February 14, 2012

Carnival Part 1: Rio

It’s Carnival time in Brazil!

We like to think we’ve formulated a fairly airtight game plan. We’re staying in Rio right up until the start of Carnival, so that we can experience the lead-up but avoid the outrageous price gauging. For Carnival week itself, we will move to a more northern city named Salvador, where a less-formal and more beloved Carnival comes alive for the Brazilians.

Even though Carnival officially isn’t until the week leading up to Ash Wednesday (Feb 22nd), it has been alive in the streets from the day we landed here. I’ll do my best to summarize what I’ve witnessed and learned – from an outsider’s perspective…

Carnival includes everything from the grandiose pageantry to more casual street parades called “blocos”, which pop up throughout the city leading up to Carnival week. We have seen these informal blocos all over Rio and they can range from 4 people with drums to hundreds of people marching along with bands or sound systems. We’ve had two particularly funny bloco encounters.

One night before we left for Costa Verde, we got caught up in one of the blocos in Ipanema. It took us 30 minutes to march, dance, and drink our way through ONE city block.

The night we arrived back into Rio from Costa Verde, it was very late (past midnight). In order to get to our new hostel, our taxi driver had to barge right through one of the blocos! We were the epitome of fish in a fish bowl. Completely embarrassing at the moment it happened, but so funny now that we can reflect on it.

The other side to Rio’s Carnival is the more extravagant parading that probably comes to mind. Even though Carnival is celebrated throughout the world, Rio’s celebration is the largest and grandest. The main event takes place over several nights in the Sambadrome, which is a stadium built precisely for Carnival.

Different areas of Rio have what they call samba schools. These aren’t schools in the literal sense…they are just large social groups of 3,000-5,000 members working together on their school’s performance, which they will unveil at the Sambadrome come February. Each year the school chooses a theme, and everything about their performance must revolve around that theme – from music and floats to costumes and dance. The theme is chosen very far in advance so that they have 8 months to design and sew the costumes and record the music. Each school writes and records one song each year, and by Christmas time, all of the schools have released their songs to the radio stations so that everyone can learn the music ahead of time. So the large and over-the-top parading that you see on TV, is actually a competition between all of these samba schools. They are judged based on 10 different categories, and a winner is announced.

We carefully planned to be in Rio on the Sunday before Carnival because that’s when the organizers hold a final dress rehearsal with full sound and lighting at the Sambadrome. The best part…it’s FREE! We arrived early last night to make sure we would get a good seat. I think we were the only non-Brazilians in the entire place.

Right as the first samba school was being announced into the runway, the sky opened up and it began pouring rain. We thought for sure they would cancel it. They wouldn’t possibly want their costumes drenched one week before the big show, right? Well, they stuck it out and so did we.

Tradition states that the winning samba school from the previous year is invited to perform at the dress rehearsal. Luckily after two hours, the rain cleared up just in time for Beija-Flor to samba their award-winning selves right down the runway. It was spectacular. It takes over an hour for each school’s 3,000-5,000 members to make it from one end of the Sambadrome to the other. It was a never-ending parade and the spectators were dancing just as much as the schools!

As tradition also has it, after the previous year’s champions finished rehearsing, Rio’s biggest and most traditional street band lined up in the runway and played a lot of traditional samba songs. I couldn't believe it, but we were allowed right down on the runway.

If you’d like to read more about the Sambadrome parades, this is a fantastic site that explains all of the traditions in very easy to understand English.

Seeing the samba schools, and spectators, dancing last night inspired us. Today we took a samba lesson. Happy Valentine’s Day!

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