The Carribean 15 – Rio Carnival

Rio Carnival (2)

Samba and the samba schools

Although samba is heard throughout the year and all over Brazil, it actually emerged in Rio and is synonymous with the city’s Carnival. The batucada – the continuous, hypnotic rhythm that is the basis of samba – flows through the city’s veins, and as Carnival approaches, the sound increasingly replaces even Rio’s traffic as the city’s background noise. Spontaneously created on the streets, beaches and buses, the batucada is produced by simply beating or tapping whatever is at hand – tin cans, tables, pans, your legs – and it’s always amazing how many people happen to have a drum or other percussion instrument with them. The simplest of bars is, in many ways, as good as anywhere to enjoy the batucada, but no visit to Rio is complete without experiencing a samba-school performance – either a rehearsal (see box), or, better still, during Carnival itself.

Each samba school has its own devoted followers, flags and colours, and is linked to an individual neighbourhood, often a particular favela, from where it draws its most fervent supporters and participants; competition is an important part of Carnival, and the rivalry between Rio’s samba schools is fierce. There are five samba-school divisions – grupos A, B, C and D, and the elite “Grupo Especial” – and promotion and relegation can take place between these divisions; only the Grupo Especial and schools from grupos A and B are allowed to parade in the Sambodromo on Carnival weekend (see box, opposite).

Serious preparations for Carnival don’t get underway until August, when a samba school’s theme – usually based on an event or a notable individual from Brazilian history – for the next Carnival is announced. From then until October each school holds a public competition between composers, and a different samba de enredo (theme song) is eliminated each week until the winning one is chosen. Meanwhile, the business of designing and making the costumes and the huge floats gets underway – to maintain an element of secrecy, costumes are only issued to participants a few days before Carnival.


Street Carnival: blocos and bandas

Even though the Rio Carnival has become incredibly commercialized the street carnival side of things hasn’t vanished altogether, and can make a cheaper and in a way more authentic alternative to the Sambodromo events. For two weeks preceding Carnival, and during Carnival weekend itself, you’re sure to stumble cross numerous blocos (small groups of percussion players) and indas (larger, better-organized and more riotous groups) all over the city – the chances are that you’ll just get dragged along, whether you like it or not. And don’t worry that you can’t dance samba in the sexy, shuffling way the locals do; there are worse things in life than being taught how to samba by a sexy Brazilian with her arms and hands guiding the movements of your hips.

Bandas to look out for include the Banda de Ipanema, which performs to an excited crowd at the Praca General Osorio, in the heart of the wealthy beach suburb of Ipanema, and the Simpatia e Quase Amor, which starts at the same square. Otherwise, Santa Clara, Rua Bolivar and Rua Duvivier – all in Copacabana – are also good places to find bandas. For a more impromptu, neighbourhood feel, make for the hilly, Bohemian district of Santa Teresa, where the Carmelitas de Santa Teresa, their members dressed as nuns, attract a light­hearted following that winds its way through the neighbourhood’s narrow streets and small squares.

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