, and I feel I've let my Brazilian friends down. I'm sorry, I just wasn't born with samba no pé. But this ten-year-old — wow:

09 February 2012

Beth Carvalho



Of the many, many talented women singers in Brazil there are three who have been anointed the Queens of Samba: Clara Nunes, Alcione and Beth Carvalho. And as if being Queen isn't enough, one of those three has been elevated even higher. She's the Godmother of Samba, she's a personal favorite of mine, she's Beth Carvalho.

A lot of Brazilian female singers have soft, whispery voices that serve beautifully for singing Bossa Nova. That was the musical style Beth Carvalho began in some 47 years ago, but she lasted in it for less than a year. With her driving, forceful voice, it's samba she was born for. Over her long career, Beth worked with and recorded all the legendary sambistas, with a special emphasis on those from her beloved samba school, Mangueira — Nelson Sargento, Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho. Beth also recorded plenty of sambas from the other big schools, including Portela, and constantly introduced new composers to the public.

When I first came to Brazil I, like most foreigners, adopted Mangueira as my samba school. It was the cool choice. But I've had a falling out with Mangueira, first because nowadays there's too much drug trafficking in the Mangueira community, and also because of what the school's directors did to Beth during the carnaval parade in 2007. For 36 years Beth had paraded with Mangueira down the runway, under her own steam. But she'd been having back problems and this time she planned to ride on the float of "baluartes," the school's Old Guard where, if you ask me, she most certainly belonged. But after Beth climbed up onto the float (with enormous difficulty) she was summarily removed and left behind, on the ground, in tears. The baluartes told her she could parade on the runway, as she always had. But this was tantamount to throwing Frank Sinatra off a Las Vegas stage and telling him to go sing in the men's room. I mean, this is just not done.

No one remembers or cares what Mangueira's 2007 theme was, or where they placed in the final standings. All that's remembered is that that was the year Beth Carvalho was roundly dissed. Not long after that dreadful behavior on the part of Mangueira, Beth had spinal surgery, stayed away from performing for two years while she recuperated, and — because no one can hold a grudge for long in Brazil — finally made peace with the Mangueira directorate and returned to parade with them last year, seated on a float. Word is she'll be with them again this year. Even though I'm still holding a bit of a grudge, if Beth can forgive them, so can I. After all, no one sings the school's rousing anthem, Hymn to Mangueira, like Beth Carvalho:

06 February 2012

Reaction Shots

Ten years ago, when we told our American families and friends that we were moving to Brazil, I knew in my heart that most of them felt like the people shown below:

Surprisingly, only one person — a former work colleague — came up with the knee-jerk comment I most expected: "Is it...safe?" There were also a few skeptics who couldn't contain themselves and blurted out, "B-bra-zi-i-il?" But I give the majority credit for swallowing their shock, surprise and/or disbelief and making the comment we heard most often, a casually-delivered "Oh, really?" You'd think we'd just announced plans to take a weekend drive in the country. At least the twenty-somethings among our friends showed some oomph, the spirit of undaunted youth. From them we heard "Cool," "That is so-o-o cool," and "Get o-u-t!"

There were some odd reactions. The neighbor who lived above us in our apartment building, a man in the real estate business, anxiously asked, "How are you pricing your apartment?" But perhaps the most off-the-wall reaction came from a fairly sophisticated, multi-lingual international businessman friend of mine. His main worry? "How are you going to get your mail?" To this day I'm still not sure what mail he was talking about. Our New York gas&electric bill? A couple of greeting cards? And now that all of these things are handled online — from anywhere in the world that you happen to be — the question becomes even stranger.

Notwithstanding the sangfroid of our compatriots, Brazilian reaction to our move was the polar opposite. Mark and I were showered with, "Oh, that's wonderful!" "Oh, fabulous!" "Welcome!" "Super!" and my personal favorite, "God bless you!" Brazilians certainly have a more-the-merrier party side, but they are warm and generous and outgoing by nature. They all take their cue from the open arms of one of the seven wonders of the modern world, Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue.

"Cristo Redentor, braços abertos
sobre a Guanabara"

(From Samba do Avião by Tom Jobim)

02 February 2012


Mosteiro Zen Budista's silent carnaval  
It's carnaval! Get out your masks, your feathers, your boas! Get your tickets to the Sambadrome parades! Pick your favorite street carnaval group and join in! Well, that's one way to celebrate carnaval. But this end-of-summer holiday blowout can be celebrated in many different ways. While it does seem that most Brazilians jump right in with both feet moving to a samba beat, others merely tolerate the crowds and the noise as best they can, relying on ear plugs to get through the nights. Some people travel to a resort and spend their entire holiday week at the beach. A friend of ours uses this time to explore his zen side at the Mosteiro Zen Budista, a retreat in the mountains of Espírito Santo.

Carnaval at the Sambadrome
I myself once thought carnaval was one big, disorganized, loud mess, to be avoided at all costs. I had no idea what a samba school was or what it represented. But when it slowly dawned on me how much like a Broadway musical the carnaval show was I sat up and took notice. (I always did love my Broadway musicals.) Before long I began to see beyond the skimpy costumes and the deafening percussion to the intricate, backstage details. I began to understand the strict rules that regulate the competition. (Yes, this "spectacle" is actually an  aggressively-fought competition.) And as I learned more and more about Rio's carnaval in particular, one personality jumped out front and center, the crucially important carnavalesco. It takes many talented people to stage a Broadway musical: a writer, a producer, a director, a set designer, a costume designer, an art director and a lighting director. But the carnavalesco — with a healthy dash of help — is the samba school's art-set-costume-lighting producer and director all in one.

In the 1930s and 1940s the carnavalescos were usually amateur members of the samba schools they supported. They did the best they could and made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in professionalism. As for payment, they wouldn't accept one centavo. Nowadays? The highly-compensated and extremely professional carnavalesco can work as a hired gun for several samba schools in the course of his career. He's the one who comes up with the school's theme each year, researches it, develops how it is to be organized and presented, and who, along with a team of artists and designers, designs the characters, the costumes, and the accessories. The carnavalesco also works with engineers and architects to build the floats. On the night his school parades, the carnavalesco is responsible for getting all 4,000 or so participants costumed, assembled and down the runway without a hitch, and within the allotted 80 minutes.

Paulo Barros
I know I'm a Johnny-come-lately to carnaval, but my personal favorite carnavalesco is Paulo Barros, a former airline steward. He burst on the scene in 2004 and broke through years of sameness with his now-famous "DNA float," which used people instead of mechanical pieces to represent DNA particles. He went on to astonish the public the following year with jaw-dropping magic tricks no one could figure out, and the next year with heads that seemed to fall off shoulders, only to be replaced with a smile, over and over again. Paulo Barros doesn't always win, but he is always given a standing ovation by the public. And we can't wait to see what this most innovative carnavalesco has in store for this year's extravaganza. (Mind you, we'll be watching on television. I'm done with the Sambadrome.)

Here's a piece of Barros magic from 2010:

And some mystery from the following year: