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Carnaval is celebrated in every Brazilian city, but Rio’s party is the biggest and flashiest of them all. From the Friday before Ash Wednesday to the following Thursday, the city shuts up shop and throws itself into the world’s most famous manifestation of unbridled hedonism. Carnaval’s greatest quality is that it has never become stale, thanks to its status as the most important celebration on the Brazilian calendar, easily outstripping either Christmas or Easter. In a city riven by poverty, Carnaval represents a moment of freedom and release, when the aspirations of cariocas can be expressed in music and song. And at the end of the very intense long weekend, there’s a brief collective hangover before attention turns to preparing for the following year’s event.

The background

The origins of Carnaval in Rio can be traced back to a fifteenth-century tradition of Easter revelry in the Azores that caught on in Portugal and was exported to Brazil. Anarchy reigned in the streets for four days and nights, the festivities often so riotous that they were formally abolished in 1843 – this edict was ignored, however, allowing street celebrations to stand out as the most accessible and widely enjoyed feature of Carnaval ever since. In the mid-nineteenth century, masquerade balls were first held by members of the social elite, while processions, with carriages decorated in allegorical themes, also made an appearance, thus marking the ascendancy of the procession over the general street melee. Rio’s masses, who were denied admission to the balls, had their own music – jongo – and they reinforced the tradition of street celebration by organizing in Zé Pereira bands, named after the Portuguese tambor that provided the basic musical beat. The organizational structure behind today’s samba schools (escolas da samba) is partly a legacy of those bands sponsored by migrant Bahian port workers in the 1870s – theirs was a more disciplined approach to the Carnaval procession: marching to stringed and wind instruments, using costumes and appointing people to coordinate different aspects of the parade.

Music written specifically for Carnaval emerged in the early twentieth century, by composers such as Chiquinho Gonzaga, who wrote the first recorded samba piece in 1917 (Pelo Telefone), and Mauro de Almeida e Donga. In the 1930s, recordings began to spread the music of Rio’s Carnaval, and competition between different samba schools became institutionalized: in 1932, the Estação Primeira Mangueira school won the first prize for its performance in the Carnaval parade. The format has remained virtually unchanged since, except for the emergence in the mid-1960s of the blocos or bandas: street processions by the residents of various bairros, who eschew style, discipline and prizes and give themselves up to the most traditional element of Carnaval – street revelry, of which even the principal Carnaval procession in the Sambódromo is technically a part.

The action

Rio’s street celebrations centre on the evening processions that fill Avenida Rio Branco (metrô to Largo do Carioca or Cinelândia). Be prepared for the crowds and beware of pickpockets: even though the revellers are generally high-spirited and good-hearted, you should keep any cash you take with you in hard-to-reach places (like your shoes), wear only light clothes and leave your valuables locked up at the hotel.

Most of what’s good takes place along Avenida Rio Branco. The processions include samba schools (though not the best); Clubes de Frevo, whose loudspeaker-laden floats blast out the frenetic dance music typical of the Recife Carnaval; and the Blocos de Empolgacão, including the Bafo da Onça and Cacique de Ramos clubs, between which exists a tremendous rivalry. There are also rancho bands playing a traditional carioca carnival music that predates samba.

Samba schools

The samba schools, each representing a different neighbourhood or social club, are divided into three leagues that vie for top ranking following the annual Carnaval parades. Division 1 (the top league) schools play in the Sambódromo, Division 2 on Avenida Rio Branco and Division 3 on Avenida 28 de Setembro, near the Maracanã.

Preparations start in the year preceding Carnaval, as each school mobilizes thousands of supporters to create the various parts of their display. A theme is chosen, music written and costumes created, while the dances are choreographed by the carnavelesco, the school’s director. By December, rehearsals have begun and, in time for Christmas, the sambas are recorded and released to record stores.

The main procession of Division 1 schools – the Desfile – takes place on the Sunday and Monday nights of Carnaval week in the purpose-built Sambódromo, further along the avenue beyond the train station; the concrete structure is 1.7km long and can accommodate 90,000 spectators. The various samba schools – involving some 50,000 people – take part in a spectacular piece of theatre: no simple parade, but a competition between schools attempting to gain points from their presentation, which is a mix of song, story, dress, dance and rhythm. The schools pass through the Passarela da Samba, the Sambódromo’s parade ground, and the judges allocate points according to a number of criteria. Each school must parade for between 85 and 95 minutes, no more and no less.

Regardless of the theme adopted by an individual samba school, all include certain basic elements within their performances. The bateria, the percussion section, has to sustain the cadence that drives the school’s song and dance; the samba enredo is the music, the enredo the accompanying story or lyric. The harmonia refers to the degree of synchronicity between the bateria and the dance by the thousands of passistas (samba dancers); the dancers are conducted by the pastoras, who lead by example. The evolução refers to the quality of the dance, and the choreography is marked on its spontaneity, the skill of the pastoras and the excitement that the display generates. The costumes, too, are judged on their originality; their colours are always the traditional ones adopted by each school. The carros alegóricos (no more than 10m high and 8m wide) are the gigantic, richly decorated floats, which carry some of the Figuras de Destaque (“prominent figures”), amongst them the Porta-Bandeira (“flag bearer”) – a woman who carries the school’s symbol, a potentially big point-scorer. The Mestre-Sala is the dance master, also an important symbolic figure, whose ability to sustain the rhythm of his dancers is of paramount importance. The Comissão da Frente, traditionally a school’s “board of directors”, marches at the head of the procession, a role often filled these days by invited TV stars or sports teams. The bulk of the procession behind is formed by the alas, the wings or blocks consisting of hundreds of costumed individuals each linked to a part of the school’s theme.

In addition to a parade, every school has an Ala das Baianas – a procession of hundreds of women dressed in the flowing white costumes and African-style headdresses typical of Salvador – in remembrance of the debt owed to the Bahian emigrants, who introduced many of the traditions of the Rio Carnaval procession.

The parade of schools starts at 7.30pm, with eight Division 1 schools performing on each of the two nights, and goes on until noon the following day. Two stands (7 & 9) in the Sambódromo are reserved for foreign visitors and seats cost over R$150 per night. Though much more expensive than other areas, the seats here are more comfortable and have good catering facilities. Other sections of the Sambódromo cost from R$15 to R$60 and there are three seating options: the high stands (arquibancadas), lower stands (geral) and ringside seats (cadeiras de pista) – the last being the best, consisting of a table, four chairs and full bar service.

Unless you have a very tough backside, you will find sitting through a ten-hour show an intolerable test of endurance. Most people don’t turn up until 11pm, by which time the show is well under way and hotting up considerably. Tickets are available from the organizers online or at premium prices from travel agents in Rio. Book well in advance, or try local travel agents who often have tickets available for a modest commission.

Blocos

In whatever bairro you’re staying there will probably be a bloco or banda – a small samba school that doesn’t enter an official parade – organized by the local residents; ask about them in your hotel. These schools offer a hint of what Carnaval was like before it became regulated and commercialized. Starting in mid-afternoon, they’ll continue well into the small hours, the popular ones accumulating thousands of followers as they wend their way through the neighbourhood. They all have a regular starting-point, some have set routes, others wander freely; but they’re easy to follow – there’s always time to have a beer and catch up later.

Some of the best blocos are: the Banda da Glória, which sets off from near the Estação Glória metrô station; the Banda da Ipanema (the first to be formed, in 1965), which gathers behind Praça General Osório in Ipanema; the Banda da Vergonha do Posto 6, starting in Rua Francisco Sá in Copacabana; and the Carmelitas de Santa Teresa, which gathers in the bairro of the same name. There are dozens of others, including several in each bairro of the Zona Sul, each providing a mix of music, movement and none-too-serious cross-dressing – a tradition during Carnaval in which even the most macho of men indulge.

Carnaval balls

It’s the Carnaval balls (bailes) that really signal the start of the celebrations – warm-up sessions in clubs and hotels for rusty revellers, which are quite likely to get out of hand as inhibitions give way to a rampant eroticism. The balls start late, normally after 10pm, and the continual samba beat supplied by live bands drives the festivities into the new day. At most of the balls, fantasia (fancy dress) is the order of the day, with elaborate costumes brightening the already hectic proceedings; don’t worry if you haven’t got one, though – just dress reasonably smartly.

You’ll often have to pay an awful lot to get into these affairs, as some of the more fashionable ones attract the rich and famous. There’s none grander than the Magic Ball held at the Copacabana Palace Hotel drawing the elite from across the world. For the privilege of joining in, expect to pay well over R$1000 – black tie or an extravagant costume is obligatory. If you’ve got the silly costume but a little less money, other lavish balls worth checking out include the Pão de Açúcar, on the Friday before Carnaval, halfway up the famous landmark – spectacular views, exotic company, but well over R$200 a head and very snobby. The Hawaiian Ball, hosted by the Rio Yacht Club, opens the season on the Friday of the week before Carnaval: it takes place around the club’s swimming pool, amid lavish decorations, and is popular and expensive (about R$150); tickets are available from the Yacht Club, on Avenida Pasteur, a few hundred metres before the Sugar Loaf mountain cable-car terminus. On the same Friday, other big parties take place, with the Baile de Champagne and the Baile Vermelho e Preto being amongst the most important. The latter (the “Red and Black Ball”) has developed a particular reputation as a no-holds-barred affair. Named after the colours of Rio’s favourite football team, Flamengo, it’s a media event with TV cameras scanning the crowds for famous faces – exhibitionism is an inadequate term for the immodest goings-on. In Leblon, the Monte Libano (t 21/3239-0032 for details) hosts a number of “last days of Rome” festivities – the Baile das Gatas, Baile Fio Dental, even Bum Bum Night – sexually charged exercises all, though safe to attend and reasonable at around R$50 a ticket. In recent years, the Rio Scala club at Av. Afrânio de Melo Franco 292, Leblon, has become an important centre for balls, each night of Carnaval hosting a different school of samba. To reserve a table (R$300), go to the box office at least five days before the event. To stand, you can simply show up on the night.

There are a number of gay balls, too, which attract an international audience. The Grande Gala G is an institution, usually held in the Help disco on Copacabana’s Avenida Atlântica. Another is the Baile dos Enxutos, hosted by the Hotel Itália on Praça Tiradentes, Centro.

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