1676819424 Anatomy of a samba school This is how the

Anatomy of a samba school: This is how the complex machinery of the great parade of the Rio Carnival works

Huge floats, expensive feathers of every color, and sculptural bodies photographed ad nauseam as they parade through the Sambódromo: Rio de Janeiro’s Samba Schools Parade is an ominous audiovisual spectacle – a succession of popular operas – and at the same time so just the Tip of the iceberg. Not only because it is the culmination of months of work by thousands of Brazilians, but because behind it is a huge community that has samba and carnival as an inseparable part of its identity. Also this year, after the ravages of the pandemic, the carnival returns to its traditional dates.

Members of Portela's Facade Committee parade for the crowd during technical rehearsal at Marquês de Sapucaí, Rio de Janeiro.Members of the Portela Facade Committee parade for the crowd during technical rehearsal in Marquês de Sapucaí, Rio de Janeiro.Leonardo Carrato

Samba schools emerged in Rio in the 1920s. The school is credited to Ismael Silva, who founded the pioneer Deixa Falar (Let’s Talk, in Portuguese) to celebrate the work of musicians and train “samba teachers”. A contemporary of his, Paulo Benjamin de Oliveira, was one of the founders of Portela in 1923, exactly a century ago. This and other sambistas, mostly black, suffered from multiple fatigues while playing. Paulo da Portela, as he became known, was rehearsing after leaving work at the center and returning in the wagons to the suburb of Madureira to avoid police pursuit. He fought to change the image of thugs and crooks held by the sambistas by imposing good dress, order, and discipline on them. A hundred years later, his heirs will celebrate that legacy. The Portela Parade at the Sambódromo is dedicated to looking back on its hundred-year history.

“We owe what they did in the past,” comments Nilo Sérgio, leader of Portela’s percussion orchestra (the so-called battery), as he distributes drums among the musicians before a rehearsal. A hundred years ago, Paulo da Portela’s instruments were kept in his humble home. Now a kind of large sports hall is preparing to receive thousands of people. It’s a Wednesday and violent storms are looming in Rio, but there are only 15 days left for the parade; the people of Portela have come to the headquarters in the Madureira district to undergo the rehearsal reserved for the hard core of the school, its social base.

    Nilo Sérgio, preparing for the rehearsal on the school lawn. Nilo Sérgio, preparing for the rehearsal on the school lawn.Leonardo Carrato

For about three hours, and always in blue and white, the school’s colors, they will sing incessantly the song with which they will parade days later in the Sambódromo. “We won even though we were excluded,” says one of the stanzas. In addition to tuning the instruments, singing must also be practiced, one of the requirements assessed by the jury of the great competition in which 27 groups compete in two categories during the two great days of Carnival.

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Sérgio was one of those enthusiasts, showing up at Portela’s headquarters as a child, determined to play an instrument. Self-taught, like most drummers of his generation, he collected glass bottles from the floor for a while to sell them and scratch off a few coins, which he used to pay for the bus ticket home after rehearsal. Now, after 18 years at Portela, he is proud to say that he is responsible for the ‘heart’ of the school. It will feature 280 leading musicians whose percussion not only steals tears and invites you to sambar to a devilish rhythm, but also holds ancestral secrets. “The Samba came from Bahia and was modified here in Rio. Portela was formed near a candomblé terreiro and earlier the drummers were the ogãs (priests),” he comments.

This legacy of African religiosity is common to all schools, but each has its own characteristics. The Portela battery, for example, is known for the so-called Oxóssi agueré (the sacred rhythm dedicated to this deity of the forest and the hunt). Through syncretism, Oxóssi is also venerated in Rio as San Sebastián, patron saint of the city and of the Portela Battery. To prepare for the long-awaited parade of the century, Sérgio says he made a thorough study of what the old bonnets looked like. Since May, the musicians have been rehearsing up to five days a week in the weeks leading up to Carnival.

It’s the final sprint, because the course practically starts on Ash Wednesday. After a few weeks of silence, the schools give the go-ahead for their entanglement from April, which they will address in the subsequent carnival. The main person responsible is the carnivaleske, a kind of artistic director of this folk opera. The parade mastermind creates a summary of his ideas and delivers it to the composers, who have a few weeks to start writing.

This is where the samba enredo dispute begins: hundreds of composers vie for the choice of their song. The playoffs take place over several weekends at the school’s headquarters, in lively parties that culminate between September and October when each group chooses their winning song. In the warehouses where the carriages are built and the costumes made, an army of blacksmiths, carpenters, sculptors, painters and seamstresses accelerate the pace of work.

The rehearsals of components such as the Mestre Sala and the Porta Bandeira couple also increase in intensity. Its mission is to present the school flag, which in Portela’s case features its iconic eagle and 22 stars, one for each championship won, the top winner in Carnival history. “It’s difficult to find a word that describes what we feel when we hear the anthem and enter the Sapucaí (referring to the Sambadrome) with Portela, it goes far beyond carnival,” explains Marlon Lamar, Mestre-Sala the school.

Marlon Lamar, while concentrating on the Portela technical stage.Marlon Lamar, while concentrating on the Portela.Leonardo Carrato technical test

“La Sapucaí” or often simply “La Avenida” is what the Sambistas affectionately call the old Marqués de Sapucaí avenue, on which what less well-known people know as the Sambadrome was built in 1984.

Lamar teams up with Lucinha Nobre, a Rio Carnival veteran who has been waving flags for nearly 30 years. The dance of the two evokes a romantic courtship, but there are absolute rules: the flag must not be rolled onto itself, the two must turn clockwise and reverse, showing perfect complicity on both feet and shoulders. His dance is one of the requirements evaluated by the jury. The pressure on both is maximum and the rehearsals withstand it: Since January, rehearsals have been going on almost every morning to get the body used to it. She will wear a costume that can weigh up to 25 kilos and will turn around endlessly on the 700 meters of the Sambódromo.

He confesses that at a time when he had spinal problems, an injection of a muscle relaxant was the ally to put a smile on the faces of the more than 70,000 spectators. “My whole life is dedicated to carnival,” he says after the umpteenth rehearsal. After the holidays, a full program with lectures and workshops on the subject of Samba has already taken her from Cape Verde to Japan.

The parade itself is a massive but mathematically calculated moment that cannot last longer than 70 minutes. Each school must parade with a minimum of 2,500 components and a maximum of 3,200 (the vast majority of ordinary citizens) that must advance at a good pace and sing at the top of their lungs, which will help them score good points in Evolution and Harmony, being two of the categories are evaluated.

Also judged are the front commission (the group of dancers who introduce the theme of the parade with their choreography), the enredo (if the theme is well explained in the parade), the floats, the costumes, the quality of the song and the sound of the drums .

All participants sing the plot of Portela on the packed school field during the carnival rehearsal.All participants sing the Portela Conspiracy in the packed school field during the carnival rehearsal. Leonardo Carrato

The samba schools are a beacon of popular culture in regions that are often poor and violent and where the state has little presence. They provide a platform for thousands of young people to emerge from social exclusion and a safe space for believers of African religions and for the LGTBIQIA+ population in settings where evangelical fundamentalism is gaining ground.

But this popular attraction is also a magnet for organized crime. In many cases, the schools have patrons associated with the Jogo do Bicho, a betting system that is as popular as it is illegal. This chiaroscuro in funding is well known, but it is difficult for authorities to undermine such an ingrained cultural expression that also creates thousands of jobs.

Rio has more than 70 samba schools and the carnival, which has another mainstay, the street comparsas or blocos, is crucial to the GDP of Brazil’s most touristic city. According to a city council study, the parties are expected to bring in 4,500 million reais ($870 million or €812 million) this year, up 12.5 percent from Carnival 2020, the last before the pandemic.

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