Jan Fairley, a journalist specialising in Latin American music, is a slave to the rhythms of Rio when she joins one of the famous Carnival parades.
Sitting in A Garota de Ipanema, the bar where that famous bossa nova song, The Girl from Ipanema, was composed one afternoon in 1962, one becomes aware how so many parts of the city are not only mapped by but saturated in music.
Traditional street processions, featuring the blocos carnavalescos (or Carnival groups), commence in the early evenings between the Thursday and Tuesday of Carnival week. With names like Suvaco de Cristo (Christ’s Armpit) and Simpatia é quase amor (Sympathy is Almost Love), the blocos are made up of a band accompanied by a massive sound system (mounted on a very slow moving truck), surrounded by thousands of people mostly wearing T-shirts and shorts. Following a slow path through the streets, they move fluidly to the sambas. Drinking beer on the hoof, feeling the heat of the night, the heat of their bodies and of those in front and behind, they dance on and on for up to five hours until the music finally stops.
Many blocos still betray their colonial roots, with a ceremonial flag bearing a couple, usually attired in ancienne European ball dress, aping high class colonists going to a masked ball. And as the oldest form of street celebration, parts of the bloco have been absorbed and transformed to make up part of the grander, staged event itself. Rio’s samba school association has a top league of fourteen schools, each with their own long histories rooted in one of the city’s local communities. In 1998 I joined Mangueira, one of the oldest, most traditional and respected schools, celebrating the 90th birthday of one of its founders, samba composer Cartola. Its chosen 1998 Carnival subject honoured a son of the city, Brazilian singer-songwriter Chico Buarque, renowned for his beautiful sambas and sensitive songs which challenged oppression and censorship during the military dictatorships of the 60s and 70s.
The area of Mangueira is a few miles from the city’s famous beach districts, quite close to the Maracanã football stadium. Despite the reputation of Rio as a dangerous city I had no problem getting to the samba school’s cuadra, their concrete built centre, to attend the final rehearsals. Wearing Mangueira’s distinctive colours of pink and green, I spent three hours learning to sing the new samba de enredo (samba theme song), and discovering the subtleties of shoulder, hip and foot movement that constitute a samba.
With three to five thousand people in each samba school, and each school working with a gross budget well into the millions of dollars, all efforts are concentrated on attaining perfection for the carefully timed 80-minute procession. The schools are divided into alas (wings) of two to three hundred people, each wearing specially designed and largely hand-made spectacular costumes. This is street opera on a grand scale with a budget Bayreuth, La Scala and the Royal Opera House would die for!
European inhibitions about not exposing the flabby, saggy bits of one’s body are not shared by Brazilians. Whatever their gender they celebrate the body, choosing their costume not so much for what it might or might not reveal but for its design and detail. With matching shoes, gloves and feathers - every piece of a costume comes under scrutiny.
Carnival has a highly complex voting system involving a professional group of invited jurists marking every aspect imaginable. Everyone is kept on tenterhooks for three days until the results are broadcast on TV, point by point, taking more than one nail-biting hour, and putting the Eurovision Song Contest to shame.
As we followed our car, one of Mangueira’s eight, giant, allegoric floats, I had one of the most exhilarating moments of my life: we turned the corner in to the main street of the sambódromo, singing Mangueira’s song while samba-ing, and were confronted by 90,000 people smiling down from the terraces singing, smiling and samba-ing too. I was part of the sheer joy of the moment and it felt very special.
All too soon it’s over and you’re at the finish, ironically called the apotheosis by the sambadrome’s great architect Oscar Niemayer. Mangueira stewards encourage the last dancers through as the gate is closed, ensuring no penalty points are incurred for exceeding the school’s 80 allotted minutes.
Now, on reflection, it feels like I was part of a magic dream. And yes, for the first time in eleven years, Mangueira won!