Carnival Impressions

View from elsewhere 18.02.2023

On this day of February 2023, Bastien Gallet is in Rio de Janeiro and the carnival, a few days before its official opening, has already invaded the Brazilian city. Of Portuguese origin, this festival which announces Lent gathers every year more than 50 000 people who come to see the samba schools marching in the Sambodroma and to accompany the street blocos which walk around the city singing and dancing. If its current form dates back to the 1930s, the carnival inherits from much older traditions - African, European and Amerindian - of which it has managed to operate a brilliant synthesis. 

This Sunday morning, on the street of the Botanical Garden, the sounds of Rio have fallen silent. A few residents are walking their dogs. Cars are driving elsewhere, diverted to the edge of the street by the city's police. It is enough to walk a little, however, to see the first signs. A group of costumed cariocas, a rumor in the distance made of bass, snare drums and saturated voices. The atmosphere has just changed. Two hundred meters after the Botanical Garden, we guess the truck from the roof of which singers, masters of ceremonies and first bateria address to an already dense crowd. The closer we get, the more we feel the invasive presence of the streetbloco. Soon all other sounds will have disappeared, covered by the mass of its percussion: drums(surdos and repinicas), snare drums, tambourines, chocalhos (small cymbals), agogôs (two-tone bells) and cuicas (rod drums). Its name is Suvaco de Cristo, the armpits of Christ. The expression must be taken literally: those who look up from the street of the Botanical Garden see the statue of Christ the Redeemer, the emblem of Rio, at the top of the Corcovado. The bloco scrolls under his armpits, which can be understood in two ways: as a carnival inversion joke, Christ sweats with us who walk under him, but also as a protection rite, if you see his armpits, it is because he has extended his arms and we parade under his wings, of which a famous march, intoned at every Carnival, asks that they open for the one who wishes to pass(Ó abre alas / Que eu quero passar)*, enter the dance and the party or from life to death.

This Sunday, February 12, five days before the official opening of Carnival, the streets of Rio belong to Suvaco de Cristo, Cordão do Boitatá, Carrossel de Emoções(Carousel of Emotions), Tambores de Olokun, Acorda e Vem Brincar(Wake up and play), Vai Tomar no Grajaú, Fogo e Paixão(Fire and Passion), Tá Pirando, Pirado, Pirou!(bloco conceived by and partly composed of patients of the psychiatric hospital Philippe Pinel), etc., to name a few. There are more than two hundred and fifty street blocos in Rio for about seventy samba schools. The latter parade in the double-tiered street of the Sambodrome Marquês de Sapucaí, a monument imagined in the 1980s by the governor of Rio and designed by Oscar Niemeyer to make Carnival both the spectacle and the showcase of the city and of Brazil. Every year, schools compete with art and virtuosity to win the prestigious Samba de Erendo competition, which can be translated as theme or narrative samba. The composition of this musical story and the show that accompanies it is the work of a whole year that finds its accomplishment at the end of February in the alley of the sambodrome.

The street blocos march through the city, without an audience other than those who join the procession, but also without any other constraints than walking to music. However, one cannot oppose the spectacle of the samba schools to the freedom of the blocos. If the construction of the sambodrome was certainly a way for the political power to normalize the practice of the carnival, that never prevented the schools, which are installed in the popular districts of Rio and are composed in majority of Afro-Brazilians, to politicize their enredo. Thus, in 2019, Mangueira won the competition with a samba that celebrates the history of those silenced by the Brazilian state or its militias, from Luìsa Mahin to Dandara dos Santos and Marielle Franco (murdered in 2017 and 2018), a song that has become one of the anthems of Carnival**.

I arrived in Rio on February 5 to participate in a street bloco, Panamérica Transatlântica, born in 2019 as a reaction to the election of Jair Bolsonaro as president of Brazil and initiated by Chilean artist Viviana Mendez and Brazilian filmmaker and poet Dado Amaral. A pan-American and transatlantic bloco, composed of Brazilians, French, Chileans, Argentinians, Spaniards, etc., a strange and disparate community united by a project and a desire. It's been three years since we marched and a few months since Bolsonaro was in power. On February 20th, we will leave from Praça de Harmonia, in the center of Rio, where we will return, if all goes well, a few hours later. 

I said that we were brought together by "a project and a desire" but it is true that in 2019 my desire was quite vague, as I knew nothing about Carnival. We had to build this desire collectively, to make it a common and tri-lingual project. Above all, we realized that Carnival was a strange and very powerful advertisement of desire in the sense that it consists of making public what the social order tends to conceal or forbid: bodies and their skin, their dances, their touch, their kisses, etc. What does not go without a whole staging, in music, in narratives, in costumes, in make-up and in adornments, in diverse and mobile scenographies, what one could call an arrangement in the obvie sense where a bloco only functions to arrange together all these elements and to put them in motion. Because a bloco, that it is official or unofficial, of sambodrome or street, desires by advancing, and by advancing appropriates what it could not possess, the city.


t is necessary to have followed the Cordão do Boi Tolo from the center of Rio to Lemme beach, through all the southern districts, from Lapa to Flamengo, until the road tunnel that connects Botafogo to the line of the beaches, that the bloco cheerfully blocks for hours before going back up by stretching endlessly from Lemme to Copacabana, to understand the singular power of these thousands of bodies that do nothing but walk while dancing and dance while singing.

Bastien Gallet 

* Marchinha composed and written in 1899 by the Brazilian composer and musician Chiquinha Gonzaga. The wings in the first line refer to the sections of dancers and musicians leading the parade, which here open to let the narrator pass.
** "Histórias Para Ninar Gente Grande"(Stories to put grown-ups to sleep). The third verse explicitly states what story this samba intends to tell, which is obviously not the official story.
"Brasil, meu nego
Deixa eu te contar
A história que a história não conta
O avesso do mesmo lugar
Na luta é que a gente se encontra"
" Brazil, my heart
Let me tell you
The story that history does not tell
The other side of the same country
It is in the struggle that we meet " 


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