28 February 2017 – posted on 10 March 2017 in Manaus, on the Amazon
NOTE: This is the third blog I'm posting in the past few days, so go backwards to see our last couple of weeks. Wifi is difficult to find, so I'm catching up!
Though I should back up and explain a little.
Carnaval is the Portuguese spelling of Carnival. This is the pre-Lenten festival that goes back centuries, where people party and celebrate life before Lent, when they didn’t eat meat – hence the name Carnaval, or “carne vale,” meaning literally “farewell to meat.” Various countries around the world celebrate Carnival, though in the US this is called Mardi Gras, the French term (“Fat Tuesday”) for the day before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday.
So, in Brazil, the Carnaval festivities feature samba parades. Samba is the music and dance that has its roots in the culture of the African slaves, mixed in with the Portuguese and Spanish landowners. Samba has become an entire cultural experience itself.
The samba troupes are referred to as “schools,” because the people are truly serious about the music, dance, floats, costumes, themes, and culture – this isn’t just a hobby, it has become almost a way of life.
I don’t know how many samba schools exist in Rio. But the top twelve samba schools are invited to perform at the Sambadromo, a permanent parade ground for Carnaval. The Sambadromo is one kilometer long according to their information (.6 or so miles) – equal to about ten football fields. (Though I should add that we estimated it at about half that distance, but at the height we were sitting, distances are deceptive.)
There are various viewing stands on both sides of the parade runway, with several levels. At ground level are the boxes, the priciest seats because they’re right at parade level. Then there are two or three balconies, also prime viewing areas. We were in the upper stands, higher than the balconies, in the concrete bleachers. And somehow, we ended up in row Z, all the way at the very top.
But, in some ways, this was the best viewing area because we were able to see the entire parade. Some of the floats are several storeys high, like maybe 40 or 50 feet high – 13 to 17 meters tall. So parts of some floats were nearly at eye level for us. Also, we could look down at the hundreds and thousands of dancers in a school, and see everything – at ground level, you just can’t do that.
Anyway, on Monday evening we packed some water, food, and insect repellent, and headed off to collect our tickets and then boarded the bus. I have no idea how many people went to this second night of samba parades, but there were multiple busloads from our ship. And of course from the numerous other ships in port that day. Plus umpteen people from all over this part of Brazil.
Traffic was pretty congested so the ride was slow, but we had a guide who told us all about the samba schools and the parades. The Sambadromo holds something like 75,000 to 90,000 people (the number varies depending on who you talk to). Each samba school has about 4,000 to 5,000 members participating in their parade. And there are all kinds of requirements upon which they are judged, to see which samba school is the winner.
First, there are the floats – each school must have between five and nine floats in their parade. Each float holds dancers, and needs to have moving parts. (The floats have driving mechanisms, though the parade moves so slowly most have people who push them along the route.)
Each school has their own music – I’m not clear on whether someone in the school writes the music for the parade, or if someone else does, or if there’s Carnaval music and each samba school picks a song. But they play the same song over and over and over for the duration of their performance, which is precisely one hour and fifteen minutes.
Most schools have a single person who oversees the parade from idea to reality – they come up with the theme, design the floats and costumes to visually portray that theme, find (or have written) appropriate music, teach the dances, all that.
Every school begins with fireworks, which signify the parade is ready to begin. The entire school has exactly 75 minutes, one hour and fifteen minutes, to perform along the parade route. This includes all of their dances, all of their floats, all of the 4,000 – 5,000 members, moving along singing and dancing their way down that kilometer-long runway. With stops for special performances in front of the judges.
Schools can lose points for not beginning on time, taking too long, moving to slowly or quickly, not meeting various criteria.
But it seemed each samba school also had certain elements that I think most likely are also part of their requirements: a dancing couple at the beginning, with the woman carrying the flag of the samba school; one group of drummers, with a variety of drums; at least one woman soloist who always seemed to have wings; a group of women in ball gowns, twirling and dancing their way down the runway; and some sort of historic progression or reference as the school’s parade danced their way down the route.
The first samba school parade began right at 10 PM. And yes, this is an all night event, with six schools at 1.25 hours each, and then a 20 minute or so interval between each parade. Plus the clean up crew during each interval, performing almost a ballet of sweepers and street cleaning machines, they were so well coordinated.
We were there until sunrise.
But WOW! We weren’t prepared for how elaborate and intricate each float would be, nor how many smaller groups there are within each samba school, nor how long it really takes to get 5,000 people to dance their way along a kilometer. With, of course, the different dance routines for each component within the parade!
I have to explain something here – my photos only come from the first two and a half parades. Because we were so high up, I set my camera to multi-photo, so I could focus and take a series of photos without re-focusing each time. Just seemed as if I’d get more, and better, photos.
Except I take a lot of photos anyway, and then just pull out the best ones.
I don’t have photos of the winning samba parade, which was my favorite one anyway. I don’t have photos of the weirdly confusing parade, either. Nor the young hunky men painted gold, wearing only golden masks and golden loin cloths. Or the people wearing bird costumes and flying on swings over the runway.
Plus the parade is constantly in motion, so even with a fast shutter speed, there’s a certain amount of blur because the subjects are all dancing and twirling and moving down the parade route.
On the other hand, the photos give a sense of the splendor, drama, motion, and emotion of Carnaval in Rio.
But I’ll do a quick overview of the schools and highlights of what we saw, or at least what it seemed to be the theme.
First was União da Ilha, and their theme seemed to be something about African slaves first living freely in Africa, then being enslaved and brought across the ocean to the Americas. Eventually they adapted to the new country, flourished, and found their freedom. Plus contributed to the current culture of the new land (Brazil, we presume). We were excited that they had what in the Virgin Islands are called moko jumbies, the stilt dancers! Actually, stilt dancing comes from West Africa, part of the secret society dancers, so it made sense that there would be stilt dancers in a parade featuring the history of slaves in the New World.
Second was São Clemente – their theme had something to do with the sun, because they started with the French king Louis whichever, the one who called himself the Sun King. There were all kinds of dancers dressed in glittering gold costumes, some looking like they were on stilts except we could see their feet – so I think the costumes had an inner armature that extended over the dancers’ heads, doubling their height. They also had people dressed as garlands and topiaries, maybe showing how important sunlight is for plants and the entire world. They also had giraffes, and weird pink birds – maybe part of the whole flora and fauna thing, I don’t know. The giraffes and big pink birds were a little confusing, but added a whimsically amusing note to the parade.
The third school was Mocidade, and their theme was something about Middle Eastern or Arabian cultures. Maybe the influences on Brazil, or the sub-culture, or maybe just the stories like Aladdin and One-Thousand-and-One Arabian Nights. Dancers with scimitars, giant tents, a float that could be Moorish or even almost Taj Mahal – plus a flying magic carpet complete with a rider! Okay, so it really was a flying drone looking like a magic carpet, with a three-dimensional cutout of a person on top. But truly effective. My favorite part, though, were the mechanical camels in sort of gold and copper, rolling along turning their long necks and heads to look right and left, with dancing camel drivers on their backs! This is also the samba school with the nearly-naked golden men, so the women were kind of drooling over them – they really were gorgeous!
Unidos da Tijuca was the fourth school, and as far as we could figure out, their theme was sort of a tongue-in-cheek history of American music. American as in USA, not North and South America. They began with sort of an Art Deco railroad car, along with a couple of saxophonists, and moved on to the Civil War. They progressed through Dixieland (with a riverboat float), the British invasion rockers, an Elvis marching troupe, rainbow-dressed hippie era, country music, and the Beach Boys (singing surfers, anyway). One of the final floats was odd, though – decorated with skulls, which I think of as the grunge or punk rock era, but the “musicians” were costumed more like the hair bands of the 70s to 80s.
Then last year’s winners, Mangueira, was the final parade. This one was weird and confusing, and I had to talk to some other people from our ship to really understand what it was about, or at least have some idea. The theme had to do with religion, because there were images of saints on the floats and banners. There were people dancing with giant crosses. There was even a float with a crucifixion scene on it. And churches with signs saying “Salve” (I’m guessing salvation?) and other words in Portuguese. My best guess was that it was a reminder that Carnaval ends with Lent, that this is a religious holiday, that people need to repent or something like that. However, one of the people I spoke with later said their guide explained that the theme really was more about how the Portuguese forced Catholicism on the African slaves, and that it was about religious persecution, and some of the rebellions against this forced conversion that went on during Brazil’s history. So while it was interesting, it was just kind of confusing. And weird. Not exactly the happy, uplifting, celebratory kind of parade, that was for sure.
There were two busloads of those of us who made it to 6:00 AM or so. We got back to the ship about 7:30 AM, just in time for breakfast. And then a nap.
So all in all, it was wild, loud, crowded part of the time, totally colorful and enthusiastic, and absolutely wonderful! An explosion of color and sound and movement, with gorgeous bodies added in! One of those once-in-a-lifetime and gotta-do-it kind of experiences. SO glad we did this!
It was like a Hollywood spectacular musical extravaganza, complete with the Rockettes, Chippendale dancers, with a Latin beat and some South American history added in!!!
Of course, there are tons of photos to enlarge, so here you go – it’s the best way to share the experience.