What Is Carnaval?

With Carnaval officially starting this past Friday night, and the official competition in Rio de Janeiro beginning tonight, I figured it was time to do a post that answered that most basic of questions:

What is Brazilian Carnaval?

The answers are as complex as the question is simple, and it would take books to fully address the issue. However, I thought I’d provide some general observations and background here, even if not offering the comprehensive treatment the subject deserves.

At its essence, Carnaval is the largest and most spectacular (in the sense that it’s a grand “spectacle”) of Brazilian culture. Carnaval originally had its roots in the late-1800s among the Afro-Brazilian populations of cities like Salvador da Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. In these cities, slaves and free blacks celebrated the week before Ash Wednesday with public dancing and music that drew heavily from African cultures. However, as “white” elite Brazilians marginalized and looked down upon Afro-Brazilians, they condemned these public displays, and in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Carnaval celebrations were even banned and made illegal in these cities (as was samba, the music that came to be associated with the festival), though both Carnaval and samba continued to appear throughout the period. By the 1930s and 1940s, however, Brazilian elites and the government had come to embrace Carnaval, modifying it to fit their own cultural sensibilities and embracing it as a truly “national” cultural expression. Throughout the remainder of the century, Carnaval in these cities became more and more complex and ornate, with samba schools (many of them associated with the favelas in which they were historically based), and by the 1970s, it was an international spectacle that drew in tourists and millions of dollars. Indeed, last year’s Carnaval witnessed over 400,000 international tourists visiting Brazil, with hundreds of millions of dollars spent during the festival.

While the organized samba school parades of Rio de Janeiro are the most visible part of Carnaval in the global arena, they only last two nights. Just as important to Carnaval are the blocos, or informal celebrations in the streets. These are the street carnivals that involve trucks with musicians playing and crowds dancing, singing, and (often) drinking behind them. These blocos take place throughout the week leading up to and following the massive samba school parades (Friday and Saturday in São Paulo, Sunday and Monday in Rio de Janeiro). It is here that anybody can join in (and nearly everybody does join in), revelling in the streets at the height of Brazil’s summer.

While the world focuses on the images of scantily-clad women marching and dancing before the crowds, the actual samba school parades are much more complex and culturally rich. For two nights twelve samba schools march through Rio’s Sambódromo. The women that the world sees are but a part of these parades, serving as rainhas da bateria (“queens of the drum corps”), who are regularly celebrities. Yet the parades also feature the drum corps themselves that keep the beat for the songs; the lead singer of the song and his choir; baianas, the women who dress in the traditional outfits associated with Bahian candomblé; and the “kings” and “queens” of the schools. Each school has its own themes, with original songs and with the floats designed to fit within that theme. The floats themselves are remarkably elaborate, and in the past have included a functioning ski hill, waterfalls, and other complex designs.

‘As for the music, it is samba-enredo, a particular type of samba associated with the samba schools. The songs/themes can be highly politicized. During the military regime of 1964-1985, many samba schools sang songs that allegorically condemned the lack of democracy and use of torture. Others, however, did not; Beija-Flor, which is now an annual competitor for “best school,” was on the periphery of the samba schools until the 1970s, when it sang songs celebrating the economic and technological policies/achievements of the military regime, even while other schools were critical of the government. With its celebratory songs that embraced the military regime’s vision of nation, Beija-Flor won several competitions in the 1970s and has remained a major school to the present, alongside more historical schools such as Portela, Salgueiro, and Mangueira. That said, not all songs are political, and themes can and do range from celebrating particular regions of Brazil to celebrating different social and cultural groups in Brazil; from praising past samba masters or authors to celebrating current pop culture stars; from commenting on historical processes to addressing current political issues. In the past 8 years alone, schools have composed songs marking 100 years of Japanese immigration to Brazil, Machado de Assis, the Brazilian working class, Xuxa (a popular children’s TV personality), and  the Amazon, among others. Collectively, then, the parades of the samba schools themselves are far richer and more complex than a simple image of scantily clad women allows for, and they reflect a remarkable level of planning, design, detail, and attention to Brazilian culture and history.

These parades are  effectively a competition. Each samba school is judged on several factors, including the musical and lyrical quality of their song, the design of the floats, the choreography, and the pacing (schools are given 90 minutes from start to end, and those that go over are penalized). The rules are relatively strict, and while it would surprise most to know it, women who are too undressed can lead to a further deduction of points. Every year, there is a winner and (just like in football/soccer) with the bottom schools “dropping” to the second “division” and the top schools of the second “division” rising to the first.  The rise or fall goes well beyond a simple matter of pride, too; success or failure can impact how many people join or sponsor one’s samba school, giving it a commercial stake that many people lament but that is nonetheless a reality of Rio’s Carnaval today.

Of course, Rio’s Carnaval is not the only one, even if it is the one that is most regularly shown throughout the world. Each region has its own style in Carnaval. Though São Paulo’s Carnaval resembles a slightly-less-famous version of Rio’s, Carnaval in Bahia is markedly different. There, the musical formats differ, with a greater emphasis on samba-reggae and axé, compared to Rio’s samba-enredo (the samba of samba schools), funk-samba, and the samba of the blocos in the streets. Bahian Carnaval has more everyday participants, as people file behind the trios eletricos, or trucks with bands playing on them. Additionally, Bahian Carnaval is more closely tied to the Afro-Brazilian culture of the Brazilian Northeast, with elements of Candomblé quite visible in the performance, most notably in the figure of the bahianas (who also appear in Rio’s Carnaval). Additionally, there’s a stronger sense of black nationalism present in Bahia’s Carnaval. Other regional variations include Pernambucan Carnaval, which lacks the competitions of Rio de Janeiro and which is famous for its Galo da Madrugada, a parade that takes place in the morning.

Nor are the larger urban centers are the only places where Carnaval takes place. Indeed, as one goes to smaller cities and even towns, Carnaval sheds much of its commercial status and more closely resembles a grassroots cultural celebration. In these smaller cities, there is a greater sense of amateur-ism, certainly, but it’s also clear that, for the participants and celebrants alike, Carnaval is a labor of love and a moment of unbridled public joy without the larger commercial considerations involved in Rio’s competitions. Additionally, anybody who has even the most nominal of  costumes can parade through the streets if s/he is so inclined. In some ways, this makes Carnaval even more rewarding than in the bigger cities, as the parade is a more democratic way for any sectors to participate, rather than just the largest samba schools of the major cities. This type of celebration is especially common in Minas Gerais.

Although it is an exceptional cultural expression that does not necessarily reveal the more regular, daily Brazilian culture (something on which I’ve commented before), Carnaval is a powerful public ritual and symbol that scholars often use it as an allegory and/or a metaphor in attempting to describe Brazilian society, culture, and history more generally. Roberto da Matta’s work has pointed to Carnival as a time when Brazil’s traditional racial and class hierarchies are inverted, as the popular classes dominate public space for several days while the elites are mere spectators to the goings-on. Scholars like James Green have used stereotypes of homosexuality and Carnaval to move beyond simple narratives to look at the complex histories of homosexuals in Brazil. Thus, Carnaval takes on a symbolic importance that can go well beyond its week-long festivities.

And these descriptions only scratch the surface of the cultural, social, political, and historical complexities of Carnaval. In some ways, it is representative of Brazilian culture and society writ large, though to assume that it is representative of everyday life in Brazil is problematic, too. Nonetheless, one thing is certain: it is a truly exceptional and spectacular event.

About Colin M. Snider

I have a Ph.D. in history, specializing in Latin American History and Comparative Indigenous History. My dissertation focused on Brazil. Beyond Latin America generally, I'm particularly interested in class identities, military politics, human rights, labor, education, music, and nation. I can be found on Twitter at @ColinMSnider.
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