Before I moved to Brazil, when I thought of Carnaval I imagined that the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, with its incredible costumes, semi-nude samba dancers and competitive nature was what Carnaval is all about. Turns out there is a great deal more to it, and the Sambadrome parades are just one element of what is, without question, the world’s largest party.
At the heart of Carnaval lie the “blocos”. Historically the term “bloco” has been used alongside other terms (such as “rancho” and “cordão” which are no longer current as far as I am aware, at least in South-eastern Brazil) to denominate large, organised (or disorganised) street parties or parades. These are attested since the mid-nineteenth century and it is probable that Brazil has been the home to the world’s biggest street parties since then.
Blocos can be good, bad, beautiful and ugly. Crime and violence are endemic in Brazil, as are easy-going charm, gentility and an exceptionally democratic view of body image. At a bloco you might get drunk, hook up with someone (or several people), have your phone stolen, make and lose new friends, get lost in the teeming hordes of revellers and/or all of the above.
There are gay blocos, Fascist ones, communist ones, “intellectual” ones and children’s ones. There are small, local blocos which might occupy nothing more than a stretch of street near your house, and massive mega-blocos covering a huge area of the city with hundreds of thousands of revellers present.
When Carnaval starts and finishes depends on where you are. In theory, it ends on Ash Wednesday and starts a week or so before. In practice, the pre-Carnaval period can extend back to the beginning of the year or before and the post-Carnaval period can also go on for a while – in blatant defiance of Lent.
Brazil has an incredible diversity of regional music styles, and Carnaval music and practices vary accordingly. The samba is only one of scores of popular Brazilian dance styles and is not native to every area of the country (although as the “samba nacional” it was promoted during the Estado Novo period in the 1930s, and the widespread use of radio to popularise Rio de Janeiro fashions led to a profusion of local samba forms). The northeast, in particular, has a rich Carnaval heritage, with its most famous expression in the city of Recife. The dances most readily associated with the Recife Carnaval are frevo and maracatu – but there are samba schools there as well.
Until recently, São Paulo was not known for its Carnaval. It was a place to avoid in February. All that changed during the administration of the last mayor, Fernando Haddad, who was keen to incentivise the city’s street life. The results were explosive. Last weekend São Paulo was host to 187 blocos attended by 4 million revellers – and last weekend was just one of the pre-Carnaval weekends. Today (Saturday) the bloco schedule includes 47 separate parties. I’m going to the first one of the day after I finish this article.
It’s hard to say what fuels the Brazilian appetite for fun. Alcohol, drugs and sex are an obvious component but there’s something more, something essentially, well, Brazilian. In my humble view, it’s the belief in the necessity for popular participation in an event for it to be worthwhile. In repressed Anglo-Celtic societies, parallel rows of people watching a parade is considered an event. In Brazil, you are expected to join in. There is no compulsion for you to do so, but there is no reason why you wouldn’t. Costumes tend to be silly and slapdash, no-one really cares how you look or how you dance and you can stay around as long as you like. It is really a lot of fun.