Parties are essential in Brazil. They’re not an add-on, something that happens on birthdays and weddings, they are the basic building block of society.
My Brazilian wife Jaqueline told me that in her office they had a party last month just because someone had bought a refrigerator, the logic being that a refrigerator keeps things cold, like beer, so fill it with beer then drink the beer.
Obvious, spontaneous, and fun.
Last weekend we drove 300 kms up to Recife for a party, in a torrential downpour, dodging mudslides, potholes, and avoiding a terrible accident by seconds.
Her family all have defective eyesight, so I drive. I like driving.
Driving for me is a meditative activity. I can switch off from the physical and mental concentration needed by most mere mortals and dream.
Everywhere except here, of course.
Our car has 5 seats. The kids didn’t want to come, so Jackie invited her parents and the voluptuous daughter of one of her lawyer friends.
Charming and talented though the young lady may be, she has a voice like a chainsaw, and had a sniffling cold too. Jackie’s father talks. All the time. When he’s not talking, he whistles tunelessly. Her mother, thankfully, is a silent person, but she has the habit of saying one sentence every time there’s a break in the conversation.
A ‘break’ meaning when there’s is silence for more than a nano-second. These interjections keep the ball rolling, rather like a good panel discussion chairman.
Everyone has mobile phones, which ring constantly. Jackie can converse with me in English, talk on the phone to a second person in Portuguese, translate the few snippets of chat that I am interested in back into English, together with my replies, which no-one understands, and converse to the other car passengers on separate topics, simultaneously.
I thought I had schizophrenic tendencies but I now feel rather limited.
Interruption is an art, not a social gaffe, rather like in France.
I’m sure one of the reasons I’ve not learned much Portuguese is because I’ve never heard a complete sentence.
And I forgot to mention that the radio is always on, tuned to a talk show, naturally. Each house has a TV in every room tuned to soap operas, with the volume turned up to 11.
Every bar has a TV, permanently tuned to a football match. There’s a TV above the queue at the bank, at the travel agency, at the hairdresser’s. There’s probably even one in the morgue.
We arrived in Recife at lunchtime. Again, as in France, lunch is a religion. You can’t ‘….not have lunch’ or ‘..fancy a light snack’.
Beans, fried meat, rice, mashed potato, spaghetti. Not a vegetable in sight.
A ‘salad’ means tinned mushrooms, tinned sweetcorn, tinned carrots, sprinkled over grubby lettuce leaves, smothered in oil, with
huge chunks of green tomatoes and maybe a raw onion.
A party in my experience happens on a birthday, or a wedding. I loathe parties. I can’t see the point of getting drunk with strangers on ghastly hooch and gassy beer, or even God forbid Brazilian wine, unless it’s before, during and after a football game or a rock concert, and I’ve rather grown out of those.
I’m also never sure what to wear at these shindigs. I was wearing a black T-shirt and shorts, which seemed sensible apparel, as black doesn’t reveal dribbled beer stains.
Jackie was fully kitted out in low-cut blouse, skintight Armani trousers, and enough
perfume to sink a battleship.
Whose party is it?” I asked.
“What do you mean, ‘whose party is it?’ It’s a party.”
“Well ..why are we here? What’s the reason?”
“Who is paying for it?”
“Ah…I see what you mean. A lawyer. It’s his 40th birthday”
“Is that a reason to invite 300 people?”
“Of course. It’s quite normal to have a little family party on your 40th birthday. Didn’t you have one?”
“Er …no, I think I was working”
“Didn’t you even invite your family?”
“How could I? I was in Germany on a business trip.”
“Well what about your friends and colleagues?”
“I never thought of it, to be honest, and anyway, the last thing I want at a party is people I know watching me make a fool of myself and talking shop.”
Not for the first time, I felt I’d missed out on a large chunk of life before coming to Brazil.
We arrived at the party location, a new 35-story tower block overlooking a filthy canal on one side and Sport’s football ground on the other.
A dead goat was floating down the canal and workmen were drilling foundations for a new stand.
A band had set up, 6 chaps with good equipment. ‘Good equipment” meaning extremely loud amplifiers.
They turned out to be lawyers and dentists from back in Maceió, who play at parties held by other lawyers and dentists.
Keep it all in the family. The rationale being that as all musicians are incorrigible lechers, it’s best to know the bass guitarist personally, then he can’t or won’t seduce your sister, as your sister is married to the drummer’s cousin, who is trying to get a contract to fix your family’s teeth.
Some other parties I’ve been to have degenerated into dangerous fights when the singer has been found copulating behind the mixing table with the hosts’ girlfriend.
This one went off smoothly in the lechery stakes, but then again by the time we left I was unable to focus, or even walk, to tell the truth, so I don’t know for sure what went on.
The tower block has a party space on the ground floor the size of an average ballroom, with a barbecue unit, a bar, a pool nearby, and armed security guards to keep out the riff-raff.
There were a dozen tables with white tablecloths, on which a nutritionists’ nightmare had been laid out; trays of shrimps in batter, meatballs, bacalhau, olives, peanuts, unbearably sweet chocolates.
A team of liveried servants brought iced Johnny Walker and beer for the men, sweet white wine for the ladies.
Several lawyers were clearly drunk as skunks already. The band started up. I couldn’t hear a thing above the white noise.
Everyone else continued chatting into their mobile phones, their only concession to the decibel increase being to put one hand over the other ear like an English folk-singer, or lean a little closer.
No wonder people end up in the bushes.
We introduced ourselves to the host, who greeted me as a long-lost soulmate.
I vaguely recognised him from another shindig. Or maybe a day on the beach. Or a football match. Somewhere in the tiny world of elite Nordestino society.
He was wearing a T-shirt on which photographs of his parents had been printed.
“What a super idea”, I said, “Are your parents here today?”
“No” he replied. “My father was murdered by three street youths in a fight when I was 18, and my mother has cancer. Only my close family could make it today. ”
He beckoned towards a table stretching off into the distance at which his ‘close family’ sat.
After this complete failure of an opening conversational gambit, or gaffe, I decided the only way to survive the ear-splitting nightmare was to get stuck into Scotland’s national product, served, as in Scotland, with a beer on the side.
A chap with a horribly pockmarked face and a spectacular beer gut began the conversation.
“What is an Englishman doing here?” he said in heavily-accented Portuguese.
“Yer what pal?” I repeated, desperately trying to read his lips.
Jackie put down her mobile. She knows I’m uncomfortable at these social gatherings until I meet someone who knows something about music, or politics, or computers, to name but three topics I find mildly interesting.
I normally end up being harangued by someone who keeps getting lost at Disneyland and has decided to buy some English lessons, but until then I’m a lost sheep, or maybe a lost bullock would be fairer.
A large, clumsy and ostentatiously foreign bullock, apt to say and do the wrong thing at all times. I had and never have the intention of letting her down, but sometimes it all becomes too much for me and I end up accusing a priest of genocide, or a politician of necrophilia.
The last party we’d been to I’d mentioned casually to a charming chap that you couldn’t trust a Brazilian politician to sit the right way on a lavatory, only to be introduced to him later as the Governor’s brother.
I really do try.
“He wants to know why you are in Brasil?” she mouthed.
“Because I love parties” I said, grinning inanely.
“And beautiful women..” I added, foolishly. She kicked me under the table.
“What does he do?’ I yelled.
“No need to shout” she snapped back, “I can hear you perfectly well”
The guitarist launched into an excruciatingly loud solo. A waiter dropped a full tray of full glasses.
“I am……man of house” bellowed Mr Acne.
“Ah….man of house….you are constructor!” I said triumphantly.
My first Portuguese word of the day.
I was feeling nicely liquid, approaching that wonderful but short moment when brain and mouth work together, fortified but unimpeded by alcohol.
“He’s a real estate agent”, said Jackie, interrupting a call.
“You are …vendedor do casas!!” This was getting good.
“Si si…..” Mistaking my two words of Portuguese for fluency, and revealing a mouth full of half-chewed shrimps, he launched into a three-minute high-speed rap about his latest projects, clearly mistaking me for a rich gringo awash with dollars, in the market for a penthouse on the seafront.
I didn’t have the heart to tell him my last credit card has just been cancelled and I’m within a week of selling coconuts on the
beach to survive.
I settled back into the familiar routine. Jackie listened patiently as he repeated the sales spiel. I ordered more beer.
“He’s a musician, too” I heard her tell him.
My heart sank. I can twang a few tunes when relaxed with friends, but for me music, like driving, is a personal activity, not something to share.
I could see this all going horribly wrong.
“He’s going to play later”, she announced, grinning at me wickedly.
“I most certainly am not”, I said, attempting to sound man-of -the-house.
“He knows rock and roll muito bem” she added,
“You know..Chick Barry”
I gazed upwards. I’m not religious, but at that point I’d willingly have gone to any church and lit a million candles if it meant not playing out of tune rock and roll to a bunch of legless lawyers and their wives, backed by part-time musicians, brought up as they are on 11/8 or 19/14 or whatever it is.
Rhythm is as natural to a Brazilian as riding a bike to a Dutchman, but they have no real idea of the fundamentals of rock and roll.
Ringo wouldn’t last 5 minutes onstage here as he only knows 4/4.
The band stopped for a break.
“Sure you can play,” she whispered, “all you need is a little motivation”
I signaled to my pet waiter for some more motivation.
The afternoon wore on. Presents were presented, the cake cut, the waiters scurried about with increasing urgency.
The party area was rapidly degenerating from order into disorder.
A fat lady in tight trousers got up to sing. A beautiful old black lady sang a spiritual. Two other ladies recited a poem. Swimming in hooch, I began to feel that I could indeed belt out some Chick Barry.
The guitarist beckoned “…and now…the star of the show….all the way from….”
“I haven’t got a pick to play the guitar with”, I bleated, rather pathetically.
A pick appeared. Nothing for it. The show must go on.
I lurched towards the stage, dragging a tablecloth behind me and tripping over a spaghetti of cables, thus disconnecting the keyboard player from the rest of the evening’s performance.
At least Jackie couldn’t volunteer me to play Hey Jude.
“Chick Barry”, said the singer, uncertainly.
“Yeah” I sneered, trying to look mean.
“Johnny B. Goode. In A. Turn it up.”
“I don’t know that. You sing”.
And he went off for a pee.
Brazilians have funny ways of stringing their guitars, often because they can’t afford replacement strings, so they string whatever they can get their hands on where needed.
They all know how to use A strings where there should be a D string, for example.
This guitar was no exception, it had rusty barbed wire on the bottom end and razor-blades at the top.
In for a penny, in for a pound, I thought, hoping desperately that no-one had brought a video camera, and if they had they were too drunk to get it in focus.
I whacked the razor wire passionately with the pick, hitting most of the right notes.
“…..Deep down in Louisiana, close to New Orleans…..” I bellowed into
the microphone. The drummer kicked in, nearly on the beat.
The bass player got it right first time, and we were off.
The lawyers went wild. Beer glasses flew everywhere, even the grannies and kids started dancing.
The waiters stared. Twenty years of catering and they’d never seen a large drunk gringo howling.
“Strewth,” I thought.
This is good fun.
It was, too.
I can’t remember what happened after that.
I’ve decided I like parties.
Copyright Peter Beresford 2001