FIFA World Cup 2014 Brazil has as its official slogan and song: ALL IN ONE RHYTHM. That beg's the question: have you been to a Latin party? Have you been to a wedding in Mexico or just witnessed any of the video that streams out of Brazil during Carnaval? India and Bollywood have their cheesy, scripted dance numbers (Bhangra is pretty awesome, of course), but in Latin America music and dance are something vastly more participatory. Everyday people lose themselves; it takes a little bit of alcohol, some tunes, and a moderately level surface (like a creaky, three-legged table top), and as Glenn Frey said, “the heat is on!” I’ve never seen a person melt into a dance beat like they do in Latin America.
My experience is somewhat limited on this subject, but I’ve still been to Dominican birthday in the Bronx, I’ve been to the Tango capital of Buenos Aires, and of course, I’ve been to Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval. There were big, virtual message boards blinking messages in Portuguese about delays, which could have just said “I’m not the dummy who got stuck on the wrong side of Rio during Carnival.” It turns out that I was going to Manaus, way up North, for a trip up the Amazon and the Rio Negro; the Rio stopover was perfectly timed to coincide with the festivities. In my mind, I would just jump off the plane, sashay over to Sugarloaf, and an Astrud Gilberto look-alike would have a fresh coconut juice waiting for me as we watched the floats go by. Well, not quite. But I thought it would be folksy. Well, the scale of this thing was beyond anything I could imagine. It was like a fractal diagram, which just kept revealing itself to go on and on, forever. The whole city shut down. “For a dance party,” I kept muttering contemptuously, probably in some Ukrainian accent just to amuse myself (that is what solo travelers are reduced to).
Well, in my defense, maybe I was just grumpy because what was once open to the public they now charge for. Two hundred U.S. dollars, in this case, just to get in the door. In Rio they have a Sambódromo, which is a semi-enclosed roadside arena erected at the final stretch of the procession. People trained for months, they made costumes by hand, maybe hand-plucking their own peacock feathers or polishing their own cubic zirconia- who knows? Nothing would surprise me at this stage. I have been to big events, like the 2002 World Cup in Yokohama, Japan or the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in Beijing in 1999, even the Lord of The Rings: Return of The King premiere in Westwood California with the whole cast in attendance; nothing was even close to the energy of Carnaval[i]. The idea that came to mind with Carnaval is Napoleon. I was thinking about how Napoleon made the whole setting up of his artillery a strategic thing, staging and mobility were all part of his new concept of warfare. In Brazil, there is no beginning and end to Carnaval, Brazil is Carnaval. Maybe because I didn’t have a chance to attend, and all I could do was observe the city of Rio, but it was the happiest place on earth. Music and the beat rule all, I’m sure there are psycho-stimulants involved to some degree, and of course sexuality undergirds all of Carnaval. It is one giant release, a massive indulgence, and for Brazil and other so-called “Cultures of Joy,” they live for it.
The flipside of Carnaval is Lent, that solemn Catholic occasion with lots of fasting and lots of repentance. It is rather masochistic, this juggling of extremes, and of course, so is Lent itself. But maybe it is designed to be that way. Every year, people go nuts during Carnaval, which immediately precedes Lent. Then, after what is sometimes called “Fat Tuesday,” on Wednesday they repent. They drop everything and reverse into how sorry they are for what they have done.
This dualism of extreme indulgence and extreme restraint was always a bit jarring. I got a real kick out of going to Brazil, but the extremity of it all never made sense, especially when every so-called repentant Brazilian knew full well that they were just going to do the same thing next year.
Fundamentally, I think the Western outlook on this subject is similar to the Chinese one in terms of seeking more tempered expressions of indulgence and restraint. Weber’s The Protestant Work Ethic rings true with modern White Anglo-Saxons, on both sides of the Atlantic. The WASP culture that is well-preserved in America’s old yacht clubs like the Duxbury Yacht Club, in Duxbury, Massachusetts, or other places like Augusta National, or the Bel-Air Bay Club in sunny California, is firm about tempering indulgence. No matter how wealthy you may be, these places are loathe to endorse conspicuous consumption. No clothing is meant to be too new, nothing is supposed to be too shiny. Business conversations are generally frowned upon in club quarters. There is a lot in common with the Chinese ethic in those respects.
Chinese people are rather allergic to dancing in public. Music has never been much a part of the culture. I have been to two major concerts in Hong Kong featuring foreign pop stars in recent memory; the first was Kanye West in 2007, and the second was Jennifer Lopez in 2012. I am the worst dancer myself, but jeez, I wanted to at least stand up, and at least bloody tap my foot. But the crowd stayed seated for virtually all of the J.Lo concert. Some will point to the die-hard fans of Canto Pop and say that I am mistaken, that in fact Chinese do have rhythm. But it is much different than, say Colombia, Argentina or Brazil. Shaking your booty, just surrendering your body to the beat is just too sensual, too indulgent. For a culture that has a hard time praising their kids when they get an “A,” this is none too surprising. It is a different relationship to the music that Chinese have. Rather than a Stendhal Syndrome, a type of rapture certain viewers of art in the 19th century were diagnosed with, it is less participation rather than appreciation. Sure the Canto Pop stars, and the K Pop ones and all the others, have their skimpy outfits and well-rehearsed suggestive moves, but the audience is passive. Maybe K Pop acts have to be so over the top, so elaborate and highly scripted because the East Asian audiences offer no feedback, no energy to feed off of? They are there to take it in and of course, enjoy. But they never surrender themselves, sacrificing their bodies to the Gods of rhythm.
[i] My little sister will not like this, but I was on fainting-alert due to her proximity to Orlando Bloom, who of course, plays Legolas Greenleaf.