With fighter jets, inflatable pools, Nigerian-Brazilian hip-hop artists, beach volleyball, politicized circus clowns, Daniela Mercury, and a Disney parade, the Brazilian capital celebrated its fiftieth birthday with a barrage of parades and concerts rivaling Carnival. Candangos (immigrants from the four corners of Brazil who came to build Brasília) and Brasilienses (successive generations born in the city) converged on the central axis of the Plano Piloto, bookended by the Eiffel-esque TV Tower and the bifurcated Brazilian Congress, to dance samba and forró, eat corn-on-the-cob and street meat, and, of course, drink gallons of Skol and Antárctica. A special free concert by electronica guru Moby served as a pre-show last weekend, but the official celebrations kicked off Tuesday night, with concerts by established and emerging pop, rock, hip-hop, and gospel acts (Tuesday, incidentally, was the not-widely-heralded Day of the Indian).

Wednesday, a nationally-recognized holiday honoring independence hero “Tiradentes” and the official date fifty years ago when Brasília opened for business, saw a bona fide Disney parade thunder down the Esplanade, the reverence for good ol’ Walter Elias Disney echoing that for the similarly visionary President Juscelino Kubitschek (affectionately known as “JK,” Jota-Ka), whose controversial dream of a modern and futuristic capital came true out of, literally, thin air. Crowds in Brazil’s trademarked rainbow of browns—from coal to cream—poured in and out of the mile-long party space, laughing, yelling, flirting, fighting, and mixing under a constantly morphing sky. Uniformed police ambled through the masses, eyeing bare midriffs while keeping order; vendors hawked beer and mangoes and prayer tickets, while Rihanna’s “Take A Bow” blared from the speakers at the central bus terminal anchoring the action. As dusk descended and the puppet shows and folkloric indigenous and Afro-Brazilian dance presentations turned into rock and samba and jazz and MPB concerts on various stages, families with curly-haired youngins headed home as teenie-boppers and hipsters in skin-tight everything flooded the area in anticipation of the headliners Daniela Mercury and Milton Nascimento, and a tsumani of lower-profile but popular bands who rocked BSB until 4AM. If nothing else, Brasília’s birthday bash is a testament to making something out of nothing, and to a youthful, energetic city poised for another fifty years of planned disorder and chaotic progress.

Parabéns, Brasília!

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Carnaval de Barranquilla, February 2009

One of the traditions of Carnival here in Colombia is the throwing of corn starch and water on unsuspecting revelers. This is the first time in three years that someone has succeeded in tagging me. Leave it to three intrepid Colombianas down from New Jersey…they had been plotting from the moment they saw me.

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Photo by Colombian soul

The week between Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday in all Catholic-leaning societies is called Holy Week, Semana Santa in Spanish. The end of the sacrificial season of Lent, the start of which is commemorated lustily with Carnival, offers the faithful their chance to celebrate with pageantry, color, and prayer, Christ’s resurrection from the dead. In Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, it is in the small towns where Christian beliefs hold tightest, and where the most elaborate expressions of devotion are displayed by front-pew matrons and back-door backsliders alike.

The two largest celebrations are in Mompox, the steamy river station upstream from the Caribbean seaport at Cartagena, and Popayán, the white-washed grande dame of colonial cities in the southwest of the country. Both events are marked by daily masses, processions involving robed participants, and re-enactments of the Last Supper, Crucifixion, and Resurrection, witnessed by thousands of pilgrims from all over.

I, being the heathen my mother hoped I wouldn’t turn out to be, will be celebrating this work-free week solemnly reading, writing, watching DVDs, and hitting the gym.

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So you want to get in on the Carnival action but don’t know where to start?

Find out when.
First, you need to get the dates cornered before embarking on any pre-Lenten debauchery. True Carnivals – be they in Brazil, Italy, Spain, the Caribbean, or any other Catholic-leaning society – occur simultaneously, which means ix-nay on a year-round party binge (unless, of course, you count New York’s West Indian Day parade, Calle Ocho in Miami, the Notting Hill joint, or innumerable other Carnival-esque activities that are not True Carnivals and can happen on any random date); you can only choose one event per year. Also, just like Easter, which is always forty days after Fat Tuesday, Carnival jumps around the calender every year: for 2010, the main events run from February 13th through the 16th, with celebrations kicking off a few days beforehand in spots like Salvador.

Find out where.
Besides the biggies (Rio, New Orleans, Venice), you’ve got the Carnivals featured here on Fly Brother (Salvador, Barranquilla, Trinidad), plus parties in Panama, Santo Domingo, the Canary Islands, Florence, Cologne, Sydney, Port-au-Prince, Goa, Buenos Aires, and Mobile, so language-barriers and dislike of long flights serve as week excuses for not going buck-wild at somebody’s fête-a-tête-tête.

Find out who.
You could choose to hit Carnival solo, which is always a good way to meet new people on the road. Still, heading down with an established group is the best way to maximize your enjoyment and minimize hassles. You may think of yourself as an independent person, but you can always break away from the group for some alone time while still taking advantage of discounted airfares and accommodations, and the knowledge of local tour guides or experienced travelers. Each year, in addition to traditional travel agencies, educational institutions and individuals arrange group packages with which anyone can become affiliated: Dr. Jan DeCosmo of Florida A&M University organizes inexpensive packages to Trinidad and Salvador under the banner of “Friends of the Caribbean” (email her at k d e c o s m o [a t] h o t m a i l [d o t] c o m for more information) while Atlanta-based dancer Jazz Baptiste has established a Meetup group for next year’s do in Rio at only $5 a day. And the closer it gets to the blessed event, impromptu travel groups spring up on websites like Virtual Tourist, BootsnAll, and Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree Forum.

Find out more.
English-language websites for Carnival in Barranquilla, Salvador, and Trinidad.

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Part 3 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.

On the tiny Caribbean island of Trinidad, four-hundred years of recorded history under various European flags and immigration from the four corners of the globe have shaped and molded the look and feel of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival into one of the most distinctive and flavorful events in the English-speaking world. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, TnT Carnival stems from French colonization (though Spain held title over the place back then) and has incorporated elements from Africa, Europe, Venezuela, India, and North America; these elements, in turn, were exported throughout the West Indies and overseas, including London’s famous Notting Hill Carnival.

Besides the obvious visual stimulation of a scrumdiddlyumptious backside winin’ to some soca, TnT Carnival is an ocular feast of traditional costumed characters that make the Disney Main Street Parade look like an elementary school Christmas pageant. Observe:

The Fancy Indian (based on traditional Plains Indian dress from the modern-day US and Canada):
Photo by caribbeanfreephoto

The Moko Jumbie (derived from the Congolese tradition of village protectors who could see trouble before it arrived…basically, security guards):
Photo by Withthejameses

The Midnight Robber (inspired by the traditional African storyteller, the griot, who tells tall tales about his exploits, adventures, and prowess…lookin like a piyimp):

Photo by izatrini_com

Dame Lorraine (a playful version of a typical French aristocratic lady, with her big-booty self):
Photo by longdistancelady

Jabs (French patois for “diable” – devil – these firestarters come in various shades and manifestations – wings and sharp teeth and such; as you can see, they start young, the little hellions):
Photo by dexout

Cow Folk (based on, well, cows):
Photo by shawnking99

*The word “mas” is short for “masquerade” and is used to denote the various costumed bands of revelers during TnT Carnival.

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Part 2 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.

Growing every year by word of mouth, the Carnaval de Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is more an expression of folklore and regional culture than random debauchery and merriment. In 2003, the festival was named a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations. Instead of an ever-shifting theme, this party features an array of signature dances that embody the synthesis of cultures that make up Colombian society, each with a particular set of costumes and its own rhythmic beat. Here are three of the most popular dances performed at Carnaval:

The national dance of Colombia, the cumbia marries the gyrating hands of the Spanish, the swiveling hips of the Africans, and the steadfast foot-shuffle of the Indigenous peoples in a pas de deux of civilized seduction.

The costume of the garabato supposedly symbolizes life and death, while the movements indicate nothing but a joy for living (and drinking).

More traditionally danced at night and in loincloths, the mapalé (“fish out of water”) has probably remained the most unchanged from its cultural origins of all the Carnival dances.

And yes, I have been out Carnivaling…see:
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Part 1 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.

While most of the world looks to its more famous neighbor to the south as the epitome of pre-Lenten debauchery, Brazil’s first capital, Salvador da Bahia, is truly where you find Brazilian Carnival. Or, rather, Carnival for Brazilians. You don’t “see” Carnival in Salvador from the sidelines, you live it for six days and nights, non-stop, eating skewered street meat and getting no sleep. Billed as less commercial than Rio’s renowned festivities, Brazilians from north to south pounce on Salvador to dance in the shadow of their favorite pop stars, and maybe even have a quick fling or two with a hottie from another state. Still, Carnival in Salvador offers ample opportunities for both the innocent and the grown-and-sexy to enjoy the combination of history, culture, and unexplainable magic for which Brazil is known.

The colonial capital from 1549 to 1763 and once the largest slave port in Brazil, Salvador holds nearly three million people, over eighty-percent of whom having discernable African ancestry. And the music and dance and food originating here—more than in any other part of Brazil—is mainstream, not just a subculture. There is no place quite like Salvador. Some places come close: pre-Katrina New Orleans with music on every corner, Havana, where salsa and Santería share equal billing.

But no place captures the convergence of African and European cultures as thoroughly and inextricably as Salvador. The city government has even erected statues in homage to the “Orixá,” the Yoruba pantheon of deities celebrated in Brazilian Candomblé, Spanish Caribbean Santería, and Haitian Vodou, the syncretic religions created when slaves were “converted” to Catholicism. This cross-pollination forms the bedrock of Brazilian culture and is manifested at its purest in Salvador, where anyone can add his or her own flavor to the already rich stew.
Carnival is a two-pronged event in Salvador. Family-friendly Pelourinho (“whipping-post” in Portuguese), the city’s church-steepled historic district perched high above the sea, plays host to traditional costumed bands of revelers and samba groups that parade over the cobblestones with interminable energy.

Unlike Rio, with its ever-changing samba competition squeezed into a specially-designed stadium, Salvador’s groups remain true to historical themes—grandmothers swirling dervishly as hoop-skirted “Baianas,” white-robed men walking pensively as “Filhos de Gandhy” (Sons of Gandhi)—while be-feathered kids and muscle-toned capoeristas frolic in sunburnt plazas. Clowns and mimes cavort on strategically-placed stages, all-Asian percussion sections tap out lightning-fast sambas, up-and-coming ingénues coo bossa nova classics from back alley cafés, and body-painted teenagers grab unsuspecting tourists for a little shimmy-shaking.

Starting mid-afternoon, Carnival gets down-and-dirty, literally, in the Cidade Baixa (Lower City), with the “trio eletrico” parades in the downtown district of Campo Grande, or along the beach at Barra and Ondina. Essentially gigantic boomboxes hitched to trucks, trios eletricos are moving concerts, topped by wildly popular Brazilian musical acts that belt out gyration-inducing “axé” music, a bawdy combination of samba and reggae. Timbalada, Olodum, Daniela Mercury, and Ivete Sangalo entertain hundreds of thousands of fans—often drunk, horny, or both—who squeeze into the streets around the trios and are known collectively as “pipoca” (popcorn) because usually the only range of motion in the crowd is vertical. Young people wear the most basic attire, bring nothing more expensive than a disposable camera, and stash their money safely in their undies; older partiers watch the action from bleachers along the sides, a decidedly less-raucous experience but one with a better-stocked bar than on the street.

Yes, I have been smack in the middle of all this humanity. Yes, it’s the lick!

Still, the intimate contact of thousands of bodies under an infectious rhythm conjures up a natural high that keeps the place rocking until daybreak. Should an unexpected rainstorm arise, clothes come off and the party don’t stop. You, like the Brazilians around you, just let the wet cleanse you of the sweat.

Any of you guys got any Bahian memories you want to share?

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