The original ‘public arena’ – the street

by Laurie Neall | 1 April 2014

Turning a potentially ‘negative’ situation into a celebration is a really exciting experience.

It’s a hot, bright Saturday morning in downtown Rio de Janeiro, far from the beaches and Sugarloaf Mountain. A group form a circle on the blistering, wide, new concrete pavement of Avenida Barao de Tefe, some 400 metres from the dirty waters of Guanabara Bay. The road connects the hillside communities of Saude and Gamboa to the crosstown expressway. There are few trees, and little shade from the glare of the morning sun. Half the circle’s members play a slow, steady pulse on cowbells, tambourines and ‘berimbaus’. Two capoeristas crouch at the foot of the musical bow players. Gently swaying to the rhythm of the ‘atabaque’ drum, they await a story; a sung history, of why they are here, what they are doing.

As the song reaches a crescendo, the members of the circle call their response in chorus. The two players slowly begin to wheel and turn, first upside down, then low to the ground. The roda de capoeira will continue for several hours, intertwining gameplay, song, wit, music and danger under the burning sun. Occasionally, passers by come over to watch, street cleaners stop their work to take photos on their phones or clap along to the rhythm. Behind the circle a memorial tower is visible, marking the original site of the Cais do Valongo.

200 years ago this spot formed the edge of the bay, home to the Valongo docks. Between 1818 and 1830 an estimated one million slaves were disembarked at this very dock, now mostly cemented over, the bay reclaimed from the sea.

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