Brazilian Town Holds Old-Style Carnival
SAO LUIS DO PARAITINGA, Brazil - Forget the massive floats, the scantily clad dancers and the nonstop TV coverage laced with beer commercials. The real carnival, they say, is here.
"It's free! Nobody pays admission! This is carnival as it should be!" says Galvao Frade, cultural affairs secretary of Sao Luis do Paraitinga, a town of 10,000 people.
A ticket to the grandstand at a parade in Rio de Janeiro, 120 miles to the northeast, can cost $100. Here you just show up and join the fun.
While one of this year's samba groups in Rio honors Xuxa, glamorous host of a TV kiddie show, Sao Luis do Paratainga's star attraction is, as ever, the late Juca Teles, the eccentric bailiff who kept carnival alive when the town's Italian Jesuit priest tried to ban it 80 years ago.
From Carnival Friday to Ash Wednesday, revelers pound the cobbled byways. They dress as "lost souls" risen from the cemetery, or swamp beasts covered head to toe in the red-tinted mud of the Paraitinga River.
"What tourists see at carnival in Rio is a bunch of half-naked showgirls on overblown floats," says Jo Amado, an editor who moved here two years ago. "In Rio, the tourist is a spectator, watching a Hollywood extravaganza. Here, everyone participates."
Sao Luis do Paratainga is the most prominent among a handful of towns and villages that do old-style carnival, with no artificial additives like TV stars and electric guitars.
On carnival nights, the narrow streets thunder with "marchinha," the musical style of loud brass, throbbing military beat and short, punchy lyrics that was made famous by Carmen Miranda, star of 1930s Brazilian and Hollywood musicals.
From 1983 until now, songwriters in the town have composed 1,000 marchinhas. It's as though a small town in upstate New York were single-handedly to put ragtime back in the pop charts.
"What we have done is unique," says Frade, the town official. "We have rescued an important musical style from oblivion."
The carnival offers older echoes too, in the Congada, a dance brought from Congo by African slaves in the 17th Century.
Juca Teles, who died in 1962, is the perennial favorite.
Despite being a bailiff, "he was popular. He was a raconteur. When he delivered a summons, he would put on a top hat, tails and a fancy white shirt," said dance organizer Benito Campos.
"People loved this. It took the edge off an unpleasant job."
Teles' nemesis was Monsignor Ignacio Gioia. "The monsignor would refuse communion on Ash Wednesday to anyone who had carnival confetti in their hair," says Frade.
While Gioia is honored by a plaque on the facade of the town's Baroque church, Teles enjoys a living memorial. Every year, 5,000 revelers join the Juca Teles parade, featuring full-throated marchinhas and huge wood-and-cloth effigies of Teles and his friends.
For this year's overall carnival theme, Sao Luis do Paraitinga chose a figure from Indian folklore - the Saci. A one-legged boy who wears a floppy red hat and smokes a pipe, the Saci was "guardian of the forest" for the Guarani who inhabited southern Brazil when Sao Luis do Paraitinga was founded in 1769.
Legend says the Saci should never be disturbed. An angry Saci will employ magic to scare off cattle, tie horses' tails together or make a stew pot boil over.
The mythical figure dominates Sao Luis do Paraitinga's carnival this year, from stuffed dolls perched on every lamp post to marchinhas recounting his prowess.
"This is a return to roots," says Amado. "The Saci borrows elements from the three great cultures that formed Brazil. The Indians invented him, but African slaves made him black and said he lost his leg in defensive combat; Europeans added the floppy hat, an artifact awarded by the ancient Romans to freed slaves."
Said Amado: "My only fear is that the TV networks and the big business sponsors will find out about carnival here. Once they get hold of it, true carnival will be gone forever."
Even as he spoke, a TV van from a local affiliate pulled up at the town square, and a reporter delivered the news that the Sao Luis do Paraitinga's carnival would be covered this year.