What is the vibrant and colourful event of carnival all about?

The Brazilian 2012 Carnival officially kicked off in Rio on Friday 17th February (festivities started the previous day in places like Salvador de Bahia), and will run for five days. Carnival provides one of the main turning points in my novel, Carnival of Hope, when Tomas and Thereza, the main characters, begin to discover that rather than offering hope of a job in a Southern city, the carnival competition is a life-threatening deception. So, what is this vibrant and colourful event all about?

Origins: During Lent, some Catholic countries hold grand processions and observe cultural customs. Rio’s wealthy Portuguese imported masquerade balls and festivals from Paris during the 1600s, and this later incorporated traditions from Native Brazilian and African cultures. All these elements have helped to make carnival what it is today.

Religious significance: Carnival takes place in the five days before the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday (Lenten season). The five days are a period of excess—in food, lust and celebration—before the self-denial of lent, which is a form of penance leading up to Easter. On Fat Tuesday, the last day before the first day of Lenten season, people eat fatty foods in preparation for fasting, when believers are supposed to abstain from eating meat (“carnival,” derived from carnelevare, “to remove meat”), and indulging in other luxuries.

To signal the start of carnival, the mayor turns over the key to the city to the Carnival King, Rei Momo, usually a pot-bellied man. In this image, Rio’s mayor Eduardo Paes turns over the key to Rei Momo.

The events: Samba schools parading and competing against each other in various categories of costume, dance, drumming and floats is the most recognised image of carnival. The sambistas shuffle to the beat of the bateria, who beat their percussion instruments in frenzy, while colourfully decorated floats depicting a carnival theme inch along the route. Trucks draped in exotic finery, carrying huge sound systems—the trio elétricos—blasting out samba or some other music, are also in the mix.

The huge parades in Southern cities such as Rio and Sao Paulo are chiefly spectator events, where millions of people line the route to watch. The competition between the Samba schools takes place along a stretch of street known as the Sambadrome, with tiered seating for 90,000 along both sides in Rio. There are also more than 100 smaller bloco parades taking place in various neighbourhoods of the city.

Smaller events take place in Northern towns and cities such as Salvador de Bahia, Olinda and Recife, where the crowd participates by dancing to the beat as they follow the parades.

The erotic nature of carnival: Bloco das piranhas are men, dressed in high heels, short dresses and big wigs, with enormous breasts strapped to their chests. They sing, ‘Mama, I want to suck,’ as they dance and thrust themselves towards other men in an invitation to taste, as though allowing them to sample food that would provide them with real nourishment. Unsuspecting tourists may find themselves having to swat off lecherous advances from men and boys playing counting coup, where they chase each other and touch, fondle, squeeze or spank each other’s buttocks, to emphasize its privileged position in carnival. In these images of the celebration, the man in the fifth photo with large breasts strapped to his chest is a bloco das piranha.

The Brazilian health services use the event as an opportunity to promote their AIDs awareness messages, and up to 70 million condoms are to be distributed at this year’s carnival.

End of carnival song: In some towns, as samba blasts from trio elétricos, revellers will clutch each other’s hips and dance in a chain, singing the end of carnival song, “…happiness is fleeting, sadness is forever, and playfulness comes to an end on quarta-feira.” Drummers will continue to pound a fast rhythm, as if time was eluding them, and the only way to wrest more pleasure from the night was to squeeze eight beats out of a note written as one. But finally, carnival must come to an end.

If you would like to keep carnival going for a few more days, then you can download my novel, Carnival of Hope, by following this link to your local Amazon. Happy reading.

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About georgehamilton

George Hamilton likes to know what’s going on around the world, to delve into the customs and practices of different cultures, and this is often a feature of his novels. His tales are based on people's intense personal or family dramas, with major social or political events strongly impacting their story. In addition to World Literature, he also writes multi-genre novels which include: Historical, Suspense/Thriller, and Contemporary. He currently lives in London, England.
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2 Responses to What is the vibrant and colourful event of carnival all about?

  1. Vladimir says:

    Great post about Carnivals ! Learned a lot new stuff about them.
    Especially :
    “carnival,” derived from carnelevare, “to remove meat”
    Thanks George !

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