July 12, 2019
It's scorching, it's beyond crowded, and it's so loud that your thoughts can't even hear themselves. In lieu of listening, the colors seem brighter and the smells are more potent. At 92 degrees Fahrenheit and no personal space, the sweat you're slick with isn't only your own—it's Julia's, it's Everton's, it's Felipe's, it's Maria Eduarda's, it's Carnival!
Vendors on the side of the street decorate their stands in bright yellows and other attention-grabbing colors sponsored by Skol. Their stands smell of grilled meats and cheeses, fruits for cocktails, and spirits from vodka to wine to cachaça. They yell to their customers over the noise, trading money for macaxeira, beer, meat kabobs, or (more clandestinely) the recently banned classic drink Pau do Índio.
Uptempo electronic music blares from a slow-moving truck that bisects the crowded street and draws followers from the sidewalks to trail behind and dance in its wake. Bands of percussion players beat their drums and tambourines with such force that the colonial architecture of Olinda echoes back, making the warm Maracatu feel as though it is coming from everywhere at once.
Frevo chegou! Frevo has arrived!
And then there comes something that seems out of place, but is so rooted to the land and people that everyone knows the words to every note played.
Trumpets and brass horns blast, invisible fire spreads across the ground as people hop from leg to leg like popcorn popping. The sound is uptempo like the others, but the costumes are blindingly vivid and the dancers wave tiny rainbow parasols. They're jumping and kicking and standing on their toes in ways that seem almost painful, but they're doing it with smiles! The more dexterous of them leap high into the air and land in full splits, grins plastered on and parasols high in the air as onlookers cringe with imagined pain.
A staple of Brazilian Carnival, Frevo is a dance and musical genre from the urban coastal city of Recife in the state of Pernambuco in Brazil. Like the way people describe most things Brazilian, it is a mixture of culture and circumstance—in this case, European brass instruments and Afro-Brazilian Capoeira, which itself is derived from Angolan N'golo under Portuguese slavery in Indigenous American lands.
With Carnival's roots in Catholicism and Pernambuco's political power being strongly linked to the military, Carnival parades in the city featured religious procession music as well as martial music. Over the years as this became more and more of a tradition, rivalries formed between bands that marched with particular regiments and everyday people began cheering for their favorites. This spirit of competition pushed bands to play louder and faster to garner more praise and attention, thus giving birth to the flash-in-the-pan Frevo music we know and love today.
The dance that goes so well with the music of Frevo came when those band rivalries turned violent. Capoeiristas, or people who mastered the art of Capoeira, were hired by the bands to use their martial skills to intimidate crowds into making space. When Capoeiristas met, clashes occurred, and police got involved. To mask that they were doing Capoeira (which was a criminalized art form), the master martial artists would carry umbrellas and disguise their moves as new dance moves that sync'd with the music.
Humorously, Capoeira was born to disguise martial retaliation against bondage by enslaved Africans in the form of a dance, and Frevo was born to disguise Capoeira.