Rio Carnival (3)
The Carnival Parade
When people talk about the Carnival Parade, they’re thinking of the samba schools of the Grupo Especial that perform – or compete – in the Sambodromo, a purpose-built concrete structure seating over sixty thousand and designed by the great Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer.
The Grupo Especial parades on the Sunday and Monday (seven schools each night), with the lower ranking Grupo A performing on the Saturday night and Grupo B on the Tuesday night. The parades start at about 7pm and continue until around 6am. Unless there’s a particular school that you’re following, don’t bother to turn up until after 10pm – after a few hours the spectacle can grow somewhat monotonous for all but the most devoted of samba-school fans. You can get to the Sambodromo by metro, but you’ll have to return to your hotel by taxi, as the metro doesn’t run through the night.
The competing samba schools have as many as five thousand members each, and their performances last between sixty and eighty minutes per school.
The baterias – each made up of two hundred to four hundred drummers – set the beat, and the solo vocalist (aspuxador) repeats the hopefully catchy samba de enredo until almost hoarse, joined by the entire school as a backing group. The most spectacular feature of every school are their floats (carros alegoricos), each illustrating a part of the chosen theme, but there are other entrancing formations, too: the Baianas section, made up of women in colourful, colonial-style dresses; the Velha Guarda, senior samba-school members (always men) who march in white suits and Panama hats; the children’s wing and the enormous groups of ordinary supporters of the school, who are rated more or their enthusiasm than their dancing skills. Costumes ,range from flowing dresses or African robes to glitter applied to an otherwise naked body (complete nudity is banned). A commission of judges awards schools points tor each of these areas, as well as for timing, the overall theme and whether the entire show comes together as one. Unless you’re a Carnival expert, you won’t have a clue how one school is selected over the others as a winner, but the winning school is honoured throughout Brazil with appropriate fervour.
As a show, there’s nothing to beat the Sambodromo extravaganza. But if you can’t get in, don’t worry – if it’s dancing and hanging out with people that you’re really after, you’ll be far better off joining a street event, or, better still, attending one of the many Carnival balls. Furthermore, the twenty-minute walk down wenida Presidente Vargas, which connects Rio Branco
with the Sambodromo, is perhaps the real highlight of the whole weekend. The floats queue up here before they take their turn in the parade, and you can hang around, chat or have a drink with the hundreds of richly costumed paraders nervously waiting their turn. The square by the paraders’ entrance to the Sambodromo is packed with makeshift bars whose TVs show what’s going on inside and play the never-ending anthems from each samba school while you munch on sausages, empanadas, kebabs, corn and plates of rice. These places are generally surrounded by costumed revellers sating their thirst, accompanied by groups of people singing and dancing and banging out a samba rhythm on drums. Above the cacophony, music rises from the stage set up in near by Praga Onze. Knock back a caipirinha, and join the writhing, wriggling masses at the front who tend to dance until dawn.