January 19, 2020, Rio
In Brazil Samba is a major league sport. Every Carnival 12 “samba schools” (teams) compete in Rio’s Sambadrome to see who will “win the Carnival.” Perhaps, more importantly they are trying to make sure they don’t get relegated to one of samba’s “minor Leagues.” Each year two schools are relegated and two schools advance to the premier league, according to our guide. It’s very much like English football.
Each Samba school has a theme and is judged on how well it portrays that theme. Each team also has to have set sections that bow to the traditions of carnival. There are the tias (aunties), all over 6o years old, in costumes hinting at formalwear from beginning of the 20th century. They honor the founding mother of Carnival as a festival for freed slaves. There is a whole section for old people some using canes and wheelchairs, there are the flag bearers, and the percussion section among others, and of course there are the floats. Each samba school has thousands of marchers (dancers) all in costume. They have 82 minutes to proceed the 800 meters down the Sambadrome.
Preparation starts almost immediately after carnival with a frank assessment of the year’s performance. Then the school works at finding a theme, a song, and building mockups of the costumes and floats. When the mockups work, they build or sew the real things. Whole city neighborhoods are involved.
The 12 top schools have space in “Samba City” warehouses near the port and the Sambadrome where they can construct the floats and make the costumes. If a school is relegated it surrenders its space in Samba City.
We took a tour from Holland America that went through the warehouses and costume shops of one of the schools “Acadêmicos do Grande Rio.” It’s a school located in a neighborhood 50 KM from the center and must really work to raise money to mount their effort to stay in the top tier. One way to raise this money is by giving tours.
But tours can become a problem because the costumes and floats are secrets, so not to tip off the opposition. We’re not allowed to take photos on the first three floors of their warehouse. On the top floor we can photograph costumes from past years and even try them on, which I did, although Suzi did not. They had one that almost fit me, although it was so heavy, I think I would not be able to move, let along “carry” it for 82 minutes over 800 meters. The headpiece had an inner iron hatband that was tight, I felt like I was wearing a crown of thorns. It was not my favorite. My favorite was a radio themed Carnival costume.
We could take pictures in the “infield” between warehouses, different parts of old floats are stored there.
Guides lay out the timelines, decision making processes and history of Carnival, which has become increasingly political over the past years, especially with the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, who is a conservative populist amd does not approve of Carnival. Neither does Rio’s mayor, an evangelical bishop, who opposes Carnival on moral grounds. He’s cut all municipal funds for Carnival and has threatened to not allow the samba schools time in the Sambadrome for technical rehearsals. But Carnival goes on, funded by corporations (but no branding allowed in the parade) and, as has often been the case, organized crime.
Last year this school had an environmental theme and that caused some problems. Dancers get assigned units and each unit tells a story within the theme. One large unit was garbage and the costumes, rather than being feathers and flowers was made of garbage. They were not pretty costumes and some people balked at wearing them.
Half of this tour was worthwhile, the part in Samba City. The problem is that we also got a bus tour of Rio before we got to Samba City. This took 2 hours and was not the way I would have elected to spend my time. I didn’t want a drive through of Copacabana, Ipanema or downtown. The first two is where I would spend the next day and a half. I could have walked the downtown area in the two hours wasted on the bus. Samba City was only a coupe of blocks from the ship, could have walked that too. I think the problem is that they can take only 25 at a time through the warehouse so we kind of circled around until our time came. “Oh look, there’s the Sambadrome — again.” The tour description said it would show us some of the Favellas, poor sections of town, where the samba culture grew. We saw them, from a distance, “See, up on that hill, it’s Rio’s first favella, it’s where samba was born.” (I think it’s the closest the wanted us to get to a favella.) This 4-hour tour would have been 8 times better as a 2 hour tour.