The Carnival of Rio de Janeiro

A Social Ritual of Enjoyment

by | Mar 11, 2014


Banda do Jiló (child with angel costume) Tijuca, 2012. Photo by Andre Arruda


Carnival in Brazil, introduced at the beginning of the Portuguese conquest of Latin America, was an urban affair derived from paganism and restricted to major towns and cities. The festival took place before Lent and was embedded in the Catholic calendar, reaching all sectors of society, including women and slaves, although the stratification in the social hierarchy was still present.

By the beginning of the 20th century, however, carnival found a strategic place in the delineation of culture and Brazilian national identity. Its ritual practices were bound up with the passionate features etched into the country and its people: its sensual tropical style and fondness for playful behavior and an irreverent joyousness. 

The sheer scale of its reach, spanning the entire country in all its dimensions (crossing the boundaries of class, race, gender, sexual orientation and age), establishes carnival as a national festival par excellence. It has created gestures, languages and even codes. These symbolic and highly significant trappings have in turn created a plebeian cultural sphere. The promise to see and be seen, through this public platform where names and ideas can be exchanged, attracts diverse interests; this allows a consensus to be formed—or else stirs up conflicts in the face of clashing values—or both. 

It is useful to note that the middle class in Rio de Janeiro attempted to establish a single model for the festival between the mid-19th century and the first half of the 20th century. Rio was then the national and economic capital of Brazil; the middle class sought to model the Rio carnival after the carnival revelries of Paris and Nice, to “civilize” the Brazilian public.

According to historian Felipe Ferreira civilization did arrive, but only to the degree that Rio’s main streets of the urban center brimmed with parades of large allegorical floats upon which stood personalities from the wealthy elite against scenery splendid enough to dazzle the eyes of the audience composed of ordinary people. But history got in the way of this middle-class “civilized” projection of carnival. The model of the parade was copied throughout the city, leading to unforeseen consequences such as the schools of samba. These schools are often attributed to the working class, but, strictly speaking, they derive from the descendants of communities who until the end of the 19th century were bound by the shackles of slavery.

Carnival revelries became significant in asserting the concept of a mixed-race nation and are intertwined with the idea and image of Brazil as a construct. Moved by communal feeling, these festivals have been acclaimed for their supposed ability to bring together distinct social groups in a playful manner, as suggested by anthropologist Roberto Da Matta (Roberto Da Matta. Universo do Carnaval: imagens e reflexões. Rio de Janeiro: Pinakotheke, 1981).

In his opinion, the carnival festival with its popular base ritualized a set of values that allowed it both to foster its social identity and plan its character. This occurred at a time when the prerogative of the “whole” was set up over the “part”— or in other words, the individual submits to the collective. Thus the carnival transferred the “affectivity” of domestic ties to the impersonality of the streets. This was able to occur through the temporary inversion of the social hierarchies that abolished existing divisions.

In the last decade, there has been a considerable alteration in the “discursive order” with regard to Carnival revelries in Brazil. Although specific national issues are not overlooked, the emphasis is increasingly on the comprehensive scope of the celebrations because they were founded on the basic values and aspirations of the whole of humanity.

Nowadays, more and more diverse participants have taken to the streets, city squares and avenues in different parts of Rio de Janeiro to enjoy Carnival. According to Rio mayor, in 2013, five million revelers participated in the festival, divided into 450 groups of paraders, many called “blocks” and others “bands.”

This mood differs sharply from that of the period between 1980 and 2000, when there were grumblings about the “death of the street carnival” in the city. Many discern a “renaissance” in the irreverent and playful spirit of the “Momesca [Momo the Carnival King]” revelry—a spirit that had been absent from the parades of the main samba schools—the most dramatic event of the Rio festival.

The anthropologist José Sávio Leopoldi also argues that “the revival of the carnival spirit” in the Carioca festival relates to the new concept of street bands, because these reintroduce a greater margin of natural freedom in human activities. This spontaneity or appearance of spontaneity makes these celebrations attractive to tourists from countries that tend toward “an overdisciplined civilization.”

Nonetheless, the author states, native Brazilians, in particular the Cariocas [inhabitants of Rio de Janeiro], are ill-at-ease with the encrusted modalities of Carnival, particularly with the schools of samba, owing to the heightened informality that has begun to dominate their behavior. The advent of the street bands in the city represents a return to “unimaginable freedom” in their everyday lives; this freedom is expressed in provocative and licentious acts in the face of the prevailing hegemonic morality.

In the view of this anthropologist, the carnival still vibrates in the full vigor of that visceral “primitiveness.” He concludes that since the street bands have the potential to globalize the popular festival, it permits them to materialize a primitive human essence that is even savage, but which has been tamed by the increasing strength of civilizing forces in other societies in recent centuries.

Many carnival practices tend to stress values such as authenticity and weaken the power of regulation. Without entering into the question of whether or not this “primitive essence” exists, the fact is that the groups have carefully arranged processions in the street; this implies the existence, albeit tacit, of operational standards in ordering the way the different participants behave. These include the increasing demands of public hygiene, such as stopping the male habit of urinating in the streets. Of course, the obvious solution for this is not to pursue those who do so, but to install chemical toilets and make sure they are adequately cleaned and supervised.

Constraints imposed by the state through public security forces do curb both excesses of licentious acts and the outbreaks of brutality; such actions often clash with the expectations aroused by the light-hearted fun. They are handled and restrained in the name of a categorical imperative that requires an orderly atmosphere of peace.

Advertising sales or “sponsorships” sold by the municipal council to banks or large industries such as beer companies also reflect a desire to safeguard the enjoyment of the celebrants. Likewise, hotel networks and tourist operators promote the enjoyment of the festival with a goal of attracting clients. Thus the principle of civility and the need to curb basic impulses are not absent from the invitation to people to participate in the festival.

This stress on a peaceful approach allows for the return of the masses to the streets in ever-increasing numbers—a development that was not planned in the bourgeois civilizing scheme. But it is the understanding of the carnival as a huge social ritual of enjoyment that draws attention to the traditionally unprecedented customs, such as the way the festive costumes and modern urban civilization are interwoven in Rio de Janeiro.

In some social rituals the search for pleasure is heightened by an awareness of the unstable nature of existence. The playful processions and carnival displays that merge rhythm with physical expression are comparable to other occasions that also witness the involvement of expression and visual appeal, such as that displayed in major sporting events (Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Elogio da Beleza Atlética, São Paulo: Cia das Letras, 2007).

The playful-aesthetic displaced the ethnic-religious as the Carioca carnival took the form of a large social ritual. This carnival formed a kind of shop-window for the public display of emotions that entailed the vulgarization of the images of groups and individuals. Since the 19th century, the same cultural pattern has emerged in the transformation of syncretic kinds of amusement based on a percussion rhythm called cucumbi, a Brazilian carnival dance of uncertain origin.

Despite maintaining a religious devotion to the Catholic saints and divine figures of African origin, the form of the procession that arose (with people clad in “costumes”) was hybrid and mixed secular features— especially the irreverence of the garments—with religious ones. It began to leave behind conservatism in pursuit of inventiveness and personal creativity.

Thus in the final period of colonial rule, the groups made up of Afro-Brazilians and mestizos began to take to the city streets during Christmas and Carnival. In a similar fashion, in the 20th century, the intrepid carnival “cords” (cordões) became popular. They were characterized by greater informality in the pageants, which inspired various kinds of modern street bands. In addition, folkloric groups, with their scenic and dramatic effects, added to the lively aesthetics.

Movement is paramount. People enter and leave (or just stop by) but others continuously take part in the parade. Since they are the most visible legacy of this long history today, the styles of the bands on the street and schools of samba prevail. They consist of choreographed gestures, and their delineated forms and shapes are a response to the various kinds of rhythmic and musical stimulus always devoted to the public display. Their marches involve alternations between degrees of greater or less tension, but always follow the criterion that requires them to adopt an expression of joy. The admissible variations of these movements distinguish the different arrangements of the spectacular parades, street bands and “cords.”

The Carioca carnival festival anticipated structural characteristics broadly shared by various large festivals in Brazil today. In these events, amusements and even different musical styles are combined with other culturally mobile pastimes and are recognized for their eagerness to heighten the visibility of the events and communicate with a huge crowd of people from various social backgrounds (in socio-economic and ethnic terms, as well as with regard to different generations and genders).

As a result, the attractions become charged with meanings enshrined in different spaces and times, while priority is given to achieving individual freedom, happiness and unrestrained display of feelings. Since public displays of emotions increasingly occur in the orbit of a reflective and private appropriation of a populated stage, they are combined with new modalities of control and self-control. Finally, participation in the event by the intermingled crowd can be defined both as a professionalization of cultural products (whether artistic or otherwise) and a techno-administrative rationalizing and marketing of services, serving an increased commitment to commercial tourism and amusement. 

Spring 2014Volume XIII, Number 3

Edson Farias is a researcher at the National Research Council (CNPq) of Brazil. He is also a professor in the Department of Sociology, University of Brasília (UnB) and at the Graduate Program in Memory: Language and Society in University of Southwest Bahia. He is the group leader for research on Culture, Memory and Development (CMD/UnB). 

Related Articles

Fiestas Madriguayas

Fiestas Madriguayas

English + Español
I’m writing this story from the neighborhood of Barrio Sur in Montevideo, Uruguay. The lively pulse of the candombe drum reaches me from the streets. This Afro-Uruguayan rhythm…

Bolivians in Argentina

Bolivians in Argentina

English + Español
In 2007, while living in Brazil, I decided to take a short trip to Argentina to attend the Festival of Independent Film (BAFICI) held every April in Buenos Aires. I looked forward to …

The Fiestas de San Pacho

The Fiestas de San Pacho

The Fiestas de San Pacho (St. Francis of Assisi) in Quibdó, El Chocó, Colombia, are sixteen days of barrio-based parades and religious observations (and, in fact, less well-known activities…

Print Friendly, PDF & Email