Thursday, February 26, 2009

Trini Mas*

Part 3 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.

On the tiny Caribbean island of Trinidad, four-hundred years of recorded history under various European flags and immigration from the four corners of the globe have shaped and molded the look and feel of Trinidad and Tobago Carnival into one of the most distinctive and flavorful events in the English-speaking world. Like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, TnT Carnival stems from French colonization (though Spain held title over the place back then) and has incorporated elements from Africa, Europe, Venezuela, India, and North America; these elements, in turn, were exported throughout the West Indies and overseas, including London's famous Notting Hill Carnival.

Besides the obvious visual stimulation of a scrumdiddlyumptious backside winin' to some soca, TnT Carnival is an ocular feast of traditional costumed characters that make the Disney Main Street Parade look like an elementary school Christmas pageant. Observe:

The Fancy Indian (based on traditional Plains Indian dress from the modern-day US and Canada):

Photo by caribbeanfreephoto

The Moko Jumbie (derived from the Congolese tradition of village protectors who could see trouble before it arrived...basically, security guards):

Photo by Withthejameses

The Midnight Robber (inspired by the traditional African storyteller, the griot, who tells tall tales about his exploits, adventures, and prowess...lookin like a piyimp):

Photo by izatrini_com

Dame Lorraine (a playful version of a typical French aristocratic lady, with her big-booty self):

Photo by longdistancelady

Jabs (French patois for "diable" - devil - these firestarters come in various shades and manifestations - wings and sharp teeth and such; as you can see, they start young, the little hellions):

Photo by dexout

Cow Folk (based on, well, cows):

Photo by shawnking99

*The word "mas" is short for "masquerade" and is used to denote the various costumed bands of revelers during TnT Carnival.

Monday, February 23, 2009

En Barranquilla Se Baila Así

Part 2 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.

Growing every year by word of mouth, the Carnaval de Barranquilla on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is more an expression of folklore and regional culture than random debauchery and merriment. In 2003, the festival was named a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO, the cultural body of the United Nations. Instead of an ever-shifting theme, this party features an array of signature dances that embody the synthesis of cultures that make up Colombian society, each with a particular set of costumes and its own rhythmic beat. Here are three of the most popular dances performed at Carnaval:

The national dance of Colombia, the cumbia marries the gyrating hands of the Spanish, the swiveling hips of the Africans, and the steadfast foot-shuffle of the Indigenous peoples in a pas de deux of civilized seduction.

The costume of the garabato supposedly symbolizes life and death, while the movements indicate nothing but a joy for living (and drinking).

More traditionally danced at night and in loincloths, the mapalé ("fish out of water") has probably remained the most unchanged from its cultural origins of all the Carnival dances.

And yes, I have been out Carnivaling...see:

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Where the Brazilians Go for Carnival

Part 1 of a 3-part series on lesser-known, but no-less-hot, Carnival celebrations.

While most of the world looks to its more famous neighbor to the south as the epitome of pre-Lenten debauchery, Brazil’s first capital, Salvador da Bahia, is truly where you find Brazilian Carnival. Or, rather, Carnival for Brazilians. You don’t “see” Carnival in Salvador from the sidelines, you live it for six days and nights, non-stop, eating skewered street meat and getting no sleep. Billed as less commercial than Rio’s renowned festivities, Brazilians from north to south pounce on Salvador to dance in the shadow of their favorite pop stars, and maybe even have a quick fling or two with a hottie from another state. Still, Carnival in Salvador offers ample opportunities for both the innocent and the grown-and-sexy to enjoy the combination of history, culture, and unexplainable magic for which Brazil is known.

The colonial capital from 1549 to 1763 and once the largest slave port in Brazil, Salvador holds nearly three million people, over eighty-percent of whom having discernable African ancestry. And the music and dance and food originating here—more than in any other part of Brazil—is mainstream, not just a subculture. There is no place quite like Salvador. Some places come close: pre-Katrina New Orleans with music on every corner, Havana, where salsa and Santería share equal billing.

But no place captures the convergence of African and European cultures as thoroughly and inextricably as Salvador. The city government has even erected statues in homage to the “Orixá,” the Yoruba pantheon of deities celebrated in Brazilian Candomblé, Spanish Caribbean Santería, and Haitian Vodou, the syncretic religions created when slaves were “converted” to Catholicism. This cross-pollination forms the bedrock of Brazilian culture and is manifested at its purest in Salvador, where anyone can add his or her own flavor to the already rich stew.
Carnival is a two-pronged event in Salvador. Family-friendly Pelourinho (“whipping-post” in Portuguese), the city’s church-steepled historic district perched high above the sea, plays host to traditional costumed bands of revelers and samba groups that parade over the cobblestones with interminable energy. Unlike Rio, with its ever-changing samba competition squeezed into a specially-designed stadium, Salvador’s groups remain true to historical themes—grandmothers swirling dervishly as hoop-skirted “Baianas,” white-robed men walking pensively as “Filhos de Gandhy” (Sons of Gandhi)—while be-feathered kids and muscle-toned capoeristas frolic in sunburnt plazas. Clowns and mimes cavort on strategically-placed stages, all-Asian percussion sections tap out lightning-fast sambas, up-and-coming ingénues coo bossa nova classics from back alley cafés, and body-painted teenagers grab unsuspecting tourists for a little shimmy-shaking.

Starting mid-afternoon, Carnival gets down-and-dirty, literally, in the Cidade Baixa (Lower City), with the “trio eletrico” parades in the downtown district of Campo Grande, or along the beach at Barra and Ondina. Essentially gigantic boomboxes hitched to trucks, trios eletricos are moving concerts, topped by wildly popular Brazilian musical acts that belt out gyration-inducing “axé” music, a bawdy combination of samba and reggae. Timbalada, Olodum, Daniela Mercury, and Ivete Sangalo entertain hundreds of thousands of fans—often drunk, horny, or both—who squeeze into the streets around the trios and are known collectively as “pipoca” (popcorn) because usually the only range of motion in the crowd is vertical. Young people wear the most basic attire, bring nothing more expensive than a disposable camera, and stash their money safely in their undies; older partiers watch the action from bleachers along the sides, a decidedly less-raucous experience but one with a better-stocked bar than on the street.

Yes, I have been smack in the middle of all this humanity. Yes, it's the lick!

Still, the intimate contact of thousands of bodies under an infectious rhythm conjures up a natural high that keeps the place rocking until daybreak. Should an unexpected rainstorm arise, clothes come off and the party don’t stop. You, like the Brazilians around you, just let the wet cleanse you of the sweat.

Click here to see LIVE streaming video of the action in Salvador and get your Brazilian booty-bounce on in the safety of your own home.

Any of you guys got any Bahian memories you want to share?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

It's Time...

Photo by tinkerg

For the next week, in most of the Catholic-influenced world, millions are enjoying the last few days of fleshly delights before the forty-day pre-Easter fasting and sacrifices of Lent. These celebrations, aptly named Carnival (or "farewell to the flesh," either because of the religious ban on meat during Lent, or because it's the time to indulge in uncharacteristic behavior), have melded cultures and traditions the world over into Earth's biggest, raunchiest, off-the-hookest simultaneous party. Everyone knows about the thonged-and-feathered lovelies of Rio, the chiaroscuro masques of Venice, and the beads and breasts of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Starting tomorrow, I'm going to introduce you to three other events - just as bold, loud, and unchaste as their better-known cousins. And then, I'll help you plan your trip for next year.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Inspiration: A Man, A Plan, A Canal - Panama!

In the face of life's always unexpected challenges, I've been needing a little inspiration to stay motivated on many fronts. After searching through some old travel notes, I found a great quote by a great man about a great feat of human ingenuity:

It is not the critic who counts, nor the man who points out how the strong man stumbled, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena; whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly, who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.

-Theodore Roosevelt, from a plaque in the rotunda of the Panama Canal Administration Building.

Sak Pasé: Delta Down to Haiti

Photo by Martin Baran

Last week, Delta Air Lines announced non-stop service from New York-JFK to Port-au-Prince, Haiti, beginning June 20. Introductory fares start at $129 each way, plus taxes and fees. This addition gives American Airlines some competition on the route, as Delta becomes only the third US carrier to fly to the beleaguered, but culturally-entrancing Caribbean nation.

When I was studying in the Dominican Republic in 2001, I had every desire to "pop over" to Haiti, but the journey meant a half-day's bus ride from Santo Domingo to the border, then another day just to a decent-sized town. Alas, my schedule never permitted it, but now you guys can go and take pictures and tell me all about it.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Colombia Mía

I've been in Colombia for almost four years now, since the summer of 2005, when I took a job as an eager and idealistic (yeah, right) English teacher at the Universidad del Norte. I was initially drawn to the country as I was nearing the end of my masters program in DC; I wanted to move to a Latin American country for a few years to improve my Spanish, before moving to Spain and obtaining a doctoral degree there. The main pre-requisites were (1) that the country have a strong African cultural element to its society (particularly the music and dance) and (2) that I could find a decent-paying university teaching job. Pre-req #1 limited the choices to Colombia, Venezuela, Panama, and the Dominican Republic. Pre-req #2 narrowed the field down to...well...Colombia. I visited the country over Spring Break, at the behest of another black American living and working in Medellín, who'd fallen in love with the place. After a few days, I was all set to set myself up in Colombia's second city when my prospective boss at the language institute informed me of the salary: barely US $700 a month at the time ("No thanks, player," I demurred...I might want to be able to see my mama at least once a year). But I heard about Uninorte and hopped a cheap flight up to Barranquilla, where I landed a job in Shakira's hometown, thinking I had found a mini-Santo Domingo (seabreezes blowing in from the Caribbean, attractive people ranging from coal to cream, the booty-moving tinkle of salsa and merengue). Wrong.

Long story short, we've had a rocky relationship in these last four years, me and Colombia.* I'm one of a handful of professional blacks in a country with around 40% of its population being of African descent (compared to 13% in the US); most of the people who look like me are maids, security guards, or driving Miss Margarita (that's Daisy in Spanish); and I'm pretty much a political leftist (belief in quality gubment-sponsored education and health care and all that jazz), in a relatively staunch right-wing society. There's serious denial about the racism here, or colorism if you will, because people like to say that everyone's mixed and they don't even see race, though they're quick to call the mango seller outside the school, "Negro." Some days, I'm like a one-man Civil Rights Movement.

Still, I'm aware that these are issues that occur in all post-colonial societies in one form or another, even in my beloved Brazil. And even though my time in Colombia hasn't been the endless vacation that I wasn't even naive enough to believe it would be, there are some wonderful aspects of the country that are unknown to most people outside of it. Because of incredible topography, Colombia's climate goes from tropical to Alpine in the span of a one-hour flight. Every city has a distinct flavor, from the quiet bustle of chilly Bogotá to the sizzle of Cali's salsa-splashed streets, and every geographic region has a corresponding cultural variation reflected in the people. "Colombia Mía" (My Colombia) is the title of a recurring series of images and text here on Fly Brother that will offer you guys a glimpse of the beauty, complexity, and poignance of what has been, for better or worse, my temporary home. Who knows...maybe as I post, we might rekindle our romance.

*One might ask, "Well, why are you still there, Fly Brother?" And Fly Brother might answer, "$$$."

Monday, February 9, 2009

From the AV Room: New* Airline SaverJet

Flights to Australia from $40!

Book your SaverJet flights here!


Vicky Cristina...Rio?: Movies That Take You There

Photo by MorBCN

Over the weekend, I went to the movies to catch Woody Allen's much-discussed Vicky Cristina Barcelona with the hope of being transported to Spain's legendary Mediterranean port city with the Freddy Mercury theme song. I was indeed wrapped up in the topsy-turvy tale of polyamory, laughing at the snappy dialogue and more than once felt exposed ("You've got chronic dissatisfaction," Penélope Cruz angrily diagnoses Scarlett Johansson). But I didn't feel like this otherwise diverting film ever engaged its titular locale. The characters and the camera passed by the major sights, going gaga over Gaudí and little else, and we got two incredibly bland panoramas over the city, both times giving me more Mexico City/Santiago/Bogotá than Barcelona. I didn't even feel a connection between the two Spanish (Catalan?) protagonists and their storied burg. I felt the same storyline could have been set, just as enthrallingly, in any hot-blooded coastal scene with loudly passionate lovers: Capri, Mykonos, Miami, Rio. I had been entertained, but not transported.

So I rented All About My Mother. The bold oranges and reds and blues, the twisty columns and arches and kitschy tile and wallpaper, the palm-lined streets, multicultural denizens, nuns and whores, wind and water, all drew me into the salty-sweet confection of Barcelona. Almodóvar made me want to experience the city in a way Woody couldn't convey. The story didn't just take place in Barcelona; the characters lived there, were a part of the place, and the place itself became a character, not just backdrop.

And I was reminded of some other movies that pique my desire to know a place or remind me of why I love that place:

Baz Luhrmann's Australia swept me up me the harsh, dusty expanse of the Outback, and rained down buckets of tropical greens and blues reminiscent of Typhoon Lagoon. It's the continental bigness of the land and sky beyond the Opera House that would have me itching to get out of Sydney.

In the wonderfully moody Eve's Bayou, the natural pleasures of the American South, specifically Louisiana, wrap themselves around the tragic Batiste family: strong oak trees with low-hanging branches suitable for lounging, flat and green fields running the length of the slow-moving waters that keep them fertile, mangroves rising from swamp like ghostly sentinels, Spanish moss hanging languorously in still, humid air.

Both Paris, Je T'Aime and Amélie purposefully ensconsed themselves so thoroughly into the oeuvre of enchantment that is Paris, that even the funky attitudes of its customer service sector couldn't keep me away after watching these cinematic love-letters (the waiters and cashiers know you'll come back, which is why they act so stank).

Another city pair, Bad Boys and Any Given Sunday, run from the squat, pastel-colored concrete and stucco of El Portal and North Dade; through the sun-beat, tropical grit of Allapattah and Liberty City; past the tangy richness of Little Haiti and Little Havana; across the man-made, mansioned isles of Biscayne Bay; down to the chic, shiny sins of South Beach. It's all the real Miami, baby.

Caracas makes an unflattering but impactful screen debut in Secuestro Express, a disturbing film about a quickie kidnapping gone awry. Around-the-clock shots of Venezuela's dirty, sweaty, crowded, intense, vivid, quirky capital - ghetto fabuloso - keep the adrenaline flowing and make me wanna throw up a hand (and not in a peace sign). In fact, I think this might be my Holy Week excursion.

Lost in Translation descends from the cream-and-onyx splendor of the Park Hyatt Tokyo into Electric Ladyland herself, a whirlwind of sound and color and people and objects that the film's protagonists can't even wrap their heads around. Maybe that's why they fall in love. And that's why I love this movie.

I know I'm missing all of the classics; these are just a few of my favorites. What are some of the movies that really take you "there?"

Friday, February 6, 2009


The last post of a 4-part series on my year-end jaunt through the Promised Land, aka Brazil.

After an early-morning flight back from Rio to São Paulo, then traipsing from one end of town to the other by bus and subway and car, with two suitcases, I finally said goodbye to my best buddy, Roberto, as he headed back to Colombia the night of January 3 for work the following Monday. Ro is my dog, my bro, my ace, and I'm glad and even blessed to have rocked the holidays with him in Brazil.
And then there was just me, for another week, settling into a city that has begun to claim me the way Washington did nine years ago, when I was just a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Senate intern first sampling the delectables and delights of Chocolate City. I won't go into the details of who I stayed with or partied with or even interviewed with in São Paulo; but I want to impart, with probably as much futility as fitting the essence of New York into a snow globe of the Empire State Building, my love affair with Sampa.

Saudade (prounounced saoo-dah-jee) is a concept famous for lacking a literal translation in English, or even Spanish (soledad is it’s cousin, but not the same). Longing, desire, yearning, waiting, nostalgia, melancholy, wishful thinking, remembering, missing, solitude—all of these verbs and nouns approximate saudade, but in Portuguese, it’s all delivered in one word. It’s appropriate, given Brazil’s history. The founding populations of Brazil included Africans, torn from their homeland with the permanent desire of having that homeland and all its freedoms returned; Amerindians, who yearned for the time before the white man’s invasion; and the Portuguese, already themselves a complex ethnic mixture, longing for European ways and values in this vast, untamed Southern land. Add to the mix migration from the far corners of the country, and immigrants from Japan, the Mediterranean and Middle East, and Lusophone Africa, all searching for opportunities and better lives, and you have a society built on saudade. Brazilian music is the single most profound example of this sentiment: the driving urgency of samba, the wistful reflection of bossa nova, the raw romanticism of forro.

There is a song I love about Sampa’s sister/nemesis, Rio, called “Samba do Avião” (see me sing part of it, here):

Minha alma canta
Vejo o Rio de Janeiro
Estou morrendo de saudade
Rio, seu mar, praias sem fim
Rio, você que foi feito pra mim

My soul sings
I see Rio de Janeiro
I'm dying of saudade
Rio, your sea, beaches without end
Rio, you who were made for me

Rio was made for many people, Tom Jobim included, but not for me. São Paulo is my city: walking hurriedly with the crushing masses changing trains at the Estação da Luz, sure enough of my destination and bearings to maintain pace with the everyday commuters. Cruising in the shadow of the glass and concrete boxes that hem in Avenida Paulista like fat dominos, each crowned by a television or telephone antenna, helicopters buzzing around them in decreasingly concentric circles. Squeezed up against thousands of Paulistanos bouncing to near-religious rhythms under skyscrapers, stars, and freeway at the outdoor Vai-Vai samba school practices. Attending an art gallery opening, the cast party of Miss Saigon, and a tribal house music session all in the same evening, ringing in the dawn with hot chocolate and tomato-orange soup at Bela Paulista bakery before hitting the sack for some mid-morning shut-eye. I long to live there, yearn to add my own rhythm to the constant motion, noise, sway of South America's largest city. Wishing to be another one in twenty million. And as I wrapped up my last week among the hum buzz din of unbridled urbanism, I was morrendo de saudade. I think it’s wired within me, this saudade. It’s what keeps me traveling—"the untold want" as Whitman put it.

But it's also what makes me think that Sampa's "The One." Because my friends tell me I constantly talk about her. Because I always smile when I think about her. Because she understands my needs and wants and fulfills both. And we'll be together when it's time.


From the AV Room: Drumline, Brazilian-Style

This is for all my HBCUans in the house, and all lovers of Southern black college and high school marching bands: tell me, tell me this does not channel halftime at the Florida Classic, Bayou Classic, Atlanta Classic, Circle City Classic (lots of classics), Raines v. Ribault, Norland v. Carol City, Southwest DeKalb or Washington High Homecoming, or Dave Chappelle's Block Party!

If you haven't the foggiest idea of what the hell I'm talkin' bout, please see the 2002 feature film, Drumline, starring Mariah's current, Nick Cannon.

This is footage from São Paulo's Vai-Vai samba school practicing for that city's Carnival competition at the end of this month. I'm telling you folks, you can call it whatever you want, in whatever language you want, but the rhythm within us remains unchanged.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Sol Brothers

"Even the most incorrigible maverick has to be borne somewhere. He may leave the group that produced him--he may be forced to--but nothing will efface his origins, the marks of which he carries with him everywhere. I think it is important to know this and even find it a matter of rejoicing, as the strongest people do, regardless of their station. On this acceptance, literally, the life of a writer depends."
-James Baldwin, Nobody Knows My Name
by way of Blackgirl on Mars

On Saturday, I had the opportunity to hear the prolific and award-winning author Junot Díaz speak alongside the prolific and award-winning journalist Alma Guillermoprieto at the Hay Festival in Cartagena. Held each year in the dimmed jewel of the Spanish Main, a scant two hours from where I live in Barranquilla, the Hay Festival brings together some of the world's most impactful literary figures for a three-day celebration of the written word, and featuring luminaries such as Alice Walker and this year's headliner, Salman Rushdie. Well, I didn't trek it over to Cartagena to see Salman; I went to see Junot.

Having first caught my eye with his collection of short stories called Drown back while I was earning my MFA in creative writing, Junot completely hooked, fileted, and fried me with his Pulitzer Prize-winning debut novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. The book follows, in fluid Spanglish, the ups and downs and arounds of an overweight Dominican nerd in New Jersey who just wants to get laid. Interspersed are the life stories of his beautiful dark-skinned mother, of his rebellious sister (like mother, like daughter), and of the Dominican Republic itself. The book resonates with me on pretty much every level: I was a fat nerd, I gots stupid love for the DR (the first foray into Latin America), and I'm mesmerized by Junot's weaving of humorous and vernacular anecdotes about Dominican history and culture into the narrative that exalt the country's oft-ignored African and Taíno roots. I appreciate that the book offers space for Junot's (and his characters') latinidad and blackness to co-exist, since, to my way of thinking, they are not mutually exclusive. And during the five minutes I spoke with him in the autograph line, that same appreciation was validated repeatedly.

Junot and Alma sat semi-comfortably on sofas in the cloistered courtyard of a large cathedral, bathed in sunlight, and interviewed by their Spanish-language editor, in Spanish, about writing mostly in English (supposedly their "second" language, but she went to bilingual schools all her life and he grew up mostly in the States) and their take on Obama's presidency (friendly debate between the two about the [supposedly monolithic] "Latino community's" supposed resistance to a black man as president). Politically astute and left-leaning, the irony was not lost on either writer that the majority of the audience in attendance was the conservative and self-congratulating elite of Cartagena.

After the chat, I waited my turn in the autograph line and greeted Junot with an extended hand and an English "Mr. Díaz." Immediately he said, "Brother," and we embraced in a full bruh-man hug in acknowledgment of immediately assumed and understood historical, cultural, social and political commonalities. I'd never met the man before in my life, but for the next five minutes, we discussed MFA programs and the randomness of travel and the awesomeness of the inauguration and the craziness of Latin America and the very proud local resentment toward Obama and the beauty of Santo Domingo. Plans were made to grab drinks later and continue the stream of convo, but as typical of prize-winning novelists at literary festivals, he got waylayed during the evening (probably caught-up with Salman). Still, that five-minute connection reminded me that, despite dealing with willful ignorance in and out of the classroom, and hearing often that even highlighting the very African elements and contributions evident in Latin American societies (that attract me to those societies) is itself racist and alienating, there are people who know...understand...appreciate.

He signed my copy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao:

Ernest, My brother: Strength.

Thank you, Brother Junot.