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Rio de Janeiro's Carnaval

10 March, 2011 22:49  Erin Erin

Danseuse de carnaval brésilien, Brazil. © Jerome Dancette - FotoliaCarnival is officially over and the feathers have come off, the headresses have been removed, and the body glitter keeps showing up in unlikely places. Carnival in Rio de Janeiro (or Carnaval as spelled in Portuguese) is - without exaggeration - one of the biggest parties on earth. This celebration of sinful delight explodes onto the streets every year in a celebration of indulgence.

The name "Carnival" comes from "carnelevare" which means "to remove meat" and refers to the practice of abstaining from the consumption of meat during the 40 days of Lent. Before the seriousness of the religious event, it is generally accepted that people indulge in food and alcohol. The Church initially discouraged the practice, but in the year 590 they gave into the inevitable and gave the festivities its blessings under the condition that Ash Wednesday should be dedicated to repent and sin expiation. A farewell to bad habits, this practice has become a festival of debauchery and is observed in traditionally Roman Catholic areas all over the world including New Orleans in the United States, Cologne in Germany, and Venice in Italy.

History of Carnaval in Rio

The origins trace back to Portuguese pre-lent festivity called "entrudo". Originally it entailed an event in which participants threw mud, water, and food at each other. The event became more sophisticated as Brazil became increasingly cosmopolitan and the first masquerade carnival ball was held in 1840. Street parades of horse drawn floats and military bands appeared in the 1850's, but the Samba parade did not develop until the 1920's. The perfect example of Brazilian society, samba is a mix of Angolan samba, European polka, African batuques, and Cuban habanera- a truly Brazilian concoction.

Spectacular floats are presented with dancers, singers, and drummers. The costumes are elaborate, and at the same time, barely there. Mammoth headresses, nipple pasties, and bejeweled g-strings add to the heat of the festival (although total nudity is forbidden). There are five magnificent parades at the Sambadrome, organized by the escolas de samba (samba schools). The samba schools are actually more like neighborhood associations and this is their chance to compete and show-off. Each school's presentation costs between $3-5 million and is funded by government grants, fund raising, and business endorsements.

Cast of Characters in the Parade

There are a variety of roles to be filled within the parade and with each samba school's float.

Carnival King (King Momo)

According to Carnival tradition, the King of the parade should be larger than life. The Rio Carnival officially opens with the delivery of the key to the city to King Momo. With that, King Momo starts the sambas and the crowd follows.
2011 King: Milton Jr.

Queen and Princesses of Carnival

The Queen of Carnival is chosen by a contest based on her beauty, self-assurance, sociability, ease of expression, congeniality and samba abilities. Above all else, she must present the "carnival spirit". The 2nd and the 3rd place candidates in the contest are named the Princesses of Carnival.
2011 Queen: Bianca Ferreira

Carnival Designer (Carnavalesco)

A top designer is as well known in Rio as top film directors. He is responsible for the artistic work of designing, producing and directing the samba school's parade.

Vanguard Group

The lead troupe of dancers compose the opening wing of a school. Their costumes do not have to reflect the school´s theme. Originally they were only well-dressed men.

The Flag Bearer and her Escort

The flag bearer presents the school's flag and dances before the float with her escort. Though other flags are carried by other members, only the front bearer is scored.

Whirling Ladies (Baianas)

Older women in huge skirts twirl and whirl down the Avenue. They represent the soul of the samba schools and the African roots of the festival. There are strict regulations of how many baianas are required and they are a very respected group.

Percussion Band (Bateria)

The beating heart of the Samba School is made up of 250-350 percussionists. They relentless drive the float and crowd onward. The Head Drummer chooses the rest of the group from the community.

Queen of the Drummers

A beautiful female samba dancer stands in front and introduces the Percussionists to the crowd. She inspires the crowd as she sambas down the road at a rapid walking pace for 700m (1/2 mile).

2011 Parade

The almost two weeks of preparatory partying amp up to a five-day non-stop party started late on Friday, March 4th. It is estimated that over a million people attended the event (over the 750,000 prediction) with the entire budget of the event in excess of $350 million and the estimated revenue around $500 million. People take advantage of the Pre-Lent celebration and over 400 million liters of beer are consumed.

Today's parade has become a mega-event; produced, televised, and orchestrated for broadcast around the world. International celebrities such as Pamela Anderson, Madonna, and Jude Law appeared, as well as homegrown favorites Gisele Bundchen and footballer Ronaldinho. The event went further Hollywood as several groups designed floats and costumes around "Avatar", "Jaws", "King Kong", and "Raiders of the Lost Ark". There are actually three parades in which six of the 18 schools perform on one of three consecutive nights. The show begins around 21:00 and doesn't finish until sunrise.

Competition was fierce as the schools competed for the top spot. Forty judges evaluate groups on the quality of their theme, song, percussion, flow and spirit, floats, costumes, the performance of the flag bearer and overall impression. Winners aren't decided until Ash Wednesday, but the crowds cheered the many magnificent floats as they appeared. Neighborhoods gathered on March 9th to hear the results as the Beija-Flor samba school took the honors with their tribute to Brazilian singer Roberto Carlos.

Unfortunately, some of the ardor for the parade was dampened before Carnival even started by two tragic events. In Sao Paulo, a street party was abruptly ended when an impromptu lighting of fireworks caused a downed power line to kill 17 revelers. In further bad news, a fire on February 7th destroyed many floats at a loss of several million dollars. Neighborhoods rallied to put together new floats, but many appeared around half their normal size without their usual grandeur and were shown, but not eligible for competition. Despite these tragedies, it was the will of the participants to go on with the show.

Carneval for Residents

Not everyone is so enamored of the celebration. Many citizens and expats of Rio flee the city as tourists from Brazil and abroad arrive. Rough estimates say as much as half the population might leave the city during Carneval. In a recent poll, 57 percent of the residents said they did not like Carnival. There is even a Facebook page entitled "I hate Carnival!!!!".

The event is impossible to escape within the city as every TV channel offers live coverage, every street is covered in revelers, and this topic of conversation is on everyone's lips. While the event still showcases the samba schools from distinct neighborhoods, many people feel it is not really a festival for the people of Rio anymore. Much of the celebration now caters to the higher paying foreign tourists and celebrities. Branding is everywhere as the celebrities can be seen wearing endorsements like billboards.

The party also leaves behind truckload's of trash and a city smelling of urine, something the police have taken special interest in this year. Over 200 people were arrested over the weekend for peeing in the streets as the police took on a "Zero Tolerance for Pissing" campaign.

In response to the increased commercialism of the celebration, many of Rio's residents have developed alternative street parties known as "blocos". Smaller, neighborhood-centric parties, costumed revelers march behind a truck blasting music. Over 400 bands registered with the mayor's office for this year's celebration. Unlike the Samba School's parades, these celebrations are free. City officials have complained about these gatherings comparing them to "flash mobs" as they are often quickly organized over social networks like Twitter. This popularity might be its undoing as this year's backlash had many residents complaining these informal celebrations are being contaminated by tourists.

An Expat in Rio

For expats, forever stuck between visitor and local, Carnaval is an intense experience. To revel like a tourist or turn away like a local? This is a personal decision as it is an event unlike any other, and to know Carneval is to know Rio.

A British expat, Tasha, chose to participate. She describes the event in a post entitled "I Survived Rio's Carneval Parade". She describes the after effects as, "It was completely and utterly insane and I loved it. After two consecutive nights at the Sambodrome, I can't get the sound of drums and singing out of my head, and I do believe my feet keep breaking into something approaching samba steps. I think I've been brainwashed."

In reading her post, the decision seems easier. Who can turn down a great party?

Read more about Tasha and Brazil on her blog. Find more blogs from Brazil (and more!) at BlogExpat.


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