When bedding down on the straw for the night, it is not uncommon for the gentle preamble before sleep takes hold to be punctuated by a loud noise from outside in the street. This is normally due to the detonation of the rojão, a loud and unentertaining cousin of what we westerners would describe as a firework. Those responsible are normally adolescents with undoubtedly glittering academic careers ahead of them, though on occasion it is, in fact, the settling of a mild disagreement between drug dealers through the employment of firearms.
Even the dedicated curmudgeon wouldn’t begrudge the odd firework display to celebrate important events. I particularly remember watching the enchanting spectacle of the Millennium Eve fireworks from Southwark Bridge in London, my delight only slightly overshadowed by the growing certainty that I was about to fall over amid the swirling crowds and be trampled to death, never to discover if my computer had crashed due to that Y2K business or not. Fireworks are symbols of joy, of celebration, and on Bonfire Night, are the perfect accompaniment to the burning of an effigy of a bloke who maybe, in hindsight, had an idea worth considering.
One Bonfire Night in the mid-eighties was dubbed the Merley Riots, when one school companion had the crafty idea of launching rockets through a piece of down pipe from some guttering that his father had recently renovated, creating, in effect, a rudimentary bazooka/panzerfaust. Keen to keep up in this miniature arms race, other teens made similar weaponry and there followed a night of running battles around the housing estate, terrified residents watching scenes through their net curtains reminiscent of the Battle of Kursk. Dorset Police sent squad cars and even a specially-equipped Land Rover to quell the disturbances, eventually managing to detain one youth, who turned out to be the one youth out that night who wasn’t involved in the perilous high jinks. It was a sobering glimpse of the potential challenges involved in installing anarchy in the UK, and cannot be interpreted as Dorset Police’s finest hour, please God.
The rojão, on the other hand, is simply annoying, both in function and frequency of use. If their football team scores, fans rush out into the garden to make a couple of celebratory banging noises. If any team scores against a team they don’t like, they rush out into the garden to make a couple of celebratory banging noises. It wouldn’t be so tiresome if the rojão had some style to it, but the result of its employment is similar to the small arms fire that greets Afghan weddings – a few puffs of smoke and a cowering neighbourhood full of hysterical, woofing/yapping dogs.
Whilst I’m no expert, there seem to be two basic types of rojão. The first is one that just makes an almighty bang, and is good for mining. The other, which I have unofficially dubbed the Warlord, is similar to a burst of sub-machinegun fire, followed after a momentary pause by a lobbed grenade. Some say that they are used by drug dealers to indicate to their clientele that the latest delivery has arrived, but I cannot confirm the accuracy of this information.
The day after I arrived in Brazil in June 2002, I was invited to play a game of tennis with my brother-in-law, and two of Show’s many cousins. As we pinged the ball about and lurched flatfooted around the floodlit court, we became aware of some loud banging noises in the vicinity. Assuming it was exuberant locals launching pre-World Cup rojões, we continued playing, before a group of players on a nearby basketball court sprinted past us silently at an adrenalin-fuelled pace. Gazing up at the clubhouse, we could see a crowd gathered, looking out of the window and pointing with growing consternation. Suddenly uneasy, we decided to interrupt our game, and made for the clubhouse too. In the distance we could see the unmistakable glow of a fire in the night sky. “Is that a bonfire?” I asked my brother-in-law innocently. “No,” he replied, turning white, “it’s the Police Station.” The sounds like gunfire were, indeed, gunfire, as the Police tried to quell a riot in the cells, where the prisoners had set their mattresses on fire and tried to escape. People at the sports club were worried because the only escape route would be through the sports club. I had nightmare visions of another prison massacre à la Carandiru, but as it turned out the Police were only firing warning shots at the prisoners’ feet and presumably shouting, “Dance, sucker!”, and nobody was injured.
It was hardly the welcome to Brazil that my in-laws had envisaged.