Featured Writer: Katherine Martinko
It’s impossible for me to let Brazil’s legendary Carnaval slip by without adding my thoughts to the countless articles flooding every online newspaper that I see. I think I’m sufficiently qualified to do so. There was a time I called Brazil home, living in the large northeastern coastal city of Recife, home to the largest Carnaval float in the world (so they say!). It was a wildly spectacular year that changed my life, but that’s a story too big for any number of blog entries. I’ll stick to my thoughts on Carnaval for now.
Brazil has a funny international reputation. In many ways, it’s defined entirely by Carnaval, and how the outside world perceives Carnaval. That perception, as you can well imagine, is influenced by those other countries’ opinions on what is appropriate behaviour. Canadians are uptight. As a culture, generally speaking, we don’t sing loudly and passionately, dance in the streets, hug and kiss our acquaintances warmly, drink in public, have wild cross-generational parties. Neither are we overly nationalistic; there’s no point each year at which we come together to pronounce mutual admiration for a truly Canadian type of music or food or drink or dance.
We remain separate always, defined more by our individual family units (if we’re lucky) than by our citizenship. Because of this, I think it’s difficult for Canadians (and many others from the northern hemisphere) to comprehend Carnaval. “Wildly immoral” pretty much sums it up for most Canadians – and that makes us extremely uncomfortable.
All of that does exist – the fleeting affairs, the competitions to kiss as many strangers as you can, the countless babies born nine months later (it’s true!), free condoms handed out on the public transit, huge billboards advertising the necessity of safe sex. There are appalling gender discrepancies that enraged my feminist tendencies – women sitting at home while men partied, their placid acceptance that men will cheat as a fact of life. But all of those things exist here as well, just not as noticeably. I think we need to get over our discomfort with Brazil’s personality and take some lessons from it.
Carnaval is a spectacular celebration of life and demonstrates an enviable willingness on the part of Brazilians to relax, let go of whatever’s bugging them, and get swept up into the raging current of singing and dancing humanity. There’s really no choice, since everything shuts down completely for a week. Businesses, government offices, even some flights are put on hold. The country is at a stand-still in order to let an entire nation party together uncontrollably. How amazing is that? I find it downright refreshing, this rearranging of priorities that would never fly in Canada, yet from which we, with all our excessive job stress, could benefit greatly.
Also incredible is how Carnaval transgresses social classes. Brazil is sharply polarized by rich and poor, with not much in between. Yet Carnaval is a public party, lived out in the very streets that everyone knows, and money is not required to have a good time. Of course there are the VIP floats and parties, but some of the greatest samba schools in Rio and São Paulo have emerged from the favelas there. The poor are the ones who work toward Carnaval every single year, planning and sewing costumes, practicing dances, saving money.
And then there’s the Carnaval music – pagode, samba, frevo. I am utterly in love with Brazilian music; in fact, I got myself rather deep in debt by buying so much of it! Brazilians sing about love all the time. Pure romantic love, intense physical love, unrequited love, betrayed love – these are the songs that fill and echo through the streets during Carnaval, and everybody knows them.
There’s a samba I love called, “Se eu ganho um beijo seu, eu vou até o céu.” Translated, it’s called, “If I win a kiss from you, I’ll go to heaven.” Brazilian culture worships love above all else. It is the foundation on which all lives are built; why not pay it homage at any opportunity?
I think it’s wonderful to have a week of celebration by which to mark each year – and they do! I was astonished to hear how many people date events by “os Carnavais passados”, reliving their escapades and recounting hilarious stories. It’s a week that truly does define Brazilians, but not always in the negative way that foreigners tend to believe.
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