Carnival is Rio 's main event, to give a comparison that Americans could understand would be to Mardi Gras (though it is said to be 10 times the festivities). It happens at the peak of summer in Brazil , when Cariocas are at their best. Festivities attract thousands of people from all corners of the world. It is a constant celebration during Carnival, a 4-day event, starting on Saturday and ending on Fat Tuesday or Mardi Gras. Carnival is rich in tradition and culture stemming from many different backgrounds and influences. The unique culture creates the atmosphere that makes Carnival world famous.
The formation of festival of Carnival begins with the Portuguese colonists, who brought their Euro-Iberian sensibility of their life to Brazil where it was freely mixed with first the natives ("Indians") and then with the African slaves. Brazil was the only South American colony to import and use slaves on a large scale and because of this it became the site of a cultural mix of quite different proportions than that of the rest of South America . The Portuguese were dealing with Africans in commerce and colonization long before they got to Brazil , and it is believed that because of this they were more willing than their British and French counterparts in North America to let the culture of the African slaves breathe. This acceptance of the African culture allowed for their dances, songs and traditions to become part of Brazil 's culture. Another major cause of the blend of cultures was because the Portuguese usually came in groups of men, rather than established families, which led to intermarriage with the natives and Africans.
Brazil was the first country to play host to the carnival. The exact reason behind the celebration is not known but most celebrants feel the carnival had its beginning as a human need to give itself a holiday from the troubles and problems of the world and daily life. Endless amounts of floats surrounded by thousands and thousands of dancers, signers and drummers parade through the enormous Sambodromo Stadium dressed in elaborate costumes; the event is so magnificent it is televised around the world.
The actual Samba Parade began in the 1930's - first timidly at Praca XI, and later on Avenue Presidente Vargas. It found a permanent home in 1984 at the Sambodrome in the downtown area of Rio de Janero. The samba music and dance is a mix of Angolan samba, European polka, African batuques, with touches of Cuban habanera and other styles. The "Samba" refers to both and intricate rhythm produced by a battery of percussion instruments, and to the accompanying dance. It commonly begins with a quick-strumming cavaquinho, something like a high-pitched ukulele, and builds into that distinctive percussive background, usually a 2/4 rhythm and heavily syncopated. Song lyrics play and important role in social expression, while melody lines are kept fairly simple since a samba is as much a community event as a song.
The parade starts at 9 p.m. and goes on until sunlight the next day, around 6 a.m. The samba marathon is also a fierce competition; every year two samba schools are downgraded from special to access group, and vice versa. Samba schools are not teaching institutions, it is commonly explained as an association of people from the same neighborhood, usually a working class community (or favela) in a suburban area. The community gets together on a regular basis for rehearsals and samba nights. The samba schools are made up of members of all ages, starting with toddlers and ending with the senior citizens. The community gets together on a regular basis for rehearsals and "samba nights" filled with dancing, singing and bands. The samba schools also provide valuable jobs to the community; they give people year round employment in the production of costumes and floats. Each year the schools choose a different theme, in the year 2000 for example, schools highlighted different periods of Brazilian history, celebrating the country's 500 th anniversary. (Carnival in Rio de Janero - Samba Parade, www.ipanema.com/carnival/parade.html)
Samba schools may have 3,000 to 5,000 members in the parade and 6 to 8 floats. They have to make their way through the runway in a period ranging from 60 to 80 minutes. This means each school member will spend only about 25-30 minutes in the Sambodrome. Several aspects are judged by a jury of experts chosen by the League of Samba Schools. Judges are strategically stationed in-between the odd sectors to make sure they schools do their best all the way through. The 5 best schools earn the coveted honor of marching again the following weekend, at the Winners Parade on Saturday.
The schools are divided into sections (or alas) with people wearing the same costumes. Many of the floats have special effects - a bird with flapping wings, a dragon spitting smoke and others. The size is limited by the narrow tree-lined streets that give access to the Sambodrome. Being part of the samba parade is considered an honor so those who do not get a role requiring a costume still feel as though they are an equal part assuming another role. One of the sections to look for is the abre-alas, usually a men-only group with an elaborate choreography, that marches in front of every school. Velha Guarda is the group of men in the traditional white suit and Panama hat, representing the malandro, a Carioca character. There is also a special couple known as mestre sala and porta-bandeiras. The porta-bandeiras, the lady, carries the school flag with pride - and the crowds stand and cheer as she passes by. Her partner, the mestre-sala, has the job of drawing everybody's attention to his princess. The samba schools also have a children only sector with their own version of the porta-bandeiras and the mestre-sala. The bateria (percussion band) sets the beat to which the dances and songs are based off of. They are preceded by a queen (or rainha da bateria), that can be either a beauty from the community or a T.V. star or VIP (girls fight fiercely for the position). The vocalist is know as a puxador and goes on a sound truck right behind the bateria.
The culmination of the parade brings the majority of the festivities to a close, though many small communities continue to celebrate for days afterward. Almost as soon as one year's celebration ends the preparation for the next years begins, as Samba schools prepare to compete for next year's top prize. The Samba schools bring whole communities together on a weekly basis. On our trip to a samba school children and elderly danced together passing on a tradition that will continue for many generations to come. The schools bring pride to neighborhoods and create a cultural and safe environment.