Last year I moved to Brazil right after the Carnaval season, and all my foreigner friends said to me, “Are you crazy? You missed out on the biggest party in Brazil for the year!”
I wasn’t worried; I knew I was going to be here for a while, and I wanted to get to know Brazil before experiencing Carnaval. I wanted to understand, and I wanted to know some Brazilian music so I could participate more fully.
But some would be surprised to know that actually many cultures celebrate some kind of Carnaval, so what exactly is it being celebrated over the 4-day period? It is actually an event that started in Greece and morphed into a Christian holiday in which the people say, “Adeus á carne,” or “goodbye to meat” for the period of Lent.
However, I am not so sure the Church had in mind what it has become today—a large party indulging in dance, costumes, music, food and drinks.
Rio de Janeiro is famous for having the most traditional Carnaval and is basically the capital of it, with around 2 million people per day taking part. Sure, there are other places in Brazil where the Carnaval culture is very strong, such as Salvador, but Rio is what the rest of the world truly pictures.
The origins of this festival date back to when the Portuguese arrived and introduced street parties and parades. This, mixed with the rhythmic music brought over to Brazil by African slaves formed what many Brazilians refer to as the “Greatest Show on Earth” today.
Since the early twentieth century, one of the main features of the Brazilian Carnaval is the “escola de samba,” otherwise known as the “samba school.”
Do people go to school all year long to practice samba? The answer is — not exactly. Samba schools aren’t literally schools but rather social groups or members of the same community or neighborhood, sometimes with thousands of people involved. Actually, anyone can join and pay for a costume to participate in the Carnival parade, and every year they have a theme and music that they parade through the Sambadrome, which is broadcast on TV for the whole nation. Judges are also on hand to evaluate the costumes, music, dance, coordination, even crowd interest, and results of the winning samba school in this championship are announced on Ash Wednesday.
And believe me, it is a big deal to win the samba school championship! These samba schools are a very important part of the everyday lives for many people. Samba presents itself as an avenue through which people can express their happiness to be alive—and often their disapproval of the government or other events.
This year, I decided to spend my first Carnaval in the heart of it all, Rio! I was told that the best way to enjoy it is with a group of people, so seven of us rented an apartment in Copacabana and went all in. I had zero expectations, but during these four days, I had several realizations.
1 – Carnaval in Rio happens during the day!
We arrived at 10 a.m. on the first Saturday of Carnaval, and the parties were already in full force. We decided to check out the “blocos,” or street parties, and while samba is the most traditional type of music to be heard during Carnaval, I was surprised to find that the first bloco we went to had Brazilian funk music, which is similar to American rap in a sense. The performer was MC Biel.
It was so hot. And there were so many people.
To be honest, I almost fainted in the heat and had to sit down. I had planned my costume (an Irish leprechaun) on the basis that I could wear a hat, etc., and be fine with the weather since we would be going out at night.
Wrong. At night, most people rest and recover for the next day!
2 – The blocos are mini-parades in themselves!
I didn’t realize that although it was a street party, the whole bloco is situated around a large truck that blasts music and moves at about 1-mile per hour through the crowd. People follow it, dancing along the way. We did not follow the music, so for much of the time, we were just standing around talking to each other.
Tip: follow the music!
3 – This is like Halloween on another level!
Everyone had a costume. I saw a group of very tan Brazilian guys dressed in blond, girl wigs with shirts that said, “Gringas.” I saw Michael Scofield, the prisoner from the TV show “Prison Break.” I saw people dressed as Tinder profiles, and I saw lots and lots of groups all dressed in the same theme—cats, bunnies, what have you.
Next year I will need to get more organized, but what costumes can you wear in 100-degree heat?
4 – I thought it would be more scandalous!
I have never been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, but I have heard stories. I know about the beads and how one gets them. I thought Carnaval in Brazil would be similar, but I was wrong. It was not scandalous at all. Everyone was just enjoying themselves.
The most “scandalous” thing that happened was that groups of people would yell, “Beija! Beija!” to a girl, encouraging her to kiss the random guy next to her.
5 – Disparities are evident in the blocos
Perhaps what shocked me the most was the fact that 7- or 8-year old kids were selling beer and alcohol on the streets, and they were also going through the trash collecting empty beer cans. This was a huge contrast with the people partying around me in the blocos (seemingly rich adolescents). In fact, the song I heard most was “Baile de Favela,” a song about a party in a favela. Everyone went crazy when this came on, and I couldn’t help but think that it was strange to see a bunch of Zona Sul rich people singing about having a party in a poor community.
So, Carnaval 2016 is in the books, and I can say that my understanding of this country and its people has grown immensely. It is quite a sight for anyone to see, and I highly recommend it. Just don’t forget to follow the music.