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.
This weekend I went to Praça XV determined not to buy any records because the living room is already full of them, but when I saw a tattered but familiar cover I swooped down on the vendor’s table. Aracy de Almeida canta Noel Rosa: the wickedest genius who ever put himself to composing samba, his songs in the voice of the woman he said performed them best. I got it for R$5 and gloated for two days about the bargain. Today, though, I see that that is the price that this Rio — the Rio of the World Cup and the Olympics, the Rio of Porto Maravilha and Carnaval® — puts on its treasures. A full-price ticket to Sassaricando, by comparison, is R$100. The show is entering its eighth year. On the night I went the auditorium was packed, and peppered with enough celebrities that cameras were lying in wait outside.
I will reserve for myself the right to be wrong on this count, but this seems a much, much bigger problem than just one mediocre show. This is a show created by cariocas, for cariocas, performed by cariocas, all or at least most of whom should be at least vaguely familiar with the source material they are slaughtering and skinning, only to prance around in its hide. One of the singers was Paulinho da Viola’s daughter, another was the granddaughter of Monarco, I know for a fact that another of the vocalists is intimately familiar with the best of Chico Alves’ repertoire, and the show’s co-creator is a legendary old-time samba journalist. These are the people who have taken an absurdly rich trove of musical history and used it to create a bastardized, Disneyfied (those epithets stand for both the aesthetic and the musical arrangements) product for export. If they can’t be trusted to preserve the city’s heritage, what hope is there?
What is at stake here is nothing less than Rio’s collective memory, of what Carnaval and its music were and are. At the show’s close, the audience broke happily into “Cidade maravilhosa,” which fell on my ears like lead. Suddenly all the mediocrity I’d been faced with in my quest to reencounter the past, from the ruins of the Carmen Miranda museum to the pitiful Noel Rosa exhibit to the lone strange fellow at Chico Alves’ grave, seemed to make sense. The past is condemned to the dustbin once we have forgotten even what it looked like and applaud a rewritten, prepacked changeling in its stead.
One lone glimmer of hope, I have to say, did come to me in the darkest moments of the spectacle: a memory that was the polar opposite of that horror show. In 2012 I was lucky enough to see Roberto Silva, the Prince of Samba, at 92 years old still shining with the dust of the época de ouro. The venue was small and dark, but as the master worked the microphone, “soon it was transformed into a small, dark, intergenerational bloco.” Here was something magical. I didn’t know all the words, but as the marchinhas bobbed and swayed around me, repeating their contagious hooks, I began to learn them by heart almost as if I were making my way through the streets on Carnaval Tuesday. The crowd was young and old, with an even bigger crowd spilling out in the garden outside, and when the show came to a very reluctant end I felt as if something of the Rio of my dreams were running through my veins.
But that was then, and that was Roberto Silva’s last show — he died the next year — and Aracy and Noel are in the bargain bin. Tonight I’ll be listening to them, and that’s all I can say.