Familia affair

It's always gratifying to walk into an utterly alien environment and instantly feel right at home. That's just the experience I enjoyed last Saturday night at the Palladium International club, where the Carnaval Axé 2000 party threw me into close contact with a throng of happy Brazilians whose welcoming, feel-good ethos reaffirmed my belief that we live in uno world, not tres.

OK, so maybe "instantly" is a bit of an exaggeration. As I arrived at the manorlike night spot near International Drive, I saw that the front doors were manned by more beefy security guards than you'd find in the main hallway of a Los Angeles high school. I tried not to look into the eyes of my buddy, who had earlier expressed the non-PC concern that he'd "get knifed" if he dared enter a Latin club. Fortunately, he noticed before I did that the ersatz policia were decked out in black T-shirts that didn't read "Security," but rather the much-less-threatening "Safety Team." I was relieved to know that they weren't there to beat us all into a pulp, but merely to stop us from running with scissors or something.

The welcome wagon became even friendlier once we were inside. Lined up in the entryway was a gaggle of smiling beauty-pageant winners (including Miss Brazil Tampa and Miss Brazil Orlando), most of whom were clad in tiger-print bikinis and matching catwoman masks, in honor of the costume-crazy carnival season. Downtown just can't compete with that kind of hearty hello -- at least, not until Zuma Beach hires Julie Newmar as an ID checker.

The Palladium was every bit as spacious as its imposing exterior had indicated. A large dance floor took up most of the first level, with twin staircases providing entry to a three-quarter balcony. A cafeteria window at the back of the room was just visible behind the raised stage that dominated the open space, dead center.

The mamas and the pampas

The crowd was heavily weighted toward the younger set, baseball-capped b-boys walking arm in arm with their impossibly thin, bell-bottomed sweethearts. It all felt like a school prom, except that the dress code was looser, and the alcohol was coming from an actual bar, not some honor student's hip flask.

Still, older folk were far from ostracized, and the occasional grandma could be seen bringing up the rear of one of the conga lines that periodically snaked across the floor. That willingness to party with their elders is something that's always impressed me about Latin and black clubgoers, who display none of the tight-sphincteredness that prevents many young whites from patronizing any establishments where (God forbid) their PARENTS might show up.

The multigenerational imprimatur extended onto the stage, where the band Boca Loca (Crazy Mouth) performed a set of high-spirited rhythm that never seemed to come up for air. On one side stood a flute player who couldn't have been old enough to shave; across from him was a balding, bespectacled guitarist who looked remarkably like James Watt in a tank top.

The Loca ones, I later learned, had nearly missed the gig: Visa trouble had held them up at the airport on their way in from Brazil. Border issues ironed out, they favored us with their version of axé (pronounced ah-SHAY), the dance sound that I was told had replaced the "more controversial" lambada. If lambada was the Forbidden Dance, I suppose axé is the Mildly Discouraged Dance. Though truth be told, the pingponging melodies struck me as more polkalike than subequatorial. All of those years of watching "Siempre en Domingo" have apparently taught me nada.

Enjoying the Polka Loca set was Trevor Thompson, general manager of I-Drive spook headquarters Skull Kingdom. Thompson had scored tickets to the carnival fete through some of his many Brazilian customers, who he described as "very emotional people. They love to dance, be scared and have fun."

On cue, the feline beauty queens I had earlier spied clambered onstage to dance along with the band, shimmying furiously and occasionally indulging in what Frank Zappa once referred to as "provocative squats." Whatever they lacked in I-want-to-work-with-children piety, the pageant starlets more than made up for in innocent, hot-blooded enthusiasm. Just why were we so upset with Vanessa Williams all those years ago, anyway?

The group ended its set by vamping on a few measures of Van Halen's "Jump," causing me to laugh out loud in surprise and delight -- it was the only "American" music I had heard all night. President Clinton, please grant David Lee Roth an ambassadorship post haste.

Her name is Rio

As the headlining Asas de Aguia (Eagle Wings) set up their equipment, I caught a few words with Alice Mesquita, cultural director of the Brazilian Association of Central Florida, the event's sponsor. Her eyes peering out from under a wide-brimmed hat Gloria Swanson would have killed for, Mesquita told me that the Association had been operating for eight years now, but that she herself had been in the United States for only two. Now, she said, she was dividing her time between her personal life as a writer, yoga instructor and vocal coach, and her duties organizing the Association's parties, film screenings and concerts.

The sound of the Asas' conga drums permeating the air, Mesquita explained that what I was witnessing wasn't a true Rio experience: Carnaval Axé 2000 was "less of a show," she opined. You could have fooled me.

"These people are all missing carnival," she proclaimed with a sweep of her hand, her voice almost wistful with a homesickness of its own.

I wondered what they all look like when they aren't melancholy. The audience was by now a teeming throng of waving hands, bobbing heads and gyrating hips. As I scanned their faces, I noticed that just about everyone on the dance floor was grinning from ear to tanned ear, exhibiting the genuine joy that everyone I had spoken to had lauded as the Brazilian national character. It was a welcome respite from the club scenes I'm used to, in which everyone attempts to look as sullen as possible while surreptitiously keeping tabs on whoever else might be watching them dance.

Hats off to the carnival crowd for having none of it. When you're hot hot hot, being cool is just a waste of time.


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