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Cultural Aspects of Carnaval

by Caroline Henricks Thursday, March 27, 2014

While Carnaval is officially recognized for five days—the five days preceding Ash Wednesday to be exact—there is quite certainly a season for Carnaval in Brazil, which is characterized by preparation for and anticipation of the pre-Lenten celebration.

About a month prior to the holiday, I attended a samba school called Mocidade Alegre, which was practicing in São Paulo. A samba school is essentially a neighborhood, or commonly, favela of people who come together in song and dance to compete in the regional samba parade. This particular school had a couple thousand people practicing in a large warehouse-style facility. I do not exaggerate when I say we danced and sang in a train around the building for several hours! All night the bateria—essentially a percussion group, or drum line—played a never-ending beat, and I left feeling an incredible sense of community and appreciation. Coincidentally, this school emerged the three-time consecutive champion of the São Paulo Sambódromo at the end of Carnaval!

In São Paulo, the Mocidade Alegre bateria warms up an excited samba school while performers show their talents on stage.

To better explain Carnaval in Brazil, it began as a final celebration prior to the 40 days of sacrifice observed during Lent. The dominant religion in Brazil is Roman Catholicism, which explains in part how this holiday became so integrated into Brazilian culture. I was fortunate enough to experience Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, which is home to the most notable Sambódromo. The Sambódromo is essentially a stadium-like stretch of runway used solely for the yearly parade/competition, which lasts four days. The parade is comprised of different samba schools competing for the prestigious title of champion. Each of the samba schools choose a theme for the year, and bring that theme to life through samba, bateria, costumes, colorful floats, and a unique lyrical song. The parades last from about 9:00 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. during the competition, with about six samba schools performing each night.

Two featured samba schools give it their all at the end of the Sambódromo runway in Rio de Janeiro. Themes of these samba schools included “African roots” and “childhood.”

I was thrilled to attend the final night of the Sambódromo in Rio, which is arguably when and where the best schools perform. More specifically, I was excited to find a ticket for only R$40, which is equivalent to less than $20 USD. This was an incredible surprise, as travel guides had advised to prepare a payment of up to $300 USD. When I entered the stadium, I was given a booklet with the lyrics for the song of each samba school. This allowed the audience to sing along with the parading samba schools. As each school made its way down the Sambódromo for about an hour and a half with the same song on repeat, I caught on to the words pretty quickly, even if in Portuguese. It was very much a community experience full of cultural pride, and with many glitzy costumes and several extravagantly decorated floats per samba school, it was seemingly impossible not to catch the infectious spirit of revelry!