Brazil’s Carnaval: a Primer

Brazil's Escola de Samba at CarnavalCarnival is Rio’s main event. It happens at the peak of summer, when Cariocas are at their best. Festivities attract thousands of people from all corners of the world.

Carnaval, as spelled in Portuguese, is a 4-day celebration. It starts on Saturday, and ends on Fat Tuesday, or Mardi-Gras. Dates change every year. Carnaval Sunday is seven weeks before Easter Sunday.

The origins of Carnaval are unclear, but most agree that it started as a pagan celebration in ancient Rome or Greece.

Carnaval balls were imported to Rio from Italy in the late nineteenth century, and had their golden era in the 1930 through 50’s, with legendary balls at the Copacabana Palace and the Municipal Theater.

The samba parade began in the 30’s – first timidly at Praça XI, and later on Av. Presidente Vargas. It found a permanent home in 1984 at the Sambódromo (Sambadrome), a structure in the downtown area.

Today, the samba parade is broadcast to dozens of countries, and all Brazilian states. Many people think of it as the greatest show on earth.

There’s much more to Carnaval than the samba parade, though. Street Carnaval is loads of fun, free, and it happens all over the city. You are more than welcome to watch and to participate.

Banda de Ipanema is one of the most traditional ones. It was founded in 1964, and today it’s listed as part of the city cultural heritage, attracting as many as 15,000 people!

You gotta have balls if you think this is not enough! Hey, don’t get us wrong. We are talking about the fabulous balls that happen at the clubs before, during and after Carnaval!

Pick out the right parties, and learn the do’s and don’ts. You will get an idea of the good times waiting for you with our (Funny but) True Carnaval Stories.

Carnaval 2004 happened from February 20-25. Beija-Flor was the  champion of the Samba Parade, for the second year in a row! Carnaval 2005 is from February 5 through 8.

The samba parade, a two-day extravaganza, lasts a total of 20 hours, with about seventy thousand participants, twice as many people in the audience, plus millions of spectators glued to their TV sets in Brazil and around the world.

Become familiar with the concept of the parade you will appreciate it much better.

In short: Seven samba schools march on Carnaval Sunday, and seven more on Carnaval Monday. Each samba school picks a particular theme. They display it to the audience in the format of a tropical mini-opera.

A school has from 60-75 minutes to perform, with three to five thousand participants. They are distributed in alas or wings, with 6 to 8 floats for each school.

Different wings and floats illustrate the theme chosen by the samba school. Porta-bandeira and mestre-sala, abre-alas, wings, passistas, bateria, queens, floats and floatees are terms that may sound alien to you now.

The final step if you are thinking about watching the show in person is taking a samba lesson. It will teach you what to do when the samba beat inevitably starts to get you. You are encouraged to sing along, stand and dance from your seat. This is the way to show a samba school that they are doing their job right!

Porta-bandeira is the name of the lady in charge of bearing the samba school flag. Her companion is known as mestre-sala. This couple plays a very important role in the competition. They are one of the features rated by the judges, and a poor performance could jeopardize the whole score.

Dressed in heavy and very luxurious costumes, the porta-bandeira has to make sure, among other things, that the flag never gets rolled around the pole while she spins and dances. The mestre-sala is always by her side.

His purpose is to draw everybody’s attention to his queen. He does that by performing the most incredible samba steps you will ever see! Every now and then they stop and greet the audience.

Abre-Alas is the first wing of a samba school. It must have from 10 to 15 people only. They introduce the samba school.and set the mood, giving the audience an idea of what to expect. Costumes for this group are particularly well-designed.

Top choreographers like Carlinhos de Jesus and Deborah Colker are invited to work with them, and they train for months. Members of the abre-alas cannot make mistakes. It is one of the features analyzed and rated by judges.

The intricate choreography usually tells a short story in itself. Performers may also create shapes together as they march along. They interact with the audience, and sometimes stop to greet and cheer. Keep your eyes on the abre-alas until you really lose them of sight.

Turn around for a second, and you may miss the grand finale, and the whole point of the act! The abre-alas wing is usually followed by the first float of the samba school.

Special group samba schools are allowed to bring to the samba parade from three to five thousand members each. They are divided in wings or sections, with groups of people wearing the same costume. The term in Portuguese is alas.

Wings weave a human tapestry of intricate colors and movement as they make their way through the samba runway. Some have a special choreography. Others just ask their members to do the samba, and sing the theme as they march along.

Each Samba School is allowed to bring from 6 to 8 floats to the parade. They play a key role in the performance of schools, and with judges assigned specifically to analyze them. Floats can be really huge, sometimes 10 meters high (about 30 feet).

If they are too wide or long, though, they may have problems with the sharp turn from the concentration to the entrance of the samba runway. Some floats have moving parts, and most are quite sophisticated. They may be motorized, or pushed by men from the community.

At the top of each float you will find the main floatee, destaque in Portuguese. It’s like the cherry on the ice-cream. Framed by hundreds of feathers, they wear costumes that are incredibly luxurious and expensive.

There are cranes at the concentration and the dispersion ready to take them up and down. Climbing leathers would be impossible as these costumes are heavy and their stand may be three stories high!

Destaques cannot be afraid of heights or the inevitable trepidation as the float moves along. There are security poles for them to hold every now and then.

Destaques or floatees are the people who populate a Carnaval float. As each school can take only 6 to 8 floats to the parade, positions are actually quite limited.

Each float has at least one main destaque. The other floatees are divided in groups, with different costumes and functions. Each group may perform a special choreography or some act together, rehearsals are mandatory.

Depending on the complexity of the role, samba schools may select only professional actors, dancers, even circus performers.

Passista is how you call a person who is marching with a samba school. They are distributed in alas or wings, with groups of people wearing the same costume.

In between them you will find the floats (carros alegoricos), which in turn are populated by destaques (floatees). Each samba school can bring along from about three to five thousand people altogether.

The percussion band (bateria) and vocalist (puxador) have a big challenge to face when they walk into the Sambódromo. Getting as many as 6,000 people to sing and dance in synch is not an easy task. Everything is done live.

The vocalists usually go on top of a sound car, that may be at the end of the school or next to the bateria. The drummer’s niche is located between Sectors 9 and 11. This is where the band stays until the last wing and float passes by, and only then they leave the samba runway.

While an average member of a samba school marches for about 20 minutes, bands and vocalists have to perform for 70 minutes non-stop! Right in front of them you will find the queen of bateria. They look gorgeous as they introduce the band, and greet the audience. It’s good manners to stand up and cheer

Some alas (wings) are mandatory to all Samba Schools. Ala das Baianas is a group of women in round colonial-style skirts. It must have between 100-150 passistas.

Being a Baiana is an honor that has to be conquered. It is reserved for ladies of the community, and men are not allowed. The very heavy, luxurious and expensive costumes are subsidized by Samba Schools.

Brazil Rio de Janeiro


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