16 February 2012

Some Carnaval Rules and Regs

Okay, this is it, carnaval weekend looms ahead. I've been to the Sambadrome in Rio three times to see the 12 main Rio samba schools do their thing first-hand, but this year I'll be staying home to watch from the comfort of our living room or at least until I fall asleep (the excitement starts at 9:00 p.m. and usually doesn't end until 7:00 the next morning). A few blogposts back on the subject of carnavalescos, I wrote that the Sambadrome parade is actually "an aggressively-fought competition." It is indeed, and to my surprise the contest aspect has become my favorite part of carnaval. I'm actually amused that a person as averse to competition as I am relishes this competitive side of carnaval. But I do.

The judges . . . they look harmless enough
It took me a couple of years, but now I'm into the nitty-gritty. The schools are judged in ten categories, or quesitos — percussionists, samba (music and lyrics), harmony,  evolution, theme, overall effect, floats and props, costumes, the opening vanguard and the boy-girl couple that are the standard-bearer and master of ceremonies — with four judges per category. Some snippets for those following along at home:

Percussionists — these guys are LOUD. They are responsible for maintaining the rhythmic pulse of the samba at all times during the parade. I'm still not sure I hear all the subtle differences myself, but each samba school has a unique, identifiable percussive sound depending on the number of drums and the way they're hit. Take Mangueira's percussionists. They are known as Surdo Umsurdo is a large drum — because they hit only on the second beat, with no answering surdo on the downbeat, like all the other schools. When Mangueira's percussionists begin, the crowd goes wild. And I get goose bumps.

Harmony — in order to score high in this category, the music, rhythm and singing must all meld seamlessly with the choreography and dancing of the participants. Points can be lost if the judges catch any of the participants not singing. And here lies one of the annual controversies: to allow or not to allow foreigners to participate in the parade. As non-speakers of Portuguese they can't sing the samba, and as non-dancers of samba they don't get the rhythm. So that group of hulking, blond Swedes jumping up and down alongside the group of Americans energetically waving their pointer fingers in the air, Broadway-style, inevitably end up costing the schools precious points. On the other hand, foreigners pay upwards of $1,200 for a costume and a space in the parade, so . . . what's a fraction of a point here or there?

The standard-bearer and master of ceremonies couple — this elegant and graceful couple carries and protects the school's flag while dancing an intricate "minuet-samba." They might have the biggest responsibility of anyone in the school, because they mustn't under any circumstances let that flag touch the ground, or even dip below the standard-bearer's shoulders, for 80 long minutes. And that is one heavy flag (99 pounds/45 kilos!). But they make it look so easy, and they're lots of fun to watch.

Down she goes!
This year will no doubt see the usual dramas: a couple of floats will break down at the entrance to the runway and spoil the school's chances; at least one float will catch fire; several people will fall off their floats and one passista will fall off her mercilessly high heels; one or two schools will have the unfortunate fate of having to parade under a torrential downpour; and one celebrity parader, or destaque, will lose her tapa-sexo (you figure it out). Although the destaque herself will get lots of publicity, the school's directors will be furious. Total nudity is prohibited and she won't be invited back next year. And who knows but that there won't be one of those last-minute censorship controversies that will cause one or another school to parade with a float covered in black plastic (see photo below). So there you have it. I've got my follow-along judging card. Let the games begin!

In 2004, the samba school Grande Rio paraded with a censored float. Underneath the plastic? Various depictions of the Kama Sutra.