Having just had the pleasure of attending Rio Carnival 2015, I can confirm that it is indeed the greatest party on Earth, and quite possibly the galaxy!
The festivities start early – I joined my first bloco (a sort of informal parade / street party) at 7am on Saturday morning, mingling with thousands of other costumed-up people to dance to the beat of samba, while rehydrating with caipirinha’s and tiny cans of beer in the 30 degree summer heat. The party carries on until Ash Wednesday essentially without interruption. Every hour of the day, seemingly anywhere in the city, you can find people on the street, dancing, drinking and singing.
Even the official carnival parade is a marathon. This is the highly competitive carnival show, watched live on television by tens of millions and by 90,000 spectators in the purpose-built, mile-long Sambodromo. I was lucky enough to be there on the Sunday night to see the first six schools in the elite ‘Special Group’ category. In Britain such an event would start at a decent interval after dinner and finish in time to catch the end of Newsnight when you get home. In Rio, the first school set off at 9.30pm and the last one hadn’t yet passed the final judging spot when we mooched off at around 6.30am.
I wasn’t sure what to expect, having only the Notting Hill Carnival as a comparator. That wasn’t much preparation and what I experienced was the equivalent of twenty of the greatest Broadway shows all brought together on one street, with six 100-strong samba bands providing the beat.
Almost all the music played during Rio Carnival is samba. It is a uniquely Brazilian music originating from the African community in Rio’s precarious hillside favelas. The note I made on my phone (which I am not sure is a paraphrase of what someone told me, or something I copied down) says: “The word samba itself comes from the Angolan world “semba”, referring to a type of ritual music. The word had a variety of meanings to the African slaves brought to Brazil during the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. It meant to pray or invoke the spirits of the ancestors and the gods of the African Pantheon. As a noun, it could mean a complaint, a cry, or something like the blues.”
While the sound of samba provides a common to backdrop to every part of carnival, each school in the parade tells a unique story. Here’s a taster:
- First out on Sunday, Unidos do Viradouro, praised the “immortal black poet Luiz Carlos da Vila” and celebrated “the role of people of African heritage in Brazil”.
- Mangueira celebrated “Brazilian woman in first place” with each wings and float depicting the contribution of specific women, or groups of women, in Brazilian history.
- Mocidade asked the audience to consider what they would do on the last day of the earth: “O ultimo dia”. The options were decidely Brazilian: “Would you go to the beach?”; “Would you walk around naked in the rain?”; “Would you go to the gym?”; “Eat until you explode?”, ending with “Let Mocidade take you” and “surrender to happiness, doing what your heart tells you.”. This school provided the greatest spectacle, including tens of dancers imitating wavy hair, secured inside a revolving head that resembled the Aladdin’s Carpet fairground ride at Alton Towers. The left the crowd chanting “champions!”, although apparently a school that performed on the second day actually walked off with top prize.
- Salgueiro, supported by my good friend and host, Rodrigo, gave us “History of the art of Minas Gerais Cookery”. They had the best song for a non-Portuguese speaker to sing along to because of the repetition of “O Sinha”. But as each school repeated its own three minute song for 1 hour and 20 minutes, you do start to get to know at least some of the sounds, if not the actual words, for most of them.
- Grande Rio came last and to this British eye looked like they were acting out Alice in Wonderland. There’s no doubt Alice, the Mad Hatter and lots of white rabbits were on display, but according to the programme the theme was actually about card games. Regardless of source material, the centrepiece of Grande Rio’s performance was an extraordinary illusionist sequence. To start, six female dancers emerged from a float pushing tables on wheels. A few moments later they disappeared from sight, only to re-emerge still with the tables, but minus their upper-torso – ie there were human legs dancing around with tables, but without heads, legs and chest to guide them. After that we decided we had had one caipirinha too many and left.
The Sambadromo parade was an out-of-this-world extravaganza. But my carninval highlight came the next day at a bloco on a backstreet in (I think) the Humaita district, when for a blissful half hour I got to play drums in a samba band. I probably on hit one beat in ten, but it was fantastic! Now it’s just a question of getting through the next eleven months before I can go back again..