The Greatest Show on Earth There may be no other country that carnival celebrations and traditions are as vital and storied as in Brazil. In fact, one can really speak of multiple traditions, as it is the entire country that is enthralled by carnaval, with each region featuring completely different music, dance and procession/parading forms.
Actually known as “carnaval” in Brazil, its history dates back in some form at least to the seventeenth century, and possibly before. In 1641 the governor of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador Sá arranged a carnival-like celebration in honor of King Dom João IV. Arriving in the beginning of the sixteenth century, the Portuguese brought with them “Entrudo,” the Pre-Lenten tradition with roots in Italy. Though there is scarce evidence that it took hold so early in Brazil, colonial powers, including Portugal frequently relied on the liturgical calendar, and the events surrounding it, as an organizing influence in setting up its colonies. We can imagine that there were Pre-Lenten celebrations that took place in the captaincies which were established by the mid 16th century. By that time, the Portuguese had also begun importing West Africans as slaves, so the juxtaposition of cultural ingredients (European Catholic, West African, Indigenous Brazilian) necessary for what we now think of as carnival existed in Brazil early on, and for the next few hundred years we could say that the carnival “pot” was stewing.
As time went on, a version of the Entrudo (a.k.a Shrovetide) imported from the Azores was being practiced by, or maybe inflicted on, Brazil’s colonial society. An intensely filthy and violent form of widespread street celebration, revelers threw water, lime powder (which could blind), vinegar, wine, blackcurrant and other smelly and discoloring agents at one another. This tradition continued into the 20th century when the more vile elements were replaced by perfume sprays, confetti and streamers.
Masking and costuming was a tradition that had European and African roots, with recurring periods of being used and banned over a span of 300 years. During banned periods, punishment could be severe, an example of which was Governor Teixeira Duarte Chaves’ decree that blacks and mulattos caught with masks should be whipped in public and whites should be banished to the Colonia del Sacramento. But by the 1930s, masks and costumes had returned full on and were ubiquitous with carnaval, and common themes had developed. Instead of the colonial characters of prince, Pierrot, Harlequin and death, we find the apache, gigolo, gigolette, clown, old lady, trickster and others. Eventually, practical concerns about mobility and staying comfortable in stifling heat and humidity won out over the heavier outfits, and by the 1950s the unclad body in all of its shining, sweaty glory was set forth into the streets.
Likewise, the music of Brazilian carnaval evolved from multiple sources, rather than being born from a single lineage. Today, musical forms such as samba, samba-reggae, frevo, pagode, axé and others add their DNA to the life blood of carnaval. Another element which had a definite influence on carnaval, especially in Rio de Janeiro, was Zé Pereira, to oversimplify something quite complex … it is the tradition of employing a myriad of percussion instruments playing European-style marchinhas to accompany the revelry. Ultimately, it was the samba, the West-African-derived (Angolan) rhythmic and dance form which has come to define contemporary Brazilian carnaval to the rest of the world. From its Salvador, Bahia birthplace (a city/state in Northeastern Brazil), samba was transformed in Rio in the early 19th century into the urban forms which accompany the massive “desfiles” (parades of carnival clubs) we witness today. Though one finds long traditions of “escolas de samba” (samba social and parading organizations) throughout the country, it is Rio’s manifestation of carnaval which is most known outside of Brazil. Often referred to as the “greatest show on Earth,” the escolas parade down the Sambodromo (Rio’s giant carnaval samba parade venue) and may have 3,000 or more members, divided into distinct “alas” (or sub-groups) which reflect traditional samba school roles, e.g. the lead singers, the percussion line, the older members of the school, the “comissao de frente,” or those who lead the parade in front wearing social attire. Each of these groups represent a different facet of a schools’ chosen theme for a particular year, featuring the appropriate costumes, floats, dance and music. Another essential part of Rio and other Brazilian carnaval celebrations is its official leader, King Momo, who is duly honored (generally with a key to the city), and prominently featured in the festivities. Celebrities are also a frequent part of each school’s line up, and it is considered an honor to be asked. All of these traditions developed out of humble traditions, but the scale and overall aesthetic effect of today’s desfile has to be seen to be believed, and since 1928 it has been a highly competitive event, with the major samba schools vying for top honors. But in Rio, as throughout the rest of the country, there is carnaval outside of the Sambodromo, in the streets and alleyways of the city, as well as the favelas stretching out to more rural parts of the states. It’s an integral part of Brazilian life and culture throughout Brazil, and you’ll find passionate displays of the carnaval season from Sao Paulo (which rivals Rio in pageantry) to Salvador, Bahia (where you’ll find an older, some may say richer version) and Recife (where you’ll find frevo) to Brasilia (the capital), as well as every city, town and tiny community throughout the country.
Finally, we could say that Brazilian carnaval has come full circle, and has had a huge influence around the globe. It’s no mistake that carnival celebrations in Portugal are now more Brazilian in flavor than Portuguese, a fitting homage to a tradition with a rich, sometimes rocky and varied past.