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Carnival begins today in Recife, Brazil, and if you think you know what Carnival is all about, I bet you're thinking samba, right? Well, we're going to expand your horizons. And to do that, we're going to take you to what is widely considered the most creative and varied Carnival celebration in Brazil. I'm joined now by NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro. She's in Recife. That's the capital of the northern state of Pernambuco, and Lourdes, I can hear Carnival behind you. Where are you right now?

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Yes, you can. (Foreign language spoken) as they say here. I'm in the old town of Recife. The streets are decked in streamers and decoration. What you can hear is a group of retired people next to me playing frevo. More about that soon. They're decked out in costumes and they're holding a banner that reads, Carnival has no age, and that's quite a theme here.

BLOCK: No age and you're in a place, Lulu, we should say, that has a very diverse population and a really rich history.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. This city was founded in the 1500s by Portuguese explorers, but unlike other parts of this country, it has a really different history. It was taken over by the Dutch for a while. It became a haven for a large openly Jewish population. Because the state made its money from sugar, it had a large imported slave populations from Africa. And, of course, it has its indigenous people's too. And all these influences are thriving and visible during Carnival, especially in the music.

We've spoken to a lot of people about Carnival over the past few days, but the person who had the most interesting things to say was the head of the biggest Carnival block - Gallo de madrugada - Romulo Meneses.

ROMULO MENESES: (Through interpreter) There is a mixture of the religious and the profane here. The two play with each other during the carnival. The saying goes that this isn't a state, it's a country in and of itself because it is so multicultural.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are sitting in old town Recife waiting for the rehearsal to begin. Recife, he says, hasn't commercialized itself like Rio. To even get a bad seat in Rio de Janeiro's samba drum costs hundreds of dollars. Here in Recife, despite the fact that 2 million people are expected, it's a street carnival. Pure and simple.

There are three broad types of music, Meneses explains, that symbolize Carnival here, frevo, caboclinhos and maracatu.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is maracatu rural. It was born on the sugar cane plantations of the interior of the state. Like much of the music of Carnival, it has its roots in slavery. The costumes are gorgeous, the dancers are holding flowers in their mouths while wearing massive, multicolored tinsel headdresses that sweep down like curtains over their embroidered and tasseled capes. They swing and glitter as they spin.

The sound is very different from maracatu nacao...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Heavy on the percussion, this is also known as maracatu of the turned-around beat. The participants here are dressed as the court of the sun king with velvet outfits and elaborate wigs. There is the king, the queen and the court. The roots here go back to Candomble, the Afro-Brazilian religion, but also the ceremonies that would give leadership positions under slavery here.

Hundreds of years ago, slaves in Brazil crowned their own king who would act as an intermediary between the community and their Portuguese overlords.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This is caboclinhos, the participants here honor the indigenous traditions of the region.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The costumes are elaborate takes on Indian ceremonial wear, the men are bare-chested with feathered headdresses and skirts, the instruments are a reed flute and a kind of wooden bow and arrow that is rhythmically struck. The cacique, or tribal chief, is represented as are the tribal mother and shaman.

The music that Recife is best known for, though, is frevo. It was listed by UNESCO as part of the cultural heritage of humanity and this year the carnival is honoring the tradition.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: The word is thought to come from the Portuguese word frever, to boil. Frevo, it is said, makes the blood boil. There are three types of frevo, but the most well-known is frevo da rua, or frevo of the street.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Played by a brass band, it found its roots in the Brazilian army marching bands of the late 19th century. The dance that goes with it is a form of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. It's gymnastic and explosive. The dancers carry small umbrellas, a nod to the evolution of the dance.

The most commonly accepted version of the umbrella origin story is this: When the frevo parades first began, capoiera fighters would clear the way, carrying knives and getting into fights. That led to a crackdown by police, so instead of weapons, the fighters carried big umbrellas to disguise what they were doing. These big black umbrellas were eventually replaced by the small, colorful ones used today. And the capoeira moves evolved into the frevo dance.


BLOCK: That's NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, and Lourdes, I am so envious of what you must be seeing and hearing there in Recife. It sounds like a great time.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: It is a great time. Thanks so much. (Foreign language spoken).

BLOCK: (Foreign language spoken). NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro at Carnival in Recife, Brazil.

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