Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Carnaval 2007 (I): Rio de Janeiro

My recent absence from Alterdestiny can be solely blamed on one event: Carnaval (I assure you, Matt, I haven’t resigned in protest – welcome aboard). Since last Friday afternoon, everything has been shut down over this event (which is more unreal than I ever imagined). In response to one of the biggest (if not the biggest) holidays in Brazil, I did what any non-native does: I left Rio (more on that in a later post). However, you can’t escape the happenings in Rio during Carnaval, even if you leave the city.

For those unfamiliar, Carnival here in Rio usually lasts two nights (Sunday and Monday). From about 9 PM until about 7 AM the following day, numerous samba schools parade through the Sambódromo (the lenghthy parade-ground for Carnaval). These schools have a major theme (for example, the Madureira’s floats and presentation revolved around the Portuguese language), several floats (5-10), dozens of alas (there is no English equivalent – it’s basically differently-themed and –dressed groups from the same samba school), and a song written for their school that they sing. Each school gets 90 minutes to parade, and is judged on items such as entrance, costumes, floats, harmony (in the theme and in the parade), and timing (going over 90 minutes leads to loss of points). Additionally, like futebol here, there are three “categories,” and the two best from Categories II and III move up to I and II, respectively, while the lowest two from Categories I and II fall to II and III, respectively.

This year, Beija-Flor (a samba school from Nilópolis, a city just outside of Rio de Janeiro proper) won. What I saw of their parade on TV (the event is nationally broadcast) was something else. However, in an interesting side-note Beija-Flor is particularly fascinating in that it never was a major contender in Category I until the mid-1970s, right in the heart of the most repressive phase of Brazil’s dictatorship. In this time, while many of the oldest samba schools (such as Portela, Mangueira, and Vila Isabel) were writing song that subtly criticized the dictatorship, Beija-Flor was gaining fame (and victories) with songs that celebrated the dictatorship with lines such as “Commerce and industry/strengthen our capital/which in the economic sector/has projected itself into the global economy” and “O Mobral [the housing organization in Brazil], its role/for so many Brazilians/it opened doors to attaining an education” (it’s far more poetic in Portuguese, I assure you). While such pro-dictatorship rhetoric has disappeared, it is interesting to note the songs upon which some of Beija-Flor’s previous victories have been based (though it must be stressed that the song iis most definitely but a small part of the total presentation at Carnaval).

For the next few months, the samba schools will lay low, trying to decide themes, floats, special guests (both actors/actresses and singers) who they will want to participate in their school, songs, etc. One can safely say, though, that other schools are already hoping to displace Beija-Flor next year.

(The material on Beija-Flor’s lyrics during the dictatorship come from Luiz Edmundo Tgavares and Adriano de Freixo’s article “O Samba em tempos de ditadura: as transformações no universo das grandes escolas do Rio de Janeiro nas décadas de 1960 e 1970” [“Samba in times of Dictatorship: Transformations in the Univers of the Great Schools of Rio de Janeiro in the 1960s and 1970s”], in A Ditadura em Debate: Estado e Sociedade nos anos do autoritarismo [The Dictatorship in Debate: State and Society during the years of authoritarianism], edited by Adriano de Freixo and Oswald Munteal Filho.)