Written by Christina Gossmann. Photos by Sam Wolson
Across the sea of long-haired heads and peace-forming hands stuck into the air, I see a sign that stands out above the crowd. "Se perdeu?" (Got Lost?) it says on one side; "encontram-se aqui " (Meet Here) on the other. Ingenious. A floating meeting point for those poor fellas who are intoxicated or overwhelmed enough to get lost in this human ocean. Which is, actually, not hard at all, because on this Carnival Monday, at 2.30pm, tens of thousands of people have gathered at Marina da Glória in Rio de Janeiro. Crammed between groups of sturdy cross-dressers drinking out of Skol beer cans and many hundreds of hippies, equipped with heart-shaped sun glasses and caipirinha cups, everyone is shaking it to the samba version of -- "I Wanna Hold Your Hand."
Finally, we have made it to a big deal bloco. (For more information on how this journey started, check out Part 1.) Not only is this an immensely popular bloco -- we are talking over 14 thousand Facebook likes -- but it is one that transcends age, language and borders. Of the almost one million tourists who come to Rio during the five days of Carnival each year, only a minority speaks Portuguese. This is an extraordinarily unfortunate circumstance, since half the fun at blocos is singing along.
"Sargento Pimenta," Portuguese for "Sergeant Pepper" makes exactly that possible. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was The Beatles' alter ego band under whose name the eighth album, a forerunner of the concept album, was recorded. The album's live performance style was intended to substitute touring and reach even more listeners around the world. Similarly, the bloco Sargento Pimenta reaches out to include a greater audience, through Brazilian-flavored Beatles classics.
"Sargento Pimenta is not just a "Bloco de Carnaval". It is an initiative started by friends, for all of our friends, and for all people who together share the same dreams and are happy," says the bloco's Facebook page.
Carnival and The Beatles seem to go together naturally considering that both are based on the idea of celebrating culture, love and unity. But it took a group of non-musicians for a Beatles only bloco to become a reality, lead-singer and guitarist of Sargento Pimenta, Felipe Fernandes, explains.
"This group of friends--doctors, lawyers--were at Carnival in 2010, when they thought 'Why isn't there a Beatles bloco?'," he says. They were not musicians, but they knew some, so they called them up. As easy as that. When a friend asked Fernandes if he wanted to join, he immediately agreed. A handful of musicians started practicing in September 2010. In December, Sargento Pimenta was already performing, and at Carnival in 2011, they did not only draw 10,000 partiers to their bloco (they expected 500 to 1000), but the mayor of Rio called them a "great acquisition" for their sense of innovation.
"We have more musicians and voice in our bloco than there is in the typical one," Fernandes says. "It was uncommon." So uncommon that their first concert following Carnival in 2011 was sold out. 500 people could not get into the venue. "It was like playing in the Madison Square Garden," Fernandes says. "Almost," he adds with a smile.
Fernandes is standing by a window overlooking Lapa, one of Rio's most popular nightlife spots. Below, on something that appears to be a battlefield after a whole day of Carnival festivities, homeless men pick up beer cans to sell for some extra cash, while a horde of drunken men and women continue to samba vigorously.
It is two days before the big Carnival performance and Sargento Pimenta is having an Open Rehearsal at Fundicao Progresso, a well-respected, old-school performing venue. And even here, on one of the first days of Carnival with free street parties taking place all over town, Sargento Pimenta manages to fill the venue up, cover charge and all.
The secret could be the mix of tradition and modernity or the magic Beatles touch. It does not really matter. At the bloco two days later, it rains shiny, pink plastic hearts onto umbrellas whose tips look like aquariums full of fish. A John Lennon in his late fifties shouts towards the Carnival float where Fernandes and his bloco mates are brilliantly impersonating the probably greatest band of all times. A Tarzan in a green dress creeps a long fuzzy stuffed animal snake from under his dress onto girls' shoulders. They shriek and giggle. Under the burning sun, the crowd moves in waves. And young and old twist and shout.