Despite intentions, we actually ended up at the Rio Carnival Parade after all. We had a couple of days dithering about the cost, and then about the time (we had an early flight the next carnival floatmorning) but eventually decided to pay up. The prices had come down a little from what was emailed 3 weeks before and our trawls through the local papers would simply reveal things like that the final 4% of tickets had been released and were on sale in various obscure parts of the city.

We ended up paying £120 each for some of the cheaper seats overlooking the main parade section. (There´s a very complicated system of sectors and ticket types and a real hierarchy of views.) In the end I really can´t complain about what we got for the money. I´ve certainly never seen a display like it.

Although we read plenty of advice on the best positions to watch the parade, and eventually chose the cheaper seats I don't think it would have made much difference paying more. When we arrived (about 9pm, missing the first school) we could barely move up on the grandstands and felt we were going to be stuck on the entrance steps for the whole show. Butcarnival float with few problems we pushed to the front and spent the evening on the front tier of the concrete steps. There was a fair peppering of foreigners – people from Mexico and from Bahrain – and great friendliness. The locals were constantly asking where you'd come from and trying out bits of different languages, sharing food and binoculars. It emptied out towards the early hours, though I can't see how the suggestion in the guide books of arriving at midnight and buying up tickets from departing crowds would have worked because half the ticket was kept by the machines at the entrance.

The initial shock is the scale. Each of the winners (the parade of champions re-runs the six highest scoring samba schools from the 14 competing the weekend of carnival itself) took an hour to pass and would consist of 6-8 gargantuan floats punctuated by literally thousands of costumed participants.

Each school would have a big theme for the year. The winners this year ran one on reviving the dreams of Simon Bolivar leading the local media to declare that Hugo Chávez had won the carnival. The other themes covered everything from the primal elements, to the Spanish exploration of the Amazon to the history of Brazilian architecture(!). NB. I'm told subsequently that the winning school – Vila Isabel – had sponsorship from the Venezuelan oil industry.
(to be completed later – I´m shattered. Currently in Argentina looking at waterfalls)

There's a certain formula to each school's parade. The drum section (bateria) lines up with the singers by the start of the parade section and launch into the theme samba which is sung repeatedly for the entire parade. The song is published before the parades (and available on CDs afterwards) and the lyrics are printed in the carnival guides with the choruses highlighted for the crowds to join in. The song follows the theme of the parade and the catchiness (and singability) varies a lot!

The first element in the parade would be a set piece (Commisão da Frente) that is repeated every 50m or so down the parade. Imperatriz's theme was 'One for all and all for one' and had musketeers prancing around on hobby horses while Grande Rio had conquistadors invading a series of moving huts that twisted and turned themselves inside out toshow what was happening on the inside.

Each parade will have a Porta-Bandeira and Mestre de Sala, the standard bearer and the salon master who dance intricate moves (apparently a minuet from some old Portuguese traditions), kiss, bow and curtsey.

There would also be one or two girls (the rainha da bateria, the queen of the band – apparentlyMe at carnival a famous actress) dressed in minimal costumes or wearing quantities of long feathers, samba-ing elegantly in high heels. They might precede the bateria and flirt with the mestre da bateria, the band leader. The band is made up of drummers and other percussionist, several burly men singing into microphones and a set of ukelele players. One of the rainha da bateria managed to lose most of her bikini bottoms in front of our part of the audience but she gamely carried on.

Each school is allowed up to eight massive floats (the carros alegoricos) which are punctuated by crowds in costume. Again the sheer numbers and variety of costume is a shock.

Celebs would crop up in the parade – perhaps jumping out unexpectantly from one of the floats or leading the bateria in an extravagent feathered costume – and milk applause from the audience. We could judge the level of celebrity by the excitement and shouting behind us when someone was recognised.


Parati nights

Bloco singerThere´s a bloco of giant monsters: the `Ambassadors from hell´ accompanyed by an old man in a chair – roped firmly to the back of a pick-up – who waves regally at the crowds. Another group has the requisite girls and feathers, and minimal costumes. It´s enthusiastic but a bit amateurish compared to what we saw in Olinda where the drummers were finely honed, the singers pitch perfect and the dancers truly spectacular. There generally seems to be a lot less live music here and less variety in what´s being performed.

Encountering each other in the narrow streets, the groups negotiate and banter their way past each other, while we struggle to dance on treacherous flag stones, still muddy from high tide in the darkened backstreets of the town.

There were a plethora of men in badly-assembled drag, often accompanied by bemused girlfriends and displaying a good selection of Brazil´s tropical fruit stuffed down their blouse fronts.

The best of the blocos appeared past midnight on Monday. A group of what appeared to be farm workers simply stood outside the historic centre of Parati; two singers, accompanied by an amplified ukele, sang over a small group of drummers.

parati nights 


Rio carnival results

The Rio carnival parades are broadcast live throughout the night. On the Wednesday afterwards there are hours of voting with each of the 14 samba schools being awarded marks by about 40 judges; each mark read out individually. The schools are marked against not only samba skills but in wonderful categories such as `fantasy´and `allegory´.

[much later] OK, in shamefaced retropect I realise that 'alegorias' means floats and 'fantasias' are the costumes.  My phrasebook is seriously limited.  I think it's still a model for Eurovision.


Parade of mud

Obloco da lamane of the big carnival attractions here is the annual Bloco da Lama, the mud parade.

Saturday afternoon saw half the town saunter down to the distant end of the town beach, to the mangrove end where the sand gives way to thick dark grey mud.

Most just come to slide and plaster each other.  But some turn up with animal bones, vegetation and kelp and create fearsome monsters from the mess.

They then parade into the historic centre screaming the bloc chant of Uga, Uga, Ra.

bloco da lama

I didn´t jump in though.  I had underwear rather than trunks and had visions of my M&S pants sliding off under the weight of the silt.

While the Brazilians wander around in very little – incliuding those bikinis of your imagination –  there´s still a subtle code of decency. Top-less sunbathing is an absolute no-no.


Night of the silent drums

[back online after 4 days in fishing village 250km SW of Rio. I still haven´t found a way of getting photos uploaded]

Maracuta blocoThe last big event we saw after leaving Olinda was a ceremony of memorial to the slaves who died in the Brazilian liberation. It usually runs as one of the highlights of the Recife Carnival but they were running it at a crossroads outside our hotel.

The music, dance and songs are very different from what we´ve seen before; far more African. These `Maracuta nations´ are very ritualised and have European and African references. Firstly there´s a standard bearer who is always dressed in Louis IV costume complete with wig and embroidered waistcoat. Then there´s a series of figures who represent the Court; ladies in waiting – often very elderly women – who twist and spin in large hooped dresses, one of then carrying a black doll representing African ancestry. There´s a king and queen and slave attendents (all in a European style costume) carrying an umbrella canopy over them.

These are accompanied by large troupes of drummers – the largest had 50 drums – and a singer who would chant verses about the ´nation´ or about returning to Africa. The chants would be returned by the entire ´nation´.

The beats were incredibly hypnotic and subtly-changing. A reason to carry a tape recorder, not a camera.


Sunday parade

Sunday was the true start of the Olinda carnival. The town was empty all morning until crowds gathered at the foot of the town, walking along the road that follows the Atlantic north.

Olinda drummerParked along there were about 15 huge lorries, each having an immense sound system built into the body of the vehicle and with a live band and singers on top. They made the sound systems of Notting Hill look quite homemade. These are the trios eletricos; unable to negotiate the narrow streets of the town where their vibrations would probably demolish some of the more vulnerable buildings, they are confined to the coast road

The parade is led by Virgens do Bairro Novo, a huge group of men who are dressed in drag by their wives and girlfriends and who are judged on their acheivements. Mixed in with them are the teenagers and the grannies, some in masquerade but most displaying vast quantities of wobbling, sweaty flesh.

There´s not really a sense of cool. It doesn´t matter what you wear (just as long as you are there); complete unselfconsciousness about body size and shape: just beer and communal singing and dancing. The music is popular songs rather than samba; and everyone knows the words but us.



10km north of Brazil´s third biggest city, Olinda sits on a hill. It was settled by both the Dutch and the Portuguese and has some 22 churches and monasteries dating back to the beginning of the sixteenth century.

It´s ridiculously pretty with late C19th buildings on cobbled, curving streets, and heady views over Recife and the coast to the south.

It´s been on the Unesco list since 1982. There are a few formal `sites´ of tiled churches and grand, rotting buildings, but the main appeal is atmosphere and allegedly the best carnival in Brazil.

Arriving in the late evening the taxi hooted through parading blocos, and pavements lined with people selling drinks from large polystyrene ice boxes.

From the hotel we joined a small group shuffling up the streets. These blocos are small community groups, this one was a local college; the mix of people in them is quite astonishing. Little attempt at costumes: a simple banner, a group t-short and a small marching band towing a amp on wheels. The group would distribute streamers, confetti and song books, and move up the hills shuffling rather than dancing. The song – from I could work out – were about carnival and celebrated Olinda. The songs are often shared between the blocos to the extent that we could pick up the tunes and even some words.