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Jamaican bobsledders in reverse

A nervous Toronto samba club heads to Brazil to perform at that country's famous Carnaval

ISABEL VINCENT February 4 2008
THE BACK PAGES

Jamaican bobsledders in reverse

A nervous Toronto samba club heads to Brazil to perform at that country's famous Carnaval

ISABEL VINCENT February 4 2008

Jamaican bobsledders in reverse

A nervous Toronto samba club heads to Brazil to perform at that country's famous Carnaval

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ISABEL VINCENT

You can’t blame Oksana Werbowy for being anxious. After all, the program officer who works for a Torontobased foundation is on her way to Brazil for the first time. But hers are not the usual fears that plague many tourists to the South American country, renowned for its high level of urban violence. Werbowy worries about what it will be like when she takes to the stage during Carnaval early next month to perform with the Canadian members of her samba band. “I’m a bit nervous being a non-Brazilian playing samba [often described as Brazil’s national music] to a Brazilian audience,” she said in a recent interview.

Indeed, bringing samba to the land of samba during Brazil’s most important celebration could be a bit nerve-racking. Still, the 15 members of the Escola de Samba de Toronto—a group that includes a subway driver and physiotherapists—who will leave for Sào Paulo next week are buzzing with excitement. “We’re like the Jamaican bobsled team in reverse,” says Alan Hetherington, founder of the Escola de Samba de Toronto and a percussionist who has been a samba enthusiast for the last 20 years.

Hetherington, who is 40 and married to a Brazilian, experienced his first samba moment when he played in the drum corps of a Brazilian samba club during Carnaval two decades ago. “It was like walking into a tornado,” he says, “ft was a life-changing experience for me. It’s not just about music. It’s a therapy, a way of dealing with everyday life. It’s about strength and fortitude.”

Since then, Hetherington has rarely missed the opportunity to play with a Brazilian samba club during Carnaval. In addition to founding his own samba club in Toronto, he has

almost single-handedly created an entire samba movement in the city, offering lessons in the different types of samba percussion and dance at the Royal Conservatory of Music, which also hosts his samba club. A few years ago, he convinced a Canadian filmmaker, Avi Lev, to make a documentary about his group. The promotional photograph for the film, entitled We Are Samba, features a naked man playing a samba drum in the snow.

Snow and the experience of living in a cold country feature prominently in the group’s own sambas. One, entitled Snow, has the following lyrics: Snow / Was once a picture in a book/But now it’s everywhere I look/In my new land/Snow/Itpiles right up to my knees/Erases all my memories / With its white hand.

Hetherington is such a samba enthusiast that in the city of Jundiai, some 90 km outside Sao Paulo, where the Toronto samba band will play during Carnaval (the most important Carnaval parades are in Rio and Salvador but Carnaval is celebrated all over the country), he is known as “Alan Canadense” (Alan the Canadian). “Alan has rhythm,” says Donizetti Aparecido Ambrosio, a samba band leader in Jundiai. “He has come every year, and we are all thrilled that he is bringing his samba school to play with us during Carnaval.” Indeed, the city plans to give the Canadians a welcome often reserved for visiting digni-

taries. Local media will feature special reports about the Toronto club and the group will have the honour of playing with the samba “mestres” (masters)—the locally revered band leaders like Ambrosio.

Although Hetherington has participated in some of the most traditional samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, he prefers the smaller schools in Jundiai for a more “authentic” samba experience. “Going to Jundiai is like going to Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s when Carnaval was more of a community-based celebration,” says Hetherington. These days in Rio, the samba schools have more than 4,000 members, and many of them are controlled by powerful gambling interests and organized crime.

For Brazilians, samba and Carnaval, which were popularized by the African slaves that were brought to the country, are about community and a way of life. In many favelas— shantytowns—residents spend the entire year rehearsing and preparing for the annual Carnaval celebrations. “Samba teaches you how to live,” says Beth Carvalho, a Brazilian samba singer and composer who was interviewed for Lev’s documentary, “ft teaches you to have happiness as resistance.”

Hetherington agrees, and goes one step further. “You know,” he says. “I’ve discovered that there is a bit of Brazilian in everybody, no matter where they’re from. There’s something about the human warmth in Brazil that reaches to the very centre of all of us.” M