SAMBA: SOUL OF CARNIVAL
It's the passionate music and dance of Brazil's underclass
RIO DE JANEIRO
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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.''