Are Blocos Taking Back Carnaval?
A tall and thin, tan, dark-haired young carioca—a native of Rio de Janeiro—is costumed as an indigenous Brazilian. Her long feathered skirt covers flip-flopped feet; atop, a simple cotton tank is adorned with necklaces, armbands obscuring her upper arms. The thick stripe of yellow paint across her eyes and dart of red across the bridge of the nose don’t reveal her intent: soon she is jumping up and down, then swinging round and round, and finally kissing her male partner, who is costumed in what could be none other than a Brazilian interpretation of Alex, the protagonist from A Clockwork Orange.
Conflations and inversions of gender and identity, local and international, myth and reality, fiction and truth abound during Rio de Janeiro’s Carnaval festivities in the streets to the point where I can no longer keep track or make sense of them. As opposed to the institutionalized, expensive and elitist samba school parades that are televised nationally and internationally from Rio, the Carnaval de Rua or street Carnaval is an exercise in individual interpretation and creativity—a veritable circus of color, costume, cacophony and chaos. I no longer care to stare, instead concentrate on ducking past confetti to keep up with André, the photographer with whom I’m working on a magazine article. We weave through the playing and prancing partygoers in Praça XV, the historic district of downtown Rio. Thousands throng around the bandstand.
This past Carnaval, I experienced the newly resurgent Carnaval de Rua, a celebration that attracted people from all social groups —a conscious attempt to revitalize the city’s celebratory traditions and inject them once again with a democratic and open-minded spirit. The street party that I witnessed was organized around O Bloco do Boitatá, known for diligently promoting the most popular and well-known marchinhas, traditional, tried-and-true samba marches. All attendees could sing along and participate, rather than simply view the day’s events.
Blocos are local bands which parade and play regularly, either in a specific locale or along known routes, their music and character often identified by the neighborhood (and thus audience) where they perform. Each bloco has a unique “brand”: Bola Preta, or “black ball,” for example, has the oldest history and invites participants to interpret the black-and-white polka-dot theme as they desire, resulting in rainbows, color inversions and rebellious monotones. The Suvaco de Cristo bloco winds through the Jardím Botánico neighborhood, conveniently located below the Christ the Redeemer statue’s left armpit (hence the name “Christ’s Armpit”), and draws progressive yuppies and a large homosexual contingent.
Blocos play all varieties of samba, including some Northeastern axé and pagode, and even an occasional rendition of rock, parading through Rio’s plazas and streets, primarily during Carnaval but increasingly throughout the summer months, December through February. In response to price-inflating tourism (sexual, festival, outdoor, cultural and otherwise) and the classist impetus to exclude, the growing popularity of the bloco tradition among all cariocas and the concomitant propagation of such bands attest to the recovered popularity of the Carnaval de Rua, and a decidedly activist and participatory political ideology.
Are we thus witnessing a return to the more democratic—and spontaneous and chaotic—street celebration, which first propelled Rio into the world’s imagination in the 1930s and 40s? In 2005, when the bloco craze was just beginning, the official municipal records office listed 88 bands; in 2007, that number increased to 107; from the 51 blocos listed for 2001, that’s a 209% increase. Pop- and funk-inflected Monobloco, one of the newer but certainly most popular of the blocos, attracted nearly 60,000 to each parade it led in 2006; for the last five years, it has maintained a weekly house-capacity audience at Rio’s famed Circo Voador performance space (where Gilberto Gil and renowned international acts perform).
Historian Jeff Lesser (1999) wondered: “What does it mean to be a public ‘Brazilian,’ and how is ‘Brazilian-ness’ contested?” I would further query, “What does it mean to be a public ‘Brazilian’ if that identity is considered irrelevant by citizens?” or “What does it mean to be a public ‘Brazilian’ if no one participates in the so-called public events?” The notion that a single dance and festival could represent a nation is an overgeneralization that “leaves behind”—as Culture Minister (and famed musician) Gilberto Gil declared during his visit to Harvard in Spring 2005—many other cultural expressions that are valued by Brazilians, including, but not limited to, such dance forms as forró, maracutu and capoeira or other celebrated Carnavals such as those of Salvador da Bahía and Recife-Olinda in Pernambuco state.
The historian Darién Davis (1999) believes that “[t]he commodification of popular forms such as the samba allowed the creation of a national culture.” However, I think that as long as the majority of Brazilians feel excluded or detached from such a nationalist framework, this constructed identity will fail to unite the country. What is a national identity and community if many Brazilians feel disconnected from their so-called national cultural expression? And what is the potential for improvement to democracy and civil society? I am particularly intrigued by this new popular exuberance because it contrasts so dramatically with the content of the interviews I conducted with cariocas in 2005. Popular engagement with Rio’s Carnaval was the focus of my Harvard undergraduate Social Studies senior thesis, an ethnographic study grounded in the first-hand experiences of a cross-section of cariocas concerning the contemporary cultural and social value of Carnaval. “Rio’s Carnaval: A Paradox of Non-participation” was the none-too-subtle title of my final paper, which chronicled an overwhelming individual dissociation from what had once been Brazil’s premier public party as a result of heightened institutionalization and commercialization.
“Samba is Brazil’s ‘national rhythm,’” wrote Hermano Vianna in 1994. Echoing the sentiment of many scholars of Brazilian culture and national identity, Vianna affirmed: “It is the foremost symbol of its culture and nationhood.” He claimed that all perceive that “Samba and the famous pre-Lenten carnival of which it is the centerpiece...symbolizes the racial and cultural mixture that...most Brazilians have come to believe defines their unique national identity.”
Similarly, Alma Guillermoprieto (1991) characterized “Samba—the whole broad genre of highly ornamented two-by-four rhythms...as Brazil’s national music”; Barbara Browning (1999) observed that samba is known as Brazil’s national dance; and Bryan McCann (2004) asserted that samba is Brazil’s “widely recognized symbol of national identity.” Browning (1995), author of the incisive ethnography, Samba: Resistance in Motion, writes that historically, samba is “known as the Brazilian national dance [and] has contributed to a world image of Brazil as a country of exaggerated elation.”
Yet, of the 42 people I interviewed in Rio de Janeiro in 2005, only seven respondents said they actually knew how to dance samba. The respondents varied in age, gender, race, educational background, profession, and class, and represented a wide range of perspectives. Their overwhelming reactions to Carnaval approached lack of involvement and interest in the so-called shared identity-forming quintessential Brazilian experience.
My research challenge was twofold: first, to question the notion that samba is the Brazilian national dance form; and second, to explore how Brazilians living outside the circumscribed world of samba practitioners, beyond the widely publicized “production of narratives and spectacles of nationhood,” actually think about and relate to Carnaval and its accompanying dance form. Precisely because, as Vianna (1994) points out in the introduction to his own work on samba music and dance, “the transformation of samba into Brazil’s national music [is] a process that centered on Rio de Janeiro,” I chose the Cidade Maravilhosa as the site of my study. “The city of Rio has long been—and perhaps remains—utterly central to representations of Brazilian national unity,” he wrote; and so it is widely recognized that samba’s origins are rooted here. The promulgation of the cultural expressions of samba and Carnaval as central elements in the composition of the nation’s identity were initiated and publicized from Rio.
One respondent, a law student whom I will call Isabel (I have changed names to protect the identities of my respondents), thoughtfully addressed my inquiries about Carnaval’s growing global popularity and simultaneous identification as a central icon of Brazilian culture by responding that it was more a question of international marketing: “what makes it over there is what’s made to make it over there.” As she saw it, the current world image of Brazil—sun, sea, samba, soccer and sex—is the result of the huge amount of money spent advertising Carnaval “to attract gringos...Japanese, Germans, the whole world capturing the spectacle on video tape. It’s no longer a festa popular...it’s made to have a global resonance. It’s sold as this...this was the image that was selected and which subsequently arrives abroad.”
The festa popular to which she refers is a party that is public, welcoming, and popular, in the Brazilian Portuguese sense of the word. The adjective “popular” is also used to define something that is accessible to all people, regardless of social class or purchasing power, as opposed to those products that only the elite or those with financial means can access. The question now is whether Carnaval is once again returning to its roots.
Any current reference to foreigners of Rio de Janeiro’s pre-Lenten ambience will generally elicit stereotypical images of scantily-clad, feathered and sequined mulatas dancing atop parade floats; Afro-Brazilian men playing a “contagious” rhythm with drums or batería; and older black women in their baiana outfits, large swirling embroidered white skirts and shirts, whose heads are festooned with small Carmen Miranda-style wraps. Most likely, they are imagined parading down an overflowing Avenida Sapucaí, otherwise known as Rio’s Sambódromo, the actual stage for Rio’s Carnaval parades.
Built in 1984, the Sambódromo, or Sambadrome, occupies the Avenida Sapucaí and serves as the official parade grounds for the Escolas de Samba during Rio’s Carnaval. As a result, some of Rio’s wealthiest and most influential citizens, along with wide-eyed first-world travelers, are amongst the few who gain entrance. The Sambódromo was seen by those whom I interviewed as taking the samba schools out of the streets, away from ardent supporters and the public at large, transposing Carnaval de Rua or “street Carnaval” into a private (and costly) theatrical spectacle. For example, 52-year-old Maria Luisa, a mixed-race security guard at my grandmother’s residential apartment building, remembers when she didn’t have to pay to participate in the celebrations of Viradouro, one of the most popular samba schools. “You could go out with them, dance in the streets.” Now, even the most simple costumes range in price between R$300 and R$1,000, about $150 to $500 U.S. dollars in 2005 (Época, 5/1/2007). Considering that a maid working for a middle-class family in Rio earns between R$60-100 per day, with the average approximately R$80 per day, it would cost her four days’ pay to parade in a samba school.
Both Glaucia, a 29-year-old black woman who works as a housekeeper for a family friend of mine, and Edivaldo, a lower-class 54-year-old carpenter who moved from the Northeast of Brazil as a child, live in the favela affiliated with Beija Flor, the neighborhood that gave birth to one of the most famous of samba schools of the same name. Neither is a particularly enthusiastic fan of Carnaval or the school, nor could recall how the neighborhood reacted to “their” school’s Sapucaí 2004 victory—the Olympic gold for any samba school, awarded by a panel of judges. They admitted that their community did not reap any benefits, financial or otherwise, from the escola victory. Cecilia, a white, middle-class university professor in her 50’s, argued that the “packaging” of Carnaval “ultimately distanced the celebration from the communities.”
Now, two years later, people from all walks of life seem to be taking back their craft and traditions through blocos. Rallying against commodification and exclusion, the carioca public seems to be beginning to translate its yearning for a more democratic and participatory Carnaval into a more localized samba beat. Imagine my pleasure upon reading Época publicly wonder, “Quem quer saber de sair na Sapucaí?” In our words, “Who cares about parading in Sapucaí?”