Do you know how to party? Go test it in Rio de Janeiro, during Carnival.
It is high summer in the southern hemisphere and it came to my mind that one of the most interesting and a joyous festivity in the whole world is due soon, I am talking about the Brazilian Carnival, one of the great shows on Earth. I had the opportunity to what the parades a few times, either live or on TV; it is truly unbelievable and to my estimation is one of those things one should be a part of at least once in a lifetime, for the sheer fun and excitement that it is.
The Portuguese spelling is Carnaval, and it is a monumental festivity which is held every year in Brazil, lasting for four days. It varies a bit in regards to when it starts, but it held in February. In 2010 it will occur in February 14 to 16. To some it is a religion, to others, a unique opportunity to let their hair down and party like never before.
The most well known event of the Brazilian Carnaval is the Rio street parade, which attract people from all over the country and the world to the city, where 'Samba Schools', which in reality are like a club where the members develop a theme and present it to the people in a stadium-like atmosphere, to be judged by specialists in choreography, music, etc, to decide a champion.
Very much like a football championship, the samba schools are ranked and participate in divisions, basically dictated by how well they placed in the Carnaval parade in the previous year, which is basically determined by how much money they actually have to spend in the development of their theme and how rich their costumes look.
Carnival is not a new festivity. In fact, it goes back about 2700 centuries to the Greeks and later to the Romans. As is still seen in many parts of the word, it was quite mild and basically meant that people dressed up and had festivities wearing masks and generally having a good time.
By the Roman times, they had added a sexual element to it, and the nascent Church kind of turned its back on it, frowning at their members participating in it. It died a bit for quite a number of centuries, till the Renaissance, when the Church opposition was much less and many European counties from Italy to Portugal had their Carnivals.
So it was that the Portuguese brought their version of Carnival to Brazil, especially to Rio, where the Royal Court set up home. It was a beautiful festivity traditionally held before the 40 days of Lent, at the end of which is Easter. For the first couple of centuries after introduction in Brazil it was pretty much as held in Europe.
It was only in the 19th century that the Brazilian stamp began to be implemented into Carnaval and spread to every town and city in the country. It became everyman's celebration. From Bahia, where Brazil was first settled by the Portuguese, to the rest of the North East of the country, to the southern states like Rio and Sao Paulo, come February the country stops for 4 days for the Carnaval.
First came the little ''Blocos'', or teams to get together and parade around the cities and dance the 4 nights away in clubs. These grew into 'Samba Schools' which tend to have up to thousands of members, even though the 'Blocos' have never quite gone away and are strong even to this day, especially in the suburbs and smaller towns.
A theme is developed, which includes the main song to be sung by the whole Bloco or Samba School, plus the costumes, the percussion and the dancers plus the various vehicles with allegories all matching the theme. As mentioned before, the competitive element has a strong presence in the Brazilian Carnaval, especially in the major centres like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo, Recife and Salvador. Every one of the capital cities in Brazil has its big parades and competitions.
There is intense rivalry between the Samba Schools and they guard their themes with extreme care. Like football clubs, they tend to have their supporters for life.
Participating in a Carnival like Rio's is a source of great pride to the members of the Samba Schools. They save money basically the moment one Carnival ends till the next, in order to be able to afford the costumes as well as to help finance the overall parade by their association.
They train for hours on end, for about half the year. Keeping in mind that the hard work is also great fun for them as well, only it is a fun taken very seriously indeed. All for those 4 days of Carnival or more precisely for the 90 minutes they have to develop their themes in from of the judges and the multitude of spectators in the show grounds.
Just as an illustration, the Champions of the Rio Carnaval in 2009 were Salgueiro Samba School, and they had waited 16 years for that honour. Their total score from the judges had been 399 points. The runners up were Beija-Flor with 398 and Portela came in 3rd with 397.9 points. Talk about competition! There is also the other side, which is the promotion and relegation as well.
It is not all about the Samba schools, though. These days the Brazilian carnival is associated with the endless party it is, but also with lots of semi-naked people parading for the entire world to see, generally packed with local and global celebrities as well. Thousands upon thousands come from all over the world and generally pay a high price for a seat to watch a parade and even more to go to the various balls held around the cities, which vary from exclusive to affordable.
The beauty of Carnival in Brazil, though, is the infectious nature in the whole population. From about November each year the songs to be sang in the next years carnival heats the airways, and some of them become true anthems, sung from year to year, so good they are. Naturally the vast majority of them do not last very long since they are normally associated with a particular Samba School's theme.
People from all ages participate. All economic classes are represented, and Brazil is very much divided into many of those, as in a 200 million population it has the very rich and the very poor and anything in between. The country has improved significantly in the social aspect in the past couple of decades and it has thankfully shrunk the number of people in poverty. All of that is forgotten in February each year.
Blacks, whites, people of mixed race, everyone leaves their cares away for the four days when the only language is Samba. Everything and anything is expected and generally pretty much anything goes during that time. Then, about midday on the Wednesday (having started on Saturday), all drums go silent. People slowly start making their way to work, as the business of living for the year really starts in earnest. Till next summer. As for me, I can't wait to accumulate enough holidays to go over and spend time researching on the beautiful place that is Brazil, especially if it happens to coincide with Carnival.