The first carnival celebrations in Brazil began in 1920. At that time the country sought to create an identity within the new international order established after the First World War. Black culture had gained international prominence and fostered a greater appreciation for African art. The carnaval celebrations affirmed this Brazilianness. Musical groups that emerged in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas began to integrate with society, creating what would later become the samba schools of Rio de Janeiro.
Gradually, these groups captivated everyone with their pronounced beat and lyrics based on popular themes. The first samba school appeared in 1928. It was named Deixa Falar and founded in the neighborhood of Estácio.
Rio de Janeiro carnival party was made official in the 1930s. From then on, the competitions sponsored by newspapers, articles in the press, and writings of early folklorists were no longer a simple pastime. There were categories, each with its own story and format, such as blocos, ranchos (working class festivity), and cordões (literally ‘strings’). In 1935, the first official parade took place at Praça Onze de Junho.
For more than 30 years the samba school parades happened spontaneously. Ticket sales only began in 1963. In 1984, the Passarela do Samba was built on Avenida Marquês de Sapucaí which has hosted the parades since then. Better known as the Sambodromo, the venue was designed by architect Oscar Niemeyer. It is 700 meters long and seats 70,000 people in various different sectors.
Today, the samba school parades are only a faint memory of what their humble origins. The phenomenon has grown and become a huge business, generating income and jobs throughout the city and attracting large investments.
The samba beat, the story and intense percussion set the pace of the school’s presentation. The parades are organized and designed by professional Carnaval producers. The pairs of samba hosts and flag-bearers rehearse all year to present their beautiful, elegant performance. Drum Queens sculpt their bodies to look their best in the Sambodromo. The list of tasks is endless; a year of hard work goes into the preparations to compete for the title of Carioca Carnival Champion at the Sambodromo.
Even with all this pomp, all these investments, schools do not lose touch with the communities from which they came. The schools are very loyal to their neighborhoods, the entire community is invited to rehearsals, and everyone actively participates. The crowds at the Sambodromo can be compared to passionate soccer fans. Many of the schools assign part of the costumes to community members who add strength and passion to the competition, giving their body and soul, as well as their best efforts so their school can win.
The Special Group (Grupo Especial) is composed of 12 samba schools that will compete for title of champion in 2011. These are Vila Isabel, Portela, Beija-Flor, Unidos da Tijuca, Mocidade, Imperatriz, Grande Rio, Salgueiro, Mangueira, União da Ilha, Porto da Pedra, and São Clemente. The great champion of 2010 was Unidos da Tijuca with the theme “It’s a Secret” by producer Paulo Barros. Viradouro was demoted to the Access Group and will have to compete in 2011 for a place to return to the elite carnival group.
An event of this scope, involving a large number of people and a lot of money, requires rules to ensure a fair contest. The Independent League of Samba Schools of Rio de Janeiro (Liesa) has organized carnaval since 1986. The entity created a document that describes all the rules and requirements. There are 50 judges who evaluate 10 mandatory components: allegories and decorations, percussion, opening presentation, overall performance, the theme, the flow of the parade, costumes, overall harmony, the performance of the flag bearer and master of ceremony, and the samba song.
Parades are taken seriously and there is a fierce competition between schools. In addition to receiving points for each of the abovementioned mandatory requirements, the school may also lose points as a penalty for breaking certain rules. They must complete the parade within a specific time limit and present a certain number of floats and participants. Everything is meticulously planned for the big day. Skilled professionals work hard to ensure the quality of the parade.
Carnival in Rio is a year-round experience. Samba schools throw parties at their community hall where local residents and outsiders mingle to have fun and learn the new sambas. People from all over the world travel to Brazil to participate in this festival, attend the rehearsals, learn the music, watch the sensual moves of the mulattas and, especially, experience the joy of being Brazilian.
Portela Samba School
Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School