Samba Bill & the Road to Carnival – the complete series
February 16, 2010 by William K. Wolfrum
Last year I was luck enough to perform during Carnival in Brazil at Rio de Janeiro’s famed Sambódromo as part of the Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School. Below is the five-part series I wrote about the journey.
To say I’m at a crossroad in my life is a vast understatement. In fact, it would be more correct to say that I’m off the road entirely. The loss of my Mom has left me with a void that just can’t be filled, and will have to be worked around to the best of my abilities. My career, while occasionally full of bells and whistles, maintains its pace of consistent stagnation. Not that I much care at the moment. I keep working because that’s what I think I should do. But there’s truly a numbness in me that has taken over.
But life continues on, and I try and focus on the positive. Such as my loving wife, Emilia, who stood by me throughout an oft-turbulent 2008, as she’s stood by me for more than a decade. She is truly a miracle. But she has decided that she will no longer stand by me. The time for standing is over. It’s time to dance.
Call me Samba Bill.
In less than a month, Emilia and I will travel to Rio de Janeiro, where we’ll take part in the 2009 Carnival celebration. We will be part of the parade for the Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School in Rio’s grand Sambódromo. Just to give you a quick idea what this means, here is where we’ll be performing:
And here’s what I’ll be wearing:
Oh yeah, and I’ll need to samba my ass off for the entire, hour-plus-long presentation. And no, as a matter of fact, I can’t samba a lick. And neither can Emilia, thus disproving the theory that all Brazilians samba out of the birth canal.
So, we have begun taking samba lessons. Thus far we’ve taken one. My entire samba arsenal consists of the fact that I can walk forward and backward to the count of Um, dois, treis. Um, dois, treis … . More or less. But let me tell you, as someone who has never had a dance lesson before, the fact that I can do that is like winning Dancing with the Stars.
We’re taking this seriously, though. Carnival demands our best effort. Because in Brazil, there are 360 days where life is mass chaos. But during Carnival, the nation becomes a well-oiled machine. Brazil becomes a South American Sweden. And we’re taking it seriously for ourselves, as well. We are less than a month away from being part of one of the biggest shows on the planet and we want to do well and enjoy ourselves. And while there’s trepidation, there is also excitement at being part of this amazing spectacle.
So now, I have to think of the samba for a couple hours every day. And that gives my mind a little time off from missing my Mom. And it gives me more time to appreciate my wife. Because while I don’t know where my life will take me, I know that with Emilia at my side, there will be dancing. Oh yes, there will be dancing.
Having gone over and over it, it’s clear now that there really is only one difference between myself and Colombian pop sensation Shakira. My hips lie.
In fact, they go much further than lying. They commit monumental acts of fraud against humanity. They are more like Bernie Madoff in that way. Put as simply as possible, my hips are a complicated Ponzi scheme, and are selling the rest of my body a fraudulent bill of goods.
This is basically where I am with learning the samba in preparation for my performance at Carnival 2009 in Rio, where my wife and I will be a part of the Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School. I’m dealing with blatantly lying hips that are bent on wholesale destruction.
It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the fact that I just discovered that I actually had hips. In nearly 42 years on this planet, I have lived a relatively hip-free existence. The only real difference between myself and a sheet of plywood is width. Aside from that, our movements are almost exactly the same.
Each time we go to our samba class, it is a non-stop battle between myself and my hips. My patient and annoyingly talented instructor Fabinho gives me simple instructions on how to over exaggerate the swinging hip motion that more or less defines the samba. Then he shows me how it’s done, looking smoother than butter on the dance floor. Then I attempt it and look like Gumby on acid. Then Fabinho tells me to loosen up more and I manage to look someone’s playing hacky sack with a long-dead jellyfish.
Emilia, however, has found her inner Brasileira. If her hips are lying, I’m buying it. She’s taking to Fabinho’s instruction with gusto, and I’m positive she’ll be a huge hit during the Carnival celebration. My samba queen has moves, I tell you, and is loving the whole experience, no matter how often I question why we couldn’t have started our dancing careers by learning a pleasant waltz.
But so far, this whole experience is bringing back very pleasant memories of my Mom, however. Because while I am forever grateful for the positive attributes my Mom instilled in me, my inability to dance can be traced right to her. Did you ever see the “Seinfeld” episode where Elaine danced and left everyone in stitches? Well, Elaine was Ginger Rogers compared to my Mom. My Mom danced as if some was shooting small amounts of electricity into random parts of her body, all to a rhythm only she seemed to know. But she would have such a great time doing it that it worked. Her natural adorableness made her a dancer to enjoy. That was my Mom – whatever she did, she enjoyed, and you just couldn’t help enjoying it with her.
When Emilia and I were married in Brazil, my parents flew down and participated. And they got to see Brazilians party with their very own eyes. What was great about it was that they took a very “when in Rome” attitude, and partied, drank and danced. We even have pictures of my Dad sucking on a huge lollipop while dancing along with the three transgendered females who made an appearance at our reception and took it to the next level of festa. It was an epic party, to say the least, and years later friends still tell us how much fun they had.
When my parents left our reception at 4 a.m., my Mom, who was never opposed to enjoying a glass of wine or two and had a very pleasant buzz, saw that we had a table near the exit with shots of Baileys. My Mom stopped and said “Hey, Baileys!” and downed a shot and went happily on her way with my Dad.
“The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, I see,” said my wife, laughing.
No, this apple sure doesn’t. Which is why I’m taking samba classes and preparing to dance center stage at one of the world’s largest parties. Because, like my Mom, I want to try and take advantage of every opportunity that life throws at me. And I want to enjoy it all to the fullest. Regardless of whatever devious schemes my lying hips have in store for me.
As the clock ticked down on her life, my Mom never called out to God. She called out to my Dad, and even occasionally to her older brother, who was her protector when she was a child. Still, when the devout Christians in our family offered to pray with her, she always accepted. And being an eyewitness to several of these prayer sessions, I can say with absolute confidence that the prayers meant something to her and gave her peace. In that way, there is no doubt that every prayer said in her presence was answered, just by being given.
Being an atheist, I suppose I had always wondered how I would be affected by dramatic times such as my Mom’s brave final year. And, in all honesty, my lack of faith neither helped nor hurt me during those times. In a strictly personal sense, it never really came into play. But I was touched by the faith of others, to be sure. I was touched by their love and how they expressed it. More than anything, I was touched by the small smile and look of peace my Mom had when others prayed for her and with her. As a lifelong Catholic, it mattered to her, and so it mattered to me. My beliefs were purely irrelevant.
The last 15 months have been turbulent for me, and I still struggle with it all. But early on during this experience, I discovered a peace in myself in regard to religion. My narcissism was washed away. And while I came to understand my own beliefs better, I learned that my beliefs were just that – mine. And somehow through that, I reached a peace and acceptance of the beliefs of others.
So last night, when I found myself in a strange neighborhood attending a religious party, I had no interest in being skeptical of anything. I just wanted to experience the joy that religion was bringing others.
Fabinho – the dance instructor who is working desperately to loosen my hips and bring out Emilia’s inner Brasileira as we prepare to be part of the Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School during Carnival 2009 in Rio – invited us to this party. It was called a Party of the Kings, in honor of the three kings who came to visit Jesus on his birth. But it was much more than that. Because it was both a belated party for the Kings, but also a party to celebrate life.
The party was held at Fabinho’s home and was put together and paid for by his family. The party was held for Fabinho’s mother, Nausa. You see, Nausa had her own experience with cancer in 2007 and 2008. And after a long period of prayer and promises to God – as well as free medical treatment from Brazil’s universal health care system – Nausa is free of cancer. And the party was to repay those promises, and share food, prayer, fireworks and joy with friends and family.
One of the interesting aspects of Catholicism in Brazil is how in some parts of the nation it has been partially fused with beliefs brought over from Africa. Nowhere is this more commonplace than in the state of Bahia. There, the opulence of Catholic churches – at least one that I’ve seen that is gold plated top to bottom – combines with the African beliefs of the many descendants of slaves to create something that is far more joyous and more oriented to the faithful than anything you’ll find in the U.S. This is not your grandmother’s Catholicism, by any means.
Nonetheless, at Nausa’s party, I was able to follow along easily with the Hail Mary’s, Our Father’s and Ave Maria’s the party goers recited. Following the prayer session, a band played, with Nausa and her children giving thanks to God for answering their prayers.
The copious amounts of food – pasta, rice and beans, chicken and a desert made from papaya – was delicious and given out free to all who came. In fact, it was given out to any who asked, including a couple men who were drunk and showed up. And Nausa and Fabinho made sure they both received a hot meal, and were treated respectfully.
What hit home for Emilia and I was the love for family and friends that emanated from everyone there. We were outsiders but brought into the fold. We were treated no differently from anyone there. We were accepted and treated with the ultimate in kindness by individuals from all stations in life
We didn’t get to spend much time talking with Fabinho, who busily made sure all the guests were taken care of and entertained. But we quickly made friends, including with the numerous children that Emilia let cut in front of us in the line for food. But I did get to talk about him a little about our shared experience.
“Our whole family was crazy with worry, but we never stopped praying,” said Fabinho. “And now she’s healthy. Graças a Deus.”
Never have my own beliefs or lack thereof mattered less. And while the Hail Mary’s and other prayers had little importance to me, they did to them. A family that had fought through the terror of cancer and come through the other side, more alive and filled with love than ever. And ready and willing to share that love with any and all. And I thought of my Mom in only the best of ways all night, because of them.
Graças a Deus.
Sitting in a hotel in Rio, but one thought dominates discussion in the barren landscape of my mind: What the hell was I thinking?
Yes, as the clock ticks down toward our first foray into the fabulous, otherworldy, high-octane, mystical, eclectic, surreal, ornate, beautiful, indescribable world of Carnival, the fear and trepidation has begun. The thought that I will be taking center stage at an event that’s like Christmas and the day of your birth combined has led to a nervousness likely only caused by stage fright. heck, the most popular TV station in Brazil didn’t televise the Oscars, so not to interrupt the Carnival activities. But maybe I’m also nervous due to the fact that I still Samba like Gringo McGringo, the gringoiest gringo in Gringslavia. So there’s that. And a little stage fright, sure.
But there’s still a frustrated entertainer inside me, as there is with my wife, which has led us to such adventures as cheating our way to victory in front of 1,000 people on a “Newlywed Game” show on a cruise. I’ve also done some radio work and announcing and been in front of a camera for a variety of things. Basically, I dabble enough so that my performing itch is scratched. Maybe some day I’ll be in a nice community play. Of course, what I’ll be doing Monday night will be in front of the biggest crowd I’ll ever be in front of and broadcast to hundreds of millions. I know I won’t be the main focus, of course. At least I hope not. Because that would be a serious burn.
My Mom could have done it. I say this with confidence as she was the type who could cobble something together for any occasion. I also learned that I had told a lie against her. After proclaiming her a bad dancer (which she was from what I witnessed), I learned she could dance the polka like no one’s business. Keep in mind, she grew in the 1940s and 50s, to a very Croatian family in Pittsburgh. So her being able to polka well was impressive. It’s nice to still learn nice things like that about your Mom.
But my Mom wasn’t big on being in the limelight. She was happy directing things off screen. One funny quirk she always had was how she would get off the phone: “Well, I should be going. I don’t want you to run up your phone bill. I’ve go some clothes in the warsh.” For some reason, she always felt weird hanging up first, I think. Better yet, when she started to use e-mail, she’d end he messages with “Well, I should be going. I don’t want to keep you.”
But while she was more at ease behind the scenes, she also took part in a cancer walk in California and was a great host at the bone marrow drive we held for her. She would have thrived being part of a samba school in front of thousands of happy people. She truly liked when people were happy. Plus, her competitive spirit – which was powerful and meant she’d never just let anyone win, ever – would translate into her doing well in an atmosphere like here in Rio.
So, in roughly 10 hours, the great Carnival Project for Emilia and Bill reaches it’s climactic moment. I sure hope no one watches me. I hope I can get through this without costing the Imperatriz school any points. But while I’m nervous, I’m excited in knowing we’ll have an amazing time.
Well, I should be going. I don’t want to keep you.
Finally making our trek into Rio de Janeiro’s famed Sambódromo as part of the Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School, one thing became exceedingly clear – we weren’t seeing the big picture.
For the roughly one hour it took us to make our way through the Sambódromo, we were assaulted by lights, fans, and workers from Imperatriz trying to keep us in order. All told there were approximately 10 of us who took part in this adventure. Our section of the parade march included roughly 200 people. The entire Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School consisted of about 3,000 people. The Sambódromo was packed with more than 70,000 fans, and the television audience was in the millions.
But amid all the chaos, fun, dancing and people, the entire surreal party came down to just one person for me – Emilia.
Being a part of the Carnival celebration in Brazil is one of those “bucket list” type things. It is an experience all its own, and each person involved comes away with their own story.
I’m Samba Bill. This is my story.
To try and describe Carnival week in Rio de Janeiro is nearly impossible. Aside from the main samba festivities, there are block parties going on all throughout the city, where revelers can have their own Carnival party on the streets. Literally thousands of people from all walks of life are there in full festa mode, and there is a friendliness and happiness in the city that’s truly palpable.
It is in this environment of enjoyment that we made our way to the Sambódromo, hooked up with the Imperatriz team and waited for our turn to samba proudly past the electric crowd. The drinking, dancing and frivolity took center stage as the we awaited our trip down the literal center stage. Despite this atmosphere, however, I was lost in my own world of pain.
I had a toothache.
Luckily for me, one of the people in our little group of 10 happened to be a dentist, and before we went to the Sambódromo, he had hooked me up with some antibiotics. For this I am forever grateful to my new Dentist friend, who, strangely, I only know by his nickname of “Big Cutie.”
So for me, the first two hours of waiting for our turn in the parade were dominated by tooth pain. Luckily, the antibiotics did their job and the pain slowly dissipated. Unluckily, the amount of pain pills I had taken through the day decided to re-emerge as I had to go find a nice private place to throw up (note to future Carnival attendees: There are no private places to throw up there.)
My physical problems behind me, our band of Brazilians and foreigners began our trek down the parade walkway. Fully costumed in the 90-plus-degree heat, it was our time to perform.
Which brings me to Emilia.
My wife is many things, but at the heart of all those things is a Brasileira. She is a fun and happy person who rarely needs to be asked twice to have a good time. And she was not about to let this Carnival go by without getting the most out of it. Because while I was busy clutching my jaw and vomiting in front of grossed-out Carnival revelers, Emilia was busy enjoying the company of her two sisters, as well as shots from the bottles of booze that seemed to magically appear out of nowhere.
When our performance finally began, Emilia came over to me and gave me a kiss. Sweating, with a big smile and slightly glazed eyes, she had that look – this Carnival now belonged to her, so get out of her way.
So as we made our way past the throngs of fans, I was fascinated by the surrealness of it all. I played to the crowd some. I samba’d some. And I watched Emilia, who kept herself busy by tempting the Imperatriz officials to throw her out.
First, she was yelled at for taking pictures during the event. Then she scared the hell out of Brazilian actress Susana Vieira – who was in the crowd – by screaming at her how much she loved her. And all this while having Imperatriz officials pulling out their hair due to her complete unwillingness to even fake being orderly.
But she made it through, as did I. With Emilia’s joyousness, the music blaring and the crowd cheering, it was truly a remarkable event and an experience I’ll never forget. Friends new and old all came together for what was what can only be described as a celebration of life. It was everything I hoped it could be and more.
About six weeks ago, when Emilia approached me with her plan for us to take part in Carnival, I agreed for a multitude of reasons. The main one, however, was that I was still coming to grips with my mother’s death, and I felt like this would be a way to help me understand life and death and loss better. I can’t say I had a plan or anything, but I did feel as though there would be connections to be made and lessons to be learned.
As I wrote earlier, taking part in Carnival means you don’t get to see the big picture. You don’t get to see your school’s entire program and you don’t get to see the full opulence of the occasion. You are just one piece of a very intricate puzzle.
And I suppose that’s the ultimate lesson I took from Carnival 2009. That we are all just pieces of an incredibly intricate puzzle. That our connections are vital to make the rest of the picture come clear, whether it be at a world-famous festival or in life in general.
These are just words, of course. Because with Carnival 2009 behind me, I can safely say that I miss my Mother even more now. And I have no idea how to make that hurt go away or if I even want it to go away. Despite that, however, I feel the same clarity and love that I have felt since I was married some seven years ago.
Because I can see the big picture – in the beautiful, mischievous eyes of Emilia. I love you, baby.
More pictures can be viewed here.