Brazilian Carnival: Bringing the Giant (Back) to Life

Some say the year only really begins in Brazil after Carnival, and I dare say that they are right. Imagine a patient whose heart suddenly stopped beating out of exhaustion. That’s Brazil right after the insane New Year’s parties. Doctors rush into the room and the anticipation builds itself while the defibrillator is deployed. That’s January, the month of inaction and lots of anticipation. Tension is building up in the patient’s room. Suddenly the defibrillator is ready and the doctor shouts: “Clear!” And that’s when magic happens and the heart is immediately beating again. That’s Carnival...electrifying the tropical giant’s heart and setting the rhythm for the New Year to come. 

 A young Ana (middle) with her brother and sister preparing for Carnival.

A young Ana (middle) with her brother and sister preparing for Carnival.

In case you missed my previous post I wrote about the country, Brazil is huge and its five different regions each with their own traditions. As a result, there are different interpretations on how to celebrate Carnival, or in Portuguese, Carnaval. I will focus here on the Carnival from Rio de Janeiro, the ‘Cidade Maravilhosa’, because that’s where I celebrated it all my life and also because it is the most commonly known Carnival celebration around the world. 

The word Carnival comes from the Italian word ‘carnelevare’ which means literally “to remove meat”. The word gave name to the celebration because Carnival usually happens between Friday afternoon (51 days before Easter) and Ash Wednesday at noon, which is the first day of Lent, a period when Christians abstain themselves from eating meat.

 Carnival Rio 1932. Photo courtesy of Image and Sound Museum.

Carnival Rio 1932. Photo courtesy of Image and Sound Museum.

Needless to say that it is only natural that a country that is a former European colony and has the largest Catholic population in the world would inherit such tradition. But Brazilian Carnival also has a huge African influence due to the country’s history of slavery an immigration. As a result, the traditional Italian Carnival with music and simple costumes became intertwined with tribal practices of parades and masks. With time, samba became the anthem of Carnival and its growing popularity gave birth to samba associations, known today as “Samba Schools.” In 1932 the very first official Samba School Parade was held in Rio de Janeiro. 

 Massive 2015 Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro

Massive 2015 Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro

Today, famous images from the Rio Carnival are taken of the ‘Sambódromo’, the “samba runway”. Every year the top 12 Samba Schools fight for the Carnival championship. The top six schools get to parade for a second time on the weekend after Ash Wednesday in celebration of their success. The Samba Schools are evaluated though many different criteria including lyrics, costumes, and rhythm. Every year each school chooses a theme that will be the base for their story. Following that theme they compose the samba anthem from scratch, then strategize on how to tell that story in the parade through the allegories, costumes and floats. Everything has a proper order and all school members must be in sync with both movement and voice the samba. These are only some aspects that make Carnival something beautiful and unique.

 Ana and her step dad with a Michael Jackson impersonator at Rio's 2010 Sambrodomo.

Ana and her step dad with a Michael Jackson impersonator at Rio's 2010 Sambrodomo.

With a higher influx of technology over the years, creativity in Samba Schools seems to have no boundaries. In 2010 I was in the ‘Sambódromo’ sharing all that happiness and energy. That year, one of the schools crafted their performance to the theme of “secrets.”  A Michael Jackson impersonator performed the star’s signature moonwalk dance move on top of an Area 51-themed float as magicians wowed the crowd. The school nailed it, pushing the boundaries of their performance beyond merely showcasing brilliantly-made costumes. 

But the three nights of the Sambódromo are definitely not the only thing that Carnival in Rio de Janeiro has to offer. Just outside its walls lies the part of Carnival that ‘cariocas’ (people from Rio) truly love: the Street Carnival. The Street Carnival is what really brings the city to life, and usually begins on “pre-Carnival”, the weekend before the official five days of festivities. So what happens then? It is quite simple: the party takes over streets all over the city. 

 A very crowded Rio Carnival. Photo courtesy of A Cara do Rio.

A very crowded Rio Carnival. Photo courtesy of A Cara do Rio.

Organized in ‘Blocos de Rua’ (street blocks), samba associations gather to parade in small groups throughout the city. Here the magic lies not on as much on the exacting choreography of the samba school, but on the people, the ‘foliões’, that actually go out to celebrate Carnival. In 2016, 505 'Blocos de Rua' will take over the streets of Rio. One can choose from traditional samba blocos or those with fun themes, like the Sargeant Pepper’s bloco which performs Beatles songs in samba style. 

In the street Carnival there is space for everything and everybody. If you have the energy you can leave the house at 6 a.m. and come back late at night. There is much creativity in every costume and I love seeing what people come up with. However, you won’t enjoy the festivities if you dislike crowds. Street Carnival means summer, sweat, beer, music, crowds, fun, creativity, and energy. And I mean a lot of energy, because without it you won’t be able to survive it all.

To conclude, here is a short guide on how to make the most out of Street Carnival in Rio:

Choose a costume that is comfortable and light, as you won’t want to be in a suit under the sun at noon in the middle of the Brazilian summer. Also, you will want to have really comfortable shoes on. Trust me.  At the end of the day, no matter what, your feet will be killing you. 

 And (left) and her friends keeping cool and staying hydrated at Rio's Street Carnival.

And (left) and her friends keeping cool and staying hydrated at Rio's Street Carnival.

Hydrate! Of course alcohol is often part of the fun, but in order to endure so many days of partying you will want to stay hydrated. 

Don’t carry a bag to the crowds (I always use a money pouch). 

Always go to the toilet if you have the opportunity to use one. This tip is very important. You don’t want to find yourself half drunk in the middle of a crowded avenue and suddenly have to find a bathroom. 

Finally, plan ahead. Cariocas always have a schedule ahead of time. Study the routes and the blocos to know where you are going and when. Getting around town during the festivities can be really tricky. 

There is a reason why the Brazilian Carnival is known all over the world and I hope this gave you a bit of insight on why. I guess by now you should also know why the year can only start after such a wonderful celebration. Viva o Carnaval!

By Ana Roselli.

Cover photo: scene at a recent Street Carnival, Rio. Photo courtesy of Gazette.


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