Carnaval is Coming!

Carnaval is upon us!  In the last week, the street bands, beer drinking, and sales of paraphernalia have ramped up in anticipation of the onset of Carnaval this coming weekend.  For the uninitiated, Carnaval is (ostensibly) a Christian tradition of celebration and excess before the onset of Lent beginning on Ash Wednesday.  From Ash Wednesday to Good Friday (about six weeks) observant Christians are supposed to emulate the wanderings of Jesus in the wilderness prior to his entry into Jerusalem and his crucifixion and resurrection.  At least, that is the official rationale.  I am not sure the millions of Brazilians, and others around the world, are thinking a whole lot about religion when they take to the streets and parties in the days prior to Ash Wednesday!

Block party in Leblon/Ipanema yesterday

Pre-Carnaval block party in Leblon yesterday (7 February)

In the United States, our version of Carnaval is Mardi Gras in New Orleans (Fat Tuesday before Ash Wednesday, get it?).  Imagine the images you have of Mardi Gras, magnify the party and then extend it across the country.  That is Carnaval in Brazil.  The festivities differ significantly across the diverse regions of Brazil.  I have spent a lot of time living in Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais over the last thirty years.  For all intents and purposes, in Belo Horizonte (population 4 million) there are no parades comparable to Rio de Janeiro or Salvador.  The landlocked mineiros (those from Minas Gerais) are famous for heading to the coast during this time of year.  Salvador da Bahia is famous for taking the party to the streets with large trucks loaded with bands (trios elétricos) moving through the streets following by the dancing and drinking masses of the bahianos (the locals).

Carnaval in the streets of Salvador da Bahia

The most famous version of Carnaval is Rio’s extravaganza.  In the early twentieth century, samba emerged as the music and dance of the slums (favelas) and of street parades during Carnaval.  In the 1930s and 1940s, the government (Rio was, at that time, the national capital) formalized the process and marketed the images of Carnaval to the world.  By the 1960s, the large samba organizations (known as schools) had developed a highly ritualized process of parades, judging, and the crowning of a champion.  In the 1970s and 1980s, money from the jogo do bicho (see earlier posting), then television rights, and then funding from the cocaine traffickers ramped up the glitz and professionalism of these samba schools located in the favelas.  (Several thousand people participate in the 90-minute parade of each school.)  The city built the sambodrome downtown—a structure that looks like a football stadium with its grandstands and luxury boxes extending for several blocks, and open at each end.

Rio's Sambodrome

Carnaval Sambodrome

The samba schools are judged and scored, and there are two divisions (like futebol).  Those who fall at the low end sometimes fall back into the second division, and those at the top of the second division can move up to the big leagues.  The judging process is incredibly complex, highly contentious, and always incredibly close.  The top schools parade on the Monday and Tuesday nights from 9 p.m. to 9 a.m.  In theory, the holiday is over at midday on Wednesday.  Few people report to work that day, needless to say.

Mangueira Samba School

Carnaval dancers

As many cultural critics have pointed out, Carnaval is the “world turned upside down” for a few brief days.  All—or nearly all—is pardoned.  Men dress as women, the poor dress as royalty, the rich sport costumes of  Indians, the people take to the streets, and the wealthy retreat to their exclusive masked balls.  Everyone understands that this moment, when all rules are off, is just . . . momentary.  (What happens in Carnaval stays in Carnaval?)  One of the more striking features of Brazilian Carnaval, especially in Rio in recent decades, has been the increasing prominence of female nudity.  First, there were the very scanty string bikini like costumes, then topless, and finally, full nudity with the only body paint as a “costume”.  There has been a strong reaction to this shift, and in recent years, levels of female nudity decreased.  The traditionalists, quite rightly, complained that the focus should be on the extraordinary music, dance, and costumes and not nudity.

Luma de Oliveira

Although the samba schools originated in the favelas and, therefore, were predominantly Afro-Brazilian, by the 1980s it became increasingly common to have celebrities featured on the floats and in the parades.  (It turned out that some of them did not samba very well!)  At the same time, more and more lighter-skinned, middle-class Brazilians began to join the schools and parades.  These shifts in the 1980s are wonderfully chronicled by the great journalist, Alma Guillermoprieto, in her book, Samba.  She spent a year in Rio, joined the classic Mangueira samba school, lived in the favela, and then paraded with them.

At this time of year, so much is put on hold.  One of the favorite phrases at this time of year is, “after Carnaval”.  My next post will be . . . after Carnaval!


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