Samba has always been closely related to Carnaval. In the Brazil of the past there were two styles of Carnaval: the Black and the White. Black Carnaval usually consisted of a great deal of noise, African drum sessions, masquerades of Black costumes, the singing of traditional samba (Guillermoprieto), and candomblés, which are transplanted African religious ceremonies similar to voodoo in Haiti or New Orleans or santaría in Cuba. These practices were not acceptable to all Brazilians. However, even today candomblés are considered to be at the root of Brazil’s culture. Some Blacks were looking for total acceptance into Brazilian society, but they were not willing to relinquish their essential character for one many considered to be unexciting and static. (Levin)
White Carnaval was taken to Brazil in the form of Entrudo, an old Portuguese pre-Lenten celebration. Its earliest form consists of people throwing little balls filled with water , or some foul-smelling liquid, at each other. By 1840 Carnaval was further influenced by the Europeans when it took on more of a sophisticated appearance in that elegant costume balls, in the styles of Paris or Venice, were being held. Carnaval societies formed to parade through the streets. Their members wore complicated allegorical costumes that were symbols of the participants’ hidden agendas.
By 1850 the processions included floats. Great numbers of male revelers, called cordões, took to the streets to join the festivities by 1856. Until 1899 the people danced to European inspired music. However, in that year Chiquinha Gonzaga wrote the marchinha, “O Abre Alas” (“Make Way”) which was perfect for parading. People from various ethnic backgrounds longed to join in the fun. (The Roots of Brazilian Music: Part III)
However, just as Carnaval was beginning to accept new people and ideas in 1901, some white elitists and police imposed regulations and restrictions to eliminate and/or limit Black influence on Carnaval. It was decided that only “certain types” would be allowed to parade and party on Rio’s principal streets. The new rulings didn’t please those who were looking for more change by including more excitement. (Guillermoprieto)
On January 6, 1907, known as the Feast of the Three Kings, or the Kings’ Promenade, a group of Blacks, Whites, and Mestizos held a picnic on an island in Rio’s Guanabara Bay. During their return they decided to form a new type of Carnaval association: a promenade. It was to have singing, but no African chants, drumming, but only as a background to flute solos, and shepherdesses, dressed in the latest European styles. The group became known as Delightful Myrtle. This idea intrigued some Blacks. It was the Carnaval that they looked to because they wanted to move beyond African tribal connotations and Catholic rituals in which they participated. They saw it as a civilized Carnaval with added excitement. However, the samba was still off limits at this time. Lyrical songs and courtly dances were still the accepted forms of music. (Guillermoprieto)
Early patronesses of samba were such people as Tía Amelia, who is said to have taken the samba rhythm to the slums of Rio de Janeiro and Tía Ciata, who held formal dances inside her house and African drum sessions in her backyard. Tía Ciata’s backyard became a meeting place for the sambistas from the hills of Rio, as well as for professional musicians from other areas. One of the sambista, Donga, Tía Amelia’s son, wrote and recorded the first samba, “Pelo Telefono” (On the Telephone) in 1916 on Odeon Records. Soon this new genre became closely linked to Carnaval for an entire generation of samba composers. During the 1920s the samba became a vehicle by which women were eulogized, and politicians as well as certain aspects of Brazilian life were criticized.
In some ways samba’s style is close to that of the North American urban blues. It could be viewed as Rio’s oral history, an ongoing rap. This happy sound is said to be a cry of release because out of such sadness there’s no room for the song to sound sad. Samba does, however, have an underlying current of hope that something good will finally emerge after cleaning up the problems that exist in Brazilian society. (Krich)
The seeds had been planted; the doors were opening. In 1923 the first Brazilian radio station played the music of the day: samba. It was finally becoming accepted. Soon the people from Rio’s working class neighborhoods had venues for the participation in the Carnaval: samba schools.
Several samba masters used to rehearse their music in an empty lot near a teachers’ college. Someone said that’s where the professors of samba are, and the term “samba school” has been used ever since. The name of the first school was Deixa Falar which means Let Them Talk. This short-lived organization was established in 1928. It was soon followed in 1929 by Estacão Primeira de Mangueira which exists to this day. (Guillermoprieto)
In Carnaval’s early days the parade was not so much a performance as it was a street festival. All one really needed to enroll in a samba school was a spoon to bang against a frying pan. Each participant put together his own costume. Each school usually had several hundred members. By 1935 the Carnaval parade was recognized by the Brazilian government. Everything was beginning to change; it was growing by leaps and bounds. The parades were at the center of community life. There were now fixed rules which included a ban on musical instruments other than percussion and mandolin. The parades had become structured. They were accepted as a part of Rio’s Carnaval tradition; however, they were not yet its central attraction. (Guillermoprieto)
By the 1930s samba made greater strides. There were samba radio programs, samba recordings and samba stars. Donga traveled to perform samba in Europe, and Carmen Miranda became a Hollywood star. In those days it was fashionable for all people to go “slumming” at samba parties. (Guillermoprieto)
Each school was divided into units with huge decorated floats between them. The most important members of each school were the female flag-bearer, her escort, the master of ceremonies, and the main singer. Other components included the theme, the theme song, the orchestra, the dancers, the principal characters, as well as the all important carnavalesco, the school’s creative talent who had nearly total freedom in making decisions on the presentation. (Krich, The Roots of Brazilian Music: Part III)
What happened to bring about the change? The public was separated from the participating dancers, and the spectator was created. In 1958 costume standardization began. No longer would homemade ones be allowed. Television coverage began, and Carnaval was in the midst of big business. Over 40 million people world wide were able to watch it. Then what became important was what showed up on the screen. (Guillermoprieto)
The location of the parade changed several times. Early parades were held on São Carlos Hill in the plaza called Little Africa. Later ones went from Central Station to Rio Braco Avenue. Since 1984 the parades have been held in the Passarela do Samba or Sambadrome, which is a half mile long parade ground lined with viewing galleries. It was designed by Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brazilía. Some feel that the Sambadrome is misplaced because it’s in the shadow of an elevated freeway amid a poor warehouse district. Others feel that it shouldn’t exist at all because it turned Brazil’s greatest indigenous expression into a paid admission sport. (Guillermoprieto, Krich)
Now schools receive most of their income from a percentage of television broadcast rights, parade ticket sales advanced by Riotur, and receipts from tickets to its weekend rehearsals. The League of Samba Schools set up its own recording company. Since the least expensive Sambadrome tickets cost more than $40.00, no one below the middle class realistically has live access to view the parades. (Guillermoprieto)
Today’s Carnaval participants run the social gamut. Such celebrations are held not only throughout Brazil, but also in many countries throughout the world as well. However, it is the Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro that has evolved into the grandest of all. During the last pre-Lenten week music, in general, and samba, in particular, fill the air. The three aspects of Carnaval have mushroomed into fantastic street festivals which occur between mid-afternoon and early evening; elaborate all-night costume balls, which are held by every restaurant, club and group in the city; and gigantic parades with well over 50,000 participants all of whom are competing for the coveted first prize. (Slater)
To some Brazilians samba and Carnaval are everything. As soon as Shrove Tuesday turns into Ash Wednesday, they are already planning the events for the next year. The majority of the participants in the festivities come from Rio’s working classes. They need to start saving money to buy their costumes or other items that they will need for the celebrations. Often the disparity between their day-to-day lifestyles and their carnaval personae is tremendous, but most people need to contribute something: time, money, talent, space, food or whatever is needed, to make Carnaval a success. When one steps back and looks at the irony of the situation, it’s difficult to comprehend. Out of abject poverty and racial discrimination, a lively spirit, and extreme talent was created the samba.