SAMBA: SOUL OF CARNIVAL

It's the passionate music and dance of Brazil's underclass

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

CARNIVAL in Rio: It's a week every February or March of nonstop singing, dancing, reveling, costume balls, glitter, excitement, sleaze, and most of all the huge carnival parade with its thunderous percussion, its scantily clad women, and its larger-than-life costumes and floats. And it's samba.

Samba is the root of carnival, the root of an all-encompassing passion that absorbs the lives of many natives of Rio, known as cariocas, all year long. Samba is music, percussion, dance; it's the heartbeat of the poor, mostly black, people who are its creators and perpetrators. And it's the soul of carnival. As the great Brazilian composer Antonio Carlos Jobim put it in his song ``Felicidade'' (Happiness), ``The people work all year long for a dream that lasts but a moment....''

This dream takes shape every year within what are known as the samba schools (see sidebar). They are not really schools at all, but neighborhood social clubs that sprang up in the 1920s in the favelas (Rio's hillside slums). The members of these clubs parade in the streets during carnival, singing and dancing. Samba school members save money all year long, and the schools also receive a subsidy from Riotur, Rio's huge tourism agency. Community businesses contribute money, too, as do famous people: Each year well-known samba singer Alcione donates money to the Mangueira samba school to buy costumes for people who can't afford them.

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While today's samba schools are highly organized and sophisticated, some say they are in danger of losing their authenticity. Sergio Cabral believes strongly that the samba schools are in a state of crisis. Mr. Cabral, a carioca journalist, author, and politician, has written about the samba schools for the past 33 years, and still covers the carnival parade on television each year.

``Originally, the samba schools were a way of getting together to have fun at carnival,'' said Cabral in an interview in his apartment in Copacabana, Rio's most famous and crowded beachfront community. ``Now it's becoming a tourist event.''

He described how the samba schools in the poorer north zone of Rio traditionally had a strong community bond, and were quite removed from the lives and ideals of the middle and upper classes. These inhabitants mostly live in the south zone, where the well-known Ipanema and Copacabana beaches are located. Many of the people of the south zone are afraid to venture into the reputedly dangerous north zone. Nevertheless, for the past decade or so, the middle and upper classes have been gradually infiltrating and taking control of the samba schools.

``This happened because what the samba schools were doing was so beautiful and attracted so much attention that they became the most important part of Carnival,'' explained Cabral. ``In the '70s they started charging people to see the parade, and that's when the middle classes started going.''

Eventually, people in the middle and upper classes changed from being spectators to participants, and this in turn changed the samba schools.

According to Cabral, ``Today, the poor people have little opportunity to parade with the samba schools. They don't have money to buy the costumes: It's such a rich spectacle.

``So who is parading now? The white middle class, people from outside of Rio, and tourists. I feel that this is very bad for the samba schools.'' In short, says Cabral, ``The blacks are losing the samba schools.''

Glorinha (``little Gloria''), a resident of the north zone who gave only her first name and who has paraded at carnival, agrees. For her, ``Carnival is really going to the dogs. The poor people can't afford to buy the costumes, and most of them can't afford a seat in the Sambadrome [viewing stands]. More and more middle and upper class, mostly white, people are entering into the parade, along with people from out of town and even out of the country. Most of them can't samba, and don't even rehearse.

``The carnival parade is becoming a big celebrity bash, with nude women, soccer stars, soap opera stars, in it,'' she says. Because of this, Glorinha predicts, ``The samba schools might break away and start other samba schools and do their own parade in some other location [in Rio].''

In the old days, author Cabral explains, the community and the samba school members themselves supported the schools. Now the ``animal bankers,'' mobsters who run an illegal numbers game, give money to the schools because it boosts their image, he says.

In recent years, carnival has also received a good deal of negative publicity internationally stemming from reports of a high level of crime and disorderly public conduct. Last year thousands of free condoms were distributed to late night revelers in an effort to control the spread of AIDS. But those involved in the samba schools point out that most of the wild conduct associated with carnival takes place at and surrounding the late-night costume balls, not at the parade of the samba schools in the Sambadrome.

Yet, in spite of the commercialism, crime, and all the other problems threatening to shut down the samba schools, the beat goes on, and the poor people hang on as best they can.

``It's a moment when they are kings, when the police aren't after them, and when they're not being massacred by society,'' said Cabral. ``On the contrary, they're being paid homage.''

ANOTHER change has been among samba composers, who have given in to economic pressures, says Orlando Jacinto de Abreu, a veteran samba composer and president of the music sector of the samba school Portela. ``The composers don't compose sambas for love any more the way they used to in the old days. Now they just do it for the money,'' he says. All this came about, he adds, when the songs, the sambas-enredo, started to be recorded. ``Now it's just commercialism,'' he sighs.

Samba singing queen Beth Carvalho (see sidebar) is also concerned about the takeover of carnival by middle- and upper-class whites, and by its increasing commercialism. ``Every year they make tons of money at carnival,'' says Ms. Carvalho, ``for everyone who is not a sambista [participant] ... and it's getting worse. They make videotapes of carnival, but the sambistas never see this money.''

Adds another samba composer: ``All the rich white people are taking over, and now carnival is nothing more than a tourist attraction. The whole thing is in danger of coming to an end.'' He didn't believe, however, that samba would ever die out altogether.

Neither does Cabral.

``I'm convinced that samba itself will never be destroyed,'' he said, citing some young samba composers and dancers who are carrying on the tradition. ``It's such an important part of our culture that it's indestructible.''

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