We’ve all seen the colourful and extravagant images of Rio carnival either through experiencing it in reality or on our TV screens, in newspapers, online and in magazines. Floats, scantily clad samba dancers shining like golden cherubs from their well-oiled bodies, dancing with joy and elation through movement and joyous sounds.
Hundreds of drums such as the tamborims play a vital part in the bateria (samba band), and other instruments beating in rhythm of the music. Everyone sings along to the theme tune of the samba schools parading in the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro.
This costly multi-million pound affair that commences on the Friday before Shrove Tuesday and ending on Ash Wednesday, marks the forty-day Lent period before Easter. During certain days of the religious calendar, Roman Catholics and some Christians refrain from eating meat and poultry, bringing forth the term ‘carnival’ from the Latin word carnelevare, meaning to ‘remove meat’.
Brazil’s Rio carnival is a mixture of African, Portuguese and indigenous culture. Portuguese settlers brought with them the theme of it being a festival of food. Over the years, its original Catholic beginnings has evolved from a conservative and controlled event into a flamboyant celebration we see today due to the influence of African cultures that included music, rhythm and dance.
Whilst Rio has the country’s biggest and most famous carnival with big street parades known as blocos, the Brazilian states of Salvador and Recife also have a week-long celebration and parades to introduce Lent.
The carnival has fast become a global event watched by millions of people across the world. Sponsored by big companies and showcasing Brazil’s most famous faces, this event is important to Brazilians as the Holi festival of colour is to India. Months of preparations are spent making the costumes, choreographing the samba dances and music troupes, and making the advertisements that would attract tourists to visit the country. They all contribute to making Rio carnival the busiest event in the Brazilian calendar.
For years, the telltale signs that the carnival season has started was from the appearance of the Globeleza dancer in the Brazilian television network Rede Globo. A thirty second samba dance is performed by a woman usually of mixed heritage, covered in colourful paint and adorned with feathers, sequins and glitter whilst the camera zooms into her moving naked figure.
Rio de Janeiro’s carnival roots began in 1723 when Portuguese immigrants colonised Brazil. They called the carnival Entrudo– meaning entrance. The entrudo consisted of a water fight with lemon juice and sometimes mud was also used.
From the influence of the Portuguese royal family who established their rulership in Rio, they introduced a more sophisticated and European approach to the festivities. The elite dressed up in ball gowns and covered their faces with extravagant masks whilst classical music is played. It was essentially a party for the aristocrats of Brazil.
Excluded from the high society carnival, ordinary citizens created a ball for the people and began organising street parades. The beginning of the 20th century saw the end of the entrudo, opening up a space to shape the Brazilian carnival culture in areas such as Rio and Salvador– newly emancipated from the slave trade.
Despite the increasing challenges and scare-tactic news stories that Rio carnival might one day cease to exist, many Brazilians say it’s not likely due to financial gains through tourism that helps to boost the struggling economy.
It’s impossible to place Brazil in one box. It’s a country with contradictions. Over 50 percent of Brazilians claim to be black or of mixed heritage. One could say that it is a melting pot of different cultures and races. Some even go far to declare that it’s a post racial society. Yet, this often does not reflect the situation of the country which is still racially oppressive.
The economic situation does not help matters either. Like elsewhere in the world, the system favours the wealthy, further creating a great divide between the haves and have-nots. And now, its biodiversity is tampered with in favour of harmful lucrative ventures.
Liani Devito, a Brazilian samba dancer, teacher and member of the Paraiso School of Samba in London mentions that the Rio carnival parade is a very organised affair. Anything out of place is noted. “If they don’t finish within the allocated time, they lose points.”
Categorised into three groups, the Children’s parade is for the youths who will one day make it into the elite samba schools. Next is the Access group, then followed by the Special group. Schools that win during the two-day Access group parade make it into the Special group to parade at the Sambadrome the following year. This does not mean that the Special group is safe. Whichever school comes last gets downgraded to parade in the Access group the next year.
Each of the schools– with thousands of participants categorised into groups of dancers, musicians, singers and floats, have to complete the entire parade under 85 minutes. An athletic feat of sorts, each school gives it their all to up the other. They are judged for their energy, timing, costumes, music and crowd control.
Samba schools became a fixture and a cultural symbol of Brazil since the 1920s. Previously, immigrants and ex slaves from the state of Bahia brought the ritualistic tradition of Candomblé and a Bahian dance now recognised as samba. Tia Ciata who was a well known Candomblé priestess at the end of the 19th century, invited dancers and samba musicians into her home where live music was played. The ritualistic dance performances during those sessions introduced the main foundations of samba such as handclaps and beating of the drums play an important role in the bateria today.
Five samba schools were established by 1930. These schools include Deixa Falar (now Estácio de Sá), Mangueira and Portela (previously Vai Como Pode until 1935). The latter school is one of the biggest winners of the top-tier Rio parades with a total of 22 titles. Trying to outdo the other with extravagant performances, the parade of the samba schools became competitive. By 1932, there were 19 schools taking part in the contest. Realising the potential for commercial success, in 1933, Globo became the main sponsors of the event.
Modern samba was born in Rio’s hillside known as favelas or ‘Little Africa,’ where a large percentage of black and pardo people have migrated there. Other areas with such statistics include Salvador and Belo Horizonte.
Pedra do Sal is Rio de Janeiro’s historical and symbolic site. Situated in Saúde, the area is recognised to be the birthplace of samba. Initially, it was a community for the Quilombo people but now has become a major base for Rio’s carnival culture. The area continues to uphold samba parties every Monday after 8pm, except for when it rains.
Presently, there are over 200 samba schools operating in the city of Rio. Only a few of them– the ones in the top-tier, make it to the Sambadrome parade to perform in front of an audience of 90,000 people and are assessed by judges who give out points for the quality of the performances.
Today’s Rio carnival parade preparations can go on for a whole year. This competitive event receives funds from the government despite the cuts by conservative politician and mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Marcelo Crivella. As samba schools are community based, Liani highlights that usually, schools inside the favela receive help from shadier sources. “Each favela has its own drug dealer and cartel, so yes they help as well, it’s all politics.”
The Rio carnival celebrations have seen much change in Brazil. It has transformed from its humble beginnings into a mass media global event. But, if you look close enough, the original concept of it being a festival of life, still remains the same. It’s an occasion where the whole country can leave its problems behind, even for a few hours.