Samba and Sun: Why Carnival in Rio is a Pioneering Festival

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro is a world-renowned celebration that brings together millions of people with its dazzling parades, vibrant music, and high energy. The streets of Rio come alive with an explosion of colors, rhythms, and festivities, attracting visitors from across the globe. We’ll dive into the heart of this extraordinary event, exploring its history, traditions, and the unique experiences that make the Carnival in Rio so special. 

According to some, the origins of carnival can be traced back to ancient Greece, where it began as a spring festival dedicated to Dionysus, the god of wine. The Romans later adopted this tradition, incorporating a feast in honor of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and the festival of Saturnalia. During Saturnalia, a day marked by excessive revelry, masters and the enslaved would exchange clothing. The Roman Catholic Church later transformed Saturnalia into a pre-Lenten festival, aiming to temper the celebrations. However, the result was a widespread celebration marked by indulgence in music, dance, food and drink, contrary to the Church’s original intentions. In Brazil, the roots of Carnival can be traced back to 1723 when Portuguese immigrants introduced the Entrudo, a lively celebration involving people dousing each other with water, throwing mud and food, often leading to street brawls.

Throughout the 1800s, the carnival underwent various transformations. Organized parades like the grandes sociedades featured the Emperor and aristocrats in masks, adorned with luxurious costumes and accompanied by music. The 1840s saw the rise of masquerade carnival balls set to polkas and waltzes, while a decade later, street parades with horse-drawn floats and military bands became the most popular event. By the end of the century, the carnival became a working-class festivity, characterized by costumes, parades, and musical accompaniment. During years of military censorship, carnival was a platform for expressing political dissatisfaction. Samba Schools, formed in 1928 with Mangueira being the first, used irony and sarcasm to voice grievances against the government. The pulsating rhythms of samba, passed down by Africans during enslavement, became an integral part of the Rio Carnival in 1917. 

Today, samba is an important component of Brazil’s cultural heritage, blurring the economic class divide and uniting Brazilians in a wholesome form. The Sambadrome, built by architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1984, replaced the streets as the main stage for the carnival, with the samba parade becoming the flagship event. Stretching for 700 meters, the Sambadrome becomes the stage for the city’s top samba schools to showcase their creativity and talent. The atmosphere is crowd and community enhancing, cheering for their favorite schools and participating in this festival experience. 

While the Sambadrome is the epicenter of the Carnival, the streets of Rio also come alive with spontaneous celebrations known as “blocos.” Joining a bloco allows visitors to experience the more intimate and spontaneous side of Carnival, dancing through the streets with locals and partygoers. Aside from this, there are several other activities indulging in Brazilian food, art and community, engaging both the large and small-scale attributions of the country to express what the culture truly brings to livelihood.

Sambadrome Parade

Undoubtedly, the Rio Carnival’s most recognizable feature is the intricate, handcrafted costumes. This celebration is all about donning extravagant attire, with the level of dress being flexible – whether underdressed or overdressed, it’s all part of the experience. While complete nudity is prohibited, the parades feature nearly naked Samba dancers. The costumes are the main attraction in the parades, designed to mirror the theme of the performing school. If one wants to join the samba schools in the main Sambadrome parade, their costume is their entry ticket. These costumes align with the school’s parade theme, and each wing within the school wears specific costumes tailored to their roles. The responsibility for creating and designing these costumes falls on each school. 

Participating in a ground wing is particularly exhilarating, where you can feel the dancers’ energy and the audience’s excitement. Television cameras broadcast the performance worldwide, with 80,000 spectators cheering you on as you dance past. It’s an incredible life-changing experience. Floats are a major attraction, requiring major planning and design. The color scheme of costumes aligns with the school’s colors, and being selected to ride on a float is both an honor and a significant responsibility, as your performance can sway the judges and impact your school’s competition standing. However, you don’t need to be a part of a samba school to enjoy the privilege of wearing a carnival costume. Visitors can participate by wearing elaborate costumes at street parties throughout the festival. 

Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival is  completely mesmerizing, a celebration that welcomes people all over the world, but gives a raw and authentic taste to where many party influences derive from. Cultural boundaries, economic differences, it is all blurred for the admiration of performance, music, art, dance, food, amongst many other community bonding elements. Whether you’re dancing in the streets with a bloco or bringing your energy to the Sambadrome, the Carnival in Rio is an unforgettable experience leaving a mark on the beauty and morale of Brazilian culture. 

Find more information and tickets here


Previous Post
The Power of Glimmers
Next Post
Join the Festisia Blog Writing Team