The Beat Goes On and On

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 23, 2003

Fifteen minutes before the match begins, the samba drums start up. The drummers are on the opposite side of the largest soccer stadium in the world, but they are loud enough that I must lean over to speak to the person beside me. The drumming continues without pause for the next two hours, as fans scream songs and curses, celebrating and excoriating the local Flamengo team. It's Rio de Janeiro's Maracana Stadium -- and a side of Brazil few tourists see.

Brazil, of course, is known for Carnaval in February or March, where endless processions of musicians and dancers flaunt flowers and jewels. But visit during the rest of the year and you can still enjoy great music, the national obsession with soccer, the Amazon rain forest and the world's widest waterfall -- without hefty markups or tropical summer heat.

My wife and I have long had a love affair with Brazil. For her, Brazil means the complex rhythms of the samba, the moody bossa nova and the high, twirling kicks of capoeira dancers.

For me, Brazil has meant the Beautiful Game, a fluid, attacking style of soccer. When I was 15, I hid an ankle fracture because my parents would have taken me to a doctor instead of to a film about Brazil's soccer stars. Only after watching "Giants of Brazil" did I confess the injury, whereupon an orthopedist put my foot in a cast for three weeks.

Visiting Brazil in August was a way for both of us to understand how the country has produced so much great music and soccer. The samba drummers at Maracana boomed answers to both of us. Beneath them, a giant banner exhorted the team to play for the love of the game, not for money: "Mercenaries, honor the shirt and respect the fans." Leandro Weissman, a local translator and guide, told us that soccer fans in Rio were angry with the local teams because they were horse-trading players.

The game was wonderful. For 90 minutes, neither Flamengo nor the opposing Sao Caetano team showed the slightest interest in playing defense. The 10,000-strong crowd, mostly wearing the red and black Flamengo colors, viciously cursed whenever their team passed the ball backward. They even cursed when the other side played defensively, and I realized why Brazilian soccer has become synonymous with attacking play.

Sitting on hard plastic seats -- the original stadium was built in 1950 without seats and could pack in 200,000 people on concrete steps -- I picked up several Portuguese curses, which Weissman reluctantly translated. Fans screamed advice to the players, and one man in the next row dislodged a plastic seat with a mighty kick after Flamengo missed a goal.

When Flamengo finally scored, the Cariocas -- the name for Rio's locals -- broke into spontaneous song. Weissman joyously sang along with everyone else, then translated: "Oh my Flamengo, I love you / I want to sing to the whole world / The joy of being a red and black."

And the samba drums boomed on. Normally, the drumming would have been part of the background for me, but I took particular pleasure in them now, as my ear had been trained two days earlier in a percussion class in the city of Salvador da Bahia.

Dancing and Drumming

Salvador da Bahia is about 1,000 miles northeast of Rio, and the old part of the city called Pelourinho is packed with music and dance schools. The schools spend much of the year rehearsing for Carnaval, and visiting during the off-season is a great way to watch artists develop their work.

Early one evening, as my wife and I walked along one of many cobbled streets in Pelourinho, we passed the Brazilian Association of Capoeira Angola. Half a dozen drums boomed from third-floor windows. Impulsively, we walked inside. The drums grew deafening as we climbed the steps. In a small room, we found a circle of people clustered around Professor Macambira, a wiry man with protruding front teeth and a mop of frizzy hair who was sitting before a conga drum with a broad grin on his face. We immediately signed up for a class.

Like almost all Brazilians we met outside the hotels and tourist centers, Macambira spoke only Portuguese -- but his drumming needed no translation. He led us through some warm-up rhythms, including one beat called the Ijexa. Then he showed us the basic beat of the samba, the same rhythm I would later hear in a much more layered and syncopated version at Maracana Stadium. Macambira's lithe fingers flew over the drum. I was certain I could never reproduce it, but he showed us how to break up the beat into smaller segments. In moments, the three of us were pounding the unmistakable rhythm of the samba.

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