Rio is the city of samba and the Carioca Carnival is a celebration of samba in all of its manifestations, from the spectacle of the floats in the sambadrómo--a stadium designed by famous brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer specifically for the carnival competition between various samba schools--to the small neighborhood blocos, street or "block" bands. During Carnival, samba isn't just a music, its costumes and capirinhas, its friendly local rivalries (between the samba schools) and unrestricted revelry.
Samba schools, the large associations that compete in the iconic parades, begin to host ensaios or rehearsals so the general public can get a taste of what they can expect during the official parade. Blocos similarly begin to hold events in the street and any given outing or party becomes filled with the air of anticipation.
After months of co-workers at ABTH insisting that I participate in a desfile or parade, I decided to take up Ronaldo on his offer to join Viradouro, the school based in Niterói. Starting a few weeks before Carnival, we would meet every Thursday with our ala--or wing-- to practice the choreography. Each samba school, there are 12 in the top ranking, is divided into alas, which are like individual components of a school's entire parade. Our ala was made up a pairs of Preto Velho and Preta Velha, spirit incarnations from the Umbanda religion of black elders who died while still enslaved, and the theme of Viradouro's entire parade was an homage to Afro-Brazilian identities. Each ala of Viradouro's parade consisted of various aspects of Afro-Brazilian cultures, from Bahian women to capoeira figures. Like the other samba schools, Viradouro's musical selection embodied its theme; the school adopted two Samba's from well-known composer Luiz Calos da Vila: "Nas veias do Brasil" and "Por um dia de graça" ("In the veins of Brazil" and "A day of goodwill.")
The thrill of that night carried on into the rest of the week, as I embraced Rio's street Carnival. Dozen's of blocos performed through out the city everyday from as early as 8 am to well into the morning of the next. Some highlights were Carmelitas in Santa Teresa, a bloco supposedly formed by nuns who fled the convent to Samba; Sargento Pimenta in Flamengo, a samba inflused Beatles cover band; and Orquestra Voadora, also in Flamengo, a pop-big band bloco.
While the main events took place before Ash Wednesday, my two absolute favorite musical experience came during "post-carnival." On Thursday night, I went with my roommate Kelly and two Peruvian visitors to see local Rio band AfroJazz. The played in Bola Preta's, one of the oldest and most well known Carnival blocos, club to a devote yet tame by carnival standards crowd. It was great to finally be somewhere for the music rather than for the full on experience of carnival in all of its excesses.
But the highlight for me was Friday night, when I went with Sarah and a few other friends, including Luciano, to see Monobloco at the Fundação Progresso. Monobloco started as a street band like many others but has now become a household name throughout Brazil. The event had all the glam of carnival--we even got our makeup done--but in the somewhat controlled setting of Rio's premier cultural center. Even though I was basically running on fumes, the energy could not have been higher!