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Brazzil - Culture - February 2004

Brazil: Bah, Not Another Carnaval!

Most Brazilians don't like Carnaval or so says a new poll. There are
some reasons for that. Blatant commercialism is one of them.
The sexual element is another. Sex may be a turn on for some
people, but it is a turn off for many others. Eroticism and
sensuality have long given way to vulgarity and tastelessness.

John Fitzpatrick

The Brazilian press's reaction to a survey indicating that most of those polled did not like the Carnaval shows how easy it is not to know what is going on in your own backyard. The result comes as no surprise to me since, here in São Paulo, I know very few people who like or even care about the Carnaval. There are obvious cultural reasons why this should be.

Carnaval is more associated with Rio de Janeiro and the Northeast where most people are descendants of the original Brazilian stew—Portuguese, Africans and Indians—than the south where the European element is more dominant. The large number of immigrants in the south who were not Roman Catholics—German, Japanese, Arabs and Jewish—may also explain the lack of interest in the Carnaval.

We should also not forget the large number of Brazilians who have swapped their Catholicism in recent decades for evangelical Protestant churches, which frown on what they regard as decadence.

However, I think there are other reasons why many Brazilians are not as enthusiastic about the Carnaval as you might imagine. First of all, unless you are actively involved in a parade—either as a member of a samba school or onlooker—you have no sense of the fantastic atmosphere. I have watched four Carnaval parades, in the city and interior of São Paulo, and been hooked by them all.

One was in a small town and had none of the razzamatazz of the grander shows. It started in the afternoon, the local band played, the parade was made up mainly of schoolchildren, the mulatas were modestly dressed and it was all over in a few hours. There was a wonderful, friendly, family atmosphere.

The other three were bigger, noisier affairs which took place at night time. Despite the larger crowds, the deafening noise, the public drinking and bare flesh the atmosphere was still exciting and safe.

No television picture will ever convey a fraction of the exuberance and gaiety of the real thing. Television is where most people see the Carnaval and since it dominates the airwaves for three or four days many viewers just get fed up with it. The small screen is also not the right medium for conveying the dimension of the floats, the color of the costumes, the uniformity of the movements and the sheer volume of the beating drums.

Another drawback is that the TV commentators also often assume that viewers know the rules governing how the parades are judged. This is not the case and many people have no idea that what they are watching is the equivalent of a national or regional sporting competition. They just see a lot of color, movement and noise. It is like a football fan watching a rugby game for the first time and trying to make sense of it.

Money Rules

Another reason why the Carnaval has lost its appeal is the blatant commercialism. Putting on a Carnaval parade costs a lot of money. The main samba schools are sponsored, usually by beverage companies which spend millions of dollars on advertising and marketing at this time of year. These companies grab the best viewing boxes, fill them with famous faces and the latest "celebrities", make sure everyone wears a tee-shirt and baseball cap with their logos.

They invite the media which returns the favor by providing an immense amount of free advertising. While the origin of corporate sponsors' money is transparent this is not the case with other sources of cash. Some samba schools are also sponsored by the organizers of a betting game called jogo do bicho.

Although technical illegal, jogo do bicho is widely popular and you can place a bet in almost any bar in a working class neighborhood. The individual bets are generally small but the total amounts are so huge that they lead to corruption and violence. This legal and illegal commercialism, therefore, taints the Carnaval for many people. Violence is a way of life in Brazil and the Carnaval also produces a depressingly long list of murders every year.

Sex—Turn On or Turn Off?

The sexual element is also significant. Sex may be a turn on for many people, but it is a turn off for many others. Eroticism and sensuality have long given way to vulgarity and tastelessness. The dancers are now so scantily clad that in recent years some have been, to all intent and purpose, literally naked. The dental floss with its thong is still the norm but a small triangle at the front and nothing at the back has become more common.

This is great news if you are a single guy or like leering at naked girls but if you are watching at home with your family then it can become embarrassing. The lack of taste means that some actresses or singers dance when they are pregnant or extremely old and should have more sense. There is usually also a grotesque group of drag queens hogging the limelight and being tolerated by the "celebrities" who see them as poor downtrodden victims of sexual stereotyping. Thankfully the off-screen antics in bars and clubs are toned down for television, but generally appear within a couple of days in porn magazines and videos.

The Carnaval is much a part of Brazilian culture as bullfighting is in Spain and no-one will change it. Perhaps it will evolve for the better in coming years but that is unlikely. The Catholic Church's usual appeal for more restraint, dignity and less nudity will go unheeded. The government is doing its bit—responsibly or irresponsibly, depending on your point of view—by handing out 15 million free condoms. Those who like the Carnaval will be having a ball and those who don't will just have to shut up and endure it.

John Fitzpatrick is a Scottish journalist who first visited Brazil in 1987 and has lived in São Paulo since 1995. He writes on politics and finance and runs his own company, Celtic Comunicações—www.celt.com.br—which specializes in editorial and translation services for Brazilian and foreign clients. You can reach him at jf@celt.com.br
© John Fitzpatrick 2004

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