The 411 on Rio’s Carnaval, if you are simply curious to know

There are plenty of online articles and tons of video clips about Rio’s second most popular tourism attraction outside of their annual New Year’s Eve celebration.

Carnaval began in the early 1930’s as people from most walks of life played any musical instrument and some danced their ways into winning lucrative prizes.

In recent times, the competitions between schools (Americans should think of them simply as major samba dance troupes) has grown very fierce.

The best way I can compare Carnaval to some big events in the United States every year would be like combining the Tournament of Roses Parade (minus the extended lanes in Los Angeles every New Year’s Day morning), with the last night of Mardi Gras and the entire week leading up to the Super Bowl.

Except, there is one major difference…and that I will explain at the end of this blog.

Earlier in February, I tried to ask six different current MPB’s via email their individual thoughts about their memories of Carnaval’s from days gone by and most of them did not send me a response.  As a matter of fact, only a few replied back but were too occupied with other things that I hope to highlight in future weeks here in this blog.

Most of the key information I found fascinating was from the 2007 National Geographic Channel documentary, which you can find easily on YouTube using the search term “Rio Carnaval” and it should pop right up.

Basically, the schools that have the huge tradition and more workers usually end up putting on the biggest floats and recruit more musicians and dancers to join.  By contrast, the schools that don’t have much in ways of tradition and are basically startups can join anywhere from $300 to $600 per troupe (but I imagine those prices, just like those coveted Super Bowl commercials have skyrocketed in price).

They all gather starting the Friday night before Lent begins (around the same time many hearty tourists descend on New Orleans for Mardi Gras and “Fat Tuesday”) at a place called the Sambadrome–first used for this spectacle in 1984 after several temporary places were constructed and immediately taken down.

Conveniently located right near one of Rio’s busiest expressways are also many warehouses where for nearly 364 days, these samba schools devote 15 to 18 hour days as their life’s work.  Just like the parade organizers in Pasadena, they start over planning for the following Tournament of Roses Parade every January 2 and the Macy’s people in New York City do similar work after Thanksgiving starting either in late November or early December.

Every detail from the floats themselves to the costumes worn by the dancers and the overall placement of the flag bearers have crucial bearings from the judges.

This week, nestled in mostly seedy areas–everyone had a chance to iron out some last minute details and some schools performed at area bars.  The hours leading up to their nationally televised spectacle will have the floats traveling by foot on very narrow 2-lane streets.  In the documentary I mentioned above, a robot’s hand nearly got caught in a street light.  That held up things for over 40 minutes as other floats waited impatiently to get admitted before the event began.

A crowd of over 70,000 people would line up in over a 1/2 mile stretch, which is about the equivalent of 1/6 the depth of a normal NFL football end zone going from sideline to sideline.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

Each school gets a maximum of eighty (80) minutes to perform.  And there is a small clock keeping track of the minutes, but I wish they would add seconds to that clock to make it easier for the fans sitting nervously inside to pass the time better.  At least, fans are encouraged to bring pillows just in case they wish to get a bit of extra shut-eye (but with all of those loud drum beats, I would just simply try to catch a taxi and watch the festivities on television).

If it rains, the people will still perform as long as there is no lightning.  The 2007 documentary had pouring rain and lots of thunder, but people did not scurry for cover.  They just kept on playing.

The people in the poorest and run-down areas can still watch the event on big screen TV’s within short walking distance of the Sambadrome.  I know that cannot be done at the Super Bowl due to the times and circumstances we currently face as Americans.

Also unlike the Super Bowl or the early rounds of the NCAA basketball Tournament, Carnaval usually lasts until the wee hours of the morning.  And people from all corners of the globe come to participate in Rio’s really big party.

The biggest difference is when they choose the winning school…

People in Brazil have to wait until Ash Wednesday to find out who won.

And yes, for the ladies reading…

there are separate awards given for Best Floats, nicest costumes and separate awards to the Best Flag Bearer and their usual male assistants.

But what I found most shocking is that in the schools that do not win, they usually fire their managers/owners–within days after the competition and they go to a rival school and somehow spark new bonding and teamwork either the following year or longer.

It would be like if in baseball that the manager of October’s World Series champion being shown the pink slip just days after the team’s victory parade because the owners had to do a “fire sale” and go cheap on the payroll.  The closest team in recent history that nearly fit this trend was the Florida/Miami Marlins after winning it all in 1997 and again in 2003.

Overall though, with all of the chanting, dancing, and constant drum playing–Carnaval is definitely not for the faint of heart.  I bet lots of people get a lot of headaches after seeing just ten minutes into one school’s performance, let alone for several hours.

If you want to see it for yourself, YouTube will stream the entire event live as Rio is two hours ahead of Eastern Time–just look for the links.

One final note:  During the Summer Olympics in August of 2016, both the archery competition and the start plus the finish to the marathon on the Olympics final day will both take place inside the Sambadrome.  Workers will have to transform a modified playing surface and seating arrangement in a matter of days, according to the Rio 2016 website.  It should be interesting to see how the crowds will react during both events when that time comes.


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