The Victorious Lion troupe, a collection of middle-aged Brazilian men wearing unwieldy and colorful costumes, banged their drums to the rhythm of maracatu music as they made their way through the hot streets of Recife.
A few blocks over, teenage dancers twisted and twirled umbrellas on stage as they moved to brass-heavy frevo, another musical style associated with the traditional Carnaval celebration in northeastern Brazil.
“Samba? No, that’s the least traditional thing to have in our Carnaval,” said Jorge Diogo Souza Costa, a 24-year-old student from Recife. “All that elaborate spectacle, with women exposing themselves, that’s for the cameras in Rio. We don’t do that stuff around here.”
Every year, business in Latin America’s largest country comes to a stop for almost a week and most of its 200 million residents throw themselves so completely into revelry that reports of the proceedings often seem hyperbolic to those who haven’t seen them firsthand. For audiences abroad, that is usually limited to Rio’s polished samba school competition.
But in the state of Pernambuco, distinct Carnaval traditions stretching back to the1600s are on display as the poorer northeastern region emerges from the shadows of such dominant cities as Rio and Sao Paulo.
Slave plantations in the northeast provided the bulk of the economic output in the early colonial period. As power and influence shifted to the southeast in the early 20th century, states such as Pernambuco, Bahia and Paraiba languished in poverty, and many residents were forced to move to find work, often facing racism and hostility toward their cultures.
But in the years since former Brazilian president and onetime northeasterner Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva took office, the area has been growing much faster than even the booming southeast. Recife has become a new regional hub, and locals are more proud of their culture than ever.
“We’re here tonight celebrating our historical heritage,” boomed the voice of the master of ceremonies Sunday night. “We’re strengthening and preserving the culture of the people.”
Those who favor the Recife Carnaval call it unpretentious and fully democratic. There are no ropes separating the VIPs from the paying customers or the excluded crowds, as there are elsewhere. There are no competitions. Almost all the acts are free, and talent mingles with the crowds. Big-name musicians play both on the main stage and in poor neighborhoods far outside town.
One parade, organized around the “Morning Rooster” float, brought together more than 1.5 million people, according to event organizers. The oversized animal makes its way across one of downtown’s many bridges, amid architecture remaining from the period of Dutch dominance in the early 17th century.
About 700,000 visitors come to the region, dividing their time between the historic center of Recife and nearby Olinda, an even older town with an even wilder Carnaval.
There, miles of cobblestone streets are packed with the costumed and inebriated, who huddle around unorganized “blocks” of marching musicians and dancers.
Boys wander, approaching girls they’ve never met for a kiss, and many oblige. A young man, just pickpocketed, cries into his beer.
There are many traditional costumes, but really, anything goes.
In downtown Recife, Mario Cintra explained that “no other place matches Recife’s Carnaval, because no one has the diversity and expression that we do.” The 33-year-old security guard was dressed as an Arab sheik; his young son, in an Aladdin costume, sat on a magic carpet.
On television, Rio’s samba schools dominate Carnaval, and the professional nature of the competitions seem to overshadow the contributions made by most everyone, in small farming towns and big cities alike, during the long Carnaval season, .
Leia Lucas, 83, made her way home in Recife at 3 a.m. Monday.
“I never retired because I continue as a singer and a performer,” she said. “Come see me tomorrow. I’ll be dressed as a ray of light.”
Bevins is a special correspondent.