February 16, 2015
Sambodormo is the epicenter of Carnival. It is a street lined by concrete bleachers, 13 grandstands plus reviewing stands, holding 90,000, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, who designed the city of Brasilia and major soccer stadiums. The 12 major samba schools perform on the Sunday and Monday of Carnival in a completion to see which school is the champion. (On Friday and Saturday junior schools parade through Sambodormo.) We had tickets for Sunday night.
Each samba school has its colors and its fans. Samba is second only to football in the passion of its followers. People fill the stands with the colors of their favorite school and cheer them on as they parade. Each school parades for an hour and 20 minutes. It picks a theme for the year, writes an original samba for the theme and the schools, numbering between 3,000 and 5,000 members each, parade with a series of floats. Different sections of the samba school have different costumes and play out a role in the theme, or story their school is presenting. The school is led by a flag bearer. In the middle percussionists, around 400 strong, drum. A sound truck follows them and mixes their drumming and the singing of the lead singers and broadcasts the mix to the speakers that are timed and properly delayed along the course of the parade. Everyone in the parade is also supposed to be singing the song, for at least an hour and 20 minutes. The words of each school’s samba are printed in the program. Sometime the lead singers stop and you can hear the voices from the “street” carry the song. When the drummers approach your grandstand (we were in grandstand # 9 across from the judges just beyond midpoint) you can feel the drums through every part of your body.
The floats and costumes are elaborate. Many of the floats are high tech and very expensive. One of our lecturers on the ship said that the schools were supported by drug lords from different favelas (barrios). “Well, at least they give something back to the community.” As proof for this alleged funding the press cites the murders of some prominent samba school leaders. If this is really the source of funding, and if the drug lords are ever dealt with, I fear that we may see samba parades sponsored by Apple or Hyundai, with samba commercials, school merch and DVDs sold worldwide.
The day was hot. When we got on the bus to go to Sambodormo at 7PM it was in the 90s and very humid. During the bus ride a thunderstorm hit and the temperature dropped to the high 70s. Initially we welcomed the cooling rain thinking that a storm so heavy would soon pass. The deluge lasted until 1 AM without letup. We got to the Sambodormo before 8 PM, put on our ponchos, got our plastic Carnival 2015 seat cushions, part of the ticket price, and with our tickets on lanyards got to our place. We waited in the pouring rain past the 9:00 PM starting time. The crowd in grandstand 8 got impatient and started the wave. We mirrored it splashing around in the deluge. The officials were hoping, I think for a break. They decided there was no break and after sitting in the bleachers for almost two and a half hours a group of men wielding giant squeegees started sweeping the “street” through which the parade would pass, there was a fireworks display and the Varidouro samba school started the parade. There were times when the dancers and the squeegee men did engaged in some elaborate impromptu choreography as they each did their jobs. The squeegee men could dance a pretty mean samba.
Our section was the foreigners section, with special security. While in most of the sections people were up dancing, in our section, filled with a lot of elderly cruise ship passengers, many with mobility problems, people mostly sat. One man from another ship in front of me got up and started dancing. The lady behind me asked me to relay to him the message “please sit down.” I was not about to tell anyone at Carnival in Rio to “Please sit down.” I would have been up dancing myself if I were not concerned for the people behind me. The guy was not happy but moved to the isle.
The tour was set up so that we would watch the first two samba schools and the shuttle buses back to the ship would start. Those of us wanting to stay could. Another cruise line started its shuttles running after the first school finished. At the end of Varidouro several people from the other cruise line left, leaving a little more room for us. There is a pretty massive fireworks display between schools. We were set for the Mocidade Samba School as the rain continued. This school had a float in the shape of a giant radio. That got my attention. It also had members in wheelchairs waving canes to the beat of samba. I give them points for inclusivity. At the end of the second school a good 60% of the people in our section of the bleachers left giving us a lot more room. I asked Suzi if she wanted to call it a night, we were soaked through our ponchos, but it was warm and Suzi knows that I have been talking about doing this for as long as she has known me so she graciously said “I’ll follow your lead.”
We stayed. Several people left their plastic cushions behind so we had a little more padding for sitting, but we didn’t need it because with the extra room in the grandstand and those with mobility problems mostly headed back to the ship we were on our feet dancing for the entire performance of Mocidade Samba School. This group was clearly a crowd favorite. When they were announced thousands of people with the school’s flag started waving them and chanting in the stands across from us. Mocidade started at around 1 AM after more fireworks. The rain stopped, we threw off our ponchos and it was magic.
I’m sure you understand how a crowd that has been through something difficult can find explosive release when the difficulty is removed. With the rain ending, a warm breeze floating through the stands and the popular favorite entering the Sambodormo there was magic. It helped that we could understand Mocidade’s theme. The first float had a screen which said, in Portuguese and in English “If the world is ending tomorrow and you have only 24 hours, what would you do?” Although the rest was in Portuguese it was pretty easy to follow. It started with the apocalypse, a float with a toppling Chrysler Building followed by a float with world landmarks, including the Tower of Pisa and Big Ben, made out of LED screens with changing images, the image of the landmark, the logo of the samba school, fire, and destruction.
Dancers in fireproof suits ran in and out of the float, at times setting themselves on fire and sambaing until the flames went out. Small floats looking like alien fighting machines blew smoke and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse sambaed by. Then came what you do, with floats or dancers depicting each activity. It was funny and whimsical, a wry commentary on the human condition. Consult Nostradamus, with a whole troupe of Nosterdami doing the samba, become a Hindu because for them there is no end, pray to God, make a pact with the devil, shop, make a baby, drive a race car (did you know racing cars can samba?), become a kamikaze, go surfing, check into a hospice, work out at the gym, do a public strip tease, attend an orgy, and of course dance. It was the most joyous and hilarious apocalypse imaginable. The last float was salvation, people dressed in green dancing on and around a green and renewed planet. (There is a separate page just from this part of the parade.)
We left the Sambodormo renewed, dancing, laughing, on a complete high. I have been building up to this experience for 50 years. I was prepared to be let down. Instead both of us were buoyed up. I got to bed at 4.