02 February 2012


Mosteiro Zen Budista's silent carnaval  
It's carnaval! Get out your masks, your feathers, your boas! Get your tickets to the Sambadrome parades! Pick your favorite street carnaval group and join in! Well, that's one way to celebrate carnaval. But this end-of-summer holiday blowout can be celebrated in many different ways. While it does seem that most Brazilians jump right in with both feet moving to a samba beat, others merely tolerate the crowds and the noise as best they can, relying on ear plugs to get through the nights. Some people travel to a resort and spend their entire holiday week at the beach. A friend of ours uses this time to explore his zen side at the Mosteiro Zen Budista, a retreat in the mountains of Espírito Santo.

Carnaval at the Sambadrome
I myself once thought carnaval was one big, disorganized, loud mess, to be avoided at all costs. I had no idea what a samba school was or what it represented. But when it slowly dawned on me how much like a Broadway musical the carnaval show was I sat up and took notice. (I always did love my Broadway musicals.) Before long I began to see beyond the skimpy costumes and the deafening percussion to the intricate, backstage details. I began to understand the strict rules that regulate the competition. (Yes, this "spectacle" is actually an  aggressively-fought competition.) And as I learned more and more about Rio's carnaval in particular, one personality jumped out front and center, the crucially important carnavalesco. It takes many talented people to stage a Broadway musical: a writer, a producer, a director, a set designer, a costume designer, an art director and a lighting director. But the carnavalesco — with a healthy dash of help — is the samba school's art-set-costume-lighting producer and director all in one.

In the 1930s and 1940s the carnavalescos were usually amateur members of the samba schools they supported. They did the best they could and made up in enthusiasm what they lacked in professionalism. As for payment, they wouldn't accept one centavo. Nowadays? The highly-compensated and extremely professional carnavalesco can work as a hired gun for several samba schools in the course of his career. He's the one who comes up with the school's theme each year, researches it, develops how it is to be organized and presented, and who, along with a team of artists and designers, designs the characters, the costumes, and the accessories. The carnavalesco also works with engineers and architects to build the floats. On the night his school parades, the carnavalesco is responsible for getting all 4,000 or so participants costumed, assembled and down the runway without a hitch, and within the allotted 80 minutes.

Paulo Barros
I know I'm a Johnny-come-lately to carnaval, but my personal favorite carnavalesco is Paulo Barros, a former airline steward. He burst on the scene in 2004 and broke through years of sameness with his now-famous "DNA float," which used people instead of mechanical pieces to represent DNA particles. He went on to astonish the public the following year with jaw-dropping magic tricks no one could figure out, and the next year with heads that seemed to fall off shoulders, only to be replaced with a smile, over and over again. Paulo Barros doesn't always win, but he is always given a standing ovation by the public. And we can't wait to see what this most innovative carnavalesco has in store for this year's extravaganza. (Mind you, we'll be watching on television. I'm done with the Sambadrome.)

Here's a piece of Barros magic from 2010:

And some mystery from the following year:

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