Adventures stories

Rio – The Heart of Carnaval

In February of 2013, I jumped on a plane with my talented cameraman/director Brian Rapsey and headed off to Rio for Carnaval. We were there mentoring the winners of the 2013 Travel Film Scholarship and ourselves looking to capture what the essense of Carnaval is.

The highlight of the trip would be the opportunity to dance with the crowds in the Sambadromo as Rio’s finest Samba Schools compete to be the crowned annual winners. We were blessed to be chaperoned by the wonderful Carolina Martins, who works for AirBnB in Brazil. No event like this can be best experienced without the insight of a local.

We went on the Monday night to watch 6 of the top 12 schools perform as part of the Special Groups section. Schools steeped in history such as São Clemente, Mangueira, Beija-Flor, Grande Rio, Imperatriz and Vila Isabel were going to dance, drum and wow the crowds down the 700 m stretch of the Marquês de Sapucaí street. The street was converted into a permanent parade ground in 1984, with bleachers built on either side for the 90,000 spectators, by the renowned Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer. It is something to behold!

The design is somewhat of a paradox however. Samba schools are traditionally associated with a particular neighborhood, often favelas, where roughly 20% of Rio’s 6.3 million inhabitants live. They are the communities that spend countless hours designing some of the most spectacular costumes and floats you will ever see. They are also the poorest. So the design of this arena, with the cheapest seats set 100 metres back from the main strip, almost seems to punish those who have spent the most amount working to create the spectacle before us.

Socio-politcial observations aside, I spent the majority of the six hours looking on in jaw-dropped awe. Not just at the sheer beauty of the schools, the musical talent that makes you feel that every cell of your body is Sambafied (not a word but I dont care), but just how much of a competition this event is. This is not just a beauty parade. This is the culmination of hundreds if not thousands of hours of practice, where for 1 hour and 27 minutes, each school has to move in precise uniformity, conveying everything from speed, harmony and plot. Each section of the school from Singer, through to the batteries and Old-Guard need to work as one as judges positioned along the 700 metres meticulously watch and measure the schools performance.

I can barely hold a rythm for 5 minutes. So imagine the sheer exhaustion of each Samba School as they finish their parade. It was a regular occurence throughout the night to see performers carried off on stretchers and into ambulances having giving every ounce of energy to their performance. I was exhausted just watching it.

Dont get me wrong, I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. The Beija-Flor school had me in the aisles doing my apallingly void of rythm ‘Australian Samba’ and loving every minute of being swept away by the music. However, I felt somewhat disconnected.

Is it because I’m not Brazilian? Was it because we were seated at the end of arena, only able to see the action on the big screens and what rolled out the end in front of us?

I think to be honest it was like most people who come to an event like this. I was deperately jealous of not being in it, or at least closer to the action. If my week attending Carnaval had taught me one thing, it was that there is no substitute for being on the ground, in the action, soaking up every morsel that this fabulous city and its people have to offer.

It didn’t have to wait long for this experience and as you’ll see in the video, I found my grassroots Samba School moment.

I found the heart of Carnaval, in the heart of Rio, the Rocinha favela.

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