- The Washington Times - Friday, January 27, 2006

RIO DE JANEIRO — A single voice rises, calling to order the dancers and musicians who make up Mangueira, one of Rio de Janeiro’s premiere samba organizations. The deepest bass drums answer, their rumble punctuated by the tinkling sounds of hundreds of tambourines, and Mangueira’s 5,000 participants sweep out for the Carnaval parade.

Sequined costumes, some small enough to fit in the palm of one hand, are often topped with feathers in Mangueira’s traditional pink and green. Dancers shimmer and shake, following the frenetic samba rhythm set by the 500-person percussion section.

About 30,000 spectators crowd the bleachers, dancing samba and singing Mangueira’s theme song, which has been playing on the radio for weeks. The roar of voices and drums echoes in my belly. I forget the awkward shoulder harness bearing my load of feathers, my too-big shoes and the plastic parts of my costume, which stick to me in the heat.

After a lifetime of watching Rio’s Carnaval parade as an expatriate Brazilian, I’m part of a 5,000-person river of light and sound under the floodlights of the Marques de Sapucai, an avenue outfitted to accommodate Rio’s yearly celebration of excess and hedonism.

Officially, Carnaval goes from Friday to the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday — days when Brazilians on either side of the country’s deep social and economic divide can cast aside their worries and chalk up some sins in anticipation of the 40 days of abstinence and repentance during Catholic Lent.

Dates change every year, and this year, festivities officially start on Feb. 25.

The festival, which originated in ancient pagan celebrations of spring in Europe, acquired regional flavors as it soaked up local music and customs in cities as disparate as Venice and New Orleans. In Rio de Janeiro, the masked celebrations imported by Portuguese colonizers took to the streets and picked up rhythms brought by African slaves, leading to the fast-paced, percussion-driven samba beat.

Traditionally, Carnaval is a time for crossing the line, when men dress as women and the poorest take over the city’s streets, covered in glitter and gold. All of the 14 top samba schools that compete every year draw their inspiration and most of their participants from Rio’s hillside slums.

However, Carnaval reaches far beyond the parade, and even its democratizing force doesn’t completely erase the lines that divide Brazilian social strata.

Samba school rehearsals start as early as September and are open to anyone interested in straight-up samba dancing in a no-frills atmosphere for as little as $2. Dress simply, wear comfortable shoes, and sweat the night away in large warehouses as the percussion section of each school practices the year’s theme song.

Roving street bands, known as blocos, meander in some of the city’s best-known neighborhoods, such as Ipanema, spreading their own brand of chaos and attracting anyone who cares to join. The blocos tend to be middle- to upper-middle-class affairs, poking fun at politicians, public figures and, last year, at a U.S. newspaper article that dared to suggest that the obesity epidemic had hit Rio’s beaches. It later turned out that the female beach-goers photographed for the story were from Eastern Europe.

Black-tie Carnaval balls, surreal combinations of luxury and eroticism that attract politicians, actors, models and the like, can cost up to $200 per person and offer the wealthy an opportunity to party away from the masses. The most glamorous, held at upscale hotels such as the Copacabana Palace, require a tux, formal dress or a costume. There are a handful of other, less costly parties, too.

Nevertheless, the two-night Carnaval parade, with its stylized subversion of Brazil’s social order, remains, for me, the best symbol of the season. For their brief moment of glory on the avenue — each school has an hour and 20 minutes to cover the one-mile stretch and dazzle spectators and judges — men and women with little free time and even less spending money work for a year to create a luxurious celebration of abandon.

Last year, Mangueira came in sixth — a disappointment for one of the most established samba schools. For this dazzled first-time participant, however, it was the experience of a lifetime.

Carnaval events:

For detailed information on Carnaval events, including the time and route taken by the wandering blocos, check out the English/Portuguese Web site for Rio de Janeiro’s official tourism agency, Riotur, at www.riodejaneiro-turismo.com.br/pt/.

The magazine Veja, on newsstands each Sunday, comes with a smaller magazine devoted to Rio, called Veja Rio, which carries a schedule of events, including the best-known Carnaval balls.

Recommended reading:

For a good introduction to life in a favela, a hillside slum, during the year leading up to the samba parade, read “Samba,” by Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage, $13).

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