No celebration better reveals the Brazilian love of music, dance, and revelry than its massive Carnival festivities.
Nothing else merits more preparation, more prolonged and devout attention, and a more lavish outpouring of private resources than the annual convulsion that has come to symbolize Brazil, for better or for worse. Extravagance, self-indulgence, exhibitionism, and a kind of gleeful innocence are the basic elements – qualities that color life in Brazil.
Streets normally clogged with vehicles are reclaimed by revelers on foot; macho men lasciviously parade in drag; laborers masquerade as 18th-century royalty; mothers dress up like babies; the wealthy watch the poor perform; people stay up all night and sleep all day.
Carnival arrived with the Portuguese, the end-of-winter festivities of Europe tied to Catholic tradition. The celebrations are ostensibly the last shot at merrymaking before the 40 days of Lenten fasting (the name may be a derivation of the Latin carne-levare, farewell to meat). It is celebrated in numerous, mostly Catholic, cities like New Orleans in the US or Cologne in Germany, along with Latin America. Characteristic are parades and floats, and ridiculing of authorities and upper classes, an escape valve for social frustrations for centuries.
Carnival in Brazil began as an aggressive spree of throwing water, mud, and flour at passers-by. This still characterizes Carnival in Bolivia and Argentina, but was banned in Brazil in the 19th century. But the Carnival that Brazil is renowned for did not become a tradition until the 1930s, when neighborhood groups began to compete.
Samba has become the signature music of Carnival. Today the competition between samba schools is akin to the rivalry between top sports teams. Most members come from the humblest of the Rio neighborhoods. The schools hold practice sessions for months before Carnival, which are often open to the public.
The moment of glory comes at the gates of Rio’s mammoth samba stadium, the Sambódromo, designed by Niemeyer and inaugurated in 1984. Some 88,500 spectators can be seated along this kilometer-long strip to watch the samba schools go dancing by; each has about 90 minutes to inch its way down the 700-meter/yd route. If you can’t get a ticket, you can see the schools line up outside on Avenida Presidente Vargas. Other cities have similar parade grounds, including Manaus’ Bómbodromo and the Sambódromo do Anhembi in São Paulo.
The best street dancing is in Salvador, where carousing hordes follow deafening sound systems mounted on trucks known as trios elétricos. Up to 2.7 million people throng the streets during the revelry. As is the case everywhere, it’s best to dress minimally (shorts are good) to blend into the crowds and not attract thieves. Many people prefer Carnival in the Northeast. In Recife the pre-eminent Carnival music is frevo, which ignites passions.
Less frenetic are the carnivals held in Olinda and Ouro Preto. Class lines dissolve as revelers hop down the street in camaraderie fueled by generous amounts of beer and cachaça (sugar-cane brandy). Carnival has moved off the streets and into the clubs recently, and this is where the most intense debauchery and exhibitionism goes on.
Not everyone in Brazil is wild about Carnival. Many intellectuals sneer at the kitsch, wanton drinking, and lewdness. But for outsiders, there is probably no better time to see the Brazil of everyone’s fantasies.
Read more about the cultural features of Brazil in Insight Guides: Brazil
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