The Parade of Carnaval Samba School at Rio's Sambódromo is something everybody has to experience at least once in life. The event is broadcast live to several countries, and all Brazilian states. Watching on TV is cool, but not half as much fun as being there. You have to mingle with the crowd, sweat, maybe even march with a samba school.
Unlike Street Carnival the Samba Parade is not free. Face value of tickets are not that high, but scalpers mark them up without mercy. Do not support abusive prices! Twelve special group schools march on Carnival Sunday and Monday, six each night.
The parade starts at 9 p.m. and goes on until sunlight the next day, around 6-7 a.m. This samba marathon is more than a show - it's also a fierce competition. A school will be downgraded from special to access group, and vice-versa. With so many traditional samba schools, now there are big names also in access group A.
What is a Samba School?
In case you are getting completely mixed up: Samba Schools are not teaching institutions. A Samba School is basically an association of people from the same neighborhood. They get together on a regular basis for samba nights and rehearsals (ensaios) at their samba court (quadra).
It is usually a working class community (or favela) in most cases located in a suburban area. Samba schools provide invaluable jobs to the community, the production of floats and costumes is big business. It is partly subsidized by the State, and partly paid by private enterprises that sponsor the parade.
Each year samba schools choose a different theme. Sometimes there are suggested ideas, in year 2000 we celebrated the country's 500th anniversary. Samba schools are even allowed to re-edit favorite Carnival themes from the past. The official samba is chosen in a competition within each school.
Samba Schools may take to the Parade anything from 3,000 to 5,000 members, and from 6 to 8 floats. They try to illustrate and give life to the theme chosen. All costumes and floats are original, made from scratch. It as a tropical opera, or rather, a collection of several operas happening on a single night.
Be the Judge - it's a Competition!
A Samba School has from 60 to 75 minutes to make it through the runway. This means that each member will actually spend in the Sambódromo only about 25-30 minutes tops. The experience is so intense, though, that the memories of the thrill last a lifetime.
Several aspects are judged by a jury of experts chosen by LIESA, the League of Special Group Samba Schools. Judges are strategically stationed in odd and even sectors, to make sure the schools do their best all the way through. This means that all components of the school have to give their best to cause a good impression.
Of course all Cariocas consider themselves experts when it comes to judging a samba school. Many keep a personal score to compare (and inevitably disagree) with the final result. Some take notes and even vote online with smart phone apps.
Being impartial is not very easy, though. Cariocas support their favorite school just like they support their soccer team - with a lot of passion. The 6 schools that score best, earn the coveted honor of marching again the following weekend, at the Champion's Parade on the following Saturday. The winner of Group A is also invited to participate!
Samba School by Parts
Samba Schools are divided into alas (wings or sections), with people wearing the same costumes. Just to simplify, let's refer to anyone participating in the parade as a component. The number of components in each ala and float varies, according to the plans of the school designer (carnavalesco).
Components all share the same obligation - to perform during the whole parade interacting with the audience. They must know by heart the school theme and sing along. Some of the alas have special choreographies, and one must learn and deliver while at the samba runway.
The results depend on a collective effort. As the parade is seen and taped from all angles nothing escapes the cameras. Components of a float get even more visibility. In addition to performing they have to be oblivious the heights - some floats are gigantic!
At the concentration and within the passarela (samba runway) Samba Schools place supervisors, to make sure everything runs smoothly. They may speed up or slow down a group. And they keep an eye for people who are misbehaving. Components may take photos at the Concentration and dispersion areas, not while you are performing.
Abre Alas, limited to 15 people or less, is the first group to open the parade of each Samba School. They are in charge of greeting the audience setting the mood, and introduce the theme. Spectators and judges hold their expectations very high.
We have seen everything from magic tricks to acrobacy, changes of costumes that happen in a flash, the imagination of carnavalescos is fantastic. As this is a key group and nothing can go wrong, the components are usually professional dancers and skilled performers who train very hard for months! They deserve all your attention!
Ala das Baianas
One of the few mandatory groups, Ala das Baianas is also one of the most popular ones. The women dressed in big round colonial-style skirts bring down the house! The positions are reserved for ladies from the community, As costumes are very expensive, they are subsidized by the Samba School.
These costumes are very heavy, and may be accessorized with anything from feathers to led's. A curious story is that originally the baianas were men, capoeira experts, that helped keep any problem from happening in early Rio Carnaval. The Samba Parade is the final result of a long history.
Porta Bandeira and Mestre Sala
Porta-Bandeira and Mestre-Sala have an important role. They carry the official banner of the Samba School, and they have to follow a number of rules. They greet the audience as they pass by, and we stand and cheer! Porta bandeira is the lady in charge, and she can never let the banner roll around the pole as she performs her courtesies and dances.
The mestre sala, her partner, is not allowed to dance the samba step. His role is drawing everybody's attention to his queen. And they do that by performing the most elaborate dances around her - seeing to believing. There is a leading pair, and supporting couples.
Floats (carros alegóricos) are so luxurious and well crafted that it is hard to believe they were made to last for only one - hopefully two nights at the Sambódromo. They follow the theme chosen by the samba school, so they may change looks dramatically from one Samba School to the other.
They may be motorized and have mechanical parts that move. A dragon that roars, an eagle that flaps wings and looks to all sides, a water park with people using the slides, or a boudoir where on each stall you see a different group performing. There is a limit to the number of floats, but not to the imagination of carnavalescos.
Regardless of differences, floats usually have one or more destaques. It may be a personality, someone from the community, or even a private sponsor. The costumes may be very expensive, and one cannot be afraid of heights.
There are cranes in the concentration and dispersion areas to bring destaques up and down, or they may have to climb up a shaky ladder to go up. To avoid accidents the shoulder piece is in most cases attached to the car and not to the person. There are security handles, and one has to make sure not to get too carried away, and hang on to them.
Samba Schools are a part of our cultural tradition, and they do not simply happen. It is the expression of visibility that each community has, and their birthplaces are usually suburban areas. Older school members are well-respected and an invaluable addition to new generations.
Velha Guarda is composed of people who have close knit links to the Samba School, male of female. The costumes for men are often the typical attire of the mythical Carioca. White suit, Panama hat and a lot of samba running through the veins, The ladies may come in traditional dresses. People often stand and applaud!
The bateria (percussion band) sets the beat of the parade of each Samba School. This band is composed by people from the communities or not, as long as they are fully committed to their role. Some actors are members of a bateria, and they are considered just one of the guys.
Components participate at rehearsals, and practice stunts, including the paradinha. They stop playing for a bit, and let the components of the school keep singing. They must start again precisely - any fault would be penalized. They stop at a recession between Sectors 9 and 11 until the school leaves.
While the percussion band plays, the vocalist in charge of singing the theme is called puxador. Many of them have gained celebrity status, and they have to sing non-stop during the whole parade. There are back vocalists, but the star must shine.
We are trying not to name names, but Neguinho da Beija-Flor is one of our favorites. He opens the parade with the famous line "Olha a Beija-Flor aí, gente!" and never fails to deliver. Of course the musical theme of the Samba School must be a great one to really make the audience stand and cheer. If there is a catchy chorus, everyone sings along!
Rainhas and Princesas
The percussion band is preceded by a Rainha da Bateria, a queen that opens the way, greets the audience and basically introduces the musicians. Luiza Brunet, a dear model and actress, is possibly the first reference that comes to mind. Charisma, a captivating smile, a great body and a lovely costume are some of the musts.
The queen may have princesses that march along. Now most floats are also preceded by a princess. They always march on the runway, not in floats, and in addition to girls from the community celebrities, and actresses or personalities are sometimes invited.
Most components of Samba Schools march on the runway in groups with the same or coordinated costumes. Each of these groups is an ala. They fill the spaces in-between the floats with a succession of colors and joy. Sing, dance, interact with the audience, and give their best to cause a good impression.
Each ala has one or more organizers, who select the components, and sell the costumes. It is a lovely mix that includes both people from the community or who support the Samba School. Costumes are often paid for in installments. When a school wins they celebrate at the Champion's Parade.
The Supporting Cast
If you pay a little attention to the Samba Parade you will realize that none of the magic would happen without the aid of a dedicated supporting cast. Fiscais de pista are in charge of keeping wings organized, making sure people do not walk backwards (the school would be penalized) or get carried away in a selfie bonanza.
While some of the floats are motorized, others are pushed by these dedicated components, usually members of the community. In some cases they wear neutral clothes, but they are often in costumes. Nothing too heavy or hot, they are working hard already!
Last but not least a key element to the success of any Samba School parade. The carnavalesco is the designer who gives life to the theme chosen by the school. The most famous ones have a sort of signature that people who follow the parades close can always tell.
On the photo, dear late Joãozinho Trinta who revolutionized the concept of the parade bringing more luxury and glamour to the Sambódromo. Once he said that "Intellectuals like poverty, the poor like luxury." Despite initial reactions, he prevailed today the Samba Parade is for sure the greatest show on earth!