Sunday, February 7, 2010

The Greatest Show on Earth

Not the Ringling Brothers Circus.
The parade of the great samba schools during Rio de Janeiro’s annual carnival.
Six schools perform each night; it takes place on the Saturday and Sunday before the beginning of lent, from about ten at night until long after dawn. This year it will be on the coming weekend.
Spectators and participants alike take the Metro (underground/subway) to get to the sambodrome. It’s part of the fun. You can count on the cars being packed with people in full costume. If you go, I recommend that you plan a year or so in advance, get together with three other people and take one of the tables that front on the barrier. They’re only an arm’s length away from the action.
If you’re like my wife, you’re going to arrive in costume and, when the time comes, you’ll join your samba school. 
Anyone can participate. You send them money, and they’ll make you a costume. They’ll also send you the music and the lyrics. You’re expected to attend at least one rehearsal, but you’ll want to do that anyway, because it’s a lot of fun..
If you’re positioned anywhere near the front of the school, you’ll be back at your table before the last participants go by.
Even moving at a pretty good clip, it will take them an hour and twenty minutes to cover the ground.
Exactly an hour and twenty minutes, no more and no less.
If it’s less, you lose impact.
If it’s more you lose points.
And the points are important because in addition to being a show, the parades are a deadly serious competition. Each year, one of the twelve schools of the first category is demoted and one of a lesser category is raised. Schools are judged on many parameters including music, rhythm section, floats, costumes, the performance of the Porta Bandeira (the lady who carries the school’s colors) and even the degree of enthusiasm of the participants.
You want to win, of course. But, most of all, you want to avoid the disgrace of having your school expelled from the first group.
My wife’s school (oh, yes, there are loyalties here, just as there are in futebol) is Salgueiro, or more properly (as below) G.R.E.S. Acadêmicos do Salgueiro.
Their colors are red and white.
As they’re about ready to kick off, she’ll be down there amid the massed ambulances and medical personnel (a number of heart attacks are suffered each year) surrounded by a lot of very nervous people.
And I’ll be sipping a beer and waiting for the red and white skyrockets to go off. Then, over the loudspeaker system that lines the Avenue Marquês de Sapucai, there’s a shout from the guy charged with singing the samba. “Here comes Salgueiro.”
And they come indeed, all 5,000 of them. Click on the link to get a hint of how Salgueiro sounded last year. But it’s only a hint. There is no way to capture the sound of 5,000 people in motion singing to a battery of 500 rhythm instruments.
By the way, they won!

Leighton - Monday


  1. Somehow it doesn't surprise me that your wife's school won. There's a lot of talent in her family. Now about those reservations for next year...

  2. I must say I have seen numerous news photos through the years from these festivities but the ones accompanying this post show the grand scale so much better. You lucky devil Leighton to be able to attend - being a horrible dancer I envy your wife less but can imagine that for someone with rythm it must be magical to be integral to the spectacle.

    regards Yrsa

  3. Congratulations to the wife and her school, and thanks for these absolutely exquisite photos. I want to see this celebration more than about anything I can think of.

  4. Hi Leighton,

    I could feel your excitement!
    Amazing photos.
    Please give my congratulations to your wife.


  5. WOW! I would not last 5 minutes!!! Great shots!

    I'm Jealous!

  6. Ever since seeing the movie "Black Orpheus" many years ago I have thought about going to carnival. At age 77 I guess I'll have to settle for well written , informative and colorful pieces such as this one by Leighton Gage to satisfy my craving.