Monday, February 28, 2011

Disaster in Samba City

Samba City, a complex near the port area of Rio de Janeiro, is where the warehouses of the major samba schools are located.

The warehouses, immense spaces with ceilings twelve meters high, have been built to accommodate the huge floats displayed in the parades.

The costumes are tailored and stored there – and so is everything else the schools need to put on their shows.

There was a time when the production and preparation was done in the neighborhoods where the schools were founded. Floats were constructed in the open air. Costumes were stored in the homes of the women who sewed them.

But the Cariocas (citizens of Rio de Janeiro) pride themselves on making every Carnival bigger and more elaborate than the last.
And bigger and more elaborate shows demanded more space for preparation.
So the schools began transferring their operations to abandoned factories.
Those factories were often in the outlying districts, making them difficult to get to.
Or in poorer areas, making them dangerous to visit.

Samba City, an initiative of the municipal government, was designed to end all of that.
Space was provided for each of the Class One samba schools.
The vast warehouses placed at their disposal could be used to hold social gatherings, do rehearsals, even put on shows for tourists – and thereby earn much-needed funds.

The neighborhood selected for the project wasn’t in the best part of town.
But the area inside the fence was to be heavily patrolled.
And the schools were promised a state-of-the-art sprinkler system that would protect them from fire.

The directors of the schools rejoiced.
The complex opened in 2005.

And, six years later, disaster struck.

A fire broke out.
The vaunted sprinkler system was faulty and inadequate.

Four of the fourteen warehouses were destroyed.

It couldn’t have come at a worse time.
It takes a year for a samba school to produce a show.
And, this year, there isn’t a ghost of a chance that three of them will be able to recover prior to the event.

In financial terms, the damage has been estimated at four million US dollars.
That’s big money for folks who live in shantytowns.

But the major damage, the emotional damage, is immeasurable.
The members of the samba schools live for carnival.
It’s the center of their existence, the most important event of their year.

The tourists aren’t going to be happy either.
As many as 700,000 foreigners are expected to attend Carnival in Rio this year.
And they’re not going to be able to see the show they might otherwise have seen.

If you’re unfamiliar with samba schools, or how the event is celebrated, I suggest you take a moment to read my post of February 7, 2010:

I posted it one year to the day before the fire.

This year, Carnival begins on Friday, the 4th of March. We'll be up all night throughout the weekend, watching the desfiles (parades) on television.

Leighton - Monday


  1. Leighton,
    The link to the earlier article does't seem to work. Or, maybe, it's just me.
    There was just one thing I wanted to check out anyhow. Those schools are in competition, I take it? Meaning that there's no way they would help each other when needed?

  2. Hi Mira,
    The link works - but differently.
    Once you've clicked on the link, scroll down and you'll find last year's article. It's probably because I used the same keyword for both.
    Sorry about that.
    And, yes, you're right. The schools are in competition.
    Judges grade them in a number of areas (rhythm section, execution of the theme, music and lyrics, etc.) and the schools with the lowest number of points are downgraded to the second rank, while the best of the schools from Category Two are elevated to Category One and permitted to perform in front of the big audiences the following year.
    It's very important to win, but it's even more important not to be downgraded.
    This year, in recognizance of the difficulties presented by the fire, no school will be downgraded.
    The Class Two schools are not pleased, but it was thought to be the only fair solution.

  3. That's a terrible tragedy, Leighton. I think I recall you mentioning that your wife was part of a school. If so, I hope it was spared.

    At the risk of being thought to take this lightly, which I do not, I should mention that buried somewhere in my closet is a costume similar to one in your photos.

    I think allowing you to guess at just which costume that might be will be far more interesting than my simply disclothing the answer, so to speak.

    As for what may be in Lenny's closet...

  4. Leighton--

    Man, between Stan's powerful post last week about the plight of South African women, Dan's disturbing post about the war on British libraries (yet another blow to my cherished illusions about English devotion to English, in all its forms, spoken and printed), and now this kick in the teeth of Brazilian joy, you guys have really been bringing the pain lately.

    In good, useful ways.

    In fact, the below-standard sprinkler system sounds like a classic Silva anecdote.

    As far as you, Siger--my closet? My closet? Who's the one who just posted about scouring Denver for cowboy fetish gear?

    Though I did enjoy the coincidence where you were in the lobby of the Brown Palace and ran into a musician who plays the Denver-Mykonos circuit.

    For those of you who haven't been there, the Brown has one of the best hotel lobbies in America.


  5. I just love it when you get so wound up, Mr. Kleinfeld. It beats boots and buckles any day.:)