Last night, in the Parade of Champions, 2015’s top Special Samba Schools strutted their stuff in triumph at Rio’s iconic Sambadromo. The Champions parade is a celebration. The competition is over and everyone, teams, spectators and officials, is in party mode.
On that Saturday night in 2009, I was there, in frisor 12 of setor 9, the tourist section of the Sambadromo, where just five days before I had been for Segundo, the second night of the Special Samba Schools parade.
Seats are cheaper at the Champions’ Parade and the crowd is different. These are the faithful, the die-hard devotees celebrating their school’s victory or their secure place among the top 12 in next year’s competition. Everybody knows the samba enreda by now. Everybody, even the tourists, can samba in some fashion or another.
With the competition over, the parade is different too. The harmonia still have to keep everyone moving on time but they’re doing it with humour. The baianas are whirling but in more cavalier circles. The forca still have to push the floats but they laugh and joke as they do. The foot soldiers in the ala have broken their lines. They toss their heavy costumes into the crowd as they go. A head-dress lands nearby and a crowd of Japanese ladies fights for it, like a bride’s bouquet. The victor poses in it, her shoulders slumped beneath its weight. The others queue for their turn.
The night is long but it passes quickly. It’s Sunday morning, just after five. The final dazzling float has just passed, trailing a triumphant posse of officials. Behind them come the orange-clad cleaners of the Prefeitura or City Council, with their bins and brooms. Still the sound of five hundred drums shakes the stands and strains of the last samba song echo up and down the avenue. Around us the stalls are emptying fast and only true stoics dance on. That feathered headdress now lies trampled among the litter of discarded programmes, cans and plastic cups.
My hips are jelly and my feet lumps of smouldering sponge. I’ve lost my voice. My eyes are smarting, my ears are ringing and my brain is a race track where lines of random samba songs do endless laps. Carnaval is over.
Tonight, at Rio’s Sambadromo, it is Segundo, the second night of the big Carnaval parade where six of the twelve top Samba Schools battle it out for the highest place of all.
Seven years ago, I was there. The stark concrete stands of the Sambadromo were a rippling landscape of colour; yellow and red for Porta da Pedro, from Sao Gonzalo, across the Rio Niteroi Bridge, red and white, for Salguiero, from the famous Tijuca favela. Green and gold for Imperatriz, from Ramos, blue for Portela, pink and green for Manguera and gold, yellow and blue for Viradouro.
In Frisor stall 12, Fila row B of Setor 9, the Tourist Section, we ’re spitting distance from the avenue. We’re pampered and protected; snacks, drinks, Carnaval paraphernalia are ferried to our seats, security guards watch over us. We’re a foreign world apart. Tourists are precious to Carnaval and to Rio but they’re also fair game in a city where one quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. So the wise traveler, at least at Carnaval, toes the tourist line.
Carnaval demands active participation from beginning to end, with hips, feet and voice fully engaged and all senses on high alert. So when Momo sambas down the avenue at 9 pm, the crowd rises like a wave beside him, cheering, clapping, whistling, waving and dancing. Fireworks explode over Avenida Presidente Vargas, the first strident line of Porto da Pedro’s samba enreda splits the air, the drums begin and everyone turns, craning over heads, cameras ready, hips swinging, feet shuffling, cheering, waiting for the first glimpse.
The Vanguard commission leads the parade. Here 12 to 15 dancers, in a highly choreographed and spectacular performance, introduce the school to the crowd. They are followed by the arbre alas, a float which carries the school’s emblem and symbols of the theme.
Each section of the parade is divided into wings, or ala, of 20 to 100 people, all in different costumes. The ala are the building blocks of the parade – legions of foot soldiers, all playing the different characters in this gigantic drama – local people who have won their costumes in dance contests and tourists, who have bought theirs, taking the shuffle of a lifetime down Sapucai under heavy head-dresses.
Between each wing up to 10 floats carry special guests and gorgeous samba dancers in fabulous costumes.
The flag bearers, the porta bandeira and mestre sala are the community’s little people, the humblest even of the most humble favela, known often only by their first names, they are King and Queen at Carnaval. Once, the mestre sala was armed with a knife to protect his lady from attack. Now he merely draws the crowd’s attention to her.
The passistas are a small wing of 15 to 20 of the finest samba dancers. Competition winners, they are a highly honoured star turn.
The School’s Carnaval Queen is chosen for her beauty, self-assurance , congeniality and of course, her samba skill. The Carnaval Princesses are the second and third place winners. Plumed, be-jewelled, glittering and gorgeous, theirs are the figures that launch a thousand flash-bulbs as they samba along Sapucai. Traditionally, they were the beautiful mulatta girls from the favelas, complete unknowns. Many of them still are.
The bahianas, a group of at least 80, represent the soul and the African roots of Carnaval. They are the whirling grandmothers in the traditional wide crinoline skirts of the north-western state of Bahia State, where they are the shamans, the high priestesses. They receive their costumes as a token of appreciation of their years of service to the school.
The little bahianas is the kids group.
The Raina da Bateria (Queen of the drummers) is the beautiful samba dancer who leads and motivates the drummers. Some are celebrities, others are nameless newcomers whose stars will surely rise once they shake their amazing “bum-bums” through the Sambadrome..
The bateria is a contingent of 250 to 350, drums whistles, rattles and shakers. They are the energy and life of the parade.
Behind them comes the sound truck carrying the male vocalist, usually a legend in his own favela.
The harmonia or stewards of the flow keep the parade moving in time and on time and countless “forca” push or pull floats.
The theme binds the whole gigantic spectacle together. It is stated re-stated and underscored in countless ingenious ways in floats, costumes, props and choreography. It links the vast cast of characters in this epic drama. It runs through the samba enreda. Themes range from deep and meaningful, to light and simple and from local to universal. Thankfully, each school’s theme is helpfully outlined in the Carnaval programme, because it is easily lost in the multitude of detail.
It was a long night. As Viradouro turned the last page on the story of Bahia, the sky was light. The peace heart which had shone all night on the hill above the green neon arches had faded into the forest.
Soon, the die will be cast, and Rio will be waiting with bated breath to hear the outcome of Carnaval 2015.
The high point of Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, is the Special Schools’ parade which plays out this Sunday and Monday night at the Sambadromo.
Described by the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro as the biggest folk festival on the planet and the most spectacular show on earth, the Special Schools’ parade is all of that and more. It is a celebration of the Brazilian people and their rich mix of cultures, of Catholic and Condomblé religious traditions, of characters from ancient civilizations and entities from the new world. It’s a stage where the stories of Brazil itself are told.
The size of this spectacle is staggering. Up to 5 thousand people take part in each Samba School’s procession. Of all ages, of all races and from every corner of their communities, they represent the huge melting pot that is Brazil. There are administrators, resplendent in the colours of their school. There are and teams of technicians in t-shirts. Countless “forca” push or pull floats carrying a huge cast of singers, dancers and acrobats. Conductors orchestrate the hundreds of different drums, whistles, shakers, rattles and shakers of the Batteria. “Directors” and “harmonia” keep the endless ranks of foot soldiers moving in time, on time and smoothly; loyal school members who have practised for months, the tourists, taking the shuffle of a lifetime through the sambadrome, the sambistas, the carnival goddesses, plumed, be-jewelled, glittering and gorgeous, the bahianas, the whirling grandmothers in their sweeping skirts, the kids contingent with their lightning feet and the flag bearers, picked from the neighbourhood’s ordinary youth and transformed, for this one night, into kings and queens.
Each school has a theme which ties the whole gigantic spectacle together. Themes are expressed through countless floats, each one a giant extravaganza with its own brilliant (and significant) show and up to 55 different groups of characters and creatures, all pertinent to the theme and all in dazzling costumes which in some way underscore it. The school’s samba enreda, or especially composed samba song, which accompanies the spectacle (and to which performers and audience alike dance and sing along) also re-states the theme. So does the choreography. Some themes are simple,others are deep and meaningful, others are local, others, again, are universal and some are simply ingenious.
The Carnaval competition is tough and every minute detail of the performance counts -. theme, floats, costumes, choreography, music, animation, spontaneity, crowd engagement and last but not least timing. Every school must complete the procession through the Sambadrome in no less than 65 and in no more than 80 minutes.
Carnival is not for the faint-hearted. Beginning at 9pm when the first fireworks light the sky and the first notes of the samba hit the air and ending at 6am when the last officials samba through the g-string framed buttock-shaped exit arches of the Sambadrome, it’s an all-nighter on full alert – with eyes, ears, voice, hips and feet engaged at all times.
All over Rio the beach crowds are building. Posto 9, the lifeguard’s tower that marks the Gay Kingdom of Ipanema, is lost in a forest of rainbow flags. Even at our own quiet, Barra Beach, the tent cafes have mushroomed into a mall. Every morning trucks from distant favelas spill forth black and white Carnaval clones, gangs of kids with bleached hair and ebony skins. They run all day, around ever-increasing circles of umbrellas, ferrying caipirinha to colonies of bikinis and speedos. The beach becomes a bustling market place; bikini boutiques set up under makeshift pareu shelters, chair to chair salesmen pedal sunglasses, sunscreen, kites, colouring books. Samba bands thread their way through avenues of deck chairs. I make beach friends with my next towel neighbour, Camilla, just inches away.
But two sunny afternoons later, the distant sound of drums scatters the entire beach company. Camilla and I part in the melee. We never meet again, because like real beach friends we haven’t swapped numbers.
Up on the promenade, the Banda da Barra has begun . Like its 17th century Portuguese colonial ancestor the cordoe, the bloco is a street parade with music, costumes and wags tossing water about. There are at least 400 bloco in Rio. Many are huge, spectacular and famous. Their domains are the streets of Rio Centro and the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema.
The Banda da Barra, however, is a modest, neighbourhood affair. A couple of trucks carry local dignitaries, singers and beauty queens. Families of cartoon characters and lads in drag, bikinis and speedos, pareus and towels, bare-chested, bare-footed boys, prams, wheelchairs, scooters and bikes, beach merchants, beer merchants with supermarket trolleys and can collectors all follow the bateria (band). We fall in behind. The Preifetura (council) tanker sprays us with water as we shuffle along. The samba is infectious. First our feet are smitten. Our hips go next. Soon we’re possessed.
Blocos form within the Banda da Barra. (Banda, blocos, bonda they’re all the same thing – street festivals!) The Bloco da Bundao (Bloco of the bum) sets up headquarters in the kiosk just over the road. We samba nights away there to a band with an ever-changing line up of neighbourhood grandmas and grand-dads, mums and dads and kids, in the Bloco uniform, a red and yellow t shirt with a bunda logo.
In September 2005, when Rio’s twelve Special Samba Schools moved into Cidade do Samba, the spectacular new complex of workshops down in the Gamboa dockland district, it was the realization of a long-held dream. It was also a further affirmation of the place of the Samba as the country’s national dance and of Carnaval as Rio’s premier event. It was one more step in Rio’s, if not Brazil’s, historical journey.
The Sambadromo, which opened in 1984, had given the Samba and Carnaval its own special stage. But for over half a century, the Samba Schools had dreamed of a dedicated site where they could put together the fantastical floats and costumes which embody the themes of their spectacular parades.
Until mid last century, a single float, decorated in a local yard, led each school’s parade. But as the floats multiplied in numbers and developed into complex stage sets, more space was needed. Makeshift community workshops were set up in barracoes or sheds. In time these too proved inadequate and inconvenient. A large central space was needed. In the 1970s the Mayor turned over the half-ruined Sao Cristovao Pavilion to the Samba Schools but fire broke out in the ramshackle building and in the 80s the workshops moved again, to the abandoned warehouses near the Docklands. They were closer to the Sambadrome, but as Carnaval grew into a giant extravaganza worthy of the new venue, the dockland workshops became more inadequate.
Finally, in 1999, the Mayor, Cesar Maia, agreed to build Cidade do Samba or Samba City, a complex of permanent Carnaval workshops on the disused rail yards near the docks in the Gamboa District. It was a significant site. Gamboa lies at the centre of the famed “cradle of Samba” between Santo Cristo and Saude, where in the 18th century, the slave markets flourished, where the first Sambas were danced to the beat of African drums, where they evolved and blossomed into the great Brazilian boogie of today and where some of Carnaval’s greatest stars and sambistas made their homes.
Work began on Cidade do Samba in August 2003. Designed by architects Joao Uchoa and Victor Vandelay, it is modeled on the old Gamboa warehouses which surround it. It is built around a central plaza and consists of 14 workshops providing all the technical and technological support needed to realize the Carnaval parade – 12 metre high ground floor float assembly areas, top floor costume, millinery and props workshops, sculpture and modeling studios, along with bathrooms, kitchens, canteens and offices.
Samba City’s 19000 square metre complex welcomes thousands of visitors each year. Not only can they tour the workshops and see the Carnaval floats and costumes in progress but they can also see snippets of parades past and future, in Samba City’s shows and exhibitions. There are Snack Bars and restrooms. Boutiques sell Carnaval paraphernalia and souvenirs.
True to the spirit which gave birth to the Samba Schools and which governs them still, a large section of Samba City houses a sports complex, with facilities for underprivileged communities.
The Sambadromo, the home of Carnaval, is a one-off among world stages, a uniquely Rio answer to a peculiarly Rio question – how to create a fitting venue to contain and channel the huge extravaganza, which, by the 1980s, had grown too unwieldy and unruly for the streets?
The final solution was sketched in 1984, by Oscar Niemeyer, the godfather of modern Brazilian architecture, on a paper napkin, in a bar. It was completed just 120 days later.
Named the Sambadromo for the Samba, the official dance of Carnaval, it is also located, fittingly, in the birthplace of the samba, in the heartland of the favelas, or shanty towns.
The architecture of the Sambadromo also gives a nod to the dance; two giant arches represent the g-string framed buttocks of the sambista, the gorgeous, dancing goddess of Carnaval. And thank goodness for this bold flourish. Otherwise the Sambadromo is a great, grey, terraced, concrete canyon wrapped around a 590 metre long, 13 metre wide procession route.
This is definitely a building that needs a crowd. Empty, it’s quite forbidding. Packed to capacity, with a 70, 000 strong crowd flying the colours of their Samba School, a procession of 3000 brilliantly costumed performers and the unforgettable sound of the batteria or the drums, it’s amazing!
In the last weeks of the countdown to Carnaval, there’s music everywhere. Bands invade the streets with old samba classics, songs that go back to the legendary Tia Ciata’s secret samba parties in little Africa 100 years ago, songs like Caninha’s Gripe Espanhola, (Spanish Flu) and songs like Moreira da Silva’s E Batucada, which won the first official Carnaval music contest in 1933.
Every year since that first Carnaval, thousands of hopefuls have thrown their musical and lyrical genius at the feet of the Samba School committees. If their opus is picked up as a Samba Enreda, or theme song, for Carnaval, all of Rio will dance to its beat. If not, there’s next year.
We meet Junior, a veteran of five competitions. Until he finally nails it, he enjoys performing his samba for the big names of his school. He enjoys seeing his friends and family catch the tune and the words then struggle to shake them off.
Samba music is highly contagious. When the Samba Enredas hit the airwaves, our brains become racetracks where random lines do endless laps.
Born in the 1920s in the favelas or shantytowns, the Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro were not, as their names suggest, teaching institutions. The name came about because, in the early days, the sambistas (samba dancers) used to practise in the grounds of a Teachers College. Right from the beginning, they have been essentially Carnaval parade teams. As they grew, strong, loyal communities developed around them and the Quattro or school’s headquarters became the heart of the favela.
Because of the Samba Schools, Community spirit and pride blossomed. The samba was a part of that pride. Indeed it was part of the history of most favelas and part of the journey of most of their people. Their slave ancestors brought it from Africa in the 7th century and took it to the cane fields of North Western Brazil. Refugees from the depression in Bahia brought it back to Rio Centro in the late 1800s. They danced it in secret, at illegal Condomble religious ceremonies in the quarter that soon became “Little Africa” and is now “the cradle of samba”. In the 1900s their children and grandchildren gave it to Carnaval. Since then it has been the dance that has given Carnaval its rhythm and its life.
Now, Rio’s Samba Schools reach beyond the favelas. They are an essential part of its life and culture. Fundraising dances at the Quattro draw supporters from all over the city. The schools colours are worn with equal pride in chic suburbs and in shantytowns.
At present there are 70 Samba Schools. They compete in 6 leagues; On the first rung of the leagues ladder, is Group E and on the fifth is Group A, otherwise known as the Access Group. Lastly, at top, in League 6 are the Special Schools.
LIESA or the Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba Do Rio de Janeiro, formed and run by the Bicchiero or animal gambling barons, takes care of the top 2 leagues. The AESCRJ or Associao das Escolas de Samba do Cidade de Rio de Janeiro looks after the rest. It’s a long climb up through the leagues. Places are fiercely won and defended. Stories of bribery, corruption and stand-over tactics attend each rise and fall.
By mid January, the streets are coloured with Samba School t shirts. While the Access and the As to Es re-work hand-me-down costumes and recycled floats in back-street sheds, the Special Schools add their final touches in the Cidade do Samba or the City of Samba. This state of the art complex of studios, workshops and showrooms opened in 2005 down near the docks in Gamboa on the site of the old slave markets, at the heart of the “cradle of Samba”. It’s an education and entertainment centre, a place where the Carnavalescos’ (Carnaval Directors) great visions are translated into incredible parades. Now the Special Samba Schools are masters of this universe and the samba is King.
The Cidade do samba is open to visitors, so I wander down to take a look. Perhaps it will help me to make an allegiance. Soon I’m wandering through a magical landscape of mythical creatures, towering floats topped with mountains and castles, confections of glitter and feathers and colours of every shade and nuance. By the time I leave, I’m a dedicated follower of Manguera, Rio’s most popular school, from the “cradle of Samba”, founded in 1928, colours pink and green, certain of its place in the Special Schools’ parade on one of Carnaval’s biggest nights, with the possibility even of a win and with great, eminently singable Samba Enreda, or official Carnaval samba song.