* Irene's Country Corner * - Brasil - Carnival in Rio de Janeiro


© Pascale. Not for download. Please, visit Miss Price's Graphics if you like this graphic.

Carnival in Rio de Janeiro

The Samba Schools

Mangueira's float. Carnival 2000. © Mangueira
© Mangueira

Understanding what a samba school is can be confusing if someone has never been to Rio and isn't familiar with its carnival. Samba schools are not teaching institutions, they are associations of people who live in the same neighborhood, usually a popular community, or slums ("favela"), or a suburban area. They get together on a regular basis for samba meetings and rehearsals and to create the costumes, floats, and all other accessories that are used in the carnival parade. "Although today's samba schools are comprised of people from all races and social classes, they remain vital strongholds of Afro-Brazilian culture."

Each samba school has its own colors and a flag. The colors of Mangueira, the most famous samba school in Rio, are green and pink.

"Since their beginning in 1928, the samba schools (escolas de samba) have been an integral part of Rio's Carnaval and have evolved into a grand spectacle, an overwhelming experience for both participants and observers."

The first samba school to be known of, "Deixa Falar" (Let Them Talk), was founded in a neighborhood in Rio named Estácio on August 12, 1928. "Apparently, the name "samba school" was an ironic reference to a grade school across the street from where the group met. "Deixa Falar" was more like a club or a fraternity, dedicated to making music and parading during Carnaval.

On April 28, 1929, a group of people formed the samba school that ultimately proved to be the most traditional and longest-lived of them all: "Estação Primeira de Mangueira" (Number-One Station of Mangueira), whose founders included the famous composers Cartola and Carlos Cachaça."

Mangueira is the name of a neighborhood and a hill in the north of Rio de Janeiro. In the beginning of the century, Mangueira already had a good reputation as a samba place. In 1927, José Gomes da Costa, known as Zé Espinguela, suggested that him and his friends should create a "bloco" (a carnival group), and so the "Bloco dos Arengueiros" was born. The "sambistas" (people who make samba) from the "Bloco dos Arengueiros" had such prestige that they decided it was time to found a samba school and Cartola suggested that all carnival groups in Mangueira united to form a samba school. Then the "Bloco dos Arengueiros" and other "blocos" from Mangueira, such as the "Príncipe da Floresta" (Prince of the Forest, the most famous carnival group from Mangueira), among others, joined to form the "Estação de Primeira de Mangueira" Samba School, on April 28, 1928.

Cartola chose the name of the school, "Estação Primeira de Mangueira" and suggested that the colors green and pink should be the official colors of the samba school. These were the same colors of a carnival group named "Rancho dos Arrepiados", a group from Cartola's childhood carnivals. Some people say that Cartola chose the name "Estação Primeira de Mangueira" because Mangueira was the first train station departing from the Central Station. Others say that Mangueira was the second (São Cristóvão station was the first) and the reason why Cartola chose the name "Estação Primeira" was because at that time, a neighborhood was referred to as "estação" (station) and Mangueira was, in his opinion, the best "estação", the number one ("primeira"), thus the name "Estação Primeira de Mangueira" (Number-One Station of Mangueira).

In 1929, Zé Espinguela, one of the founders of Mangueira, promoted the first confrontation among the samba schools at Praça Onze, in downtown Rio. He was the the only jury and there were only three samba schools at that time. Mangueira was the winner. "In 1932, the parade became official and Mangueira received its first award. In 1935, mayor Pedro Ernesto officialy incorporated the samba school parade to the city's calendar."

In the same year, Paulo da Portela (Paulo Benjamim de Oliveira), Heitor dos Prazeres and others inaugurated "Portela", formerly named "Vai como pode". Portela was the most innovative of the samba schools for many decades. "It has been responsible for setting most of patterns that the others have followed. Its founder, Paulo da Portela, and his associates introduced into the parade such now obligatory items as the "enredo" (theme), the "commisão de frente" (front commission), and the "carros alegóricos" (decorated floats)."

The samba school parade was officially recognized by the government in 1935 and the samba, that until that time was played in Spanish guitars and "cavaquinhos", was introduced to percussion instruments such as "surdos" and "cuícas" and the modern samba was born. The parades, that used to happen at Praça Onze Square, located in downtown Rio, moved to Rio Branco Avenue (a large avenue also located downtown). In 1984, the Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue, known as "sambódromo", an avenue built specifically for the carnival parades, was created.

In 1952, the samba schools started to be divided in groups. Today, there are two major groups, the first one is called "Grupo Especial" (Especial Group) which is affiliated to LIESA (Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba) and the "Grupo de Acesso" (Access Group) which is affiliated to the AESCRJ (Associação das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro) and is divided into 5 other sub-groups called groups A, B, C, D and E.

Every year, the 14 samba schools of Rio that are part of the Especial Group, present their parade during two days of carnival (always a Sunday and a Monday) . Seven samba schools perform on Sunday and the other seven perform on Monday. The samba schools from the other groups (A, B, C, D and E), perform on Friday, Saturday and Tuesday.

The parade, apart from the entertainment and spectacle, is a competition between the samba schools. They are judged during the parade and only one samba school will be chosen as the Carnival champion. The jury gives grades from one to ten for "samba-enredo" (samba theme song), "comissão de frente" (front comission), "mestre-sala and porta-bandeira" (standard bearer and the escort), costumes, "evolução" (dance performance of the escola), "bateria" (percussion) etc. Each school has a limited time to begin and end its parade on the avenue. The samba schools from the Especial Group have a maximum of 80 minutes to perform. If a school exceeds this amount of time, it looses points.

The results are are announced to the public live from the "sambódromo" on the Ash-Wednesday (day that follows the last day of carnival). The winning school celebrates in its headquarters, stretching Carnaval for one more night.

Beija-Flor Samba School - © O Globo
© O Globo
Beija-Flor's "quadra" and its members celebrating
the championship of Canival 2003

Each carnival, one school from the Especial Group descends to group A and one school from the group A ascends to the Especial group. This happens to all other groups too. Schools from the group A descend to group B, schools from the group B ascend to group A, schools from group B descend to group C, and so on. This way every school has the chance to get to the Especial group one day.


© Pascale. Not for download. Please, visit Miss Price's Graphics if you like this graphic.


The Parade

Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue - Carnival 2000 - © Mangueira
© Mangueira
Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue - Carnival 2000

The Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue, popularly knonwn as "sambódromo", (or samba avenue), located in downtown Rio, was created in 1984 to be the place for the samba schools to present their show. Designed by the famous architect Oscar Niemeyer, it is a seven-hundred-meter-long pathway flanked by concrete stands that seat ninety thousand people.


At its end is the huge, aptly named Praça da Apoteose (Apotheosis Square). But the avenue is only part of the whole "sambódromo" which occupies a very large area.

Apoteose Square - Carnival 2005 - © LIESA


The first school to perform on the samba avenue was the "Império do Marangá". Before the construction of the "sambódromo", the samba schools performed on Rio Branco Avenue.

 On the right you can see Império Serrano's standard bearer and the master of ceremonies, during a parade at Rio Branco Avenue in 1968.


"Mounting samba school parade is a vast undertaking that involves tens of thousands of people, including musicians, dancers, craftsmen, costume-makers, and other contributors, but its basic format is always the same. To begin with, every parade must have a theme, the "enredo", which might be political or historical or a tribute to a particular person. Until 1996 the enredo had to be related to Brazil. It is chosen by the "carnavalesco", a type of art director who is responsible for the visual aspect of the escola. After the "enredo" is approved by the board of directors, the "carnavalescos" of each school write a synopsis of it, describing the message they want to visually convey in the parade. Then, around June, the synopsis is distributed among the school's composers so that they can begin writing sambas on the theme. Such a samba is called a "samba-enredo" (samba theme song).

When the composers have their sambas ready, they submit them to the directors, who choose the best ones. Around August, rehearsals begin in the school's headquarters, where musicians play old sambas and the contending "sambas-enredos". The reaction of the members to the new sambas will be decisive in the picking of the "samba-enredo" for the parade. On a certain night, usually at the end of October, the school chooses the winner from the finalists.

After a school's "samba-enredo" is chosen, all energy is focused on preparations and rehearsals for the parade. By this time, the "carnavalesco" has already designed and ordered the costumes for the "alas" — the parade units into which samba schools are divided. Each "ala" wears a different costume and plays a specific part in the development of the theme.


In between "alas" come the "carros alegóricos" — huge decorated floats that depict important aspects of the "enredo" (theme). These floats are true pieces of art, mixtures of sculpture, architecture, and engineering. On top of them stand the "destaques" — men and women wearing either luxurious, expensive costumes or almost nothing at all. The making of the floats employs hundreds of people.

Caprichosos de Pilares Samba School - Carnival 2005 - © LIESA
© Liesa
Two of the floats and some "alas" of the Caprichosos de
Pilares Samba School on the Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue.


© Liesa
"Ala" of the Unidos da Tijuca's Samba School
at the "sambódromo" on March, 6 2005.

Each big school typically has from four thousand to more than five thousand members who perform in its parade. To organize this many people is extremely complicated. That is what the "diretores de harmonia" (harmony directors) are for. They do not have fun. They just work. Hours before the school enters the Sambódromo, the harmony director begins organizing the parade in an outside area, the "concentração" (concentration), putting the arriving "ala" members in their proper places and setting all the "alas" in the right order."


A few minutes before the parade begins and the "alas" start to enter the samba avenue, the "puxador de samba" (name given to the main singer of a samba school), who comes on top of the sound float, begins to sing the samba theme song. Slowly the members of the school start singing with him.

Jamelão (Mangueira's main singer) - Carnival 2003 - © Portal Terra
© Portal Terra
Jamelão (wearing a hat) - Mangueira's main singer
on top of the sound float on March, 3 2003


Império Serrano percussion band - Carnival 2003 - © Globo.com
© Globo.com
"Bateria" of the Império Serrano's Samba School
on the "sambódromo" on March, 2 2003

"After the whole school has sung the samba one or two times without accompaniment, the most exciting moment in the parade preparation occurs: the musical entrance of the "bateria" (the percussion band). Some three hundred percussionists under the command of the "mestre de bateria" (percussion conductor) start playing perfectly."


"Right before the gates open and the clock starts running, fireworks explode in the air. The "comissão de frente" (front comission) steps into the Sambódromo, greeting people and asking permission to pass.

The bateria follows the first half of the escola into the passarela. They pass in front of thousands of spectators, and along the way come to a space set off to the side for the bateria to play in front of the jury. There, the drummers and percussionists play before the judges, while the second half of the escola passes. Then, the bateria, following the last "ala", closes the parade. By this time the next escola is preparing to enter the Sambódromo."

Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue - Carnival 2003 - © Globo.com
© Globo.com
The Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue seen from the
Apoteose Square and the fireworks - March, 2 2003


Imperatriz Leopoldinense's Standard Bearer - Carnival 2003 - © Portal Terra
© Portal Terra
Standard-bearer and the Master of Ceremonies from
Imperatriz Leopoldinense Samba School - March 3, 2003

Some of the most important individuals in the schools are the "porta-bandeira" (standard-bearer), who is always a woman and her escort, the "mestre-sala" (the male master of ceremonies, who accompanies her). "Dancing elegantly, the porta-bandeira carries the escola flag, while the mestre-sala dances around her, providing symbolic protection."


Not less important are the "baianas", normally old women from the community who dress in typical costumes for the parade. They are very acclaimed by the public when they come whirling with their long, heavy and round dresses along the avenue. It is very beautiful, especially seen from above.

Baianas from Viradouro Samba School - Carnival 2003 - © Portal Terra
© Portal Terra
Baianas from Viradouro Samba School
March 2, 2003


© Irene. Not for download. Please, visit Graphics by Irene if you like this graphic.The baianas are typical figures of Bahia. A baiana is how a woman from Bahia (a state in northern Brazil) is called. A typical baiana always wears a white dress and a turbant on special occasions or festivities. They are represented in all samba schools in Rio by women on baiana outfits, which are created accordingly to the theme of the school.

Baianas from Mangueira Samba School - Carnival 2003 - © Portal Terra
© Portal Terra
Baianas from Mangueira Samba School
March 3, 2003


© Pascale. Not for download. Please, visit Miss Price's Graphics if you like this graphic.


The rehearsals for Carnival

The rehearsals of all samba schools are open to the public and take place at clubs where local communities gather to do the samba and practice for the carnival parade. These simple places located in working class areas are known as "quadras" (the school's headquarters). Two of the most popular Rio's samba schools headquarters are Mangueira and Salgueiro.

Mangueira's "quadra", in Rio - © Mangueira
© Mangueira
Mangueira's "quadra"

The parade is open to everyone who wants to join. Those who want to participate just need to buy a costume, which are unfortunately very expensive. People from the school community and the percussionists don't pay for their costumes. Below are some costumes for carnival 2001, being presented in Mangueira's "quadra". During the rehearsals, the percussion plays on the higher stage which can be seen just above the central stage in this picture. The central area is filled with the crowd who sing and dance all night.

Presentation of the costumes for canival 20001- © Mangueira
© Mangueira
Presentation of costumes for carnival 2001 at Mangueira's "quadra"

Lots of people from the poorest to the richest parts of the city, as well as a large number of tourists and celebrities, go to the most popular "quadras" of Rio de Janeiro every weekend.

"Although some escolas in Rio are located in middle-class neighborhoods, many are in favelas or working-class areas, with mostly low-income people as their members. For them, the escolas are a source of pride and in some cases the center of the community in which they are located."


© Pascale. Not for download. Please, visit Miss Price's Graphics if you like this graphic.


* Back to the Carnival in Rio Menu *


  This page was created on: January 20th 2002.
Last updated on: February 10th 2005.

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 ~ Miss Price Graphics ~ Graphics by Irene ~ Country Patch Collections ~
Information from: "The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil"
Temple University Press, 1998, by Chris McGowan and Ricardo Pessanha ~ "Revista do Carnaval 2003",
a special project of Mangueira. English texts by: Lucia Broomberg ~
Mangueira's official website ~

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