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Rio's 2010 Carnaval Kicks Off Amidst Heat, Optimism & Controversy

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Rio de Janeiro's 2010 Carnaval celebration is in full swing amidst soaring temperatures and a wave of optimism as Brazil's economy thrives, its president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva enjoys remarkable popularity, and the city enjoys its status as the site of the 2016 Olympics. There is controversy over a seven-year-old girl performing as the rainha da bateria ("queen of the drum section") of a major escola de samba and mayor Eduardo Paes' attempts to bring increased safety and cleanliness to a chaotic event. The usual flock of celebrity visitors are in town (Beyonce, Madonna, Hugh Jackman, Paris Hilton, and Alicia Keys this year); they typically come to watch the samba-school parades, attend private parties, and promote themselves. Meanwhile, record-breaking crowds have partied outdoors on the avenues with the blocos (Carnaval street groups consisting of musicians and/or sound trucks with crowds trailing behind).

Rio has been suffering from an unprecedented heat wave for much of the Southern Hemisphere summer, and temperatures reached 40 degrees Centigrade in some neighborhoods as an estimated 700,000 visitors poured into the "Marvelous City" for Carnaval ("Carnival" in English). The festivities run officially from Feb. 13-16, although the partying starts earlier and ends later. The city claims that 2.5 million people are celebrating in the streets this year, topping an estimated two million merrymakers enjoying the long-established street Carnaval up north in Salvador, Bahia. Yesterday, an astonishing 1.5 million people followed the bloco Cordão da Bola Preta through downtown Rio, according to O Globo newspaper.

Rio's street Carnaval, once a distant third in the local hierarchy to all-night balls and the escola de samba parades, made a dramatic comeback over the last ten years and is now a major tourist attraction. Along with Cordão da Bola Preta, other blocos attracting mass number of revelers include Monobloco, Banda de Ipanema, Carmelitas, Suvaco do Cristo (Christ's Armpit, which gathers below the statue of Christ on Corcovado), and Simpatia é Quase Amor (Sympathy Is Almost Love). The festivities begin at designated time and place where members meet up (the concentração), wearing the bloco's T-shirt and fortifying themselves with beers and caipirinhas. The bloco winds its way slowly down the streets of a particular neighborhood, with crowds trailing behind or lining the parade route. Most blocos play samba and marchas, while some add funk carioca, samba-reggae and maracatu to the mix. There are now some five hundred blocos in Rio, with two hundred just in the Zona Sul (the part of the city in which Ipanema, Leblon and Copacabana are located).

At this year's Carnaval, the mayor's efforts to reduce disorder and unhealthy practices has generated controversy. On the hygiene front, the city is attempting to stem the yellow tide of public urination; hundreds of thousands of beer drinkers who party with the blocos in the streets had been accustomed in the past to decorating the walls, gutters, trees and beaches of Rio with their outpourings. The city has quadrupled the number of public chemical toilets and threatened those who relieve themselves in public with arrest. In addition, Rio is trying to clean up the food waste on its beaches by preventing roving vendors from selling snacks on the sand, a popular tradition with cariocas (Rio natives). Not only that, soccer next to the water is outlawed until after 5pm in the afternoon, to help keep order on the crowded shores of Ipanema and Copacabana. Many Brazilians are outraged. Paes is no doubt trying to prepare Rio for the Olympics, when all eyes will be on the city. It all seems a little surreal: Brazil, especially Rio, has always been an absurdly tolerant and neglectful place, with lax enforcement of its laws.

Another controversy, more international than Brazilian, is swirling around the Viradouro escola de samba (samba school)'s naming of seven-year-old Julia Lira to be its drum queen. Brazil has long had Carnaval balls for children, there is a children's samba parade at the Sambódromo, and kids sometimes parade in costume with the alas (theme sections) of the escola. But it is unprecedented to have a child perform as an escola's drum queen, a role normally filled by scantily clad models and actresses who dress like sexy showgirls and samba sensually to the music. Another concern is the physical effort required of a child dancing for eighty minutes in Rio's wilting heat. Children's groups like the state's Council for the Defense of Children and Adolescents complained bitterly and sought to legally block Julia's appearance with Viradouro, but a judge ruled that she could perform with the escola. Although the dispute made world headlines, most of Brazil has paid little notice.

Of course, Carnaval is partly about provocation, taboo breaking, and mocking the established order. It is a pre-Lent celebration (like Mardi Gras in New Orleans and Carnival in many Spanish-speaking countries) that takes place seven weeks before Easter and has its roots in pre-Christian festivities held by the ancient Greeks, Romans, and others. For four days, from Saturday through Tuesday, the country sings and dances in dance halls and clubs, on the streets and beaches, or wherever there are people and music. Carnaval is celebrated all over Brazil, with different cities favoring different traditions and musical styles.

Rio is most famous for its samba schools, a tradition that began in 1928 when Deixa Falar took to the streets. The big samba schools like Mangueira, Portela, Salgueiro, Viradouro, Mocidade Independente, and Beija-Flor parade with around three hundred drummers and percussionists and more than four thousand costumed dancers and participants at Rio's Sambódromo ("Sambadrome"). Designed by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer, it is a seven-hundred-meter-long pathway flanked by concrete stands that seat ninety thousand people. Each escola performs its own samba-enredo ("theme samba") chosen for the year, a song that may have a political or historical theme, or be a tribute to a particular person or place. The parade encompasses dazzling floats, outlandish costumes, and veritable symphony orchestras of rhythm. It is like a giant popular opera, with so much happening, musically and visually, that you can't possibly take it all in at once.

Salvador, Bahia is home to Brazil's most famous street Carnaval. Musicians atop sound trucks perform axé music; blocos afro like Olodum and Ilê Aiyê pound out samba-reggae and Afro-Brazilian rhythms; and groups like the Filhos de Gandhi offer rhythmically rich afoxés. In Olinda and Recife, one hears driving, hypnotic maracatu and raucous, hyperkinetic frevo. Many cities have informal blocos who perform in the streets, as well as spontaneous groups of people singing and beating cans and bottles. Some celebrants wear special outfits for the occasion, some don't. People wear the T-shirt of their favorite bloco or dress as clowns, pirates, sheiks, Indians, aliens, celebrities, what have you. Lots of men dress up as women. Lots of men and women wear very little at all. This year, of course, revelers painted blue like Avatar characters are also on the prowl.

Not every city in Brazil has an intense Carnaval. Some only host relatively tame indoor balls. And people with less carnavalesco souls use the holidays to travel to places where they can relax far from the drums during the day and, if they feel like it, go dancing at night. But between New Year's Eve and Carnaval nothing really important is decided in Brazil. Quoting a popular Chico Buarque song, most people will say, "I'm saving myself for when Carnaval comes." During that time, the weather is hot, people become more outgoing, and sensuality is in the air. But amidst all the craziness and frivolity, Carnaval serves the important purpose for Brazilians of maintaining cultural traditions--encoded in the music, dance, and costumes of the celebrations across the country.

Carnaval is a canvas across which the country's values and issues are displayed, as evidenced by the themes chosen by the escolas, the presence of a seven-year-old girl dancing before Viradouro's drum section in 2010, and the reactions to the mayor's attempts to change some long-standing customs and bring order as Brazil seems on the verge of achieving its great potential.

*For some tips on enjoying Rio's Carnaval and staying safe:
Rio Carnaval 2010: How To Stay Safe and Not Get Mugged

**For more on the history of samba, Carnaval and Brazilian music, see my book The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil (Temple University Press):
thebraziliansound.com

***The Brazilian Sound blog:
The Brazilian Sound at Blogspot