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Day 28: Olinda and Recife

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The railways may have gone but Recife looks after its historic station. The magnificent old window dates back a 150 years. French- designed and built with British steel.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe Venice of Brazil might be pushing it a bit, but I like Recife. Its buildings are a mix of old and new with little of distinction in either. Many of them, especially the modern ones, are in a shabby state, with concrete mildewed and peeling. But it stands out, this prow of Brazil, head onto the ocean, going about its business, sustained by the rich hinterland behind it, and by a creative energy within it. In some ways it reminds me of my home city of Sheffield. Robust, unstylish and indomitable. Adapting itself to a present very different from its past. We end the day back in Old Olinda, Recife's predecessor as capital of a prosperous state. It delivers everything that Recife doesn't: small-scale good taste, an homogeneous architectural style, a soft, fragrant prettiness and a feeling of being close to, indeed barely out of, the past.

I'm rather glad that my last memories of Olinda are quite the opposite of theme-parked colonial cosiness. In search of a last taste of the music scene I find myself at a club called the Xinxim do Baíana, xinxim being a classic Bahian dish of spiced chicken braised in palm oil. Though technically in Olinda, it's well off the toy-train circuit, being just one of a number of small crowded clubs beside the main road. Right next door is the Paramedics Union Social Club, where they're already dancing. The music that unites both places is called forró (from forrobodó, meaning 'to party') and it's Brazilian country music, big in the sertão, the hard, cattle-raising interior of the north-eastern states. It was originally played on accordion and percussion with the triangle featured. Now it's become fashionable with a young crowd and young bands which remain true to the style but experiment with the accompaniment. At eleven at night the band is still setting up. Paulo, who describes forró as 'the soundtrack of the North-East', looms above the crowds gathering outside. Most of them are drinking, but not aggressively so.

Forró may be a traditional style of music, but it's a very young and quite affluent crowd milling around outside Xinxim. Basil says they look like librarians. Paulo checks his watch, something Brazilians rarely do, and smiles at my English concern about getting to bed before travelling again tomorrow.

'Brazilians are night people. They're in no hurry,' he says, and my heart sinks.
But the music, when it does come, is worth waiting up for. Fresh, fast and lively, it's provided by a line-up that includes two percussionists sharing a variety of drums, shakers, a triangle and tom-tom, a fiddle player on a rabeca, with a hand-made bow, and an electric guitarist. The forró dance steps, done well, are amazing to watch. The couples dance close and the movement seems to come almost entirely from below the waist, feet moving in a rapid pattern, whilst hips gyrate rhythmically in a loose and sinuous, constantly rolling movement. This is extrovert, sexy stuff and the best dancers are marvellously agile. Paulo bellows through the wall of noise to point out that this is not a dance you sit and watch, and the next thing I know, I'm invited into the mêlée by two young girls and the standard goes way, way down. Despite all my reservations there is something so infectious about dancing the forró that I completely forget about tomorrow. Which is now here.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 28: Olinda and Recife
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Recife
  • Book page no: 122

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