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Day 25: São Luís

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The Florestans come to town; headdresses are unloaded from the bus.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe drive from the favela into the Old Town is mercifully short. A couple of kilometres at most. The streets are heaving with people, and the Florestans are only one of a score of other groups from round the city come to show themselves off. Costumes are put on in the bus or in the car park, and within a few minutes the participants are transformed. Tiny Nadir has turned into a tree, with bands of feathers round her neck, waist and ankles. We all trail into the town, past various stages set up for performers who will keep on dancing till daybreak. The first performance of Floresta's show is at the end of one of the prettiest streets in the city, the Rua Portugal. The elegant, tiled facades of these arched colonial houses could not be more different from the ill-lit, shabby streets from which the Florestans have come, and yet their costumes and masks, led by the towering emu feathers, look so fine here that the dispossessed of Floresta find themselves being photographed by the rich white girls from the other side of town. They and their friends and boyfriends are clearly impressed by the parade from the favela and they trail along after the Florestans, moving slowly up the Rua Portugal in the company of trees, cowboys, men dressed as pregnant women and all the other characters of Bumba Meu Boi.

When the Florestans are called forward there are too many of them to fit on the stage so their performance takes place on the cobbles. The caller starts it all off and keeps the action going as the music and the singing and dancing begin. They're allowed forty minutes and they don't let up for one second. This is a continuous powerhouse of energy and enthusiasm. Their moment of glory. The night that makes it all worthwhile.

From here on we lose touch with Nadir and her co-celebrants. They're just having too much of a good time. As I watch them move on to the next stage I admire not only their spirit but also the quality of their particular performance. There are many groups here who use Bumba Meu Boi as an excuse for some advertising, or merely to emulate the dancers in one of the glossy TV shows. Not so Nadir and Apolônio's group. Their presentation is defiantly traditional and local. It owes nothing to glamour girls or rock stars. It tells the original story of Bumba Meu Boi with conscientiously embroidered, home-made costumes, original, inventive masks and a real feeling of a community creating something out of nothing. And something wonderful too.

The clocks strike, announcing St Peter's Day is here. It's midnight and in São Luís things are just beginning to get going.
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Nadir (left) doesn't just organize, she joins in.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 25: São Luís
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 111

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