A letter from Rio tells of the thrill of dancing the samba in the festival parade
RIO DE JANEIRO
IF I ever have grandchildren, I'll be able to tell them that their grandma not only saw the larger-than-life Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro, but was in it! Really, my plan was just to see it after I'd spent some time in Rio in the fall watching the escolas de samba (samba schools that aren't really schools but huge social clubs which promenade at Carnival) get ready for the big parade - which is also a very important competition between schools - the following February. But after I got back home, I received a fax from my Brazilian friend Maria da Conceicao Ferreira de Almeida (Conceicao for short!) saying that one of Rio's oldest and most traditional samba schools, Mangueira (the one I had liked best when I was there in the fall) had some space in one of their sections (called alas, or wings), and would I like to be in the parade with her? Would I! I zapped back a fax immediately with my measurements, and she responded with a rough sketch of our costume: a fluffy pink and green (the school's colors) lace dress with puffed sleeves, topped off by a sequin-trimmed pink turban with towering pink and green peacock feathers - Wow!Skip to next paragraph
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Off to Rio. The night of the day I arrived there was to be a "rehearsal" - more like a huge party - at the quadra (rehearsal hall) of Mangueira, located at the foot of one of the Mangueira favela, one of Rio's most famous shanty-towns. So it was off the plane, a quick nap, and on to the quadra, where we samba-ed around with hundreds of other future parade participants and anybody else who felt like joining in, singing at the top of our lungs our samba-enredo (theme song) for 1991 - "The Three Lacemakers of the Universe," a fanciful story of creation - while the composers sang along with us and the huge bateria (percussion section) played a thunderous, swinging samba rhythm on their drums, tambourines, bells and shakers. Men, women, and children of every age, class, and color danced and sang in the joyous preparation for Carnival.
A few nights later, we went back to Mangueira, this time to the seamstress Dona Norma's house, for a costume fitting. A tuck here, a dart there, and we were done. Then it was a question of waiting for our shoes and turbans to be delivered. Afterwards, there was a "technical rehearsal" in the quadra - supposedly a more organized affair where we would find out what to do in the parade. But when we got there it was the usual confusion, on a smaller scale (this rehearsal was not open to the public), and the leader of our wing never even showed up! So, once again, we danced around the quadra countless times, singing our samba-enredo.
There were a couple more rehearsals, and then, before we knew it, Carnival was upon us. I was surprised to see how little activity there was in the streets. I had expected to see a continuous party, but the natives that I spoke with said that Brazil's poor economic conditions had put a damper on things, and that many tourists were afraid to travel because of the war. But in spite of that, Conceicao and I managed to find several small street parades and percussion groups to help get us in the mood. The s ambas-enredo of all of Rio's samba schools poured from record stores, car radios, and the lips of the cariocas (Rio natives).
There's something about Rio in the summer - it rains a lot, it rains hard, and there are serious floods all over because drainage is poor. After getting stranded in a car in one of these floods, with the water pouring in through the doors onto Conceicao's and my feet, I wondered how cariocas can spend all year planning for this huge, expensive Carnival, when mother nature can spoil it all in the twinkling of an eye? But later I read that in more than 60 years of Carnivals, the parade had only been raine d out once. Yet the threat of rain was constantly with us, postponing one event, and nearly canceling another.
THE big parade, the one where the Special Group schools parade, was to be on Sunday and Monday, with our school scheduled for 1:15 a.m. The parade takes place in the Sambadrome, an avenue in the center of town especially constructed for Carnival, with cement bleachers on one side, and viewing boxes on the other. TV cameras run along a wire strung high over the avenue, capturing every move (especially the famous scantily clad women) for TV and the videotapes that will be out in the stores right after Car nival. But Carnival is much more than topless or bikini-clad women. They make up a very small part of the splendor of a samba school parade, with its enormous, glittery floats, group after group of breathtaking costumes decorated with sequins, embroidery, beads, and feathers, and the overwhelming, irresistible rhythm of the bateria - 300 to 400 strong.