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CARNAVAL – The Greatest Show on Earth

Every year, seven weeks before Easter, Brazil stops. It's Carnaval time. For five days from Saturday through Wednesday, as a climax to the Southern Hemisphere summer, the country sings and dances in dance halls and clubs, on the streets and beaches, or wherever there are people and music. In cities like Salvador, the celebration may go on for the whole month.

The music may be provided by a four-hundred-piece Escola-de-Samba drum section, a horn-and-percussion band, or a spontaneous group of people beating cans and bottles. Some wear special outfits for the occasion, some don't. You'll see clowns, pirates, sheiks, Indians, and lots of men dressed up as women. On display are as many different costumes as the imagination can conjure. Women dress in sophisticated costumes or in very little at all. Carnaval is a hedonistic party in which all that counts is joy and pleasure.

It has been said that the year does not start for Brazilians before Carnaval is over. Between New Year's Eve and Carnaval nothing really important is decided in Brazil. The weather is hot, people become more outgoing, and sensuality is in the air. But amidst all the craziness and frivolity, Carnaval serves the important purpose for Brazilians of maintaining cultural traditions encoded in the music, dance, and costumes of the celebrations across the country.



Carnaval arrived in Brazil in the form of the chaotic Portuguese Entrudo, in which celebrants would go to the streets and throw mud, dirty water, flour balls, and suspect liquids at one another, often triggering violent riots. The first masked Carnaval ball in Rio took place in 1840 at the Hotel Itália, with waltzes and polkas as the music of choice. Out in the streets, a young Portuguese shoemaker named José Nogueira Paredes had the idea in 1848 of entering a Carnaval parade and beating a big bass drum. In the following years many Zé Pereiras (a name that possibly was a distortion of José Paredes) filled the city with their songs and drums. The first European-style parade appeared in 1850, and these would become competitive events with horses, military bands, and adorned floats, often sponsored by aristocratic groups.

Around this time, Rio's poor people, who could not afford tickets to the expensive masked balls, and who were bored by the orderly parades, formed cordőes (male-only groups that celebrated violently in the streets) paraded to African-based rhythms. This Afro-Brazilian influence increased after 1870, when the decline of the coffee plantations in northern Rio de Janeiro state forced a great number of slaves and former slaves to emigrate. Many came to Rio, the capital of Brazil at that time, looking for work. They made their first organized Carnaval appearance in 1873 and are important in the history of Carnaval for their introduction of themes to their parades.

The Escolas de Samba

Since their beginning in 1928, the “Escolas de Samba” has been an integral part of Brazil's Carnaval and has evolved into a grand spectacle, an overwhelming experience for both participants and observers. The parade of the “Escolas” encompasses dazzling floats, outlandish costumes, thousands of dancers, and veritable symphony orchestras of rhythm. It is like a giant popular opera, with so much happening, musically and visually, that you can't possibly take it all in at once.

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