Rio’s big fest: Carnival hits the streets

Carnival hasn’t officially started here in Rio, but the revelry has already been underway for days. Beginning last week, the first big street parties kicked off, filling many neighborhoods with revelers singing and dancing down the avenues. These are Rio’s street parades — known locally as bandas and blocos — and are open to all who want to join the party. All you have to do is show up.

Despite their earliest appearance in the 19th century, until recently, there were only a handful of these street parades still going on around town, and most visitors described Salvador in Bahia as the home of true street carnival. (Their disappearance from Rio coincided with the opening of the Sambadrome in 1984, where the colorful samba school parades became the raison d’etre for Carnival.) All that has changed dramatically in the last ten years, as Carnival has returned to the streets with some 465 — nearly double the number from 2009 — free music and dance celebrations happening throughout the city this year. (Copacabana alone will host some 55 street parades.) All in all, the city predicts a turnout of 2.5 million people attending the celebrations.

One of the first to kick off the street fests is the Banda de Ipanema, which takes place two Saturdays before Carnival, and again on Carnival Saturday. Held in Ipanema, it attracts a wildly diverse crowd, many of whom come from well beyond the neighborhood’s boundaries. Long before Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim penned their famous song, ‘Garota de Ipanema’ (Girl from Ipanema), the neighborhood was a desirable one. It’s only become more so in Brazil’s recent boom years, with a clean, lovely beachfront and side streets lined with towering mangueiras (mango trees) and sprinkled with outdoor cafes and restaurants, eye-catching boutiques and lively bars, all favored stomping grounds of Ipanema’s stereotypically young, good-looking — possibly gay and probably wealthy — crowd.

Around 4pm, a few hundred revelers gather in and around Ipanema’s Praca General Osorio, a plaza sprinkled with palms and grassy bits, paved walkways and a concrete fountain that hasn’t seen water for years. Some arrive wearing the Banda’s official t-shirt for the event, which this year pays homage to Brazil’s best-known architect, the still active 102-year-old Oscar Niemeyer. Others are attired in the typical weekend costume of the zona sul (southern neighborhoods): shorts and t-shirts, flip flops (invariably Havaianas) or, less formally, swim trunks and bare chests for the men, bikinis and sarongs for the women. There are a few costumes among the crowd — rainbow-hued mohawks, fairy wings, leather-vested bikies and a few drag queens teetering on six-inch heels — though the more outlandish outfits won’t appear until Carnival Saturday.

The focal point of the gathering is a thirty-piece brass band (the ‘banda’ part of the street parade). They’ll lead everyone in marchinhas, colorful, sometimes racy sing-alongs played during Carnival. There are several hundred well-known marchinhas, some of which date back to Rio’s early street carnivals in the 1890s, and every Carioca knows the lyrics to at least a dozen of these songs. Another point of interest for the crowd is the ubiquitous presence of beer vendors wheeling over-sized coolers around the plaza.

By six pm the crowd has swelled to several thousand, and the band starts moving–the street parade is off. Participants encompass a wide swath of Carioca society — as democratic as the beaches around town, with rich and poor, young and old, all joining together in a singing and dancing mass snaking its way through Ipanema. As the parade reaches Av Vieira Souto, the road running parallel to the ocean, thousands more from the beach clamber up onto the road and join in the revelry. Soon the road is a sea of people, singing and shimmying their way along the waterfront. By day’s end, more than 10,000 will join in.

After a few blocks (and a dozen marchinhas), the banda turns inland and stops beside the Igreja Nossa Senhora da Paz (Our Lady of Peace church). There, the crowd takes on a solemn aspect as the band plays “Carinhoso,” paying homage to the famous composer Pixinguinha who died inside the church while attending a baptism during Carnival. As the band plays the song, some in the crowd are visibly moved, holding hands and crying.

The parade continues as darkness arrives, and in the apartments above the street, solitary figures dance on the balconies. A few revelers call up to those in the windows in a sing-song chant to “come down, come down and join the band.” Meanwhile, the beer vendors are still following alongside the parade, competing against a few enterprising caipirinha vendors, who, holding packed trays of iced drinks aloft, glide seamlessly through the dense crowd. A few inspired revelers climb light posts (some for the view, some to dance rather provocatively with a fixed object). Others carve a space for themselves in the swirling crowd — like the very portly bare-chested man in tiny swim trunks who bounces joyfully and heedlessly about, singing out of key, as his neighboring revelers scurry out of the way. ‘Brazilians are among the least inhibited of people,’ a Carioca friend once explained to me.

It all comes to an end around nine o’clock back in Praca General Osorio, after which fest-goers peel off, filling the bars and restaurants around Ipanema, or heading back to the beach, which despite the late hour remains surprisingly crowded. Like most other nights during this summer in Rio, the humidity is overpowering, and a dip in the ocean provides fast relief from the sweltering heat.

Over the next week, hundreds more street parades will hit the Rio stage. More famous gatherings, like the Cordao de Bola Preta in the center of town, will bring out several hundred thousand. Some blocos have whimsical names, like ‘Simpatia e quase amor’ (Sympathy is almost love) or the well-known Suvaco do Cristo, which roughly translated means ‘the armpit smell of Christ’, a reference to the parade’s location in Jardim Botanica, beneath the outstretched arms of Rio’s well-known Savior. Other fests revolve around neighborhood icons — like the Bloco das Carmelitas, which references the Carmelite monastery in Santa Teresa. Some celebrants even parade through the streets in full habits.

The combined effect of these events, taking place in every corner of the city, is simply transformative. On a typical outing in Rio, it is impossible not to stumble upon one or another street fest. And if time permits, you might as well join in. Spontaneity, after all, is but one of many ingredients in Rio’s Carnival.

Read more: Get a backstage peek at Carnival from our correspondent’s vantage point: “Behind the Scenes of Brazil’s Famous Fest.”