Brazil: A Guide to Carnival in Rio de Janeiro

A Carnival Samba group dances in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.  (Photo: Telegraph UK)

A Carnival Samba group dances in the streets of Rio de Janeiro.
(Photo: Telegraph UK)

The 2015 Carnival (Carnaval) has kicked off in Rio de Janeiro, so Rio-carnival.net has pulled together a guide to make sure that you enjoy and understand the meaning behind the world’s largest Carnival celebration.

Rio Carnival History

The Portuguese first brought the concept of “celebration or carnival” to Rio around 1850. The practice of holding balls and masquerade parties was imported by the city’s bourgeoisie from Paris. However, in Brazil, the traditions soon became different. Over time, they acquired unique elements derived from African and Amerindian cultures.

Groups of people would parade through the streets playing music and dancing. It was common that during Carnival, aristocrats would dress up as commoners, men would cross-dress as women and the poor would dress up as princes and princesses – social roles and class differences were expected to be forgotten once a year but only for the duration of the festival.

The black slaves became actively involved in the celebrations. They were able to be free for three days.

By the end of the 18th century, the festivities were enriched by competitions. People would not just dress up in costumes but also perform a parade accompanied by an orchestra of strings, drums and other instruments. These more organized competitions became the main attractions of the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Interesting Fact

Until the beginning of the 20th century, street carnival in Rio was musically a very euro centric affair – Polkas, Waltzes, Mazurkas and ‘Scottish’. Meanwhile, the emergent working class (made up mainly of Afro Brazilians, along with some gypsies, Russian Jews, Poles etc.) developed their own music and rhythm. These racial and cultural groups were mostly based in the central part of Rio, on a land that the rich did not want – on the hills and swamps behind the dockyards – an area which came to be known as ‘Little Africa’ now recognized as the cradle of samba.

About

Although Carnival (Carnaval in Portuguese) is celebrated in towns and villages throughout Brazil and other Catholic countries, Rio de Janeiro has long been regarded as the Carnival capital of the world. The Rio Carnaval is not only the biggest Carnival, it is also a benchmark against which every other carnival is compared and one of the most interesting artistic events on the globe. Nearly 500,000 foreigners visit Carnival every year.

Why?

Rio Carnival is a 5-day celebration, 40 days before Easter. It officially starts on Friday and finishes on Fat Tuesday with the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday after which one is supposed to abstain from all bodily pleasures. Carnival with all its excesses, celebrated as a profane event, could be interpreted an act of farewell to the pleasures of the flesh. It is usually in February, the hottest month in the Southern Hemisphere, when summer in Rio is at its peak.

There are carnival celebrations on virtually every corner of Brazil, the best-known celebrations taking place in Recife together with the neighboring Olinda (in the Northeast of Brazil) and Salvador. But the biggest and most famous carnival is undoubtedly Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.

Rio Carnival is the result of months of preparation. People eagerly anticipate the start of each year’s Rio Carnival. It begins with the crowning of the Fat King (King Momo), who is presented with a giant silver and gold key by the city’s mayor. Then it is Carnival all over the place, in the streets and squares, bars, clubs and all other venues, taking over the whole city of Rio and culminating in the Rio Carnival Parade also known as the Samba Parade.

Samba

Almost all the music played during Rio Carnival is samba. It is a uniquely Brazilian music originating from Rio, a dance form that was invented by impoverished Afro-Brazilians.

The word samba 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”.

Samba Schools

The samba schools entertain the community through samba nights and create a pageant for the Samba Parade. They have to pick themes, write music and lyrics, make costumes and floats and practice all year around to succeed in the Parade.

The samba schools are vital elements of Rio Carnival. They are social clubs representing a particular neighborhood, usually a working class community of the slums (favelas). They have a samba hall to entertain and practice their samba, and a separate production unit to make their cost

The Parade

Each neighborhood in Rio has its favorite Carnival street band(s). There are more than 300 of them in Rio and this number increases year by year. Each band has its place or street to celebrate and for the big bands, the streets are usually closed to traffic. The processions usually start as early as in January and last till the end of Carnival.

Frequently the people who organize the band’s procession compose the music for their own parade.

The Carnival Bands

The Carnival bands consist of an orchestra, mainly brass. They march along a predetermined route or stay at the same place. Nonetheless they are always joined by hordes of enthusiastic samba revelers dressed in costumes, bathing suits, plain clothes, and many even in drag.

Blocos are usually the smaller ones, attracting more of a neighborhood crowd. Bandas are bigger in size.

To learn more about the history of Rio Carnival, visit Rio-Carnival.net.

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