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Meet the 'bate-bola' clowns that hit the streets during Carnival

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

In Brazil, Carnival is in full swing. But far from the beaches and tourist-packed events in the working class and predominantly Afro-Brazilian neighborhoods, Carnival is decidedly different. Known there as bate-bola, crews in Rio's outskirts don clown-like costumes and race through neighborhoods to a frenetic mix of funk, fireworks and fear. Men have long dominated bate-bola. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, women are joining in.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE STITCHING)

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: Monique Veira is busy sewing long strips of colorful, pink Lycra pieces for the Bem Feito, or Well Done, crew's bate-bola costume this year.

MONIQUE VEIRA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "I'm sewing the cap here to cover the crew member's face," she says. The 39-year-old mechanical engineer says she also sews the huge ruffly skirts, as well as the bulging, feather-filled sleeves. Incandescent, colored tights are part of the mix, as well as a glittery headdress. "We do it differently than Carnival in Rio's beach neighborhoods and tourist areas," she says.

VEIRA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "They like those block parties," she says, "where everyone is practically naked, but not here."

(SOUNDBITE OF SEWING MACHINE STITCHING)

KAHN: Bate-bolas, loosely translated as the ball beaters, celebrate Carnaval in Rio's outskirts. Their name comes from the ball tied to the end of a large stick that they slam against the ground, enchanting and intimidating onlookers. Just where this mix of extravagant costumes and revelry came from is much debated. Some say Portuguese colonizers brought it over. Or like Andra Maturana, who runs Bem Feito with her husband, believes - it was born out of her neighborhood's working-class roots.

ANDRA MATURANA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "Workers in industries out here would wear their oversized overalls and go on strike and bang balls on the ground as a form of protest," she says. As a kid, her mother wouldn't let her join bate-bola, saying it was too dangerous. Crews were known to fight rivals in the streets, and the media highlights any local brawls to this day, she says. But now 26 and a new mom, Maturana says times are changing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

KAHN: As drummers practice at her home that doubles as the Bem Feito workshop, she says bate-bola is overcoming the stigma.

MATURANA: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "It has long been an extremely masculine culture, but today more and more women participate," she says. This year, 40 women are taking part. There were only six when she started in 2018. But she'd like to see more help from the city. Sabrina Veloso is a cultural researcher in Rio.

SABRINA VELOSO: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: She says the big Carnival sponsors aren't interested in bate-bola. Veloso, who is also a member of the all-female Brilhetes crew, says Rio's working-class outskirts have long been marginalized. It's not surprising its celebrations don't get much tourist promotion nor dollars.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Chanting in non-English language).

(CHEERING)

KAHN: Unfazed, Veloso and her all-women crew get ready as funk music booms on the street below. Crew leader Vanessa Amorim says she'll keep spreading the word of bate-bola.

VANESSA AMORIM: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "We keep fighting and persisting."

(SOUNDBITE OF FIRECRACKERS POPPING)

KAHN: As a barrage of fireworks fill the sky and drown out the music, the bate-bolas hit the streets, bashing their balls on the ground. The men's crew starts running, too. Vanessa Amorim says bate-bola is finally getting respect here at home, too.

AMORIM: (Non-English language spoken).

KAHN: "These days, even the men are accepting us as equals. We no longer parade behind them or in front. We do it side by side." Carrie Kahn, NPR News, Rio de Janeiro.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DANZA KUDURO")

WE ARE ONE: (Singing in non-English language). Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Carrie Kahn is NPR's International Correspondent based in Mexico City, Mexico. She covers Mexico, the Caribbean, and Central America. Kahn's reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning news programs including All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Weekend Edition, and on NPR.org.