`There'll be dancing in the streets' is an understatement during `maracatu' time in Olinda. Two weeks before carnival, Marc Starr survived a Brazilian party
ELVIS IS alive in Brazil and made of papier-mache. I know this because the King is chasing me down one of the cobbled chicken runs that snake their way up and down the hills of Olinda, formerly the capital of the north-eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco.

Mr Presley is, however, dancing towards me propelled not by the sound of rock and roll as we know it, but by frevo, one of the music forms that, to Pernambucan ears, means that it is time to party even more enthusiastically than the usual near-professional level of animation that the locals are famed for.

This, however, isn't carnival. That's a couple of weeks away, in the middle of February. This is just a warm-up for the Olindans. Not that they need any encouragement to party, but great art forms are not learnt in one day, and carnival benefits from a few weeks of practice.

Along with its carnivalesque counterpart maracatu, frevo forms the sonic backbone of a do that attracts a million people to Olinda each year in order to career around the old town from Friday night and remain in the groove until the keys to the office are somehow found on Thursday morning.

The music and dance of the Pernambucan carnivals originated on the sugar plantations, the profits of which were what paid for the breathtaking architectural backdrop to the bash. Frevo - from the Brazilian word for "to boil", ferver - provokes such a state of animation in those who dance to it that umbrellas are required to stop the movers and shakers from losing their equilibrium and ruining their chances of ever walking in a straight line again. The sight of the almost camp but highly muscular male passistas leaping around with umbrellas decorated in primary colours and bedecked with ribbons is a strange and unforgettable one.

The music is belted out drunkenly by swathes of drummers and trumpeters dressed in whatever outfit the local sugar-based moonshine called pinga inspires. They are responsible for a sound that would exist in Britain if each member of the entire Royal Scots Guard was force-fed 40 cups of strong booze-laced espresso and locked in a room with only a tape- loop of the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever for company.

The best thing about the Pernambucan festivals, though, is the venues: these are not specially built streets, like in Rio, where the spectacle is accessible only to the privileged or the ripped-off. Pernambucans would never dream of charging tourists a fee for watching them enjoy themselves. For an area of the country which is as rich in culture as it is neglected by tourism, the people here are just glad that you saw the light. Why put off a convert?

Maracatu is an altogether more funky proposition than Rio's carnival. When a maracatu procession comes past, the women clad in Bahian costume and loaded with Afro-Brazilian food and barbecued cheeses and meats for sale while still dancing, expressions on faces change from just happy to way beyond elated.

The pretend African kings and queens essential to an authentic maracatu, who sway through the streets of Olinda, are dressed in embroidered home- made finery, designed to accentuate movements that are almost too graceful for the sound of armies of deep-toned bombo (aka alfaia) drums, snares and cowbells.

Following them come the bearers of the standards which are embroidered with names of the more than one thousand carnival bands which make each day a blur of colour and sound. And not a single bit of electricity is needed for this truly heavenly cacophony.

Maracatu is not only one of Pernambuco's most deep-rooted traditions, though. It also lies at the root of the more amplified modern fusions - christened "mangue-beat" - found in abundance two miles away, over the rivers and bridges which connect Olinda to Recife, the present-day capital of Pernambuco, which stands on reclaimed mangrove swampland.

Recife is where the state electricity company rubs its hands come Ash Wednesday. Carnival officially opens on Saturday 13 February with a parade which, even with the competition provided by Rio de Janeiro and Salvador da Bahia, attracts the largest crowd at any folia (or celebration) anywhere in Brazil and, therefore, the world. As The Guinness Book of Records will testify under the heading "Party, biggest".

The crowds which come to greet the

Galo da Madrugada (the Morning Cockerel) are the best crowds to get lost in on this side of the waters.

Even in the middle of the overbearing urban criss-cross of central Recife, modern-day citizens sport the embroidered leather half-moon-shaped hats worn by the north-east's own Robin Hood figure, Lampiao (Lightning Flash), and multi-coloured bibs which signify they have made it into the official carnival throng. Whichever happens to be the most popular of the "mangue" bands (which fuse hip-hop with maracatu, or funk with frevo) leads an elephantine convoy of trios electricos, electrified trucks with inbuilt speakers.

And it is not up to you just how trapped you wish to be, such is the force of the human current created by it. If you want out, you think twice before going in. If you can't take the happy turbulence at street level, the best way to hit the middle ground dancing is to blag your way on to the balcony of one of the office buildings that sit on the banks of the Rio Capiberibe.

The sensory overload is more than any Glastonbury or Notting Hill veteran could imagine. Tell them there's something 10 times bigger somewhere else and hear them laugh. And then just smile at the secret you tried to share.

The week of build-up and the event itself require either an acceptance that you can only see so much, or a resolve to come back to do it again one day. The alternative is to stay until late June when the frevo and maracatu are shelved in favour of the coco, the embolada and the ciranda, examples of yet more criminally under-exposed music styles developed in the arid interior, the Sertao. These festas celebrating Sao Joao (Saint John) week are a chance to turn brains into crepes for the first time since Lent put an end to the festival which you will never think of as Pancake Day ever again. To get the chance to be here at that stage of February and say thanks but no thanks? You'd be a lemon, sugar.


olinda festival

Getting there

Olinda, a few kilometres from Recife, is one of the most beautiful cities in Brazil and its carnival is reputed to be one of the greatest on earth. The easiest way to get to Recife is by air on TAP, aka Air Portugal, via Lisbon. Journey Latin America (tel: 0181-747 3108) is currently offering return fares to Recife starting from pounds 475 plus pounds 36 tax. Accommodation during the carnival period is extremely hard to find, but it can also be booked in advance through Journey Latin America on the telephone number above.