São Paulo (Sampa) is not known for carnival. In fact, it’s not known for being much more than a bustling metropolis – the New York City of the Southern Cone. It’s all business, all traffic, all urban spread and all urgency. It is a far cry from the vision of Pão de Açúcar and Cristo on high that most people expect of Brasil. There are implants and big butts among this 10,659,386, but the “for sale” sign doesn’t dangle from people’s necks quite like it does on the banks of Copacabana. Sampa ain’t for you sleepers. And since it’s always felt enough like home for me to settle in real sweet at night, I decided a good carnival fête was in order this year.
Escola de Samba Vai Vai originated in a neighborhood called Bixiga. This neighborhood is centrally located to the chic parts of town, but it isn’t a member of the same score. Vai Vai is an institution that serves much of the same purpose as a historically black college – sometimes quality fades, but legacy trumps all. It’s been around since the 1930s, and it’s predecessor union dates back years before that. It was established as a football club, turned samba school, turned social network organization that would support this predominantely Black neighborhood as it grew ever encroached upon, ever in self-denial, as the Brazilian eugenics movement encouraged European immigrants of all nations to whiten the country. Attempts to make Blackness disappear in São Paulo, the cultural and financial capital of the nation, have left a strong legacy of reactionary Black militancy here. But since racism in Brazil isn’t defined by rules of law, but by social taboos, it’s in the heart of social organizations where culture, identity and preservation live or die. The jury is still out on whether or not a samba school should have to hold up the weight of a world, but the coffee leaves (the slavery cash crop) in the regalia reminds the window shopping sambista that this school has a history.
This is only part of Vai Vai’s story. And Vai Vai’s story is only part of the carnival story. And the carnival story is only a sliver of São Paulo’s story, but this is what I walked into. Perhaps years of visiting this place have left me with a keener understanding of why there are so many interracial couples. Why the theme of these schools will always be very “Black centric,” no matter how integrated the schools have become. Why a Nigerian babalawô seems to be hovering behind the scenes while the Brazilian pai de santo glides through the crowd with his blinging ileke on showcase. There are Baianas and clowns, warriors and naked women, dieties and porta bandeiras – man, these people are too clever for the cachaça flowing through my river and the 45 minutes we have to walk through the samba drome.
The samba drome is a Brazilian phenomenon, I’m told. It’s where all the samba schools must go to be officially judged for the carnival contest. Each group only has 45 minutes to pass through and each school has their own scheduled time to make an appearance. Vai Vai’s was at 3am on Friday, February 17th. I don’t have pictures because those of us who were dressed up and competing weren’t allowed to take pictures or show our cameras. There were floats – an Oxum to die for. There were well-stacked women sambaing and old ladies glowing under the glare of the stadium lights. I can’t say that the 45 minutes of fame, while dancing in the very last section of this samba choir, weren’t worth the 375 Reais and the clown suit. The view from the inside isn’t as pretty as what I saw on tv re-runs. But there are some things that must come off the bucket list and, for that alone, they are worth their weight in gold – lifted off your shoulders.
I say all this to say, I did it. I checked the box. And I smiled the whole way, screaming “O nha mãe Oxum, LI-BER-DA-DE,” while trying to keep my clown hat from falling from my crowned head.