RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil’s carnival, considered by many as the greatest outdoor show on Earth, could also be described as the country’s top extravaganza with its millions of participants, one of its main cultural exponents and even a major economic powerhouse which last year gathered Brazil more than $1.06 billion in revenue.
The South American country’s carnival is undoubtedly one of the World’s best known festive events whose religious Western Christian roots, Afro-Brazilian legacy and never stopping, contagious, samba rhythm have firmly established Brazil as the ultimate tropical party nation.
The word Carnaval is derived from the Latin “carne vale” meaning “flesh farewell,” originally a medieval food festival where Catholic and Orthodox Christians feasted prior to the 40 days of Lent penance and fasting, starting on Ash Wednesday.
When the Portuguese colonized Brazil in the early 1600s they brought their customs with them.
Carnival back then meant formal, grandiose balls held at the residences of the Portuguese ruling class.
However, their Afro-Brazilian slave workers soon decided to organize their own carnivals with a large dose of African-inspired tradition, dances, rhythms and over-the-top fancy dresses, a way of quietly mocking the white Brazilian elites.
An old Brazilian saying states: “the year doesn’t start in Brazil until after Carnival,” which gives an idea of the importance this annual, week-long frenetic explosion of music, dance, costumes, massive floats, drum and brass orchestras and organized mayhem has on Brazil’s collective consciousness.
The result is the Rio, Sao Paulo, Salvador, Bahia or Recife carnivals, each in their own style, becoming an irresistible, excessive, raucous and, sometimes, dangerous event.
In particular, the Rio de Janeiro carnival has been aptly described by the Guinness World Records as “the largest carnival in the world,” as some six million partygoers, only in Rio, assemble each carnival day to watch and be watched, enjoy and be enjoyed as they party on for a week.
As in most Brazilian cities, the main powerhouses of Rio’s Carnival are its Samba schools: large, social entities with thousands of members who spend the year devising their next carnival theme, song and parade which Rio’s top 13 samba schools, 3,000-strong each, will later battle out against rival samba schools at Rio’s official Sambadrome seeking its coveted annual Championship award.
Brazil’s carnival this year begins March 1 and continues until March 6 at noon (Ash Wednesday).
This secular festivity takes place 40 days before Lent, the Christian season of prayer and fasting prior to Easter.
The Brazilian carnival, however, is not without its regional or local differences, nor is Brazil’s national music the “Samba” its exclusive, predominant rhythm.
In the case of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, it symbolizes the revival of the “Yoruba” culture, an ethnolinguistic group hailing from Western Africa which arrived in Brazil on board the slave-ships of imperial times.
Their culture’s mysticism and tradition are nowadays embodied in Bahia’s street parades, locally known as “blocos,” neighborhood parade groups that march behind carnival orchestras on board massive light and sound parade floats known as “trios electricos.”
Bahian rhythms are varied, but “Axe” must be singled out as it blends African harmonies with North Western Brazilian and Caribbean melodies with a touch of pop-rock.
Bahia’s carnival, unlike Rio or Sao Paulo who have their own Sambodromo, takes place on its streets.
In the capital of Pernambuco state (Northwestern Brazil,) the Recife Carnival also highlights its traditions.
Its main event, the “Galo da Madrugada,” (Dawn’s rooster) is considered the largest neighborhood street parade in the world and is responsible for opening the carnival.
As in the case of Salvador, this carnival is also organized around its “trio electricos” large sound and light parade floats and the predominant music, in this case, is the Frevo, a rhythm inspired in the Capoeira, a Brazilian cultural expression blending martial arts, sports, popular culture, dance and music.
Only 10 kilometers away from Recife is the 16th-century town of Olinda, a UNESCO World Heritage site whose history is closely linked to the sugar-cane industry and one of Brazil’s most traditional carnivals whose trademark symbols are two-meter giant figures that every year represent top Brazilian or world-class politicians, artists and personalities.
It is led by the “Homem da Meia-Noite” (Midnight Man) massive meters-high papier-mâché parade dolls
Each year, over one million revelers dance between the giant carnival dolls along its colonial-era streets to the traditional rhythms of Frevo, Samba or Forro.
Other festivities that deserve being highlighted are the Florianopolis or Sao Paulo carnivals, which as in the case of Rio take place inside a custom-built” Sambodromo.”
Florianapolis, capital of Brazil’s southern state of Santa Catarina, is known for its beautiful beaches and for its samba parades which takes place at its “Nego Quirido” Sambadrome.
In Sao Paulo, Brazil’s most industrialized city and provincial state capital the carnival is held at the Anhembi Sambadrome.
For those who plan to experience a Brazilian carnival without having to apply for a Samba school membership can book tickets to the Rio Sambadrome through Embratur’s, Brazils tourist office, official website (www.rio-carnival.net) which caters for nearly every detail required for a once-in-a-lifetime carnival experience: from Sambadrome tickets, where an average Rio Sambadrome Grandstand ticket will cost around 260 rials ($70) along with Carnival Ball tickets, carnival costumes, either purchase or rental; hotel bookings, flights and even Sambadrome transfer arrangements from the hotel and back.
One parting thought: Although some 17,000 police will be deployed in Rio to look after the peace authorities advise participants to be vigilant and use common sense at all times.
Dress like the locals, don’t take valuables on you, watch out for pickpockets, avoid becoming impatient, and enjoy the spirit, as you will be surrounded by some six million people in full party mode.