P A R I N T I N S, Brazil, July 19, 2000 -- — Fireworks light up the sky and hundreds of drums ripple through the night, but it is a thundering, collective “moo” that sets the tone at this bizarre jungle carnival deep in the heart of the Amazon.
Set in the middle of a million square miles of dense rain forest, the sleepy town of Parintins explodes with life once a year in a passionate celebration of its cattle ranching roots and almost century-old folk rivalry.
In a spectacle that pits neighbor against neighbor, twoteams named after oxen vie for the Parintins Folk Festival titlewith a Carnival-like show of three-story floats, befeathereddancers and an army of percussionists.
Spinning Yarns and Bursting Bulls
They recount Indian tales and local history, but what reallydrives the thousands of fans wild at this “Boi-Bumba” or “Ox Bang-up” are the surprise appearances of the bulls, who burst out of floats to the sound of cheers and moos.
“Come my ox, my beautiful black bull, symbol of love andwealth that makes my ranch valuable,” the audience bellows outas a man dressed as the Caprichoso Boi, or Capricious Ox, bucksaround the center of the “Bumbodromo,” a 35,000-seat arena shaped like a bull’s head and built especially for the event.
The spectacle dazzles locals and the tens of thousands ofvisitors who pour into Parintins for the three-day festival atthe end of June, doubling the town’s population to 160,000.
“I can’t believe that something so big and beautiful iscreated out of nothing. I mean, there is no civilizationanywhere near,” said a chef flown in from Rio de Janeiro tofeed celebrities and politicians during this year’s event.
A Town Divided
The festival has gradually reinvented the poor riversidecommunity, showcasing the beauty and creativity of the far-flungregion better known for environmental destruction andlawlessness. But some critics are beginning to wonder if all theattention is helping erode decades-old traditions.
“It is a permanent struggle to preserve the folk festivaland the unique characteristics of Parintins,” said Paulo JoseCunha, a Brasilia university media professor and author of twobooks on the evolution of the annual spectacle.
The Carnival-style show began only 34 years ago but rivalrybetween the Capricious Ox and the Guaranteed Ox, as the teamsare called, dates back to 1913 when roving bands of singers inbull costumes danced in the streets to improvised lyrics.
Parintins itself was built on that rivalry. Supporters ofCapricious Ox built their homes in one half of the town andpainted everything blue, from houses to barbershops, whileGarantido fans colored the other half of the town red.
“My friend’s mother, who is Caprichoso, stopped talking toher own daughter when she married a Garantido man,” one of thetown’s tourism officials said.
In this remote community on the island of Tupinambarama inthe middle of the Amazon River, public phone booths are shapedlike bull’s heads and everything from flip-flops to flashypickup trucks seem to come in just two colors: blue or red.
Beer Flows, Trash Abounds
But the growing flood of visitors with metropolitan tastesand new influences, as well as a stream of corporate sponsors,have put pressure on traditions and on the town itself.
Revelers from all over Brazil fly in on one of the 600specially chartered flights or sling hammocks in river bargesthat travel 20 hours in suffocating heat from the nearest majorcity of Manaus just for the three-day spectacle.
Streets flow with beer and trash fills the squares as bandsgive free concerts with aerobics-style instructors to teachvisitors the steps to the festival’s songs.
Increasingly the parade imitates the world-famous Rio deJaneiro Carnival and locals get squeezed out of the“Bumbodromo” to make room for TV cameras. The Indian myth thatfirst inspired the festival is still present in the three-dayshow, but it is almost lost in the wild spectacle.
According to the legend, the pregnant wife of a farmerpersuaded her husband to kill a prized ox so she could eat thetongue. The irate owner found out and captured the farmer, buthe was saved when a witch doctor brought the bull back to life.
Even U.S. drinks giant Coca Cola, which thrust Parintinsinto the international spotlight five years ago when itannounced a sponsorship, worries aboutoverexposure and has limited the number of its guests.
“You have to strike a balance between growth andtraditional values. You have to be very careful you don’texploit this,” Tim Haas, president of Coca Cola’s Latin Americaoperations, said.
Still, most residents are willing to lose a littlesmall-town charm in exchange for fame and tourist fortune.
“The show just gets prettier and brighter and moreglamorous every year,” cooed 83-year-old Silvia Coimbra, whowore a blue flowered dress and blue flip-flops in support ofCaprichoso. “I don’t miss the old days at all.”
Coca-Cola Gets Blue
Many locals thank the festival for luring $11 million ingovernment spending just in the last year. The state has pavedroads, built health clinics and announced the construction of afancy hotel complex for its newfound tourist showcase.
The festival still embraces Parintins’ indigenous roots andthe floats pay tribute to everything from endangered leopards tothe late environmental crusader Chico Mendes. And unlike Rio’sCarnival where tourists can buy costumes and participate in theshow, only Parintins residents can parade, and they also mount acarefully choreographed sideshow in the arena’s stands.
Even Coca Cola has had to adapt. After Caprichoso supportersrefused to buy Coke because of its red cans, the multinationalGoliath created huge blue advertising banners, traditionally thetrademark color of its rival Pepsi.
“Our Parintins magic infects everybody, even Coca Cola,”said Nanci Coutinho, an ecstatic housewife who dyed her hair redfor the event. “I don’t think we could ever lose it.”