RIO DE JANEIRO – It’s midnight on Friday at the monstrous Help disco in Copacabana. Rio’s carnival has not even started, but the posse of five black brothers and a southern whitey in basketball T-shirts fresh from Baghdad is on a mission from God – or rather King Momo (the sovereign of carnival).
The mission is as delicate as patrolling Haifa Street in surge mode: but this is target identification with a twist, as the only heat-seeking missiles on view are a horde of spectacularly curvaceous Brazilian babes and ueber-transvestites, ranging from coal to cream to golden hues, ready to inflict maximum damage on the “enemy”.
As the American wild bunch enters (screams?) “Help” – roughly a larger-than-life Bangkok girlie bar set as a rollerball arena – to the sound of ear-splitting funk do morro and past a table full of Muslim Indians gone crazy on lethal caipirinhas, they finally reach the Green Zone: or Paradise in the carnivalesque geopolitical scheme of things. One black brother can’t help it: “Make my day, Muqtada al-Sadr!”
These “maintenance” guys on an officially sanctioned 15-day rest-and-recreation break are among hundreds of soldiers, security forces, private contractors and assorted mercenaries who have subscribed to the hottest ticket in summer (in the global South): Miami-based Tours Gone Wild’s US$3,000, 10-day package to Rio.
And it’s not only Iraq: they come all the way from Afghanistan, Central Asia and all points north and south in the worldwide empire of US military bases. Message to the Pentagon: a few nights in Rio and US troops in Iraq would never dream of perpetrating another Mahmoudiya, where soldiers gang-raped a teenage Iraqi girl and burned her body to bury the evidence.
This Asia Times Online correspondent and an editor at France24 – the new French 24-hour news channel – hit the same groove, sort of. We had had enough of tracking the Iraq quagmire, the imminent war on Iran, the latest al-Qaeda rap on video and Kim Jong-il’s machinations. It was time to explore a new breed of combat mission.
Rio’s carnival pace is as frantic as patrolling Baghdad. The jungle groove is relentless. The sensuous, steamy city is like a huge, pulsating vulva sucking in everything in its stride. The headline in one of the local gory dailies unveils what goes on in the entrails of the system: “Red Command films killing of Fed and shows the video in a funk ball”. The Red Command is the prime drug gang in Rio. A massive federal police force had been sent to Rio even before carnival. And funk balls – heavily controlled by the drug rings – are where the underprivileged masses get down to party.
The Sambadrome – conceived by the late, great anthropologist Darcy Ribeiro as a stage for “the biggest popular party in the world” – is the arena for the glitzy, wealthy, sprawling samba schools, which are in fact run like corporations. This week the top 13 samba schools were spending a total of almost $30 million (not to mention dodgy undeclared funds) in allegories and costumes alone. The Sambadrome extravaganza is now a staple of global mainstream tourism. Meanwhile the real action – the Rio version of roadside bombs – is the bloco.
Blocos are sort of spontaneous neighborhood associations, fueled by a well-oiled marching band, whose purpose is to dress or cross-dress outrageously and hit the streets, slowly crawling from bar to bar, dancing and singing at the top of their lungs a classic repertoire of marchinhas. Musically, the marchinha (“carnival march”) epitomizes what the perfect carnival tune is all about: a kind of revved-up samba with a mean break beat, hilarious horn breaks and pun-filled lyrics. At 9am on Saturday, no fewer than 200,000 people were already massed under the scorching heat to hit the Black Ball Bloco – a crowd three times the Sambadrome’s.
Surviving Help the night before involves hours of lounging beachside protected from the scorching sun by a steady supply of fresh juices extracted from mind-blowing Amazon rainforest fruits – just in time to catch the classic Banda de Ipanema, the healthy, typically Rio crossover of anarchism with family values. An inevitable assortment of devils, transvestites, fake office workers, the occasional Angelina Jolie and a gorgeous Miss Piggy are on show.
The Band of Ipanema, founded in 1965, always mocked the Brazilian military dictatorships of the 1960s and 1970s. The front banner still reads “Yolhesman Crisbeles” – which means absolutely nothing in any language, living or dead, but for the military, it was a subversive communist code. Imagine the Pentagon reaction to a Band of Baghdad hitting the streets of Sadr City. One of the band’s founders claims it is the only institution that ever worked in Brazil’s colorful history – because it has no platform, no rules, no statutes and no boring people.
By Saturday the hefty Anglo-American contingent is also going nuts. In Bahia, Fatboy Slim gets ready to DJ on a trio eletrico – a truck-mounted sound system. Brazil’s minister of culture, iconic
singer-songwriter Gilberto Gil – known in England as the “Minister of Cool” – gets cozy with Quincy Jones, who’s ready to do for Brazilian rhythms what he has done to Michael Jackson: he’s pre-producing a documentary to be filmed next year in both Rio and Bahia called Brazilian Soul.
Revelers are still trying to make it home – or to the beach – on Sunday morning while we, sleepy-eyed but rejuvenated by a bucketload of pineapple-with-mint nectar, are already on a mad bus ride cross-town to hit another of the 30 blocos of the day, the Boitata. Once again it’s 9am under the scorching heat – and they are all there, the guy with a knife stuck on his forehead, the transvestite dressed as a ballerina with an “I Love Jesus” T-shirt, an army of cadavers, devils, clowns, archetypal cross-dressed, wig-on, face-splattered-with-cheap-paint street revelers whose only aim in life is cair na folia (literally, “plunge into folly”). Top banner of the morning: “F*** Bush, let’s samba.”
All day Sunday – in overcrowded beaches, in bars, over the frenetic updating on the laptop of Ana Claudia Souza, the exuberant black woman who edits a celebrity website tracking all carnival gossip in real time – the excitement inevitably converges to the Sambadrome. That’s the ritual catwalk where all the cathartic myths of the Afro-Brazilian mix that the artsy tropicalist movement in the 1960s dubbed “total jelly” literally explode.
For millions in Rio living in a slum in the back of beyond and slaving away in the informal economy, like practically 50% of all Brazilians, a magic 90 minutes – the time it takes for a school to cross the glamorous Sambadrome asphalt catwalk – is capable of turning anyone into king or queen, the alter ego shining high on the altar of carnival. One does not have to be a “highlight” – like the glittering, Hollywoodish soap-opera stars and talk-show hosts who headline the samba schools’ parades.
One just has to be a drummer in the baterias – the mighty, head-churning percussive factories powering the schools with the thrust of an F-16. Or a chambermaid dressed up as a Nordic deity. Thus the stirring spectacle of those working-class masses arriving at the big stage on crammed buses and trains, clutching their prized costume and finishing dressing up and applying makeup at the terminal station.
But seen from ground level, this has nothing to do with glamour. We decide to leave the Central do Brasil – Rio’s shabbier, sweatier answer to New York’s Grand Central Station – and literally cross a border to mingle with the crowds preparing for the Big Night. On the other side, squeezed body-to-body in the dark, you are on your own. It’s like leaving your Abrams tank if you’re a US soldier on patrol in Baghdad – as it took us just 100 meters to find out.
The attack happened with military precision. A foamy spray hit my face, impairing my lateral vision. As I turned around a lightning-quick hand, in a single movement, opened my zippered pocket, extracted my wallet and disappeared into the crowd. My companion still clutched her backpack, but only minutes later she would find out it had also been opened, and a small purse had disappeared. The whole incident lasted less than two seconds. Those brothers at the Help disco would have been as stunned as I was. Yes, the Sunni Arab guerrilla syndrome is ubiquitous. And the message was unmistakable: you, gringos, don’t belong here, but to the free champagne-flowing VIP booths at $800 a pop (the Rio equivalent of the Green Zone). As in black US ghetto folklore, “The Man control the day, but we control the night.”
It could have been worse – like getting popped and showing up post mortem as a video in a funk ball. We had just been added to the average 128 (registered) muggings a day in Rio – as we learned a while later in Rio’s Sixth Police Precinct. The precinct was on a roll: the investigators were working a non-stop 24-hour shift, before midnight more than 30 people had already been arrested, and five dodgy characters were laid out on the dirty floor before me as an identification lineup – alleged members of a pickpocket ring. Jose Carlos Esch, the weary inspector in charge, answered non-stop calls of journalists who wanted to know about a homicide (“It was not here”).
As he typed our report number 006-00757/2007, suddenly we heard fireworks. No, it’s not Baghdad: it’s a celebration for one of the samba schools finishing its parade. The police inspector climbed up from his seat, opened the window and the three of us stayed there, in silence, as in a Fellini movie, staring at the arabesques in the sky. A few meters away, the five dangerous but frightened criminals waited for someone to go medieval on them, as no loot had been found in their possession.
And then there was the clincher. Walking back to the station – without bothering to stay and watch the parade – some quick hand in the mass body-to-body friction even tried to steal a flask of sunscreen from my back pocket. “This is very wild,” murmured my companion. Geopolitical message: the underprivileged masses of the global South are desperate, and ready to do anything just to survive. Undocumented, un-credit-carded and flat broke, I felt just like one of them.
So the next day we did what we had to do. Before, once again as journalists, succumbing to the demented flow of non-stop breaking news, we paid a Nietzschean homage to the death of all idols – God, motherland, revolution – and sang the body electric; we joined one more bloco – loosely translatable as the “Suck but Don’t Drool” – and sang a thousand marchinhas at the top of our lungs. If only Bush and Muqtada al-Sadr could join us.