The Midnight Man

In the old town of Olinda, in north-eastern Brazil, at the stroke of midnight, a giant man emerges from a colonial house. The huge crowd waiting in excited anticipation begins to celebrate, though there is also a sense of unease, as hundreds of armed policemen stand on edge.

Fireworks explode, music starts up and a procession begins. Thousands squeeze through the claustrophobic streets of Olinda with the towering Homem da Meia Noite (Midnight Man) out in front, bowing to the roof-top revelers who shower him with confetti. Standing roughly four meters in height, he is dressed in a tuxedo, green cravat, and top hat. On his face are the trademark goatee and gold tooth. The giant figure is, in fact, a papier-mâché doll with a real man hidden beneath, and the arrival of the Midnight Man marks the official start of the city’s carnival celebrations. 

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">While Rio de Janeiro’s samba processions and Salvador’s </span><a href="https://brazilian.report/society/2019/01/07/afro-brazilian-religions-brazil-bolsonaro/"><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">afoxé</span></i></a><span style="font-weight: 400;"> parades hold worldwide fame, less well known are the carnival block parties in Olinda. These parades have a rich history of celebrating local figures, often resulting from decades-long private jokes between friends, and they are sometimes spaces of political resistance. They range from</span> <span style="font-weight: 400;">small gatherings of a handful of adults and children; to massive parties of tens of thousands of people. Most importantly, they are free and open to everyone.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The music on offer is nearly always </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">frevo</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">, a fast-paced variant on the Eastern European polka from the early 19</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">th</span><span style="font-weight: 400;"> century. The genre’s name comes from the Portuguese verb ‘</span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">ferver</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;">’ (to boil), and the music seems to become more and more frenetic as they go on. Mobile orchestras of up to 30 musicians play brass and percussion instruments for three or four hours (with no break) under the beating 35-degree sun and through the humid nights. Sometimes dancers escort these orchestras, dressed in matching colorful outfits, combining energetic frevo steps whilst swinging their small iconic, rainbow umbrellas.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In tow are the carnival revelers who accompany the bands up and down the slippery, cobbled streets, past vast churches and colorful colonial-era houses. The crowds are so tightly packed that at times you can feel as if you are floating. Everyone is drenched in sweat and songs aggrandizing the city of Olinda are drunkenly sung. One of the oldest continuing block parties is Elefante de Olinda, founded in 1950, which has arguably the most famous frevo anthem, featuring the lines: </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">“Olinda, I want to sing you this song. Your coconut palms, your sun, your sea. It makes my heart throb.&#8221;</span></i></p> <p><img class="alignnone size-full wp-image-14479" src="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/shutterstock_1024984579.jpg" alt="Olinda carnival" width="1000" height="667" srcset="https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/shutterstock_1024984579.jpg 1000w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/shutterstock_1024984579-300x200.jpg 300w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/shutterstock_1024984579-768x512.jpg 768w, https://brazilian.report/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/shutterstock_1024984579-610x407.jpg 610w" sizes="(max-width: 1000px) 100vw, 1000px" /></p> <h2>Olinda Carnival classic</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The Midnight Man’s theme is another classic; its opening musical notes are instantly recognizable. The imposing papier-mâché man first entered the streets more than 80 years ago after a dispute between artisan workers and the </span><i><span style="font-weight: 400;">Cariri</span></i><span style="font-weight: 400;"> carnival group—the oldest block party in the city—led to his creation: hijacking the role of carnival-opener. The appearance of the Homem da Meia Noite has added significance for followers of the Afro-Brazilian religion, <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/feb/15/vogue-brazil-director-resigns-over-birthday-photos-evoking-slavery">Candomblé</a>. Whether a coincidence, or intentional, the first ever ‘Midnight Man’ parade was on February 2, the date of the Candomblé festival of I</span><span style="font-weight: 400;">emánja, the &#8220;mother of water&#8221; and one of 14 Yoruba deities.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Diego, from Recife, is a block party fanatic. He owns over 100 frevo vinyl records and even organizes his own block party. He tells me that the parades unite groups of people who are solely “interested in generating joy for others, using the culture of frevo.” Around town, the joy is plainly contagious, as Marcelo, a taxi driver from Olinda, tells me: “one year, my wife and I just planned to watch, but when the parade passed by, the frevo entered our body and took us off into the street.”</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Eu Acho </span><span style="font-weight: 400;">é</span><span style="font-weight: 400;"> Pouco does not have its own song, but is a hugely popular block party: their colors are the traditional leftist yellow and red. An institution of the city’s liberal, middle class, the block party was founded by a group of friends in 1977 during the military dictatorship, with a name steeped in irony, roughly meaning &#8220;it could be worse.&#8221; They are still a presence at political events in Recife, including last year’s protests against then-presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">There are specific block parties for local football teams, doctors, feminists and, of course, &#8220;Bloco do Case,&#8221; a parade specifically in celebration of the people who work at carnival. It takes place a day after the carnival ends, during which a polystyrene box (painted to look like flight case for equipment), is carried through the streets for the revelers to destroy at the end of the parade as a symbolic gesture of the end of carnival.  </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">However, fans of the Olinda carnival don’t have to wait long before the warm-up for next year’s festival comes around. Barely a few months after carnival has finished, these public practice sessions begin and though the crowds are smaller, the beer is still flowing, and the music is still boiling. Hence why in Olinda, it can sometimes feel like the carnival never stops.

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SocietyMar 03, 2019

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BY Kaspar Loftin

Kaspar Loftin is a freelance journalist based in northeastern Brazil. He studied at Manchester University and SOAS. He has contributed to various international publications on a range of subjects that include politics, football, culture, and travel.