Annually, people gave thanks by holding parties, wearing masquerades and dancing in the street around the Europe, including France, Spain and Portugal. Such traditions were carried over to the New World dating back from the ancient time of Romans and Greeks when people celebrated the rites of spring.
The Portuguese first brought the concept of “celebration or carnival” to Rio around 1850. The practice of holding balls and masquerade parties was imported by the city’s bourgeoisie from Paris. However, in Brazil, the traditions soon became different. Over time, they acquired unique elements which derives from African and Amerindian cultures
People gathering in group would parade through the streets to play music and dance. It was usual that during Carnival aristocrats would dress up as commoners, men would cross-dress as women and the poor dress up as princes and princesses. It means that social roles and class differences were expected to be forgotten once a year but only for the duration of the festival.
Brazilians used to riot the Carnival until it was accepted by the government as an expression of culture. The black slaves became actively involved in the celebrations. They were able to be free for three days. Nowadays the slums’ black communities are still the most involved groups in all the carnival preparations and they are the ones for whom Rio Carnival means the most.
In the late of the 18th century, competitions were added to enrich festivities in the carnival. People would not just dress up in costumes but also perform a parade accompanied by an orchestra of strings, drums and other instruments. These ever more organized competitions became the main attractions of the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro.
Until the early of the 20th century, street carnival in Rio was musically a very euro centric affair – Polkas, Waltzes, Mazurkas and ‘Scottish’. Meanwhile, the emergent working class (made up mainly of Afro Brazilians, along with some gypsies, Russian Jews, Poles etc.) developed their own music and rhythm. Most of these people mainly lived in the central part of Rio that is a land that the rich did not want and on the hills swamping behind the dockyards – an area which came to be known as ‘Little Africa’ that is now recognized as the cradle of samba.
The parades were halted during World War II and started again in 1947. By then the main competition took place downtown on Avenida Rio Branco.
Carnival has gone a long way since it was brought to Rio, having become one of the biggest events in the World. One of the most important recent developments was that the biggest parade the Samba Parade moved from the streets downtown to the purpose-built Sambodromo.
The Samba Parade or Samba Schools Parade is the review of a fierce competition between the Rio samba schools. The judges and spectators watch the principal parades in the Sambodromo which was especially built for this event. The Samba Parade is so importan that everybody should experience at least once in their life. It is broadcast live to several countries.
The Rio Samba Parade is not a street happening where people move chaotically about as they like, but more of a highly orchestrated show of vast proportions. Every parader has a specific role and place according to his costume in a particular wing, of a particular section of the samba school he/she is parading in support of.
The Ingredients of Rio Carnival:
One of the most involved groups in Rio Carnival are the poorest neighborhoods, the so called favelas. Favelas are shantytowns or slums, in which houses are made of cardboard or other scraps, and they are often without water, electricity and sewage system. However, no matter how bad a situation the favelas´ residents are in, they join in the festivities and they actually “make” the Carnival in Rio. Carnival really means a lot to them, because for once during the year they get to go out and have as much fun as they can. And you will see, they can indeed.
Residents of the favelas are often members of a local samba school and are deeply involved with the performance and costumes of their groups. Carnival and samba is their passion alongside football.
Gays and drag queens come and help out and become very involved in Rio Carnival. For everyone, this is a time to come together as a whole and have fun together. Brazil once becomes the most tolerant society. Gender and social boundaries vanish as many paraders cross-dress.
They may try to organize it, glamorize it, televise it, even industrialize it but Rio Carnival is something that comes deep from the fun-loving soul of the Rio people. It does not depend on any authority or sponsor to happen. Carnival in the streets is a living proof of this passion. It’s free, and everybody’s welcome to participate.