Bringing Carnival Back to the People

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Daniel Berehulak / Getty

Samba Dancers make their way down Rio Branco Avenue during Rio Carnaval 2005 in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil.

It is 6 p.m. on a Saturday afternoon and I am standing in a public square in Rio de Janeiro surrounded by babies in fancy dress costumes. On my left there is a woman dressed as an angel and on my right is a bearded man kitted out as Alice in Wonderland. Next to them I am a picture of sobriety; the only sign that I might be infected with the same madness as those around me a custom-made belt around my waist holding bottles, drinking glasses and twizzle sticks.

I tell people who don't know carnival that it is the same ritual every year, just two weeks of happy, drunk people cavorting around the streets half naked. And like every year, my innate Scottish reserve stops me from jumping into the fray with the same abandon as everyone else. Yet as I slip my cocktail back in my belt and watch grown adults spray each other with foam, I know that if I really want to enjoy myself, I must join the ranks of those happy drunk people cavorting around half naked. "Carnival is interaction," agrees my friend Tatiana Guimaraes. "You have to get in there in the middle of it."

More and more people are taking Guimaraes' advice this year as carnival returns to its roots and the street parties that were once the staple of the pre-Lenten festival. Until the 1980s, Rio's big samba schools paraded through the city center, their dancers, drummer and floats feted on all sides by enthusiastic revelers. But when the celebration moved to Oscar Niemeyer's sambadrome in 1984, it marked the beginning of the end for the spontaneous carnival of the people. Authorities began selling tickets to what had been a free show, pricing out many. Corporate clients reserved large parts of the arena for the rich, famous and, this being Brazil, beautiful. Around the same time samba schools themselves moved away from their roots in Rio's poor communities, giving awards to sambas sung by outsiders and adopting themes sponsored by multinationals. (Last year's champion won with an appeal for Latin American unity that was funded, to the tune of a reported $500,000, by Venezuela's state-oil company.)

In response, the Cariocas, as the residents of Rio are called, have chosen to go the other way, local instead of international, familial and not corporate. In recent years, thousands of people have set up their own little informal samba schools, known as blocos. Blocos are essentially groups of friends with a theme, a song and a desire to have a good time. Eschewing the formal paraphanelia or costumes of the official samba schools, they meet in public places and then dance around the block behind some music, often a witty samba poking fun at politicians or celebrities. The small ones can expect a few dozen people to turn up, the large ones attract upwards of 50,000.

Blocos can be — and are! — organized by drag queens, filmmakers, journalists, or just drinking buddies. This one today was especially designed for children, hence the battalions of infants dressed as clowns, butterflies, fairies, pirates and superheroes. Like most blocos, it was typically Carioca, that is, loud, chaotic and great fun, which explains its success. "We're sick of the Broadway element [of official carnival]," said Roberto da Matta, one of Brazil's best know anthropologists. "It's a 12-hour show and no one can stand it. So if you go to the city center or to a pra├ža [a square] and see folks having a good time, you join them. With blocos you don't have to look for carnival, carnival comes to you."

Bearing that in mind, and with one eye on Guimaraes, who is now right in the middle of the crowd waving her can of beer in the air and singing loudly, I gingerly make my way toward the hard-core revelers surrounding the band. It's way past dusk and it is still sweltering. The parade has ended and everyone around me is either tipsy or covered in foam or both. And then, just as I summon up the courage to jump in, Alice in Wonderland stops alongside me and scratches his beard. At 61 years old, Virgilio Borba has seen a few carnivals in his time, but blocos like this, he says, are almost like the old days. "Our lives are spent inside, in shopping malls, offices, gyms, apartment buildings," he says, remarkably thoughtfully for a man dressed in a pinafore and with a bow in his hair. "But I think people want to meet each other and be together. That's why real carnival for us is out here on the street."