A sleepless New Year’s Eve night led me to the BBC’s Radio 4 where the World News was describing scenes at Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro. Over one million people were there, it said.
My mind flew back to my own New Year’s Eve on that beach, back in the late eighties or early nineties. We had gone down late afternoon to see the local scene, having booked our table, laid out our fancy clothes for the New Years Eve Gala Dinner and put some champagne on ice for later. We took only a few dollars with us, just enough for a coffee or two, because Rio then was a dangerous place and alcohol was flowing fairly freely. Nor did we take our cameras for the same reason. The bus drivers were all drunk and drinking as they drove, the conductors wouldn’t take money for the fare and insisted we join them in a drink, we met processions which would hold up the bus and demand a ransom from the driver who happily paid it from his takings – it was complete mayhem.
We didn’t return to the hotel until early next morning, at about 6 am, but I remember it as the most memorable and the best New Year’s Eve ever. No matter that we missed our New Year’s Eve dinner, champagne and party hats – what we had experienced was something raw and real: it was electrifying. Below is what I wrote shortly afterwards (published in both Wanderlust and The Lady). I’m sorry I have no photos to illustrate, but we didn’t carry cameras, for safety reasons.
The atmosphere was electric. Yesterday the city had felt like any other Latin city, but tonight was different. Tonight it was no longer Latin, familiar and accessible, but African and strange.
This pulsating city is home to two potent factors that combine to produce the drama that occurs on New Year’s Eve in Rio – a youth culture of music and carnival and an older one of belief in ancient Gods allied to the Catholic saints of the original Portuguese conquerors. These two cultures meet in Macumba, a powerful cult based on old beliefs and pagan rites, where the Christian saints are given attributes of the African deities brought to Brazil with the slaves. Described as the Brazilian voodoo, it’s a mistake to dismiss it lightly.
Macumba is a matriarchal religion with the officiating priests being women. They had been setting up their tents since midday ready for tonight when the five-mile stretch of beach would be converted to a canopied village of churches, counselling-chambers and sickrooms when they would be called upon to cast spells, cure sicknesses and console the sorrowful.
The priestesses were huge women dressed totally in white from their shoes to the white kerchiefs on their heads, Above the dresses, their black faces glowed in the light from the many candles. Men play a humble role in these ceremonies and tonight they were acting as servers, replenishing and lighting the huge, sweet-smelling cigars the priestesses chain-smoke in order to encourage the Gods to visit.
The beach had been filling up steadily since dusk, and now, an hour before midnight, there was standing room only. The musicians of the Samba Schools use this occasion as a dress rehearsal for the Carnival in February and the beat of the drums had been a constant throb in the air since noon. The pounding on goat skin got more insistent as the dancers from the samba schools wound their way along Copacabana Beach and the rhythm grew wilder to match the intensity in the air. From the favelas that swarmed up the mountainside, long lines of people were descending to join in the Macumba rituals.
Around me on the beach, magical powers were being invoked. Love potions were distilled, prayers said for sick relatives and friends, and secret desires were whispered in consultations with the priestesses. There were wild cries and faintings, the smell of incense mixed with that of cannabis, and wild eyes staring in the darkness at something I couldn’t see.
In the circle of brightness formed by the lights from one canopied area, a young man writhed convulsively in the grip of a strange power, the heavy beat of the drums adding to the frenzy of his movements. The heat from the burning candles, the press of bodies, the rhythmic chanting of the white-robed woman who circled the body in a spinning motion and the heady aroma of the sweet smoke from the cigars were hypnotic. The eyes of the young man glazed over as the slid to the ground in a trance. Two male acolytes picked him up and carried him to his family who sat outside the circle. They were smiling and happy as they sat waiting for him to recover. For them, the magic had worked.
A circle of light marked other petitioners whispering requests. A nod from the priestess and another votary entered. The priestess placed her hands on the woman’s head, took another cigar and began to spin around her. Round and round until the petitioner too started to move, her body circling from the waist until it seemed one half would divorce from the other. Faster and faster the priestess turned, her feet pounding the earth rhythmically, her whole body a crescendo of power.
The tempo quickened, the atmosphere became charged, bystanders became affected, fell into a trance and collapsed. One elegantly gowned and bejewelled lady, an onlooker from the hotel opposite the beach, fell crashing to the ground as a power beyond her took control and she too was reduced to a writhing, moaning bundle of Haute Couture. I felt the immense power of Macumba. I shifted nervously and kept my eyes studiously averted from the white figure, afraid of what she might do, afraid of what I might do.
Suddenly, there was a cry and a woman in the centre slumped to the ground. The priestess bent and spoke to her; she didn’t respond or move. A single wave of the hand and the helpers picked the woman up and carried her down to the sea where she was immersed in the cooling, restorative waters. The onlookers hardly took their eyes from the priestess.
The drums grew more frenzied as midnight approached but business continued unabated beside the canopied tents. Gangsters and grandmothers, transvestites and toddlers were all fervently dancing the samba. The beach was a heaving, pulsing mass of bodies moving to the same rhythm. Increasing in size were the groups by the water’s edge where the recovery of those who had succumbed to the spells went on.
And now the flower-sellers arrived, peddling their wares to the crowds on the beach, for by tradition white flowers are thrown into the waves at midnight to appease the Goddess. If the offerings are carried out to sea, then Iemanja, Goddess of the Sea, is pleased and the future will be good, but if the tide carries them back to land, then she is displeased and the coming year will be a bad one.
Friends and families had set themselves up and had staked out areas in which to lay out their food and drink, and the presents they would send Iemanja at midnight. Some were pathetically poor, some rich, but all had the same sense of what Iemanja wanted – cigars, wine, fruit and bread. Those from the favelas, the shanty-towns that crawl up the hillsides and surround the city, had less to offer – perhaps a half-smoked cheroot, a slice of papaya or a little wine in the bottom of a bottle, but this Goddess is not greedy.
There was a moment of panic when it looked as though the little boats wouldn’t sail and people rushed headlong into the sea to make an artificial tide on which they would float. Others jumped into full-sized boats which they had left ready and pushed their little gift-laden craft before them in the hope that once far enough out they would sail on. And now, as the candles flickered on the bobbing boats, thousands of white carnations came flying through the air their blossoms carpeting the sea like snow. The perfume of the flowers mixed with the smoke from the cigars was a rich and power opiate.
The drums played on until dawn. As the sun came up some little boats could be seen floating ominously back towards the shore. With that resilience that keeps the Cariocas forever optimistic they were re-launched by their owners immediately.
Later I learned there had been an estimated one million people on Copacabana Beach that night. I hope the Goddess answered some of their prayers: I hoped the magic worked.
Something worked for me though. A couple of hours ago I searched YouTube to see if last night’s spectacle had been caught. It had, but there was a lack, or rather, too much of something else. There were BIG screens, pounding music from electronic devices and everyone was taking selfies and jumping up and down. I know it sounds smug, but … no camera, no money, no ‘phone, no tablet, just total immersion is something otherworldly gave us something to treasure for the rest of our lives, images that are not on my phone but are burned on my mind.