Brazil’s carnival is back. Glittering and fancy costumes were prepared again. Samba songs rang out until dawn on the sold-out parade ground in Rio de Janeiro. Hundreds of noisy, stray parties flooded the streets. And working-class communities have been boosted emotionally and economically by renewed celebrations.
Last year’s COVID-19 pandemic prompted Rio to postpone the carnival by two months and diluted some of the fun, which was mostly attended by locals. Brazil’s federal government expects 46 million people to attend the celebrations, which officially began on Friday and will last until February 22. This includes visitors from cities that make Carnival a world-famous celebration, particularly Rio, but also Salvador, Recife and the metropolitan city of Sao Paulo, which has recently emerged as a hotspot.
These cities have already begun to let go.
Many Brazilian mayors, including Rios, marked the start of Friday’s celebrations by symbolically handing over the keys of their cities to their carnival kings. And the first street parties of the carnival weekend started with costumes of the night owls from Pope Francis to the devil himself.
“We’ve waited so long, we deserve this catharsis,” Thiago Varella, a 38-year-old engineer wearing a rain-soaked Hawaiian shirt, said at a party in Sao Paulo.
Most tourists really wanted to go to the street festivals, the so-called blocos. Rio has allowed more than 600 of them, and there are more unsanctioned blocs. The largest blocos draw millions to the streets, including a bloco that plays Beatles songs to a carnival beat for hundreds of thousands. Such large blocks were canceled last year.
“We want to see the party, the colors, the people and ourselves enjoying the carnival,” said Chilean tourist Sofia Umaña, 28, near Copacabana Beach.
The first show is at the Sambadrome. Top samba schools located in Rio’s working-class neighborhoods spend millions on hour-long parades with elaborate floats and costumes, said Jorge Perlingeiro, president of Rio’s League of Samba Schools.
“What is good and beautiful costs a lot; Carnival materials are expensive,” Perlingeiro said in an interview at his office next to the samba school warehouses. “It’s such an important party… It’s a party of culture, happiness, entertainment, leisure and above all its commercial and social side.”
He added that this year’s carnival will break records at the Sambadrome, where around 100,000 staff and spectators are expected in the sold-out venue each day, plus 18,000 parades. While President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is not expected to be among them, his wife Rosângela da Silva has announced that she will attend the parade.
The First Lady’s presence signals a departure from the administration of former President Jair Bolsonaro, which has stayed away from the nation’s cultural marquee.
Nearly 700,000 Brazilians died in the pandemic, the world’s second-highest national total after the US, and many blamed Bolsonaro’s response, which weakened the bid for re-election, which he ultimately lost. Many are celebrating not only the return of carnival at this year’s street parties, but also Bolsonaro’s defeat.
That’s what happened on February 11 at the “Heaven on Earth” street party in Rio’s bohemian Santa Teresa district. Musicians banged their drums while some revelers climbed fences to watch the scene above the bustling crowd. Anilson Costa, a stilt walker, already had an excellent view from his elevated position. Covered in flowers and brightly colored pom-poms, he poured a watering can with the inscription “LOVE” over the people dancing beneath him.
“To see this crowd today is a dream, it’s very magical,” said Costa. “This is the post-pandemic carnival, the carnival of democracy, the carnival of rebirth.”
This year shares some of the spirit of the 1919 edition, which took place right after the Spanish flu that killed tens of thousands of Brazilians but no longer posed a serious threat. World War I had also just ended and people were eager to take some relief, said David Butter, author of a book about this year’s celebrations.
“There were so many people in downtown Rio for the carnival that the entire region ran out of water in a matter of hours,” Butter said.
The cancellation of the 2021 carnival and its more low-key version last year have devastated an industry that has provided nearly a year of jobs for carpenters, welders, sculptors, electricians, dancers, choreographers and everyone else involved in bringing parades to the public to make accessible. As such, Carnival’s full-fledged return is a shot in the arm for the local economy.
“I went to bed at 3 a.m. yesterday. Today I leave earlier because I’ve lost my voice,” said seamstress Luciene Moreira, 60, as she sewed a yellow costume at the Salgueiro samba school camp. “You have to sleep later one day and earlier the next; Otherwise the body cannot handle it. But it is very pleasant!”
Rio expects about 5 billion reais (about $1 billion) in revenue from its bars, hotels and restaurants, the city’s tourism agency president Ronnie Costa told AP. Hotels in Rio are at 85% occupancy, according to the Brazilian Hotel Association, which expects last-minute deals to push that number close to the maximum. Even small companies benefit.
“Carnival is beautiful, people shop, thank God all my employees are paid up to date,” said Jorge Francisco, who sells sequined and glittery carnival outfits at his downtown Rio store, “to me, this is a big one joy, all smiling and wanting. That’s carnival.”
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