Brazil Carnival Guide
The Brazilian Carnival (Portuguese: Carnaval) is an annual celebration in Brazil held 40 days before Easter and marking the start of Lent. During Lent, Roman Catholics, which constitute the majority in Brazil, are to abstain from bodily pleasures.
Brazilian Carnival as a whole exhibits some differences with its counterparts in Europe and other parts of the world, and within Brazil, it has distinct regional manifestations.
Rio de Janeiro – Rio Carnival
The Brazilian citizens used to riot the Carnival until it was accepted by the government as an expression of culture. The modern Brazilian Carnival finds its roots in Rio de Janeiro in the 1830s when the city’s bourgeoisie imported the practice of holding balls and masquerade parties from Paris. It originally mimicked the European form of the festival, over time acquiring elements derived from African and Amerindian cultures.
In the late 19th century, the cordões (“laces” in Portuguese) were introduced in Rio de Janeiro. These were groups of people who would parade through the streets playing music and dancing. Today they are known as blocos (blocks), consisting of a group of people who dress in costumes according to certain themes or to celebrate the Carnival in specific ways. Blocos are generally associated with particular neighborhoods or suburbs and include both a percussion or music group and an entourage of revelers.
During the Carnival, a fat man is elected to represent the role of Rei Momo, the “king” of Carnival.
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is known worldwide for the elaborate parades staged by the city’s major samba schools in the Sambadrome and is one of the world’s major tourist attractions.
Samba schools are very large, well-financed organizations that labor year-round in preparation for Carnival. Parading in the Sambadrome runs over four entire nights and is part of an official competition, divided into seven divisions, in which a single samba school will be declared that year’s winner. Blocos deriving from the samba schools also hold street parties in their respective suburbs, through which they parade along with their followers.
There are several major differences between Carnival in the state of Bahia in Brazil’s Northeast Region and Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The musical styles are different at each carnival; in Bahia there are many rhythms, including samba, samba-reggae, axé, etc, while in Rio there is the multitude of samba styles: the “samba-enredo”, the “samba de bloco”, the “samba de embalo”, the “funk-samba”, as well as the famous “marchinhas” played by the “bandas” in the streets.
In the 1880s, the black population commemorated the days of Carnival in its own way, highly marked by Yoruba characteristics, dancing in the streets playing instruments. This form was thought of as “primitive” by the upper-class white elite, and the groups were banned from participating in the official Bahia Carnival, dominated by the local conservative elite. The groups defied the ban and continued to do their dances.
By the 1970s, four main types of carnival groups developed in Bahia: Afoxês, Trios Elétricos, “Indian” groups, and Blocos Afros. Afoxês use the rhythms of the African inspired religion, Candomblé. They also worship the gods of Candomblé, called orixás. An Electric Trio is characterized by a truck equipped with giant speakers and a platform where musicians play songs of local genres such as axé. People follow trucks singing and dancing. The “Indian” groups were inspired by Western movies from the United States. The groups dress up as native Americans and take on native American names. Blocos Afros, or Afro groups, were influenced by the Black Pride Movement in the United States, independence movements in Africa, and reggae music that denounced racism and oppression. The groups inspired a renewed pride in African heritage.
The state of Pernambuco, another Northeast Region state, has a unique Carnival in its capital of Recife, as well as in other cities like Olinda. Frevo, a type of music from Pernambuco, is especially popular.
Unlike the Carnivals in Salvador or Rio, Pernambuco’s festivities do not include competitions between parade groups. Big groups in magnificent parades dance side by side with improvised others. “Troças” and “maracatus”, mostly of African influence, begin one week before Carnival and end on the Sunday after Carnival up until Ash Wednesday. There are well-known groups with funny names such as: “Tell me you love me, damn it”, “The Midnight Man” (with a famous giant dancing doll that leads the group), “Crazy Lover”, “Olinda’s Underpants” and “The Door.”
Carnival in Salvador
Carnival is Salvador’s biggest party of the year. Over a million and a half people (locals and tourists) join in to celebrate. In contrast to Rio’s more spectator-oriented celebration, in Salvador, the accent is on participation. There are no samba schools with outlandish costumes and big floats — in fact, there is hardly any samba at all. The beat of choice is axé or Afro axé, the unique Bahian rhythm that combines African percussion with Caribbean reggae and Brazilian energy. The action is out on the streets with the blocos.
In Rio, blocos are a group of locals who gather up a few instruments for an impromptu parade. In Salvador, blocos started out years ago as flatbed trucks with bands and sound systems, leading people on an extended dance through the streets. The concept’s still the same, but as the number of participants has grown, Salvador blocos have evolved into more highly organized affairs. All now follow set routes. Many have corporate sponsorship. Some even belong to production companies. Your dancing-through-the-streets-of-Salvador experience now comes with a better sound system, security guards, and a support vehicle with washrooms and first-aid attendants. Unavoidably, it also now comes with a price tag.
The revelers that follow a bloco must buy a T-shirt (abadá) to identify themselves. In return, they get to sing and dance behind the music truck in a large cordoned-off area, staffed by security guards who keep troublemakers out. Following the revelers is the support car with a first-aid attendant, bar, and bathrooms (to which only abadá wearers have access). If you follow the entire route you can expect to be on your feet for at least 6 hours. Most blocos parade 3 days in a row and your abadá gives you the right to come all 3 days if you’ve got the stamina. It is also possible to purchase an abadá; for just 1 day.
Carnaval officially begins at 8 p.m. on the Thursday evening before Ash Wednesday, when the mayor of Salvador hands the keys of the city over to King Momo, who will rule for the next 5 days.