It always comes back to the drums.
They are my heartbeat, my lifeline, my guide as I sashay my way along the Samba avenue for my school’s technical rehearsal in preparation for the big day.
Despite only being a trial run, there is enormous pressure to perform, as the grandstands are packed to the rafters with locals who can’t afford to to pay to come to the actual Carnival parade, so make the most of the free entry for these run-throughs.
In the middle of a mass of 100,000 people, singing, shouting, cheering, all I can hear are the drums.
When I was a little girl, my parents enrolled me into every single music programme possible – I learnt the flute, violin, guitar, piano…but the one thing my mother refused to let me learn was the drums.
I am not having a drum kit in this house!
But please Mum!
No and that’s my final word!
My primary school afternoons were spent doing music practice, Jazz ballet classes and generally just being a kid – riding my bike, swimming in our pool with neighbourhood friends and doing piles of homework.
Interestingly, I decided to give up my Jazz Ballet as I entered high school – mainly because of my enormous new study load but secretly because of all of the bitchy girls in dance class. I was never a competitive person and always loved working in a team – something that didn’t help me at all in the very individual world of dance.
I went on to excel at sport – playing A Grade netball and basketball, and joining my school’s swimming and softball teams. I loved the team environment – the camaraderie, the teamwork and the socialising after games.
Surprisingly, I never picked up another musical instrument, nor did I dance (or even think about dance) for the entirety of my teenage years.
It wasn’t until I started university and needed to elect an extra subject as part of my Languages and Linguistics degree, that the hands of fate started to come into play.
I had already chosen to major in Japanese and minor in French, as I loved languages and was good at them, but my mother strongly advised me not to choose another language due to the workload involved.
So one fine day, as I was making my way around the university campus during orientation week, I suddenly heard the sounds of trumpets, congas, claves….what is that strange music?
With trepidation, I poked my head into the Spanish classroom and was instantly bombarded by the smells of empanadas, arepas and the vibrant sounds of Salsa music and beautifully exotic people chatting loudly in various melodic dialects.
Where on earth am I?
I felt like Princess Jasmine entering a whole new world.
This was the beginning of my love affair with Latin culture, and I went in search of Salsa classes, ultimately landing in the middle of a Latin dance academy in Brisbane which also taught Samba.
I had never seen people move their bodies in such sensual ways – their hips swaying from side to side, their shiny hair flicking back and forth and their booties popping to the tropical beats of the Caribbean– where have you been all my life Latin music?
I became obsessed with Ricky Martin – the only Latin popstar at the time who also sang in English. His posters adorned my bedroom walls and I would listen to his music on my brand new Discman as I worked out at the gym. I dreamt of one day visiting Puerto Rico and melting into Ricky’s arms as he sweetly sang La Vida Loca to me on a beach overlooking the Caribbean sea.
As I started my Spanish studies, I was thankful for my years of French – for helping me with verb conjugations, vocabulary and training my ear for the complexity of Latin languages.
The more I learnt, the more I wanted to learn. I started to research as much as I could on all of the countries of Latin America (this meant going to a LIBRARY – not googling). Why hadn’t I heard much about most of them before?
Cuba, Puerto Rico, Venezuela, Dominican Republic….I couldn’t get enough! (Madonna’s La Isla Bonita became the theme song of my uni days!)
What are all these different styles of music?
To begin with, the Lambada, Salsa, Merengue, Bachata, Bolero, Forro and Samba all sounded the same to me.
But each day as I would drive to uni listening to my carefully compiled mix tape, I would start to recognize the differences in rhythms. Ah, that’s a Salsa! Yes, that’s a Lambada!
It was like studying an entirely new encyclopaedia – one that was mysterious, tantalising and still so far out of my reach. For back then, travel to South America was almost unheard of.
There was a small Latin community in Brisbane, but the trip was so long and so expensive that you never heard of any Aussies making it, unless they were dating or married to a Latino and they begrudgingly spent 3 days of their lives travelling from Australia to New Zealand, New Zealand to Chile, and Chile to their destination, all the while suffering from horrible jetlag and ridiculously uncomfortable plane seats (not much has changed these days!)
When I suddenly announced to my parents a few years later that I was buying a one-way ticket to Brazil for a year, they weren’t at all surprised. Just terrified.
All we ever heard on the news about Brazil was the violence. Favelas. Gun fights. Corruption. Kidnappings. Murders.
My parents tried their very best to dissuade me.
Darling, why don’t you go and visit our relatives in Europe? They will take care of you and you can travel to some amazing countries – everything is so close and there are so many different languages and cultures for you to immerse yourself in. Plus, everyone in Europe speaks English!
So at 21 years old, I packed my suitcases and ventured off to Europe – for one month – on my way to Rio.
And here I am now, in the city of Samba, at the technical rehearsal for my school in my beautiful new Muse dress I had to move heaven and earth for.
Do you believe in fate?
How did a little girl from Brisbane, on the complete other side of the world, end up here?
As I make my way along the infamous Sambadrome, I remember my early days of learning dance, and all of the competitiveness and solitude that came with it.
Now I find myself full circle, on the world’s biggest stage, completely alone, but surrounded by women snarling at me, looking me up and down, scrutinizing every inch of my body and whispering about me to their friends.
Check out the gringa.
I bet she won’t even make it half way down the avenue.
I bet she’s married to some rich foreign guy who paid for her position.
I bet she won’t even know how to dance one step of Samba.
I pretend I can’t hear them, but my heart is sinking.
Yes I am a gringa and I have trained for the past 15 years for this.
No I am not married to some rich guy – I have worked my ass off and invested all of my savings into coming to Brazil (9 times to be precise!) to study your culture, language and dance.
Yes I know how to Samba and I will surely show you a thing or two!
I tune back into the drumming and start to dance.
Everyone stops, mouths agape and eyes wide open.
So maybe I am a little competitive afterall!
Have you read the other blogs in this series?