History of the Rio Carnival

See how the tradition of Carnival and Samba began in Rio de Janeiro.

Carnivals have been a form of mass celebrations for centuries with many being held by the Greeks in honor of the god of wine. The Romans followed suit with festivals held in honor of Bacchus and Saturnalia where men spent a day in drunken revelry, following a tradition where masters and soldiers exchanged clothes. The Roman Catholic Church later made it into a feast leading up to Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent in the Christian calendar. 'Entrudo', a Portuguese festival is said to have influenced the Rio Carnival. The first Rio Carnival ball was held in 1840 with participants dancing the polka and waltz, in contrast to the samba which was introduced in 1917.

History of the Rio Carnival

The term Carnival is said to be derived from Carne Vale meaning 'Farewell to meat". This was in accordance with Lent, a 40-day period of abstinence from the consumption of meat, alcohol, and other worldly pleasures. This practice by the Catholics begins on Ash Wednesday, culminating in the festival of Easter. The weeklong celebrations at the Rio Carnival leading to Ash Wednesday is now one of the most famous events watched by millions throughout the world where samba parades are held all over the city including the Sambadrome. Twelve samba schools vie for the championship title at the stadium which hosts the Rio Carnival over a period of 4 days.

The Carnival's African Influence

Early carnivals in Italy were usually masquerade balls with an emphasis on costumes. The tradition soon spread to other European countries including Portugal, which is how the Brazil Carnival was born. The Portuguese brought a number of slaves from Africa, which is why the carnival has a strong African influence. The Africans used masks and costumes made of feathers, bones, grass, stones, and other elements in an attempt to invoke the gods and ward off evil spirits. All these had a symbolic meaning in ancient African customs and form an integral part in the design of costumes for the modern Rio Carnival.

The introduction of the Samba to Brazil and Birth of the Samba Schools

Samba music and dance has been associated with the carnival in Brazil since 1917. Samba is native to West Africa and Angola and was introduced in Brazil by the slaves who found solace in this type of music in times of adversity. With the abolition of slavery, many of these slaves moved south of the country to Rio and settled in places like Prace Onze and Cidade Nova, which became major centers for Samba music and dance. As the samba gained popularity, composers, musicians, and dancers gathered regularly to showcase their talent, forming clubs and associations that competed against each other. The formation of these groups led to the establishment of samba schools and the first official parade of samba schools took place in 1932. As the taste for samba grew so did the competition, leading to the formation of the Association of Schools of Samba City in Rio de Janeiro, the entity that organizes the Samba Parades at the Rio Carnival. The first samba school to be formed was "Deixa Falar" in 1928. Since then, samba schools have evolved over the years to form big organizations that resemble modern companies. The schools are well equipped with large infrastructures which enable them to prepare for the Rio Carnival each year. Each school has a devoted group of supporters, and well managed through a defined organizational structure. Most of them are dedicated to supporting low income communities in their neighborhood.

The Sambodromo – Heart of the Rio Carnival

The Sambodromo

Until 1984, one of the oldest streets in Rio, Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue was the venue for the Rio Carnival. However, the popularity of the carnival led to the construction of concrete structures on either side of the street. Designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the building was commissioned as 'The Sambodromo' and has played host to the Samba Parade since 1984. Every year thousands of dancers, singers, and musicians from the samba schools kick the Rio Carnival into high gear with a spectacle of floats, costumes, and Samba beats at the Sambodromo. The performances are grand and lavish as each school has around 85 minutes to show off all the hard work they put in throughout the year. Carnival Sunday and Monday are the two important days where twelve of the top samba schools compete for the championship title at the stadium.

Thousands of tourists from all over the globe flock to Rio to witness the Samba Parade and party in true Brazilian style. The event is televised worldwide for those who cannot make it to the 'Greatest party on the planet.' The Samba Parade at the Sambadromo is well organized and presented with each member playing a particular role in the parade. What makes the Rio Carnival unique is that the schools present different themes every year. Moreover, you won't find the same costume or act, which makes it one of the most entertaining events to watch. Admission to the Sambadrome is with tickets; however, you can get a free preview on rehearsal days which take place on weekends before the Rio Carnival.

Carnival Dates – An ancient formula

The Rio Carnival is celebrated over five days from Friday to the following Tuesday, known as Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent. For most Christians, Lent is a period for them to reflect on their lives and spend time communing with God. The purpose of the carnival is to have one final week of celebrations before abstinence for 40 days which ends on Easter, the day when Christ rose. The extent of the extravaganza may not have been what the church had in mind but there is no denying that the Rio Carnival is the biggest party on the planet televised to millions of homes around the globe. The dates of the carnival change every year according to the Church calendar. The date of Easter is determined by the moon and usually falls between March 22nd and April 25th and is arrived at by a formula designed by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. The dates for the 2019 Rio Carnival are from March 01st to March 04th.

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