Samba schools roll out for giant Rio Carnival

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) – Thousands of dancers from Rio de Janeiro’s elite samba schools last Sunday rolled out their traditional parades of feathers and sequins – combined with a large dose of social and political commentary – as the main business of the giant annual Carnival gets under way.

It’s the first Carnival since the election of President Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right leader of Brazil who rode a wave of support from conservatives and religious groups – who hold a dim view of the Carnival’s excesses – into office last year.

In total, 14 samba schools from the elite so-called “special group” paraded the last two nights at the packed purpose-built stadium known as the Sambodrome, to compete for the prestigious Carnival title.

Each school, featuring up to 4,000 shimmering dancers, elaborate giant floats and deafening percussion, took 75 minutes to parade down the 700 metres Sambodrome track.

The Carnival formally kicked off last Friday with the traditional symbolic passing of a key to the city to the festival-leading ‘King Momo’ character – unleashing giant street parties known as blocos in Rio, Sao Paulo and across Brazil.

Last Sunday’s most anticipated groups was Beija-Flor, which triumphed last year with spectacular, hard-hitting floats depicting violence and corruption in Brazil.

Members of Beija-Flor samba school perform during the first night of Rio’s Carnival at the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. – PHOTOS: AFP
Members of the ‘Grande Rio’ samba school perform during the first night of Rio’s Carnival

This year, the school told the story of its 70 years in existence under the theme The Fables of Beija-Flor.

The parades began at 9.15pm and last well into the early hours of the next morning.

The two biggest schools, Portela and Mangueira, also participated yesterday.

Portela’s parade paid tribute to Brazilian singer Clara Nunes, an icon of the 1970s and the first artiste of her time to publicly defend Afro-Brazilian religions.

A section of their parade featured dancers in costumes designed by French designer Jean-Paul Gaultier.

The other major school, Mangueira, performed what its Artistic Director Leandro Viera calls the ‘B-side’ of Brazilian history, with a parade extolling the heros and heroines of the country’s long-sidelined black, indigenous and poor populations.

The troupe also honour black City Councillor Marielle Franco, a respected and outspoken defender of human rights in the slums of Rio, who was shot dead in March last year.

Authorities said seven million people – including one and a half million Brazilian and foreign tourists – participated in this gigantic outdoor party.