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