My Foray into Carnival after 10 Years of Avoiding It

I don’t like parades, whether they be Fourth of July parades, Thanksgiving Day Parades, Gay Parades, Mummers Parades (aka gay parades), so it’s no surprise that Carnival was simply never a festival that was high on my priority list both while living in America nor when I came down here to Brazil.

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What’s Carnival without a 6 foot plus half-naked transvestite? What’s Brazil without them? (Eliseu Carnival 2018)

The most I have done in ten years here when Carnival does roll around is go to a gay club which had live sex on stage (yeah, one and done with that) and then watch a mini-parade a couple of times close to my neighborhood. The parade is short and there are enough things to do around the block which don’t involve starring at people walking, that I don’t mind it as much.

Oh, and I almost forgot. I did spend about 10 minutes at a block party. There were more people there than I was comfortable with. I was immediately approached by a crackhead while searching for my friend. He kept following me and I nearly cracked his head open with a beer bottle. When I found my friend I said I was feeling violent tendencies, and left. Unsurprisingly, city hall shut that area down for any further block parties.

Clearly, Carnival was not really my cup of tea.

But at the end of last year, I met someone who, as he puts it “is of Carnival”. What that essentially means is that I would have to immerse myself as much as ever for his sake. Ends up I had a lot of fun. Here are some of my adventures from Carnival 2020 – and perhaps a little guide for you if you ever want to enjoy Carnival in Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo.

Rehearsals at the Escola de Samba (Samba School)

Carnival begins at the samba school and there are a lot – big and small. Preparation for the following year’s Carnival parades (called a “desfile”) pretty much starts as soon as each school finishes the current year´s parade. They have to set the theme, the costumes, float designs, and, of course, the song they will be playing as the school makes its way down the avenue.

My friend is connected with a school on the east side of the city called Né Né da Vila Matilde. It is one of the oldest and most traditional samba schools in São Paulo. It was founded in 1949 and has won 11 trophies in the Special Groups and two in the Access Groups (the schools are divided in leagues based on their performance – Special is the top league and Access a rung below), making it the holder of the title of “The School of the Century” in 2000.

Going to an actual samba school was nervewracking at first. I know they are full of tradition and I thought I would be judged if I wore the wrong clothe or said the wrong thing – plus I do not know how to samba. But, when I got there I found it to be very family-friendly and emotional. There is nothing like hearing the sounds of loud thunderous drums from only a few feet away. It´s the same organic shock I feel when I hear a live orchestra swell – my entire body vibrates with the soundwaves.

This school (as with most) had an open and closed rehearsal. The open rehearsals were free and didn´t include everyone in the school – it was more focused on the school actually getting their sound and dances right and had a few more stops and starts. The closed rehearsal had a 10 Reais entrance fee. This was more like a close to final rehearsal, as everyone pretty much has to already be on their A-game and put on more of a show for the audience in the stands and on the floor watching. Below is a short video of the closed rehearsal I went to.

Having gone to two rehearsals it was only fitting that I go watch the samba school parade at Anhembi, São Paulo´s premiere venue for Carnival Parades. But we will get to that later, first, there is ….

The Carnival Court: Crowning the King and Queen of Carnival

I had no idea this was a thing, but on January 15th they held an event at Anhembi to crown the King and Queen of Carnival. The competition joins nine women and four men who all vie for the top prize. The women presented themselves in a swimsuit competition, a small speech, and a samba dance-off for the judges. The men had to strut around in their best elegant suit, give a small speech, and then samba like their life depended on it.

I mentioned above that I really don´t like parades, well not as much as I really don´t like pageants. I thought it was all pretty stupid to start, but once the show got warmed up, I got into it. I even decided to play along, and guess what? I picked both the male and female winners correctly. I also learned a new Portuguese phrase “Pé quente” (hot feet – which is their way of saying beginner´s luck).

My friend explained to me that once the King and Queen were chosen, along with the two princesses, the Carnival season was officially on its way. Now, their job through the season was to show up at different schools and parades and smile a lot and take pictures. Not a bad gig – and the paycheck is not too shabby either.

Technical Rehearsals at Anhembi´s Sambodromo (Sambdadrome)

So, Anhembi is a huge expo center. It holds events year-round but one of the most popular is its samba parades in the sambadrome, called “desfiles”. The schools have 65 minutes to march their way down an avenue to their school´s samba tune while people watch from the stands and cheer on their favorites. This may be the Carnival image most people abroad are familiar with coming out of Rio de Janeiro. Their parade takes place in a sambadrome on Sapucaí avenue, which is an even longer strip than the one in São Paulo.

Before the official parade, schools gather to do their final run-throughs at Anhembi. The great part is that it is free to the general public. Of course, the schools aren´t dressed in all their costumes and the floats aren´t taken out either, but it is still a pretty wild time.

The night I went there were heavy rains, which led to some historic and tragic flooding throughout the city the following days, but revelers didn´t seem to care. Né Né paraded down the avenue with people shouting and sambaing along as if it were hot steamy summer night. At the end of the avenue, the drum section gathered and folks stuck around until the last beat was struck.

Below are some videos I recorded of the wet but extremely electrifying affair.

Following the truck down the strip

The drum section was hot

And of course, the end of the parade is the best part. This is where everyone just gathers and stays as long as their legs can stand.

And below, a picture of my favorite members of the Samba School – the old Baianas. These are the older women who have been with the school since forever.

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Going to a Bloco, a street party where you follow a truck playing music

As I had mentioned, I had been to a street party, but it was not a happy affair. I guess, that impression really tainted my idea of what a bloco could be or what it really was.

I decided that this year I would wash away those bad memories by trying to go to another one. Someone I know organizes and invites me to a Bollywood Bloco every year, so what better time than now to jump in, as I was already somewhat in the spirit of things.

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Enjoying the Indian Bollywood Bloco

Well, the first thing I learned is that I really didn´t know squat about Carnival blocos. It said that it started at 10 am and went on until 4 pm, so I decided to arrive at 1. I waited a little while for a friend and figured we would just walk right up to where I thought the bloco would be stationed. The problem was that there was no music nor any sign of the bloco. That´s when both friends (one being an American, mind you) turned to me and said, “What planet are you on? Blocos don´t stay in the same place, they move and people follow.”

“You´re kidding me!” I replied in total confusion. “Had I known, I would have arrived way earlier. How are we going to find them now?”

Fortunately, their flyer explained what I had failed to read – the trajectory of the bloco. We managed to catch up with them and as soon as I heard the first Indian rhythm I flew into the crowd and lost myself in the spirit of the party. I will post some videos below, but it is interesting to note that Carnival is all about parties and not all of them are necessarily Afro-Brazilian centered, or even Brazilian centered, for that matter. I have seen flyers for a popular Beatles Bloco and even a Goth Bloco. If you can manage to get a truck and permission to slow roll down an avenue you are good to go.

Bloco Bollywood was the best time I have ever had at a Carnival party ever. I highly recommend it, but then again, I am a sucker for Indian rhythms.

Here are some vids of the festivities:

Me joining the circle

 

Following the Truck

The Official Anhembi Parade

I have clear memories of falling asleep, as a child, while my parents watched long hours of these parades on television. I still think they are pretty boring, but things certainly do change when one is emotionally invested in a school.

My friend left on Sunday evening of the 23rd to parade and I was very much anxious to see how he was going to do. I also learned a few things along to way to make the whole process more captivating.

1) I didn´t realize these schools were competing against each other in the same way a sports team does. Remember, I said at the start that there are actual divisions. Depending on where a school stands division-wise determines the day that they parade (the first day is the one they show on television) or if they even get a slot at the Sambadrome. In other words, I learned that that cute family parade near my home is actually a competition to see who goes up a ranking. My friend´s school, on the other hand, was in the second division and trying to pull their way back up.

2) There are very strict rules about how one parades that start with the order in which a school comes out into the avenue. First, there is the “comissão de frente” (opening commission) which can have no less than 10 and no more than 15 visible members. Their job is to welcome the crowd and bring good cheer. Their dance and costumes are tied to the theme of the school for that year. After that there is the “abre-alas”, which is the first float: it must have the school´s mascot and name on it. From there, there are more dancers, a drum section, singers etc. If a group does not meet these requirements they lose points from the judges. And most important, they have a set time to get everyone down the avenue and across the finish line. This year it was 65 minutes, in São Paulo. Rio’s Sambadrome avenue is a bit longer so they get up to 75 minutes.

3) Perhaps most surprising for me is that they play the same damn song for over an hour – no wonder I thought it all sounded the same!!! Again, the difference this year is that I actually knew a lot of the lyrics of the song of the school I was cheering for, which made it all the more exciting to see them go down the Sambadrome. Their theme and song was the history of beer, how could I not support them!

There are a bunch of other details that I could include that could fill up an entire chapter or two of a book, such as – the number of old ladies from Bahia that can be in the parade and how their dresses need to be tailored, how the school’s flag can never touch the ground, how some of the dancers have to greet the judges on their way down … it’s a lot of regulation for what is seemingly a jovial event. But it also made me appreciate the hard work that goes into preparing these parades a whole lot more. Before, I always thought it was very random, but now I watch for the details and start judging the schools myself.

Watching the Results

The last part of Carnival, aside from the few blocos which still spill over into the next weekend and beyond is gathering the votes. It’s a long list of categories from attire to song to dancers and there are four judges for each who work on a ten-point scale. We sat around the house watching in anticipation but right from the gate Né Né was hit with a couple of 9.9s. Considering how the two schools vying for first and second were consistently getting 10s, it was clear that Vila Matilde was not going to win.

NENE

The voting in each category.

Sadly, the school not only did not win, but they came in last place!!! It was an embarrassment for a samba school with such a rich history in city of São Paulo. Everyone called foul, of course, claiming that money and politics had a lot to do with their bad results. Others are just unhappy with the president and the directors of the school. I guess some things may have to change over there before the school gets back to the same level of its glory years.

On a side note, I am beginning to think I am bad luck for this school because the year that they went to second division is actually the year I came to Brazil (I didn’t even know they existed at the time) and now that I actively cheered for them, they went a rung further into the hole.

Here are their 2020 Carnival song and full parade, though. I still thought it was pretty damn good and the song is catchy.

First the song:

Now the parade:

Getting Back to Business

Well, as I write this it is the beginning of March. Brazil slowly comes out of its long hibernation period which begins about a week before Christmas. The end of the year through to New Year´s and until after Carnival is one endless party. Around this time business is slow, people are lazy, and beer trucks are aplenty.  There are a lot of Brazilians that complain about this nearly two-and-a-half-month period of stoppage in the country and how terrible it is for people not directly involved in tourism or events, but good luck trying to change what is as part of Brazil as the Macy´s Thanksgiving Parade is to America. It just happens to be a veeeeery long Thanksgiving Parade – and people wear less clothing.

I am not sure I can do Carnival again like I did this year without a guide to drag me out, but it was entertaining nonetheless. There are, however, a few smaller Carnival celebrations in some cities in the interior and the Northeast that I want to see someday – so, it´s not out of the question for me to be completely out of the Carnival spirit for the rest of my stay in Brazil.

That said, not all Carnivals are the same. São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro dominate more on the Sambadrome parades that focus more on samba music. There are also plenty of blocos that play a variety of music ranging from country to The Beatles, and, as you saw earlier – Indian music.

Bahia is more bloco oriented and their preferred style is Axe Music (look it up, it is fast and frenetic). Famous singers usually set up a stage or get on top of a truck and perform to a mass of bodies. This is not a Carnival I would recommend to those who get anxious around big conglomerated swaths of people. Of course, there are more laid back events, too, but the main party is a sea of bodies.

Further North the music style is Frevo (a sort of samba meets a march) and has a lot of people parading with large puppets and umbrellas down the streets. It feels a bit more family-oriented and slightly more laid-back, but it´s Brazil – everything is laid back until suddenly it isn´t.

If you do come to Brazil, I really do recommend jumping into Carnival at least once. It may not be your cup of tea like it really isn´t mine, but it can also be a really engrossing cultural event that you will carry with you for the rest of your life. Happy festivities next year!

P. Ray

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