Sore losers in the sambadrome
Carnival in Rio is a serious businessBy John Ryle • 2 March 1998 • City of Words • The Guardian • Expanded • Posted 2016 • 1,259 words
It’s Ash Wednesday in Rio de Janeiro. Carnival is over. I’m watching TV in the kitchen with my friend Peter and his friend Zé Motta, channel-hopping between Globo and Manchete, the two main television stations in Brazil. We are waiting to hear the judges’ verdict on the performance of our samba school, União da Ilha, and hoping to see ourselves on screen in the carnival parade.
There are forty-five judges, though, and forty-odd samba schools. And each school has several thousand members. So it takes a while.
We drink black coffee. We scan the Jornal do Brasil. We stare at the ocean, keeping half an eye on the TV. And we wait. And then, suddenly, there we are. Or there is União da Ilha at least—with the three of us occupying a few pixels somewhere in the back of the parade. And we are reliving Monday night, the night before last, the feverish rehearsals and last-minute preparations we attended in a cavernous old warehouse in the dock, the eye-popping costumes and the complicated changes of rhythm in União da Ilha’s samba enredo, the story samba—our theme song.
Late at night, the huge carnival floats—the carros alegóricos—are rolled out of the warehouse. A wall is knocked down to accommodate their passing. And in the streets and on the metro, we and thousands of other blissed-out sambistas, our footwear and feathered headgear cradled beneath our arms, converge on the assembly area outside the Sambodromo, the 1980s parade ground built to contain the chaos of the street carnival.
Some samba schools, like ours, are celebrating individuals this year. Others address subjects of public concern, such as the growth of crime.
Hands Up, Tap Your Feet, It’s A Stick-Up is the title of one of the rival floats. A full-scale model of a locomotive parades through the sambadrome; in front of it is a skulking figure clutching a bag of money. He represents the train-robber Ronnie Biggs, the notorious British expatriate, a fugitive from justice in the UK, long resident in Brazil. Despite the crime rate, Brazilians, like Eastenders, have a soft spot for villains—malandros they are called, tricksters, rascals, deceivers. Many of the samba schools are financed by the profits of the illicit drug trade, so the message is both jocular and ambiguous.
Zé Motta is a robot
Of the schools in the Special Group, the First Division of samba, ours is the last to parade. It’s four in the morning before we enter the Sambodromo, a concrete canyon half-a-mile long, filled with light and the thunder of drums. The stands are full of carnival-goers waving flags, on their feet and dancing; the judges are seated in their boxes. And the cameras are turned on us: on the extravagant invention of the floats, the rhythmic perfection of the drummers, the choreographic discipline and fantastical display of the dancers.
The sambadrome is where the fate of each school is decided. Every sambista has to believe they have won, even before it starts. Zé Motta is a longtime carnival aficionado (he’s a Carioca—born and raised in Rio—so it’s his birthright). He’s been backing his bets: he went out last night with another school, Imperatriz. The theme that Imperatriz chose this year was the Third Millennium: Motta was a robot. His electric-blue body stocking, yard-long antennae and luminescent yellow helmet are stacked up in the bathroom back at the apartment. Tonight, though, he is with us, with Ilha, clad in white now, from head to toe. Tonight Zé Motta looks like an angel.
For Ilha, for those in our wing, the costumes are all white: white shoes, white socks, white trousers and white shirts. The shirts bear an ethereal image of the face, sunken and lined by age, of Pierre Fatumbi Verger, the subject of this year’s parade. A French photographer and ethnologist who died in 1996, Pierre Verger spent the last 40 years of his life in Salvador da Bahia, in the north-east of the country, practising and recording the rituals of Candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion that has its heartland there. When I first spent time in Brazil, in the 1980s, Verger and Peter and João Reis—a historian from the state of Bahia—were my mentors. Ilha’s homage to Verger is the reason I am in their parade. And that is why Peter and Zé Motta are there too.
I lived in Verger’s house in Salvador da Bahia for several months at that time. He was already old by then; the roof of the house leaked; he cooked on a single gas ring; his priceless collection of photographic negatives was stored perilously in cardboard boxes in the kitchen. He was frequently visited by scholars researching some aspect or other of the great African heritage of Brazil—all of them eager to pick his brains or receive his blessing—and part of my role was to keep them at bay. Though not indifferent to celebrity, Verger’s ascetic living habits distanced him from the world outside Bahia. To be the subject of a carnival parade would have filled him with horror and amusement. Yet here we were a decade later, singing and dancing for the cameras in his honour.
Candomblé is a religion; carnival is profane. Both have origins in Afro-Brazilian culture. Putting the two together is like a mash-up of hip-hop and gospel music. People do it, but not everyone approves. In the event União da Ilha’s homage to Verger was, by carnival standards, in fairly good taste. True, there were near-naked dancers standing on Verger’s head, a 20-foot-high statue that dominated the other floats. But the samba enredo that we sang, the story-samba (written for the occasion by three stalwarts of the school, Marco André, Almir da Ilha and Mauricio 100) was a powerful and erudite evocation of the presence of Africa in the new world, of the endurance of culture that Verger documented so assiduously in words and pictures.
Ilha’s final float was a blaze of silver, with an enormous image of Verger in old age, inside a giant flashbulb, entering the world of light, poised to confront the father of the gods in the afterworld. At that late hour, in the ordered delirium of the Sambadrome, for those of us who had known him, the sight was moving beyond words.
How could we lose?
Ilha was magnificent, sublime. How could we lose the samba contest? Yet we did. And Imperatriz, the other school that Zé Motta went with, didn’t win either. So now, on Wednesday night, back here in Peter’s kitchen, as we watch the judging, we comfort ourselves—most of the inhabitants of Rio are doing likewise—with allegations of backstage jiggery-pokery among the judges. They were bribed, of course. And the theme of our school was too sophisticated for them, too profound. Yes, that was clearly the reason.
Carnival is a serious business while it lasts, but now it is Lent and it is over. On Thursday morning I am still feeling under the weather. Young Motta appears, his Imperatriz robot drag and the white weeds of União da Ilha all put away now. Today he is dressed immaculately in a suit and tie, and on his way to work.
“Do you think I spend the whole year being a sambista?” he says, laughing at my look of surprise. “Tenho que trabalhar. People have to work, you know, even in Brazil.” ★