Sorry, Seafair, I know Rio, and you're no carnaval

It took a lot of research, and beer, to find out what makes Rio's carnaval the world's greatest street party: its class-busting politics.

Crosscut archive image.

Tiquinho stands up for Botafogo and the freedom of the streets.

It took a lot of research, and beer, to find out what makes Rio's carnaval the world's greatest street party: its class-busting politics.

First, some bona fides. I know something about partying in the street. I’ve stumbled from Mardi Gras in New Orleans to têt in Saigon, poorams in Kerala, Colombo's Navam Maha Perahera, and the springtime water festivals in Yangon and Bangkok. I’ve felt the press of the crowd at saints’ days in the North End and the feast of Santa Lucia in her native Palermo, at the Fremont Solstice Parade and the WTO riots in Seattle.

After all of them and more, and after finally joining in February’s celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, I can attest: It’s true what they say. Carnaval in Rio is the greatest street party in the world. 

That’s not because of any of the amenities that attend it — not the music or the scenery in one of the world’s most musical and most beautiful cities, nor the astonishing floats and costumes that the samba schools flaunt in the enormous Sambodrome. That may be the world’s greatest parade (an elephant next to our mousy Seafair Parade), but it’s not a street party.

The real carnaval is what happens outside the Sambodrome, in neighborhoods rich and poor. And what makes it special is, at heart, its politics. Carnaval in Rio is the ultimate leveler, an irrepressible expression of class-crossing populist sentiment that defies every attempt to suppress, co-opt, and subvert it.

The Sambodrome parades are a marvel of organization and creative vision. Down in the streets, however, a marvel of disorganization — or rather, of dispersed, spontaneous self-organization by hundreds of self-formed, neighborhood-based groups called blocos — unfolds. The blocos swarm like ants, parading down the narrow streets and broad avenues for hours, with revelers — loyal fans and casual tag-alongs — thronging behind.

Their names compose a ribald distillation of carioca culture, and a cheeky dialogue: Céu na Terra (Heaven on Earth), Suvaco do Cristo (Christ's Armpit), Simpatia É Quase Amor (Sympathy is Almost Love), Que Merda É Essa? (What Shit Is This?), É Pequeno Mas Vai Crescer (It’s Small but It’ll Grow), Meu Bem, Volto Já (My Dear, I’m Coming Back), Volta, Alice! (Come Back, Alice!), and finally, Voltar pra Que? (Come Back for What?).

Carnaval’s good humor shows in its costumes. Satire and self-mockery are everywhere: One young woman toured with an impeccable replica of the street signs for a Copacabana junction where prostitutes supposedly abound — and above it that iconic Brazilian image, a row of tanga-clad (i.e., virtually unclad) female bottoms splayed on the beach. Another held her baby, both dressed in black-and-white prison stripes, and a sign: “Prisoner for life.”

Centurions menaced tonsured friars with plastic swords, but machismo was generally missing; instead, a disheveled sort of cross-dressing (wigs, bras, and three-day whiskers) prevailed, as it has for decades. I saw several women decked out as cops, but no men; the guys were all preening in shabby drag and a few days’ stubble.

Likewise blessedly absent: the morbidity that pervades when Americans costume themselves for Halloween or any other occasion. I saw one or two Death figures, many merry widows in filmy weeds, and one clovis who, true to tradition, scared the kids — but nary a zombie or vampire. This despite the fact that Brazil receives the same teen horror movies as America. If zombie mania signals American decay, does its absence betoken BRIC-era optimism?

Of course beer saturates the proceedings, even more than it does daily leisure in Brazil; it starts flowing when the blocos do, in the morning, and never stops. Vendors are everywhere, hawking cans of Antarctica from imposing carts, battered Styrofoam coolers, and everything between. Even on the street, in Rio’s sweltering summer, the beer must be stupefyingly cold — estupidamente gelada — or forget it. There is no sight more forlorn than a vendor whose ice has melted and whose beer has gotten warm, watching the best money of the year pass her by. According to one improbable published report, 70 percent of Brazil’s beer sales occur during Carnaval. I don’t believe it, but the fact that anyone would even repeat such a claim says something.

All of it is perfectly legal, of course. It is at first unnerving, then liberating, then just the way things are to be able to drink on the street, in the subway, everywhere. Up here, that would be a prescription for brawling, stumbling chaos.

There is of course ample violence in Rio — more than 2,000 officially reported homicides a year and at least twice as many actual killings. But it’s sober violence, committed for a purpose, however ghastly: robbery, fights over drug turf, vigilante “street-cleaning” by moonlighting cops. Not random venting.

In three days and a night of chasing the blocos along with tens of thousands of people, many if not most of them likewise drinking from morning on, I never saw anyone conspicuously drunk, nor one — one — display of rude, surly, or pushy, much less violent, behavior. Can you imagine Seattleites behaving so well while drinking freely at any event, much less on Fat Tuesday? Even the February chill hasn’t stopped them from shtupping in the street and beating each other to death in Pioneer Square.

Still, it’s not fair to compare our winter bar crawl with Rio’s week-long midsummer carnaval. The fairer comparison would be Seattle’s month-long, citywide summer festival, Seafair, which like carnaval includes a mainstage parade and lots of neighborhood parties. But consider the differences, aside from Rio’s obvious advantages of scale.

Seafair’s defenders insist that, however cheesy it may be, it’s the authentic, populist, pre-glam expression Seattle. But Seafair, like so many other Seattle milestones and traditions, is actually a boosterish contrivance: In 1948, a few business swells tooling around Lake Washington on car dealer William O. McKay’s Elco cruiser decided the town needed a summertime shot in the arm. Fiat Seafair.

The Torchlight Parade — excuse me, the Alaska Airlines Seafair Torchlight Parade Presented by AT&T & LG — is shamelessly promotional. Amidst the drill teams and school bands, local dignitaries from Drew Carey to the mayor do the pope-style ride-and-wave. If you’re not in the show, you sit docile on the sidelines. Even those scruffed-up pirates are an elite, self-perpetuating fraternity, with license to behave in ways no one else can and no other adult would want to.

Yes, I know, they and the Seafair Clowns raise charity money and go around entertaining children in the hospitals. If I were an ailing child I’d say, "Send in the clowns — and hang the pirates from the yardarms."

I saw scores of celebrants, mostly women, dressed as pirates in Rio, and none felt obliged to act like a lout. Down there, anyone with a funny hat and eyepatch can be a pirate, and anyone at all can join the parade. Rio could call in military seapower and airpower and jetboat hydrocarbon power to beef up its celebration, as Seafair does (though I’d hate to be a Blue Angel threading through Rio’s vertical terrain). But Brazilians don’t want all that.

Their memories of military dictatorship still smart 27 years after it ended. And they know that the only show of power carnaval needs is people power.

That’s the essential difference. Carnaval (the “lifting of the flesh”) is no boosterish invention. It rose from the social depths, in Europe and again in the Americas, as an eruption of defiant exuberance among the 99 percent, who were obliged to be meek and deferential the other 99 percent of the year. It resonates especially in Brazil, the destination for most of the slaves abducted from Africa, which the World Bank more than 20 years ago found had the most yawning income disparities of all the countries it surveyed.

“Because we inherited such a class-divided society,” one thoughtful carioca told me, “we try to invent spaces and times where those lines are annulled — beaches where you are practically naked and all equally bronzed, and carnaval, where you are either fairly naked or in costume.”

Carnaval arrived in Brazil in the form of the entrudo, the rambunctious Portuguese tradition of squirting passersby with sticky, colored liquids, taking the bigshots down a notch. (Wax and rubber “lemons” were the SuperSoakers of their day.) The entrudo supposedly died in the early 20th century, but three years ago I saw it going, revived and well, in the sleepy colonial town of São Cristovão, Sergipe.

Merry phalanxes — the men in skirts and wigs, the women dressed more naturally — marched through the streets behind oompah bands, carrying on mock spray wars and random collateral attacks with a concoction that looked like cranberry juice. The streets ran pink, a water truck sprayed down anyone who wanted to clean up or cool off, and everyone was happy.

Rio’s white bourgeoisie replaced the entrudo with more dignified festivities: carnaval balls at private clubs, the grandest of all at the rococo Municipal Theater; the parade of the Grand Societies, where they flaunted elegant costumes atop horse-drawn floats; and, in the 1950s, costumed corsos, cruising in open cars, a ritual confined to the small minority who could afford them. But the spontaneous mass carnaval spirit could not be squelched.

The poor and working folks didn’t just stand and watch the swells strut by. In the 19th century, slaves and free blacks started staging their own “little carnaval” on the side streets — pick-up parades in improvised costumes, to the tune of hearty singing and the beat of whatever drums were at hand. As in Rome’s Saturnalia, the slaves enjoyed a brief license to mock and mimic their masters under cover of costume, and social roles of every sort were inverted — hence the cross-dressing.

The elite saw that the real fun was down in the streets and joined the poor folks there. The carnaval balls, Grand Societies, and corsos all withered, and the blocos grew. The cycle that began when the medieval Church first tried to suppress, then co-opt carnaval — of populist rebirth and renewal in the face of elite bids for control — plays out to this day.

Last month my friend Tiquinho and I joined his old friend Zé Eduardo and their respective girlfriends to follow the blocos. Zé Eduardo is a major national figure: an ex-senator, former president and current operations director of the national oil company Petrobras, ex-president of the ruling People’s Party, and, as his Twitter handle proclaimed, “Botafogo forever” (Botafogo being a heroically underdog Rio soccer team, the Brazilian equivalent of the New York Mets). And here he was, in sunglasses, shorts, and yellow clown wig, drinking and dancing in the street like the rest of us.

Even the Sambodrome shows rose from the streets rather than descending from on high; they are blocos elevated to the nth degree of spectacle. The samba schools that stage them are based in the favelas and working-class neighborhoods, not in the chichi districts. They depend on millions of hours of year-round volunteer labor and, for funding, on donations from the illegal gambling rackets.

Like Botafogo and the Mets, the free spirit of the carnaval de rua bounces back from every attempt to crush it and the dissent and liberty it represents. Under the military dictatorship, the blocos revived as a medium of soft resistance and spread to prosperous beachfront neighborhoods like Copacabana and Leblon; one in particular, the Banda de Ipanema, became a democatic standard bearer.

How do you crack down on protest when it wears funny costumes, sings beloved songs, and dances en masse in the street?

Still, new killjoys keep insinuating themselves. Evangelical Christian fundamentalism, imported from the United States, is spreading like wildfire in Brazil, and making inroads even in carnaval. One samba-school organizer complained that it was getting harder to find dancers for the great desfiles; their pastors forbade dancing. On Monday morning we trooped downtown to catch one announced bloco — and found instead an evangelical rally, with an overmiked preacher droning to a sparse crowd and a few disconsolate beer vendors.

Tiquinho was outraged, first that these evangelical lambs would sneak into carnaval in wolf’s clothing and second that they’d fooled even him. He took umbrage again the next day, when we joined in Copacabana and encountered another apparent sacrilege.

The biggest challenge to Rio-style blocos has come not from juntas or evangelicals but from Salvador de Bahia, the other pole of Brazilian music and popular culture. It was there, in 1949, that a pair of carnaval musicians got the idea of building an elevated, motorized stage, called a trio elétrico, to lead the parade. The trios have grown from trunk-top platforms to massive towers with arena-rock sound systems, lit up like Vegas. They’ve spread from Salvador, where building and renting them is a big industry, across Brazil — even to Rio.

Musicians play atop these looming towers of disco — in Salvador, high-velocity electric axé beats. Or worse, DJs spin sounds while celebrities wave and babes shake for the masses. Bouncers typically rope off VIP perimeters behind the trios, where, for a price, supporters wearing the particular bloco’s official T-shirt can follow close and party royally, safe from the dense, pickpocket-infested general scrum.

But this cuts against the very fiber of Rio’s democratic street carnaval; the only VIP ropes there are those wandering volunteers stretch briefly around particularly animated celebrants, to give them room to dance and others a chance to cheer. The crews then dart off to create other instant VIPs. (I’m inordinately proud to say, I was a VIP for a moment in Rio.)

But then the Meu Bem, Volto Já crew roped off a big section of street, and Tiquinho reacted like a rangerider witnessing the fencing of the West. With Zé Eduardo getting his back, he jumped the rope and proclaimed that “a carnaval de rua” must be forever free and inclusive.

False alarm. They’d stretched the rope for safety, not separation — to clear space for a fellow in a Guy Fawkes mask and tricorn hat who bounced on construction stilts, courting a sweet-faced young woman on circus stilts with a billowing skirt ingeniously improvised from a camping tent, while a troop of maids in Bahian dress danced in sync. It was a captivating show, doubtless with some elusive allegorical meaning.

Tiquinho backed off. But he’d merely done what a carioca’s gotta do. Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.

For the history of Carnaval, I’m indebted to the vivid exhibition Abre Alas, currently presented by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Rio de Janeiro and Agência O Globo at the Palácio Tiradentes. If you visit Rio this month, don’t miss it.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.