among the advantages of not taking the bus

among the advantages of not taking the bus

To say nothing of avoiding the terrible service, the price hikes, the violently jerky ride… When one has the luxury of time to walk instead and the freedom to arrive at one’s destination bathed in sweat, there comes as a bonus the possibility of stopping dead in front of a gate on the hill in Gávea and encountering a sleek, serene capybara.

Another gawker suggested that it (“she,” necessarily, in Portuguese) had wandered down from the forest. The capybara was sitting and facing the street, looking nonplussed and blinking slowly. Then she rose and turned, affording us a profile shot, before striding off.

It may be Carnaval or summer or the city boiling with heat and discontent, or all of the above, but there is something strange in the air. The other day I went looking for a cell phone and found a vagabond group of Chilean klezmer players. Entropy is running high.


o meu luto é a saudade

photo (27)

On the subway in Mexico City, my least favorite things were the music vendors. Whenever the doors opened to let one of them in — you can spot one a platform-length away, because they wear enormous backpacks that are essentially massive amplifiers strapped to their bodies — I cringed, anticipating what was to come. Inevitably the backpack/boom box was switched on, and the vendor would bellow the sales pitch (100 songs on a CD! for just 20 pesos!) over the ear-bursting strains of some hit. This was already bad, but the worst was yet to come. Not content with blasting the eardrums of the subway car, the boombox backpack was programmed to change songs every 15 or 30 seconds, generally just as the song became familiar or got into its groove. Musical water torture, in short.

I went to Sassaricando last night expecting a show that paid playful homage to the songs of Carnavals past. Only once I had entered the theater, settled into my seat, and been locked in by the iron bar that is social convention did I realize that I had just bought a ticket to a Mexican subway boombox show.

There are nearly a hundred songs listed in the program — 89, to be precise. (I ripped up the program slightly over halfway through the show, but I picked up the pieces once I resolved that I was going to write a critique and wanted to be able to reference it. I am nothing if not methodical.) And if you’re wondering how 89 songs can fit into two hours with intermission, the answer is an unholy mashup with zero respect for the songs’ structure, tempo, character, time period, or subject matter. In some cases the most recognizable line from a given marchinha would simply be belted out in pure High School Musical style (the best descriptor I can come up with for the cast’s vocalizing, as a whole), and boom, the arrangement moved on. Meanwhile, precious time was devoted to a monstrously stupid skit about a bullfighter. (I ripped up the program when I realized that this was the intro to “Touradas em Madri,” a Carmen song I am particularly fond of.) No one song survived beyond the second verse, at most. Survival being a generous appraisal, mind you, given that everything was performed in a poisonously bouncy musical monotone.

Over the course of the show I slipped from irritation to rage to depression, from polite clapping to crossed arms to lightly hitting my head on the back of the seat in front of me. Meanwhile, the crowd was guffawing, singing along, and generally having a grand old time. I felt pain — the pain of heartbreak, that feels all too physical — as the songs I felt so close to were tossed around, mutilated and unrecognizable, before a cheering crowd.

The show had touched a nerve. Afterwards, pacing around the parking garage, I realized what it was, and then tears started to come to my eyes.

I am afraid that this is what will become of samba. Not the genre as a whole — that would be harder to kill — but the samba that made me fall in love with Rio de Janeiro years ago, the samba churned out at a fever pitch of creativity in the vigorous, cutthroat first steps of the recording industry. I listened to the original recordings of these songs in the chill of my dorm room, five thousand miles and a half-dozen decades away, and something of that winking, infectious warmth made me determined to know the place and the people that had produced them. That hook has drawn me across years now, always tugging me back to the source of that original magic. Continue reading


At the bank, as at the supermarket, as at plenty of other places that fall under this particular government injunction, there is a special line. The elderly, the pregnant, the disabled, and those juggling toddlers are given the privilege of a slightly shorter wait, with one or two cashiers attending them exclusively. At the bank on the corner of General Glicério and Rua das Laranjeiras, the priority line — envisioning the needs of the elderly, pregnant, disabled, and those juggling toddlers — is a little colony of padded chairs. Those in such circumstances take a number and sit, separated by a divider from the young, hale, and barren, who snake obligingly around in tight lines and wait crowded together and standing on their hale legs.

One elderly woman, however, opted out of this privilege. I had come in to pay the bills for the apartment and foolishly chosen the busiest time of the day. Nearly all the padded chairs were occupied, but this elderly woman in a pale green housedress was standing in the normal line. This was a very conscious choice, as we were soon to hear. “You won’t catch me sitting in the old laaaaadies’ line,” she drawled, leaning on the divider. The young and hale exchanged looks, while those who were sitting seemed unperturbed. She muttered something else about the fila de veeeeelha. If she had been behind me I would have let her go ahead, but she had a several-place lead on me.

As the line shuffled along, the commentary took a turn, and was now directed at the immediate vicinity.

“You all will see, there’ll be plenty of surprises yet until the hour of death.”

I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. The line inched forward.

“And after death there’s no going back. Que pena.” She shook her head. “No reincarnation. Que pena.” The chit-chat about bank wait times was steadily fading out.  “No Purgatory either,” she  said. “Nobody’s going to come pull you up by the collar and save you, nuh-uh.” She mimed pulling a soul out of Purgatory by the collar, capping the motion off with another grim shake of the head.

There was still plenty of line left, but for a while she fell silent. As we rounded the final turn: “These’re things nobody wants to know about life.” The cashiers were just a few steps away. I looked down at the yellow tape at my feet and had to laugh at how terribly appropriate (and therefore inappropriate) this injection of existentialism was, for all of us shuffling along, watching the clock and toeing the line. Coisas que ninguém quer saber da vida, não.

Aguarde, said the yellow tape. Wait.

pointless and necessary


In a week when most things seem pointless and the smallest tasks insurmountable, when days stop dragging and start slipping away noiselessly, sometimes the cure can be to indulge in something outrageously, gleefully pointless. Like getting back from work, eating dinner, and, instead of diligently working on translations, putting on a jersey and embarking on an hour-long trip to spend another few hours yelling and singing words of encouragement for a dozen or so guys as they kick a ball around a field. The undertaking felt stupid and frivolous for exactly one bus-stop-length, until another girl in a Botafogo jersey got on the 580 and immediately sat down next to me, striking up a conversation about tickets and stadium sectors and what formation the coach would opt for in this make-or-break match.

All the way to the stadium I felt enveloped in a camaraderie that was foreign to flesh-and-blood tragedy, blissfully anonymous and set apart from the sharp edges of the real world, albeit boasting sharp edges of its own. In the snaking line to get into Sector B, an older woman chatted with me: she was there with her family, all converted to the religion of Botafogo by her husband, and they had taken the day off to catch a plane from small-town Minas Gerais. It was their first time in Rio. They wanted to know if they would have a good view of the field, if it would be hot, if the ultras were going to fight or set off flares (“this isn’t Corinthians,” I told them). Every time I was ready to slip off into melancholy, Angélica — that was her name — or her daughter would tap me on the shoulder and ask something else, or volunteer more information.

I bid the Minas family farewell and a good game and lost myself in the current of fans entering the stadium. When the players came out onto the field, the southern swath of the New Maraca rose as one, lifting paper placards to form a massive mosaic and bellowing a song. I was transported, coursing with nervous energy. The air of a packed stadium is a potent elixir.

Until the first goal I was furious; until the second goal I was fatalistic; until the third goal I was tearing at my fingernails; but when it came, virtually sealing the victory, tears came to my eyes. At the fourth goal, I looked up at the bright ring of the roof and felt relief. There is a stupid electric joy in seeing the ball hit the back of the net and hearing 50,000 people scream around you, over the 90 minutes pregnant with possibilities that resolve themselves into a chronicle of frustration or glory, one written breath by breath. I was alone, but that was fine, because everything was at stake and nothing mattered. When I got home I could sleep heavily and well.

in lieu of farewell

For me, Eduardo Coutinho was Brazil.

Not the postcard glamour of Rio or the expanse of the Amazon, but the Brazil that only reveals itself with time, patience, and open ears. The land of Roberto Carlos and Cabo Laurindo, pop songs and swear words, the Brazil that always reminded me of how little I knew and how much there was to understand.

I met Coutinho along with Rio. Within a week of arriving in the country I was summoned to the sixth floor of the blue office building in Glória where he kept court at Videofilmes. It was also my first time on the Metro, and I thought I’d missed my stop and was desperately trying to look nonchalant until Catete slid away and revealed that I was where I was supposed to be. One hour in the editing room with Coutinho is worth a semester at Princeton, João wrote.

I remember following someone along the carpeted corridors to the end of the hallway, to the final editing room. He was leaning at a dangerous angle in an office chair, legs crossed with the improbable angles of a scarecrow, posted near the open window in order to let the smoke from his cigarette waft out into the wet air. I was star-struck, and to make matters worse I could only make out about a third of what he was saying. I knew that gravelly voice with its rumbling rs from behind the camera, but before I’d always had subtitles to guide me.  The white mane, the cloud of smoke and the weary eyes were all I could make out clearly. I perched on the black leather sofa and watched him sift through hours of footage for As canções — one girl was pretty and had a lovely voice, but was clearly, gratingly self-aware. Another interviewee was breathtaking. “Puta que o pariu,” Coutinho pronounced after the footage was paused, his eyes softening into a triumphant grin, casting around to make sure everyone else had seen what he had.

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