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Goodbye Rio, Hello Recife: A Taste of Brazil’s Best Hidden Carnival

Goodbye Rio, Hello Recife: A Taste of Brazil’s Best Hidden Carnival

Dump Your Lover and Party with Pac-Man

By Marlon Bishop
March 7, 2012

Forget about Rio, its massive floats and feathers, its buxom dancers dressed in tiny and strategically placed dollops of fabric, its exclusive Sambadrome and its booming battalions of samba drummers. It’s a carnival for the cameras, for the travel agency brochures, for overweight tourists from Arkansas. Ask anyone who knows whats up, and they’ll tell you: Brazil’s realest Carnival is in Recife.

Recife is one of the major cities of Brazil’s tropical Northeast, an old city originally built by Dutch sugar-planters on the easternmost bulge of South America, the part that fits like a puzzle piece into West Africa’s nook. Carnival in Recife – and its colonial sister city Olinda – is a Carnival for the streets. There’s no roped off areas or expensive tickets, just massive human chaos, millions of people getting freaky together in the sunshine. Old and young, rich and poor, hippie and playboy, black and white all mix and mingle in the cobblestone streets – drinking beer by the gallon, making out with complete strangers, and dancing until their Havaianas fall off.

A carnival party-goer in Recife wears a Scream mask.

A carnival party-goer in Recife wears a Scream mask (Photo: Beto Figueiroa)

“For the last 40 years, Carnival in Rio has been a window to sell a poorly presented, even racist image of Brazil abroad. Everything about the celebration is set up around the interests of commercial television. Meanwhile in Bahia, Carnival is filled with separations caused my economic and social reasons,” says Patrick Torquato, a radio manager and Techno-brega DJ from the Recife area. “But Carnival in Recife is rich with an inexplicable magic, you just have to experience it. The sounds, the colors. It’s the most multicultural Carnival, which best represents Brazil’s cultural mix.”

First lets demystify this whole Carnival thing a little bit. Yes it’s related to the traditional Catholic celebration of Lent in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday and blah, blah, blah. But really, it’s a non-stop four day Halloween in the thick tropical heat, minus the trick-or-treating, plus giant marching percussion bands. Some people wear the traditional Carnival costumes involving tiny multicolored umbrellas, but most are dressed as topical characters such as Batman, Pac-Man, Capitao America, sexy Princess Toadstool, the green M&M and Osama Bin Laden.

Recife Mask

A home-made traditional mask in Olinda (Photo:Beto Figueiroa)

The party starts early, with the first blocos, or marching Carnival troupes, hitting the streets around 8am. During the day, nearby Olinda is the hotspot — a picturesque colonial town of winding alleys and colorful low-slung houses. Wandering vendors sell beer, giant plastic cups of Red Bull and whiskey, and ice-cold coconuts for essential mid-party hydration. The streets are packed beyond capacity, so once you enter the crowd you have no choice but to follow it as it flows, mashed against a million other people. When the blocos come, playing frevo music on tubas and trombones or thundering maracatu on giant wooden drums, ordinary party-goers get whisked into the procession whether they like it or not.

Smaller impromptu dance parties erupt where anyone has a tambourine or a loud-speaker and a song to sing. Meanwhile, little kids on rooftops blast you with water guns, strangers slather you in paint, and at least one tasteless individual attacks you with a dildo attached to a fishing pole. Those that didn’t break up with their significant others immediately before Carnival, as is Brazilian tradition, cling tightly to their boyfriends or girlfriends, lest they get whisked away by a man dressed as a crocodile. Around the corner, Barack Obama and Wonder Woman lock lips savagely behind an empanada stand.

When night falls, Olinda clears out and revelers head to downtown Recife to for massive waterfront concerts on large outdoor stages. The programming varies from big name Brazilian elder statesmen like Ney Matagrosso and Lenine to foreign acts such as Angelique Kidjo and up-and-comers like Sao Paulo rapper Criolo. But nothing beats the energy than when Nacao Zumbi plays. Nacao Zumbi is the former backing back of now-deceased Chico Science, a local legend who mixed hard rock and hip-hop with traditional maracatu and changed the course of Brazilian music forever. As ‘90s classics blast out of the speakers, the mosh pit extends as far as the eye can see, dreadlocks whirling in the sky.


Colorful Carnival wigs (Photo: Beto Figueiroa)

On smaller stages dotting the city, new and cutting-edge artists perform as well for free. From the Amazonian technobrega scene, Waldo Squash and his Gang do Electro performed as dayglo gay teens performed choreographed line dances. Colombian hip hop-cumbia crew Sistema Solar rocked the mic, Bixiga 70 broke it down with a set of revivalist Brazilified Afro-funk.

“Young generations need to be both educated in the traditions and pushed forward by the musical vanguard. Maintaining a relationship between the traditional and the cutting-edge is the power of Brazilian music in general,” says DJ Patrick Torquato. “And people from Recife do that really well.”

One day of Carnival feels like a week, the whole thing feels like a lifetime. By the end, your body and mind is battered, aching for rest. But in all the hedonism, the excess, the celebration, there’s a sense of communal rebirth, a fresh start. That is, until next year’s party.

(All photos by Beto Figueiroa. To see more of his amazing Carnival photography, visit his Flickr page.)

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