In Rio, Carnaval has begun. The Mayor has handed the keys of the city to Momo, and crowned him King of Carnaval.
According to local legend, this maestro in top hat and tails was the god of mockery in ancient Greece until he offended Zeus and was banished from Olympus. He was re-born in Rio, centuries later, as the god of Carnaval. Every year, before Ash Wednesday signaled the beginning of Lent, he unlocked the city and unleashed three days of revelry. He overturned order and threw out routine. He freed the slaves and called a halt to work. Everyone took to the streets for the Carnaval Parade; slaves dressed as royalty and the rich dressed as paupers, men dressed as women and women as men. There were street dances. There were masquerade balls. It was Carne Vale or farewell to the flesh; a time to feast and enjoy because six weeks of abstinence lay ahead, a time to run free and make merry before another year shackled in drudgery.
Today, still, once Momo holds the keys, the serious work of Rio goes out the window. The festivities that have been gathering force for weeks erupt in a celebration that brings the whole city to a standstill. Everyone packs up to party. Although slavery and the Lenten fast are things of the past, the spirit of Carnaval remains the same – set yourself free, party and have fun because in a few short tomorrows the holidays are over, work resumes, school starts, the summer ends and the dreary routines of everyday life close in.
The traditions of Carnaval are much the same too – just bigger and bolder with all the scope and freedoms of the 21st century. There are hundreds of masquerade balls now. The Copacabana Palace Hotel’s Magic Ball, where the global glitterati turn out in luxurious masks and costumes, is the certainly the biggest. The Gay Costume Ball, where the exotic and outrageous make spectacular entrances, then dance the night away while the TVs of the world watch, is certainly the boldest. But there is just as much fun to be had at the Samba Schools’ Balls, with the drummers, the sambistas and the schools’ big stars, in nightclubs under the arches of Lapa or at the street dance in Cinelandia, in Sambaland, the Carnaval village near Praca Onze. or at the simple neighbourhood bloco. This weekend every favela and suburb pulses to the beat of the samba.