Carnaval’s Segundo

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.

The whirling Bahianas
The whirling Bahianas

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.