Samba: A Love Story
Has always been a way
To try to make sense
Of the things we can't say.
The tambourine beat in Copacabana in front of the apartamento de minha avó.
Sea offerings to
On the fisherman shores of Salvador,
And a country, half enslaved, until the ripe old age of 1880.
If you get this
You begin to understand,
The broken and wild hearts we're dealing with.
That so very soon after all of that,
We began to shake
All of us
And I mean all of us
Old and young
Rich and poor
That we percussioned ourselves
Until we invented samba
Is a miracle.
To transmute the pain.
And my dances are wild prayers
To look at
The worst of it
The best of it
And with an earthy cry
Choose a hopeful honesty.
There is a beat in my blood
Of ancestral memory
An epigenetics of pain and joy
That moves me
When my BODY
I have tried to stop
And like a good little half-Brazilian
Quaking in the land of the Puritans
I have failed quite
At caging my heart.
After all, these boots are made for walking
But, I was born six thousand miles away
And sometimes things get lost in translation
For the better.
Not only can I walk, I'm a good runner, and these
Cowgirl boots know how to ride a horse over the horizon in the wrong direction.
I've become too good at running away
And lying to myself that my feelings aren't real.
I dance in my boots
Sometimes I stomp
So if we're talking a festa or a hootenanny
My body knows what to do
Even if my tongue is tripping over the
Licking the ridge of a sweating beer bottle or a cerveja,
It may seem strange
Is my Love letter to you
But when I dance, my body opens its mouth
With its limbs.
I love you in everything I do.
It doesn't happen often
I have fallen in love before,
How unlike a New Yorker to admit.
I'll never be selfish enough to be a hipster.
My skinny jeans are a Carnival costume
I wear all the time.
In Portuguese ‘costume’ is called
The last time I had a man in my bed
The night after, I dreamt of you.
Never done that before.
That's when you smiled
So I woke up smiling too.
Samba is so sexy
Because we invoke the old gods
They are older than lies.
The best of us have been destroyed by love.
It's left me a little afraid.
Mostly, I love you in percussion.
If you pay attention samba beats are too fast for sex
And still - they leave you breathless and craving more.
Because of an ecstatic joy
A funny squeaking in the night
Of a heartbeat bigger than
Brunch on Bedford Ave
But just as tangible.
For all her faults.
It is very hard not to fall for Brazil
She is extraordinary
And grown men exclaim
"Que beleza que existe!"
When she walks to the G train.
And they're right,
How extraordinary to celebrate
Life with skin that is a direct expression of your soul.
In quiet moments in cabs
What you don't know is
My hips are finally still
And they say in the dark
"What beauty that exists!"
I remember, at least a decade back, trying to survive one of those mind-numbing actor survival jobs by sneaking in reading chapters of a book called, Samba: Resistance in Motion by Barbara Browning. It was one of many small acts of subversion I committed at my day job. I’d hide the book behind a hostess stand at a corporate steakhouse while I smiled thinly at fat lunching businessmen making off-color jokes. I actively kept from making eye contact with an acid-tongued manager and tiptoed around a server who would both boast about being an active womanizer while showing photos of his wife’s new baby. I remember him once asking innocuously, “Is your dad a player too?” I just gawked in horror, and flatly forced out a “No.” These, clearly, were not my people.
Yet in all the time since then, I have asked myself in several thousand ways ‘who exactly are my people?’ Being born into a country you were not raised in means you are both of and not of a place. I remember the exact day I become conscious of calling my father “papai,” which is a simple word that means “daddy” in Portuguese. At the time, I was a nine-year- old and in the middle of a three-year stint living with my family in Redondo Beach, California. I was the perpetual new kid at school and already much too practiced in surviving playground politics. Knowing acceptance into the herd required swift and savvy acclimation I promptly invited the two Tiffanys in class over for a sleep over, started watching 90210, and what seemed obvious to tween me, but heartbreaking to admit now, is I decided consciously I had better make it easier for everyone and start referring to my father as something “normal.” Overnight, he became simply, “dad,” pronounced with a proper valley girl lilt and eye roll. It was probably the first time I nailed an acting performance and looking back now, I’m horrified.
My father is from Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as am I. Yet, my relationship with him meant I both at times idealized and vehemently pushed away any notion of “Brazilianness.” The more tension I wrestled with within myself, the more it spurred a laser-like passion. In my spare time, I devoured anthropological texts, resistance politics, music, and satirical literature; I read and watched literally anything “Brazilian” I could get my hands on in the New York City library. The more I learned, the more I hoped that the drum I walked to wouldn’t always feel so antithetical to the world around me. Little did I know at the time, my reckoning wasn’t a drumming at all, but a tambourine beat.
A frank and earthy attitude about love is a palpable part of Brazilian life. The notion of what I came to call a Brazilian Heart is one I realized when discovering the openness and freedom I found discussing feelings with my friends and family while visiting Rio de Janeiro had never felt “normal” in NYC. There was finally a sense of validation of physically “coming home” to Brazil. My heart might indeed be crazy on the Eastern seaboard, but at least on the Equator it was in good company. Much has been written about the Portuguese word “saudade,” which is said to be untranslatable but sums up the very Brazilian notion of a wistful melancholic longing that is just as real for things that have happened as for things that may never come to be.
I have spent the better portion of my adulthood heady with saudade. If you have you ever been intoxicated with melancholy you may understand. It is delicately sweet and unavoidably painful, somehow like walking through a pragmatic daydream.
I wrote the poem, Samba: A Love Story to literally mimic an unlikely samba beat tapped out in a Bushwick bar. To marry the home I had chosen for myself and its undercurrents of Puritanism (found, yes, even in the downtown New York arts scene) and what I came to realize was my South American psycho-spiritual birth right. I startled myself that the older I became the more I realized my thought processes, my penchant for penning magical realism, my whole-heartedness, the total body percussion when I experienced music, and even the way I moved somehow felt uncannily…“Brazilian?”
Enter epigenetics, or the study of how the memories and experiences of our ancestors are expressed today in our temperaments and genetic code. Despite running away from my “otherness” during the entirety of my formative years, the culture I never quite felt a part of was always locked up inside of me. I was somehow always both one thing, but simultaneously also the other. Brazil itself has a synchronistic legacy, Yoruba gods are spoken to just as freely as Catholic saints. The same people who attend Christmas mass, walk out into the waters of Cobacabana wearing white to greet Iemanjá (the Portuguese spelling of the Yoruba mother/water goddess, Yemoja) on New Year’s Day to ask for her blessing. We all wear white on New Year’s. We all feel the vestiges of slavery (Brazil was the last country in the Western World to abolish it in 1888) and the lingering undercurrent of unspoken racism. We all know about the violent prisons, cinder block favelas, the beggars with swollen bodies in the tropical sun…and yet we persist and we resist. We find real joy and transmute the pain maybe first by acknowledging it and inviting it into our living rooms for cervejas bem gelada (ice cold beers) in the first place. We wrestle with all that when we dance; across creed, gender, and color, all of us samba.
We try to make love socially acceptable when if we’re honest with ourselves, it’s anything but. It’s holding a space for the joy that maybe only two people on this earth know happened. In Samba: A Love Story I use empty space, words, and cadence as musical notes. It’s a validation of the playful and wild sensuality in samba antigua, which is the old-style bossa nova my family plays at Christmas gatherings, which usually immediately proceeds my papai getting misty-eyed and dancing with my mom around the coffee table.
I wanted to plunder my own sense of multi-hyphenated identity and grapple with my own heart. How do you express the love you don’t dare to speak out loud? How do you honor yourself enough to own your own feelings? Also, as anyone who has ever mated and dated in Brooklyn can attest, how do you subvert a broken gender system of wishy-washy hipster irony and bro-culture bankers? It’s all enough to drive a person to distraction, or alternatively, to write.
I wanted to write a love letter to speak the love, that at the time, I never knew if I’d have a chance to say out loud, but I also wanted to write a very personal love letter to myself. I wanted to quiet the ecstatic percussion and hold myself accountable to the questions and fears I tried to gloss over in the light of day. How can I be powerful, masterful, and Female in a way I find authentic? How can I walk grace, sexuality, and beauty on my own terms? Can I feel safe again? Am I ever allowed to let down my hair and but also hold my head up high? Am I allowed to experience pleasure? Dear God, do I ever get to have fun?
Being a woman trying to navigate an ever present rape culture while also looking for a safe space to express her heart’s desire, and her attraction to a gender that she fears is both a subtle and defiant act. There’s a lot of unpacking to be done if we peer deep into our heart of hearts. I know that quite well, so I dance.
cover photo by Ayo Ogunseinde | design by Christina Roman