CARUARU, Brazil – The smell of gunpowder, the flavor of roasted corn, and the music of traditional piper bands attract millions of revelers every year to the northeastern Brazilian city of Caruaru for a two-month celebration of what is considered the world’s biggest feast of St. John the Baptist.
The town located in the heart of Pernambuco state, some 130 kilometers (80 miles) from the state capital of Recife on the coast, is completely transformed between May and July into a cultural and artistic explosion that, like Carnival, is yet another reflection of the basic cheerfulness of the Brazilian people.
Colorful streamers cover the sky over its streets as regional music played on accordion, drum and triangle sets the rhythm for groups of dancers, while army troops shoot cannons in the air on a night whose liturgy dates back to the late 19th century.
The sound of bulky cannons fired with dry gunpowder is as deafening as it is magical. All this is complemented with the heat of bonfires and the famous giant meals, like the immense servings of couscous and corn flour sponge cakes.
This is called the “June festival” and is third in importance in Brazil after Carnival and New Year’s, and marks the start of the corn harvest.
Though June 24 is officially the feast of St. John the Baptist, Caruaru pays tribute to this saint with incredible enthusiasm and a special program that begins May 18 and goes on until July 14.
Almost two months of celebration feature 500 artistic attractions on which close to 200 million reais (about $51.5 million) are expected to be spent by some 2 million people. The usual population is 350,000.
The so-called “Patio do Forro” holds an enormous stage where concerts by famous Brazilian singers like Alceu Valenca are packed to capacity on weekends.
“The feast of St. John is closely related to the cultural identity of those in the northeast. It reflects who we are...everyone is happy and those who work elsewhere come back for family reunions where they sit around the bonfire eating some dish made with corn,” Caruaru Mayor Raquel Lyra told EFE.
What’s new this year is the creation of a dozen cultural poles in the rural communities around Caruaru, where the roots of the festival are to be found, as is the case of Vila do Jua.
Like all the little villages with their cobblestone lanes that surround the city, it has a central plaza surrounded by humble one-story houses with a church in the middle.
Residents of Vila do Jua move into the streets for the occasion and dance with a joyous passion that is contagious. Their age and the time of day or night don’t matter; they will dance until their feet can’t take any more.
With cannons firing in the background, June dancers in shining suits present a choreography they have been working on for months.
That particular dance began in Paris in the 18th century and gained popularity in Brazil during the 19th, first in aristocratic circles and later among the general public who mixed it with other forms of Brazilian artistic expression.