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, two teams named after oxen vie for the Parintins Folk Festival title with a Carnival-like show of three-story floats, befeathered dancers and an army of percussionists.
Spinning Yarns and Bursting Bulls
They recount Indian tales and local history, but what really drives 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 and wealth that makes my ranch valuable,” the audience bellows out as a man dressed as the Caprichoso Boi, or Capricious Ox, bucks around 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 of visitors who pour into Parintins for the three-day festival at the end of June, doubling the town’s population to 160,000.
“I can’t believe that something so big and beautiful is created out of nothing. I mean, there is no civilization anywhere near,” said a chef flown in from Rio de Janeiro to feed celebrities and politicians during this year’s event.
A Town Divided
The festival has gradually reinvented the poor riverside community, showcasing the beauty and creativity of the far-flung region better known for environmental destruction and lawlessness. But some critics are beginning to wonder if all the attention is helping erode decades-old traditions.
“It is a permanent struggle to preserve the folk festival and the unique characteristics of Parintins,” said Paulo Jose Cunha, a Brasilia university media professor and author of two books on the evolution of the annual spectacle.
The Carnival-style show began only 34 years ago but rivalry between the Capricious Ox and the Guaranteed Ox, as the teams are called, dates back to 1913 when roving bands of singers in bull costumes danced in the streets to improvised lyrics.
Parintins itself was built on that rivalry. Supporters of Capricious Ox built their homes in one half of the town and painted everything blue, from houses to barbershops, while Garantido fans colored the other half of the town red.
“My friend’s mother, who is Caprichoso, stopped talking to her own daughter when she married a Garantido man,” one of the town’s tourism officials said.
In this remote community on the island of Tupinambarama in the middle of the Amazon River, public phone booths are shaped like bull’s heads and everything from flip-flops to flashy pickup trucks seem to come in just two colors: blue or red.
Beer Flows, Trash Abounds
But the growing flood of visitors with metropolitan tastes and 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 600 specially chartered flights or sling hammocks in river barges that travel 20 hours in suffocating heat from the nearest major city of Manaus just for the three-day spectacle.
Streets flow with beer and trash fills the squares as bands give free concerts with aerobics-style instructors to teach visitors the steps to the festival’s songs.
Increasingly the parade imitates the world-famous Rio de Janeiro Carnival and locals get squeezed out of the “Bumbodromo” to make room for TV cameras. The Indian myth that first inspired the festival is still present in the three-day show, but it is almost lost in the wild spectacle.
According to the legend, the pregnant wife of a farmer persuaded her husband to kill a prized ox so she could eat the tongue. The irate owner found out and captured the farmer, but he was saved when a witch doctor brought the bull back to life.
Even U.S. drinks giant Coca Cola, which thrust Parintins into the international spotlight five years ago when it announced a sponsorship, worries about overexposure and has limited the number of its guests.
“You have to strike a balance between growth and traditional values. You have to be very careful you don’t exploit this,” Tim Haas, president of Coca Cola’s Latin America operations, said.
Still, most residents are willing to lose a little small-town charm in exchange for fame and tourist fortune.
“The show just gets prettier and brighter and more glamorous every year,” cooed 83-year-old Silvia Coimbra, who wore a blue flowered dress and blue flip-flops in support of Caprichoso. “I don’t miss the old days at all.”
Coca-Cola Gets Blue
Many locals thank the festival for luring $11 million in government spending just in the last year. The state has paved roads, built health clinics and announced the construction of a fancy hotel complex for its newfound tourist showcase.
The festival still embraces Parintins’ indigenous roots and the floats pay tribute to everything from endangered leopards to the late environmental crusader Chico Mendes. And unlike Rio’s Carnival where tourists can buy costumes and participate in the show, only Parintins residents can parade, and they also mount a carefully choreographed sideshow in the arena’s stands.
Even Coca Cola has had to adapt. After Caprichoso supporters refused to buy Coke because of its red cans, the multinational Goliath created huge blue advertising banners, traditionally the trademark color of its rival Pepsi.
“Our Parintins magic infects everybody, even Coca Cola,” said Nanci Coutinho, an ecstatic housewife who dyed her hair red for the event. “I don’t think we could ever lose it.”