Carnival in Rio: Behind the scenes of Brazil’s famous fest

It’s summertime in Rio de Janeiro, which brings hot, humid days–sometimes of breathtaking intensity. Afternoon thunderstorms provide occasional relief, though these often erupt without warning, sending everyone scattering for cover under the awning of the nearest juice bar as the skies open up.

Summer also coincides with the tremendous spectacle of Carnival, held in Rio on the days leading up to Ash Wednesday. This year, Carnival officially begins on Friday, February 12th, when the mayor gives the keys of the city to King Momo, the portly pleasure-seeker who ushers in the bacchanalia. The next four days are marked by neighborhood parties, lavish masked balls, open-air concerts on stages all over town and the all-night Technicolor parades held in the specially designed Sambadrome.

When I arrived in mid-January, the city was on holiday for the patron saint of Rio, Sao Sebastiao (the city still has many holidays that revolve around Catholic traditions, Carnival being the best known). Rua Visconde de Piraja, a normally bustling thoroughfare through Ipanema, was empty. Meanwhile a few streets over, the long narrow shoreline was packed. From the rocky outcropping overlooking Ipanema beach, all I could see was a dense mass of yellow umbrellas, with vendors barking their wares (‘Agua! Mate! Cerveja!‘; water, sweet tea, beer) as they wound through a maze of beach chairs and supine sunbathers, racing children and arcing soccer balls. Cyclists and joggers sped along the beachside path, which appeared to run like a straight line into the magnificent green peaks of Dois Irmaos (‘two brothers’) rising majestically in the distance.For most Cariocas, especially residents of Ipanema and neighboring Leblon–another well-heeled district–Carnival was still weeks away. But for those involved in the samba schools, the grand fest was a rapidly approaching deadline for work that had begun many months back. In Rio, all eyes turn to the favelas during Carnival. Sometimes translated as ‘slums’, these informal shantytowns contain as many as one in six residents and cover huge swaths of the forested hillsides around town. Several dozen of the favelas are home to escolas de samba (samba schools), around which the entire celebration revolves. In favelas like Mangueira and Salgueiro (two of the top samba schools), drum corps have been practicing for months, choreographers busily working on routines for dancers numbering in the thousands, while seamstresses piece together the elaborate costumes that will, with luck, bring their school top honors.

On a clear day later in the week, I joined my friend Aurelio who lives up in Rocinha, Rio’s largest favela. Like many of the favelas in the cidade maravilhosa (marvelous city), Rocinha enjoys stunning views from its hillside perch, behind which the surrounding tropical forest threatens to envelop the building. From the Terraco da Gavea, an open-sided performance space that Aurelio inaugurated late last year, we could see the solid rock monolith of Pedra da Gavea and hang gliders skimming through the air on a lazy descent from another rockface (Pedra Bonita) to the beach 500 meters below.

Five young drummers from the drum section, all dressed in white, were laying down a rapid-fire set of beats, the rhythms resounding off the concrete walls. As they played, a pair of dancers emerged and worked through some samba steps and spins.

Here a few visitors had gathered to watch a show by some of Rocinha’s escola de samba members. Five young drummers from the bateria (drum section), all dressed in white, were laying down a rapid-fire set of beats, the rhythms resounding off the concrete walls. As they played, a pair of dancers emerged (he in white suit, she in a twirling sequined costume) and worked through some samba steps and spins. Later, a man with a microphone joined in, singing a few traditional samba enredos (theme songs) over the beats. Also on hand was a film crew from TV Roc (a Rocinha-based TV station) to shoot footage for a weekly show covering goings-on inside the favela.

Afterward I chatted with some of the school members. Despite their relative youth, all of them had played in past Carnivals and were excited about the upcoming ensaio tecnico, when they would do a practice run inside the Sambadrome (fans and anyone else could come for free to watch these rehearsals). This year, Rocinha’s theme was Ykamiabas, a mythical tribe of female warriors from the Amazon. Courage, a love of nature and magic amulets were all part of the story, which would be related in the song that everyone marching for the school would have to learn.

Preparations for Carnival begin early in the year, when the carnavalesco, or creative director of the school, sets about choosing the theme, selecting the costumes and overseeing general design plans. In October, school supporters help choose the song. I recall a night some years back standing in the steamy halls of Imperatriz, one of the top-tier escolas de samba, as four different puxadores (the lead singers of a school), auditioned songs for the audience, who subsequently voted for their favorite by roaring in approval. It was also the night when they were introduced to the regally dressed couple who would present the school to the judges: the mestre-sala and his spinning queen, the porta-bandeira (flag bearer). As one of the school’s main focal points, the pair must give a flawless performance as they twirl through the Sambadrome. Then there are supporting roles like the couple’s core passistas (the best dancers of the school) and the rainha da bateria (the queen of the drum section, often a well-known singer or soap opera star), the baianas (women with oversized hoop skirts who spin like whirling dervishes through the parade) and the carros alegoricos, or giant mechanized floats, atop which the school’s notoriously underdressed dancers show off their samba skills.

In the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged. It was a music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their poor descendents. It was a sound that would forever be associated with Carnival.

Although the origins of Carnival are shrouded in mystery, some believe it all began as a pagan celebration to mark spring’s arrival during the Middle Ages. The Portuguese brought the celebration to Brazil in the 1500s but it took on a local flavor by the introduction of Indian costumes and African rhythms. (The word itself probably derives from the Latin carne vale, “goodbye meat”, whereby the Catholic population would give up meat and other fleshly temptations during the 40 days of Lent.)

The first festivals in Rio were called entrudos, with locals marching through the streets in colorful costumes and throwing mud, flour and suspicious-smelling liquids on one another. In the 19th century, Carnival meant attending a lavish masked ball or participating in the orderly but rather vapid European-style parade. Rio’s poor citizens, bored by the finery but eager to celebrate, began holding their own parades, dancing through the streets to African-based rhythms. Then in the 1920s, the new sound of samba emerged in Rio. It was a music full of African flavors, brought to the city by former slaves and their poor descendents. It was a sound that would forever be associated with Carnival–as even the upper class adopted the celebrations happening on the streets.

Since those days, Carnival has grown in leaps and bounds, and this year Rio is spending in excess of R$100 million (US$54 million) to throw the party. For some Cariocas, Carnival is all just a bit too much, and they prefer to escape to a quieter locale (though everywhere in Brazil celebrates Carnival). Others look forward to the merry-making, beginning with the 420 street parades (called blocos) happening around town over the next few weeks.

When I left Rocinha that afternoon, Aurelio invited me to join the school in the technical rehearsal through the Sambadrome. There was also much more to come with open-air concerts, costumed balls and spontaneous street parties popping up around town–all made livelier by the entrance of merry makers flying in from all across the globe.

I’m excited to see what happens next week as the unfolding celebration takes to the streets.

Read Part 2 of this series, “Rio’s Big Fest: Carnival Hits the Streets.”