Samba on Saturday Afternoon With the Black Ball Carnaval Group (Cordão da Bola Preta)!

Saturday in Rio.

Around noon, I gave my friend Jorge Filho a lesson on the MacBook Pro I brought down for him as contraband…Macs here are very, very expensive. After about ninety minutes of crash training, we called it quits since we were both feeling a bit hungry.

Lesson finished, I had to have my first feijoada of the trip; hopefully the first of four or five. Feijoada is a traditional Brazilian dish of black beans (ususally), a variety of smoked and or salted meats from cow and pig, served with rice, collard greens, orange slices (for digestion…ha, as if…), crisply fried pork skin or belly and a kind of toasted meal made from the manioc root, cooked with butter and sometimes scrambled egg. It is delicious, habit forming and very filling…especially after eating about three or four pounds worth in one sitting! I’m sure I’ve done that! It can be debilitating if not careful!!!!

So I’d planned to have  my feijoada at a corner bar in the Lapa neighborhood, then head over to another feijoada party (feijoada optional) which principally featured live samba bands which was located at the headquarters of Rio’s oldest street carnaval group (called a cordão), the Cordão da Bola Preta. They organize a big street parade which rambles through a certain neighborhood of Rio during Carnaval time….thousands participate, and these groups tend to be more democratic, in some ways, than the larger samba schools which comprise the enormous, showy parades which make it on TV during the two days before Fat Tuesday. My kind of party group!!!

Alas, when I arrived at choice number one, it was closed unexpectedly, so I had to quickly think on my feet. Ok, clearly the choice was to partake of the feijoada at the samba joint—the Cordão da Bola Preta—which was close by. It was nearly 2:30 pm when I finally found it, and I was starving.

I paid my six buck cover (10 Brazilian reais…the REAL [pronounced “hay-ALL”] is made plural by dropping the L and replacing it with an I, then adding the S…linguistic craziness of Portuguese), and entered the CBP’s headquarters. I got in line for the feijoada buffet and suffered through the 20 or so minutes it took—though it seemed like hours—to get to the food. I received a plate full of food, and headed into the main hall where the music was to sit and eat. Only one problem. There were no empty tables. So I went to one end of the place and headed back, when, about halfway back to the starting point, a guy grabbed me and said to his friends at his table (where there was an empty chair), “This guy has already been all the way through the room and hasn’t found a seat. Let’s let him sit with us!?!”

Carnaval mural at the CBP HQ

And so I was invited to share their table, and was I ever glad. It would have been very difficult to have eaten this chow while standing up. Not impossible, but not pleasant.

Well, it turns out the guy who extended this kindness turned out to be one of the directors of the Cordão da Bola Preta! Lucky me!  I seem to always be able to stumble onto things like this…see last year’s blog for my meetings with Martin Sheen and Henry Winkler in Spain and Italy, respectively. Eduardo was very friendly and I mentioned that I produced the largest Brazilian Carnaval ball in the USA and his eyes lit up. In a few minutes I was introduced to the President of the CBP and handed his card. I was a VIP in minutes!

VP of Velha Guarda do Estácio

Then I struck up a conversation with the old black gent sitting to my left…especially after he started offering my generous pours from the communal beer bottles (Antarctica, my Brazilian beer of choice).  I didn’t catch his name—I’m really bad at that—but we had a nice chat. Well, it turns out this guy is the vice-president of the Velha Guarda of the escola de samba (samba school) Estácio de Sá, the oldest Carnaval samba school (these are like the krewes of New Orleans Mardi Gras) in Rio. The Velha Guarda is the Old Guard, guys who have been at the samba and carnaval game since dinosaurs roamed the earth. He was, in his day, a passista, or dancer, and was, at some point, the lead male dance figure of the escola. Very cool.  He told me he started participating in Carnaval in 1946, but I forgot to ask him what age he was then. I think he is now about 70-something; he told me that, at least.

When I told him of my Brazilian party in Austin, HIS eyes lit up and he went over and grabbed the leader of the samba band which was now on break. He introduced me to him because he thought I might be interested in hiring them to play in the States.

Kid playing tamborim

Now, this band which played most of the afternoon, was composed of members of HIS escola, Estácio de Sá, so of course he was interested in hooking me, an important music producer from the US of A, up with these guys from his school.

We talked for a bit, he took my business card, and then dragged over a few more important members of the band. (I have already received an email from them…they want to set up a meeting so we can talk about some sort of tour of the US!!!!) Then they went back to business and played another couple of hours. More or less.

So I shot some video and some still photos and had a great time watching this amazing gathering.

What was interesting was the total lack of any sort of demographic pigeon-holing. The ages ran from four or so to eighty something. Black. White. Brown. Tan. And Very White, that would be me! Brazil is like that. Music and such events attract people from all ages and races, and they all get involved with equal enthusiasm in the party. Everyone knows the words to all the songs, and certain songs induce some sort of mass euphoria which I have NEVER seen in the USA. Never. People grin from ear to ear, sing along with the band, dance, either on the dance floor, or at their tables. And people start hugging each other expressing their happiness with the atmosphere, the music and the camaraderie. It is really amazing and inspiring. Why don’t we have this in the US?  (Other than football fans singing The Eyes of Texas, or some other such hollow sorts of community spirit….)

Here is a little video of my new friends, the samba band Turma do Estácio (the gang from Estácio)—

When the Estácio guys finished, some awards were handed out to significant contributors to the Cordão.

And then they brought out the heavy artillery.

This was in the form of part of the drum group—the batería—of the samba school Acadêmcos do Salgueiro, one of Rio’s most popular escolas de samba. These ostentatious, yet exciting, groups participate in the big, showy parades, competitions, really, in the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. This is BIG business, and very serious. The escolas parade in groups of several thousand, and the drum section alone can surpass 400 members!!!  On this day, Salgueiro only sent a couple dozen players, and a handful of their passistas—dancers, remember?

Austin’s own samba school, the Acadêmicos da Ópera, who perform with about 100 members at my little shindig, are greatly influenced by this escola. I could even hear it in the drumming.

So, the Salgueiro folks did their thing. I was exhausted just watching them. But it was very satisfying, and a great way to enjoy a Saturday afternoon in the midst of truly fun-loving people, some fantastic food, some spellbinding music, and to meet some new pals.

If anyone needs to hire a great samba group from Rio, and is willing to pay their airfare to Austin, and to run the gauntlet through US Immigration to get them their travel visas, give me a shout. I have a great contact and will be meeting them soon!

Here are the passistas and batería from GRES Acadêmicos do Salgueiro!!!!

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