Where Does Carnival Come From?

Every year, during the five days preceding the Catholic season of Lent (every February or March), the festival of Carnival takes over the bustling streets of Rio de Janeiro. Though this religious ritual is celebrated around the world, particularly in Catholic countries, the Carnival festival in Rio is by far the biggest. Approximately 2 million visitors flock to Brazil’s most exciting city each year to enjoy four straight days of partying, celebrating and soaking up the unforgettable festivities that abound throughout every neighborhood.

Carnival originated sometime in the 18th century when Portuguese colonialists co-opted African slave traditions and infused their own religious practices with these influences. The result was a celebration they called “Entrudo,” which they introduced to Brazilians. Today, Carnival has morphed into an electrifying, pre-Lent mega-celebration that’s considered to be an important touchstone of Brazilian culture. There are nearly 600 street parties (called “blocos”) held in the city, but the heart of Carnival is samba, a ritual dance with roots in the slave trade.

The typical Rio carnival parade is filled with revelers, floats, and adornments from numerous samba schools which are located in Rio (more than 200 approximately, divided into five leagues/divisions). A samba school is composed of a collaboration of local neighbors that want to attend the carnival together, with some kind of regional, geographical and common background.

There is a special order that every school has to follow with their parade entries. Each school begins with the “comissão de frente” (“Front Commission” in English), that is the group of people from the school that appear first. Made of ten to fifteen people, the “comissão de frente” introduces the school and sets the mood and style of their presentation. These people have choreographed dances in fancy costumes that usually tell a short story. Following the “comissão de frente” is the first float of the samba school, called “abre-alas” (“Opening Wing” in English). These are followed by the Mestre-sala and Porta-Bandeira (“Master of Ceremonies and Flag Bearer” in English), with one to four pairs, one active and three reserve, to lead the dancers, which include the old guard veterans and the “ala das baianas”, with the bateria at the rear and sometimes a brass section and guitars..

Samba is a Brazilian music style of infectious rhythm and complex origins. It developed as urban music in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in the favelas or slums, of Rio de Janeiro. Its roots, however, trace back hundreds of years to customs and traditions brought to Brazil by African slaves. Many of these slaves first came to Bahia, a region in northeastern Brazil along the Atlantic Ocean. Bahia, first settled by people of Portuguese descent, became an important area for growing sugarcane between the years 1500 and 1700. Vast cane plantations developed, and traders forcibly brought peoples from African to Bahia to work on the plantations and harvest the crops.

So, samba is considered music of the common people. Its roots come from old Bahian music and dance styles like the lundu and jongo, which connect back to the African slaves. When descendants of these men and women moved to Rio, most of them settled in specific neighborhoods in the favelas, bringing their distinctive music with them. The original form of samba is called samba de morro (morro means hill, and alludes to the slums located on Rio’s hillsides). It usually includes an improvised verse sung by a soloist, followed by a choir. Samba is festive dance music and it is used in many types of ways. For example, it plays a huge role in Brazilian carnival celebrations.

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