Clown suits, slamming balls form of Brazil Carnival revelry

RIO DE JANEIRO — To see an alternative Carnival celebration called bate-bola, most likely you need to live in a poor area of Rio de Janeiro, a world away from the glitzy parades of Brazil's famous party, or receive an invitation by word of mouth.

Participants dress in colorful clown costumes, running wild, yelling and using sticks to slam balls into the ground — and sometimes each other — in rough-and-tumble areas in north or west Rio. Over the years, balls have ranged from cow bladders drenched in salt to plastic oval-shaped balls wrapped in cords, which are the most common today in bate-bola, or bat-ball.

"These masked men and women create an identity and a social network among themselves," said Luiz Antonio Simas, an historian and Carnival columnist for Rio daily "O Dia." ''That is what makes them plan for this during the entire year."

Members of one bate-bola group gathered Monday night in the City of God slum, one of Rio's most violent and notorious slums made famous by an Academy-Award nominated film with its namesake. For hours, they slammed balls to the ground, drank beer and talked about trying to meet up with other groups.

Bate-bola veteran Anderson, who goes by "Playboy" and declined to give his last name, said he recently founded the group, called "Badalados," or "Trendy" in English.

"Here we have nothing but social projects and we wanted something new," said Anderson as he prepared his group of 25 members to try to meet other bate-bola fans a few miles away. "We are not here to cause any trouble. We just want to have a good time without traveling to the other side of the city."

The bate-bola tradition dates to the beginning of the 20th century. Revelers would go around looking for other groups to gather, make noise, and hit balls. But with the growing influence of drug gangs in slums, or favelas, these encounters now sometimes end in shootings, stabbings and killings.

That is why many Cariocas, as Rio residents are known, instead celebrate in the glitzy samba school parades or in more than 450 street parties in the safer south and central areas of the city.

Part of the danger lies in the disorganized nature of the celebrations. For a few hours Monday night, the group went to different areas looking for other groups or a larger "bate-bala party" and by midnight had not found one.

As the group paraded through an avenue in the region of Taquara, also on Rio's west zone, gas station staffer Alan de Sousa looked on.

"I did this for many years until a friend was killed in front of us," he said. "The clown costumes have very long sleeves, so an enemy of his was carrying a knife."

Still, Sousa said he still feels goosebumps when he hears the balls.

"Only people that do bate-bola know what a thrill it is. That is probably why it is never on television, you have to live it to like it," he said.

While such celebrations happen in predominantly poor areas, the clown costumes can cost more than 2,000 Brazilian reals ($645), much more than national monthly minimum wage of 937 Brazilian reals ($ 300).

Some costumes are more improvised. A teenage boy with Badalados, who refused to give his name, wore a gorilla outfit and a fake assault weapon. Many teenage girls wore Wonder Woman costumes and practiced slamming their balls on the ground.

"We tried to make it accessible for everyone this year" by making cheaper costumes, said Caique Nunes, also an organizer at Badalados. "Next year, the economy will be better. I am sure we will have 50 members."

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Associated Press video journalist Yesica Fisch and photographer Felipe Dana contributed to this report.

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