Brazil's Carnival moves beyond samba
The crowd gathering Saturday was a typical Rio Carnival mix: a sprinkling of superheroes, girls in cute bunny outfits, zombies and princesses, a group of hairy-chested hula dancers.
But the sound sure wasn't samba. "You and I must make a pact," a high-pitched voice sang in English, soaring above the crowd. "We must bring salvation back."
The Michael Jackson themed "Thriller Eletrico" street party was one of a handful adding a dash of hard rock, Motown, Latin rhythms and other eclectic beats to the samba sounds associated with Brazil's wild Carnival celebrations, even if they include a season-appropriate jolt of percussion in their renditions.
Those who showed up for the Jackson "bloco," as the street bands and their followers are known, came prepared to celebrate their icon: There were white gloves in the crowd, along with sequined fedoras, wigs and get-ups representing the artist in various phases of his long career.
"I'm a huge MJ fan," said Marjorie Lopes, dancing near the stage as the band launched into "Don't Stop Till You Get Enough." "Now, mixing it up with samba, you can't ask for more!"
Tony Swaine, a flushed Irish visitor in a rather rumpled Bumble Bee outfit, was particularly appreciative of being able to sing along with the band.
The day before, he'd marched through a marathon of four blocos in which, as is typical, Brazilian partyers bellowed out the lyrics of decades-old Portuguese-language tunes they've known their whole lives while foreigners smiled and bobbed their heads, unable to join in.
"It was still fun," he said. "But here I can at least sing along."
Another rock-oriented group, "Sargento Pimenta," drew 60,000 revelers to a waterfront park last year for a Beatles homage, even if most of Rio is still dancing to the standard Carnival beat. One of the most respected traditional bands, the "Cordao do Bola Preta," drew about 2. 4 million revelers to downtown Saturday morning.
In a different city plaza earlier this week, other foreigners - the Uruguayans Maximiliano Duarte, who lives in Rio, and Luciana Vaccotti, who visits regularly - watched a new bloco group named for the Mexican classic "Besame Mucho" wind up its set with a bass-drum-heavy version of the Cuban anthem `Guantanamera'.
Playing around with tradition is very much in the Carnival spirit, said Vaccotti.
"It's a re-appropriation of Carnival by people who come from other places and want do this in their own way," she said.
Mexican-born Osvaldo Jimenez Farias, who is completing his doctorate in physics in Rio de Janeiro, agreed. He was one of the founders of "Besame Mucho", which also includes members from Puerto Rico, Colombia, the United States, Argentina, and Uruguay.
Their set is just as diverse as the band, including classics familiar to anyone in Latin America, or with at least a few Spanish classes under their belt: the Mexican folk tunes "Cielito Lindo" and "La Bamba" and the Argentinian hit "El Matador" by Los Fabulosos Cadillacs, among others.
"We're foreigners, but we're part of this city," he said. "The idea is to be part of this very Brazilian party, while recognizing that we also have something we can contribute."
The "carna-rock" band Bloco Cru also brings something new to the party. Lead singer Lu Baratz grew up in Rio but always had a rock-and-roll streak. She'd listen to The Clash, Iron Maiden, Metallica, but with "Brazilian ears," she explained.
"I'd hear rock and roll with tambourines, `Brazilianized,'" she said. "I also knew other people who identified more with rock and other rhythms. So I decided to take AC/DC out for Carnival."
She debuted that cocktail in Rio's streets five years ago, and found a home among the hordes of locals hungry for something less traditional.
"It attracts all kinds of tribes," she said. "It's what Carnival is about, isn't it?"