Samba! Feathers! Glitter! Streamers! Confetti! — Carnaval has officially begun in Brazil!
A little bit of history
Did you know that the word carnaval is believed to derive from the Latin phrase carnem levare which means “to remove meat”? Carnaval, like Mardi Gras in the U.S. or Karneval in Germany, is a pre-Lenten celebration that ends on Ash Wednesday and has its roots in European Catholicism (or in earlier pagan traditions, depending on your source!).
Carnaval in Brazil is a transcultural phenomenon and its history is inextricably linked to European colonialism and African slavery. The Portuguese settlers of Brazil introduced Entrudo (another name for Carnaval) during the 18th century. Initial celebrations evolved over the years and took on the form of masquerade balls, polka dances and waltzes. At this point, festivities were still clearly delineated according to social class—there were “Grandes Sociedades” for aristocrats, “Ranchos Carnavalescos” for the working-class, and “Cordões” for the lower classes (click here for more on this division).
What sets Brazilian Carnaval apart from all other celebrations in the world is the African influence made manifest in the pulsing beats of samba. Samba emerged from African slave culture in Brazil as an attempt to preserve their traditional religious worship practices from western Africa. By mixing traditional song and dance with forms of music deemed “acceptable” by the colonizers, the African slaves gave tribute to their orixá, their gods, in a concealed manner. When slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, many former slaves left the northeast region of Bahia to migrate south, transporting their music with them. Samba eventually made its way to Rio and 1917 is revered as the year of its official “emergence”. In 1928, the first Escola de Samba opened; many others followed and this eventually gave way to the famous Carnaval samba competitions and parades in Rio. In 1983, Oscar Niemeyer (a name familiar to anyone who lives in Brasília!) was commissioned to construct the Sambódromo as the official samba competition site.
Carnaval in Brasília
If you want to go to the heart of Carnaval, you go to Rio, of course. But given the fact that we have a one-year old toddler on our hands, the timing for such an adventure was not right! Nevertheless, we have actually found several Carnaval events around the city that are perfectly suited for children. Last Sunday, we hopped on our bikes and made our way to a small bloco celebration in Asa Norte. Sidenote: I thought these bloco celebrations were specific to Brasília, given the construction of the city, but they actually evolved from the above-mentioned “Cordões” in Rio.
These little bloco parties are quaint in comparison to the larger parties taking place throughout the city, but no less lively or exuberant (though definitely less glitzy!). What has amazed and delighted me most about these celebrations is that they are so inclusive—very different, obviously, than the beginnings of Carnaval. The one we attended was specifically advertised for children, but there were people of all ages: wobbly toddlers fascinated by the confetti, tipsy teenagers looking cool and sexy, happy parents sipping a beer while their children dance and chase each other through the crowds, and older generations who were simply there to enjoy the music. Though I know our baby boy doesn’t understand what was going on, he was fascinated by the spectacle and took it all in with his huge eyes. It occurred to me that Brazilian children grow up with this yearly event—great efforts are made to include them, to create events that they can participate in (his swim class and daycare are also hosting parties this week!). Everyone was there to have a good time, to chill and to dance. Groovy. A certain “joie de vivre” pervaded the entire atmosphere and I loved it. This is Brazil at its best.
What I am taking away from Carnaval is that it is a time of release, a time of catharsis for the troubles and struggles throughout the rest of the year. It is a time to celebrate life, to bend rules, to upend conventions. It is about excess, spectacle and indulgence. It is escapism at its purest. And perhaps we all need a little bit of that right now.
Here are some links I referred to while writing this. If you are interested in learning more about Carnaval, check them out: