As Rio de Janeiro slowly returns to work after its annual carnival, the celebrations tell a tale of two cities. At the Sambadrome, home to the official carnival, thousands of smiling, shimmying dancers competed to be crowned carnival queens. Tickets were sold, sponsors schmoozed and businesses hosted lavish boxes. Questions are often asked about how the elaborate floats are financed and this year was no different. The winner, with a near-perfect score, was the Beija-Flor (Hummingbird) samba school with its celebration of Equatorial Guinea. Though its dictatorial president is one of Africa’s richest men, many of his people live in deep poverty. Allegations flew among the glitter and feathers that his government gave millions of reais towards the float, and that Brazil has been seen to support the regime.
But far away from the corporations and bureaucracy, nearly 500 street parties, or blocos, spring up all over the city. Organised by friends and neighbours, the blocos vary in size from a few hundred to many tens of thousands of people. At the heart of each one is a soundsystem or a band of musicians piping samba on saxophones, trumpets, tubas and horns, accompanied by the hollow beat of drums. Some, like Bola Preto and Banda de Ipanema, have been taking to the streets for decades. Others are part of a recent wave of carnival revival.
Last week, I joined a huge crowd in the park in front of Rio’s modern art museum to see Sargento Pimenta, a Beatles-inspired bloco. It was dreamt up by a group of doctors, lawyers and journalists. “There was just one little problem,” Leandro Donner, the bloco’s Paul McCartney, told me. “Those friends were not musicians!” Undeterred, they recruited players, Leandro included. “We knew that if we watered this little seed,” said the oncologist Gustavo Gitelman, one of the founders, during a TED talk in 2012, “it would turn into a pepper.”
It grew fast. On their debut in 2011, they were voted the best bloco by O Globo, a newspaper based in Rio. A year later, they played at the closing ceremony of the London Olympics. And last week they performed in front of 180,000 people. On a raised stage and dressed in the gaudy militaria of the Lonely Hearts Club Band, they were accompanied by a choreographed batteria of drummers. The theme—in honour of the Beatles’ album “Help”, released 50 years ago—was “Help, I Need Sambare”. The cloudy day was brightened by “Here Comes the Sun”, and by the time they played “I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends” I was being twirled around by a man dressed as a joker with a sailor for a friend. The crowd sang every word, and hardly a pair of hips was still.
Though Sargento Pimenta stays where it is, many of the blocos parade through the city, sometimes bringing traffic to a standstill. One of them, Oh Menáge, entered the domestic airport on its practice run with followers filing down the escalators, marching to the music. Another, united by Eighties music and bright Lycra sportswear (above), ran through the old centre, stopping occasionally for some lunges or to sing a verse of “Karma Chameleon”. The ancient Egyptians were celebrated at Agytoê with black and gold costumes and acrobatics, and fans of the Super Mario video games dressed up as their favourite characters to follow a band down the winding, cobbled streets of Santa Teresa. In the same neighbourhood, women—and men—dressed in habits for the long-established Carmelitas, which honours the story of a nun who jumped the wall of her convent to join the carnival.
For over a week the city is filled with these pockets of people, parading their banners and costumes and bright musicianship. It’s not unusual to see someone hustle their way to the middle of the fray, pull an instrument from their backpack and join in. Since neither players nor organisers get any money for their efforts, they do it only for the love of it. This is carnival by the people, for the people.