Carnaval in the streets of Rio

This Carnaval weekend in Rio de Janeiro, Momo rules and mockery and irreverence are the law.  In the big bloco, or street parades, everything is parodied and pilloried; celebrities and dignitaries, religion, Carnaval stars and Carnaval costumes, Carnaval itself.

Bloco at Barra Beach
Bloco at Barra Beach

On Carnaval Saturday the Cordao Bola Preta (the Polka Dot Bloco) takes Avenida Rio Branco by storm with thousands of caricatures of Rio entities all flaunting their uniform black and white underwear. Later, up in the hills of Santa Teresa, thousands of habits and veils in the Carmelitas Bloco play out an old Rio tale of nun who skives off from her convent for the three days of Carnaval. The next day, at the banda de Ipanema “stars”, “sambistas” “queens of the drummers” drag queens and speedos in masks follow a make-believe vanguard commission of chaps in white top hats and tails.

In contrast, in the Condomble religious parades, reverence and appeasement reign . Late on Saturday afternoon, the followers of Yemanja, goddess of the sea and one of the seven orixhas of Condomble, make their way along the promenade at Copacabana. On the beach a small flotilla of fishing boats, yachts and pleasure craft waits to take them out to sea. Navy ships watch off shore. Out on the ocean the faithful throw their offerings to Yemanja. Those she accepts disappear into the deep, the rejects are tossed on the sands by the incoming tide. On empty, early Sunday morning Barra Beach we skirt around a small sodden bouquet. Further on, a blurred card washes lazily in the shallows.

Yet, for all the colour, life and traditions of the streets,  the iconic Sambadromo is Carnaval’s centre stage, the Samba Schools’ parades are Carnaval’s finest expression and the Special Samba Schools’ parades are Carnaval’s star turn.

But the sambadromo, that’s quite another country. The Special Samba Schools’ Parades, that’s quite another story.


Rio’s Carnaval has begun

In Rio, Carnaval has begun. The Mayor has handed the keys of the city to Momo, and crowned him King of Carnaval.

Batteria of the Banda da Barra
Batteria of the Banda da Barra

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.