The Story of Carnaval

February is carnival month in Rio de Janeiro - the capital of Carnaval, colour and crazy costumes! Brazil Handbook author Alex Robinson takes a look at the history of what is arguably the biggest festival in the world.


Rio’s story, and that of the world’s most famous carnival is a tale of two cities: the European and the African. In the early 20th century the city was a prudish place, dominated by a stuffy elite, who enclosed themselves in mock-French palaces and mansions around the city’s beautiful coves. The other Brazil was (and remains), poor and marginalized and clinging to the hills. Its people visited European Rio only to work at the quays where their African forefathers had been unloaded in crates a generation before.

The Mardi Gras carnival was a European affair. In homage to European balls, the Portuguese and their ancestors danced behind closed doors and masks to the fashionable rhythm of the time, polka. But black Brazil would not be excluded. Its people took the Portuguese instruments and polka dance steps out of Rio’s ballrooms and into their favela shanty towns. Here they were fused with the West African rhythm of maracatú, frenetic with percussive hand-held timpani and resonating to the deep visceral throb of the zabumba drum. Over the top the Africans sung laments to their poverty and celebrations of the essential joys of life. These were echoed by a sung chorus. As the celebrations developed, the revellers began to dress in ever more elaborate costumes and dance and march in discrete blocos or individual parades. These were often themed according to the African tribal group from which the celebrants came and were led by a king and queen. In Pernambuco, whose carnival is the most traditional of all in Brazil, the blocos are still referred to as nations.

In the 20th century the celebrations had evolved into a fully-blown carnival which soon eclipsed the masked balls of the elite. And the Carnaval music became a particular style all its own – samba. By the end of the Second World War the favela carnivals had expanded into the streets of the city itself to become Rio’s Carnaval. The blocos became samba schools, who spent an entire year preparing the carnival performance and making floats and costumes. Later even the middle and upper classes of Rio became involved and came to identify themselves with the African-Brazilian culture their ancestors had so despised.

Carnaval today is a multi-million dollar enterprise, sponsored by the gaming industry and featuring the stars of Brazil’s equivalent of Bollywood – TV Globo. The top samba schools compete in front of crowds of hundreds of thousands and a board of judges, who mark them with Olympic precision according to a series of distinct categories.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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