Rio Carnival Revelers Twist, Shout To Beatles

Published February 20, 2012 8:18PM (EST)

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — English speakers got their moment in the Carnival sun on Monday as a wild, Beatles-themed street party let them shake it up, baby, with a samba swing to "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da."

"Sargento Pimenta," Portuguese for "Sergeant Pepper," is one of more than 400 raucous street parties that spring up throughout Rio de Janeiro during Carnival season. Hundreds of thousands of people turn out for the largest of the "blocos," packed, sweaty open-air dance parties where the crowd sings along to a repetitive medley of Carnival songs — usually in Portuguese, of course.

As many as 850,000 tourists descend on Rio for the five-day-long Carnival free-for-all, and blocos offer plenty of nonverbal opportunities for fun: If drinking till you pass out doesn't suit your fancy, you might try racking up as many snogging partners as humanly possible during a single street party, a common Carnival game here.

But even with such tantalizing diversions, it must be acknowledged that singing along to the blasting music — usually played live by a band atop a sound truck, with a cordoned-off percussion section trailing behind — is at least half the fun.

Enter Sargento Pimenta, the brainchild of Gustavo Gitelman, a music lover and doctor by trade.

Gitelman quickly rounded up an enthusiastic group of Beatles aficionados — so many, in fact that the Fab Four became more of a Fab 70 at the party's debut last year. On Monday, a dozen or so singers dressed in T-shirts hung with gilded epaulettes like those on the "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album cover belted out a medley from atop a sound-truck. The percussion band that accompanied them was swallowed up in the sea of humanity that turned out for the show, but their rhythms rocked the crowd.

The group gives the Beatles repertoire a Brazilian tweak, adapting "All My Loving" to the peppy beat of a traditional Carnival "marchinha," or march, and infusing "Hard Day's Night" with a Rio funk sound. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" morphed into a samba. Even the melancholic "Hey Jude" was spiked with an infectious upbeat energy.

But the biggest winner of the day was "Twist and Shout," which had the beer-guzzling crowd shimmying and shaking under the intense mid-afternoon sun.

Though the group has adapted a handful of the songs into Portuguese, most are sung in the original English, much to the delight of Anglophone visitors, many of whom can fully participate in the bloco experience for the first time.

"At the other blocos, you get kind of jealous because everyone is singing besides you, so you can feel a bit left out," said Amanda Weaver, a 33-year-old Canadian who has been living in Brazil for two months. "I really love to sing, and finally I get to."

Clint Lightsey of Austin, Texas, agreed.

"The dancing is always fun, but knowing the songs and being able to relate to them really takes it to another level," said the 29-year old oil industry worker.

The group's debut last year was so successful that the crowd was packed so tight it became something of a health hazard, and Monday's show moved to a more spacious location. But the event looked to have outgrown even its new digs in Flamengo Park, off of the iconic Guanabara Bay, and it appeared to have already become among the most popular blocos in Rio.

Sargento Pimenta is not the sole offbeat bloco offering. There's also the "Blocao," an animal-themed street party where pet owners in shorts and flip-flops parade their cats and dogs, dressed up as pirates, princesses and cave-pets; and Paraty, a coastal colonial city south of Rio, is home to the "Bloco da Lama," or "Mud Bloco," where revelers tramp through, dive into and otherwise cover themselves in sticky mud.

And for those who like to take a less participative role in Carnival celebrations, Rio's iconic Sambadrome samba school competition moves into its second and final day on Monday night.

Nearly 100,000 paying spectators turn out for the all-night spectacle, which includes troupes of samba dancers whose costumes consist largely of body glitter and oversized feathered wings, older women in pup tent-sized hoop skirts and giant floats covered in outlandish, oversized decoration. The parade starts shortly after sundown and doesn't finish till dawn, with the winner out of the 13 participating schools announced later in the week.

By Salon Staff

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