The origins of carnival date back to the ancient Greek spring festival in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. The Romans adopted the celebration with Bacchanalia (feasts in honor of Bacchus, the Roman equivalent to Dionysus), and Saturnalia, where slaves and their masters would exchange clothes in a day of drunken revelry. Saturnalia was later modified by the Roman Catholic Church into a festival leading up Ash Wednesday. It quickly evolved into a massive celebration of indulgences - one last gasp of music, food, alcohol, and sex before Lent - before the 40 days of personal reflection, abstinence, and fasting until Easter (not exactly what the Church probably had in mind). 40 days of purging sins, preceded by a week filled with virtually every known sin. The word itself comes from Latin, "Carne Vale" or "Farewell to the Flesh".
Rio de Janeiro
Rio's lavish carnival is one of the world's most famous. Scores of spectacular floats surrounded by thousands and thousands of dancers, singers, and drummers parade through the enormous Sambadromo Stadium dressed in elaborate costumes (or, quite often, with absolutely no costume.) It is an epic event televised around the world. The origin of Brazil's carnival goes back to a Portuguese pre-lent festivity called "entrudo", a chaotic event where participants threw mud, water, and food at each other in a street event that often led to riots (an event quite similar to today's Andean carnival - see Venezuelan section of this booklet). Rio's first masquerade carnival ball (set to polkas and waltzes) was in 1840. Carnival street parades followed a decade later with horse drawn floats and military bands. The sound closely associated with the Brazilian carnival, the samba, wasn't part of carnival until 1917. The samba is a mix of Angolan semba, European polka, African batuques, with touches of Cuban habanera and other styles. What we now know as samba is a result of the arrival of black Brazilians (primarily from Bahia) to the impoverished slums or favelas surrounding Rio following the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888. Today the carnival is organized by the escolas de samba (samba schools). They first appeared in 1928. Much more than musical groups, they are in fact, neighborhood associations that provide a variety of community needs (such as educational and health care resources) in a country with grinding poverty and no social safety net.
Salvador da Bahia was Brazil's first center of government (from 1549 to 1763), and remains its musical capital. For centuries, Bahia was home of the Portuguese sugar industry and slave trade. As a result, today Salvador is the largest center of African culture in the Americas. Amidst the colonial architecture and cobblestone streets, there is an unmistakeable beat of Bahian drumming. You can hear it in the stereo speakers and boomboxes blasting the latest pop music. It becomes overwhelming when the large percussion ensembles (with literally hundreds of drummers) called "blocos Afros" take to the streets for carnival. It was a movement launched a half century ago by the group, Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi). Today, there are countless blocos Afros that have taken on a new mission as part of the "negritude" movement to re-establish Black Pride. Olodum, Ara Ketu, Il Aiyé, Timbalada and the all women's drumming mega-group Dida all electrify Salvador every February during carnival. Olodum's Billy Arquimimo explains, "We started Olodum 20 years ago because at that time, black people used to be ashamed of their skin. We thought it was necessary to do something to re-establish Black Pride, and to redevelop African culture here in Bahia." Like Rio, the city of Salvador is famous for its carnival. For both cities, it is an enormous festival leading up to Lent. That is where the similarities end. Rio is famous for its Samba schools, elaborate costumes (or at times no costumes), and a huge parade held at the Sambadromo Stadium. Salvador is Brazil's street carnival. It lasts for weeks. The music begins daily as early as noon and runs until 7 or 8 the next morning. Bahian superstar Carlinhos Brown explains, "We play, not for money, but to celebrate happiness. Our carnival is a street carnival. It is for everyone, not just for those with money." In addition to the Blocos Afros, artists like Carlinhos Brown and Daniela Mercury perform on huge trucks, packed with loudspeakers called "trio electricos". These are the big tractor-trailer trucks packed with huge speakers. The tradition began in 1950 when two Bahian musicians, Dodo and Osmar, performed with their electric trio aboard a 1929 Ford pickup truck.. Even though there are regularly 20-40 bandmembers atop 18 wheeler mega-trucks today, the name "trio electrico" still sticks. Bahia's carnival is perhaps the world's largest public festivity, attracting crowds of three million that dance through the night in Salvador's historic colonial streets.