Rio Carnival (1)
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
February/March – from the Friday of Carnival weekend to Shrove Tuesday
Carnival celebrations are hardly unique to Rio de Janeiro, but, without doubt, the city boasts the world’s wildest, glitziest and largest carnival of them all. Drawing people from all over the globe to participate, this is the world’s best party- period. Local reaction varies – some cariocas (the inhabitants of Rio) hate Carnival, and flee the city over the long weekend to stay at their mountain or beachside second homes, though most simply see it as one long, citywide party. And partying at the Rio Carnival is something you definitely won’t forget. Boasting the largest gathering of transvestites in the world, the event is infamous for its “I-went-to-bed- with-a-woman-and-woke-up-with-a-man” style incidents. Leave your inhibitions at the airport.
Rio’s Carnival is rooted in the entrudo. or mock-battle, imported to Brazil by Portuguese immigrants in the seventeenth century. A riotous outburst preceding the abstinence of Lent, the entrudo was a brutal four-day festivity where soot, flour and the foulest liquids imaginable were thrown on passers-by who dared venture onto the streets. So out of control were Rio’s entrudos that they were formally abolished by the city authorities in 1843, by which time the modern-day forms of Carnival expression had started to evolve.
In the late eighteenth century, Rio’s wealthier citizens began to seek means of enjoyably participating in Carnival. The first float parade was organized in 1786, and masked balls, long popular in Italy, were introduced at about the same time. By the mid-nineteenth century, Rio’s elite were holding European-style carnival celebrations in private clubs, many of which were linked to civic groups. At the same time, the city’s poor had organized their own celebrations with Ze Pereira bands, named after the Portuguese tambour that provided the basic musical beat. Migration to Rio from Bahia – a state in the northeast of the country – in the 1870s introduced African influences to Carnival, and gradually the two strands combined to create an event that became an expression of a growing Brazilian nationalism. From these beginnings, Rio’s escolas de samba (samba schools) emerged. The first, Deixa Falar, was established in 1928 in a favela (shanty town) just north of the city centre, and for the next twenty years, more samba schools sprung up in other favelas and working-class neighbourhoods of the city, each developing its own strong individual identity. As Carnival became an ever more elaborate spectacle, visitors from around the world started to attend the festivities – not least inspired by the absurdly costumed figure of Carmen Miranda, the Broadway and Hollywood star who was to become the patron saint of Rio’s Carnival transvestites. Paradoxically, the laid-back sounds of bossa nova – introduced to North American and European audiences in the late 1950s and early 1960s by artistes such as Tom Jobim, Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz – brought yet more international attention to Rio. The fashion of “flying down to Rio” for Carnival was briefly interrupted by the military’s seizure of power in 1964, but in the years since, the event has firmly re-established itself on the world-party circuit.
Rio Carnival exists somewhere in everybody’s imagination. When foreigners think of it, the images that usually spring to mind are of a colourful parade, loud music and pounding drums, extravagant costumes, lots of near-naked flesh – and unbridled hedonism. However, it’s worth knowing that nowadays Carnival is a highly organized – and commercialized – event, and despite its reputation, the casual visitor to Rio during Carnival could easily leave Brazil wondering what all the fuss is about. This is partly because, with some ten million inhabitants, Rio often enjoys its Carnival far off the tourist track and behind closed doors. To enjoy it, either as an observer bent on soaking up the atmosphere or by actively joining in, you need to know where to go.
The Zona Sul suburbs of Copacabana, Ipanema and Leblon are the places to see the best Carnival bands and sound systems. Each evening during Carnival, towers of speakers line the Copacabana seafront promenade along Avenida Atlantica, which swells with a mixture of hookers, tourists and people who’ve had a hard day looking sexy on the beach or recovering from the night before. The whole area is bathed in bright gaudy lights from beach bars and food stalls, which provide an excellent pit-stop before you throw yourself deeper into the melee. The rest of the partying rages in the downtown area, either on Rio Branco, where the unofficial parades take place, or at Praga Onze; both places are packed every night until at least 2am. Praga Onze is located next door to the Sambodromo, into which the samba schools and dance ensembles pour as part of the Carnival Parade itself. Getting a seat in one of the makeshift spectator stands here is a good move; you can eat and drink yourself stupid in comfort while watching the paraders marching by.