The handover show and the Crazy Creole Crunch

The Olympic handover to Rio on Sunday delivered a raucous and crunching mix of Brazilian rhythms, colours and clichés – but if you dig beneath the flashy surface you may find pearly drops of lyrical genius, says our columnist Victor Fraga

What do Brazil and the UK have in common? An immensely innovative and diverse musical heritage. Both countries showed off their beats and crunches at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. The UK gave the world  a convincing tour through the past 50 years of British music, reminding us of the indelible influence of icons such as the Beatles, Queen and the Spice Girls(!!!). Brazil also gave the world a taste of a very refined musical cuisine.

The Latin American giant started the rhythmic journey much earlier in the 20th century. The first song in the handover ceremony was Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Bachianas Brasileiras No5, a suite from the 1930s and a gentle reminder of the eclectic essence of Brazilian music to the world. Villa-Lobos mixed elements of Brazilian country and indigenous lulls with European devices from composers such as Bach and Wagner.

The performance also included other subtle references to the plurality of Brazilian music, such as excerpts of Canto das Três Raças and the energetic swamp song Maracatu Atômico. The former is an inimitable ode to the triangular origins of Brazilian music and culture (European, Indigenous and Black) voiced in the 1970s by Clara Nunes (the champion of Umbanda and Afro-Brazilian dances in the mainstream). The latter is song of the Mangue Beat cultural movement from North-eastern Brazil, which deftly mixed rock, funk and hip-hop with local rhythms such as maracatu in the 1990s (the group was very short-lived due to the founder’s premature death in a car crash).

Unfortunately the mainstream media is hardly interested in history and subtleties. And so it was the ultrapop diva Marisa Monte, the sambista-turned-actor Seu Jorge and the Rio rapper BNegão that caught the attention of almost all Brazilian newspapers and stole the limelight during the 15 minutes of the short handover ceremony.

The artistic directors of the event Cao Hamburger and Daniela Thomas named it “Samba do Crioulo Doido”, a Brazilian phrase meaning roughly “a crazy mixture of everything”, and which literally translates as “Samba of the crazy creole”. The title couldn’t be more appropriate.

But the cautious makers opted for an alternative translation: “Samba of the crazy man”.  They were probably wary of frothing PC-activists all over the highly sensitive English-speaking world (I wonder what they would do if they were asked to translate BNegão’s name into English. “Negão” means “big nigger”. Brazil has a very affectionate relationship to niggers: “neguinho”/“little nigger” is a pet name for a person of any race).

Language lessons aside, let’s get back to the show.

Sadly Hamburger and Thomas failed to replicate the musical magnificence of the handover ceremony on the visual aesthetics. Perhaps this is because Brazilian cinema will never be on a par with Brazilian music (both artistic directors happen to be filmmakers).

They strongly relied on Carnival clichés, but never succeeded to emulate the creativity and sumptuousness of the samba schools, and the result was purely tacky and plush. Indians with green fluorescent hats and high-tech samba costumes drew laughter from my Brazilian friends, while the human kaleidoscopic colour displays representing the pavement in Rio (the “calçadão carioca”) are an obtuse reference only to be recognised by those who’ve already been to the beaches of the Brazilian city.  Marisa Monte’s Yemanja’s costume to which she sang Villa-Lobos was also hardly intelligible (Yemanja is the African orisha of the oceans).

The final piece of the spectacle was dubious too: an impromptu appearance by Pelé. The man who is often lauded “sportsman on the century” or simply “the King” may seem like an obvious choice, but any Brazilian person knows that he has a very dark side. Pelé has an ill-reputation for being the King Midas of Faeces. In other words, everything he touches (or says) turns to shit. His life outside football has largely consisted of own goals and absurd predictions, and he is feared across the country as a jinx. “The King’s” last contribution to Brazilian sport happened on Saturday at Wembley Stadium, when Brazil and Mexico were thriving for their first Olympic gold in men’s football. Pelé’s presence helped to ensure an upset victory for Mexico, one of the quickest goals in history (at 29 seconds, for Mexico) and a humiliating heartbreak for Brazil. I truly hope that he will not do the same to the entire 2016 Olympic Games.

Superstitious or not, Hamburger and Thomas delivered precisely what they proposed: the “Samba of the Crazy Man”.  They set the ball rolling. The world saw an energetic mix of Brazilians rhythms, colours, races and references, with elements of swell elegance, lyrical grace, and – at the same time – cheap stereotypes and absurdity. The crazy creole crunch, in every sense of it.

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