Carnival in São Paulo [PART II] – The Show

Read the first part of The São Paulo Carnival here.

It had been raining the whole day. Got the tickets, plastic rain coats and some refreshments. The taxi stopped in front of Shell gas station on Avenue Braz Leme, some hundreds of meters away from the main event venue. The streets leading to the Anhembi arena were packed with people selling various drinks from foam cooler bags. The shouts of the pop-up shopkeepers were soon joined by the rhythm of samba. It was 11 p.m. and the show was about to start.

Before coming to Brazil, I was one of those people who thought Brazilian Carnival is exclusively about Rio. Silly me.

What is Carnival?

Carnival is a christian festive season celebrated in February or early March. Despite its christian roots, Carnival is in general much more about letting yourself loose, which most of the time leads to heavy drinking, partying and making out.

Carnival in Brazil consists of two main parts: parades organized by samba schools in cities (most famous in São Paulo and Rio) and less-organized street parties.

The street parties (blocos) offer plenty of fun if you are into dancing, drinking and some more dancing and drinking. In contrast of the booze-soaked and sweat drenching street parties of Rio, the Carnival in Northeast Brazil is low-key and far more charming. One of the most beautiful parades is said to be in the city of Olinda, situated in the state of Pernambuco.

The samba parades are samba competitions between different schools of samba, which fight just like soccer teams. Every year the schools come up with a new theme joined by a new song of samba and colorful feathery costumes. Each of the schools have one hour to march through the 500-meter long avenue. A dedicated jury then gives points for different characteristics such as music, the drums, costumes and the general order of the school.

Back to the Sambódromo

In front of the main entrance a group of bootleggers were selling tickets for a discounted price. We had bought the tickets one day before for R$105 (around 26$) and were lucky enough to get them for section B, which is situated right in the middle of the avenue on the other side of the VIP section.

Upon entering the venue, we got all of our refreshments confiscated. Drinks, food and metal objects, such as umbrellas and tripods, are forbidden to take to the event. It was the second day of my vicious traveler’s diarrhea and I shed a small tear when I saw the cola cans taken away from me.

Lesson learned: Don’t take your own food and drinks to Sambódromo in São Paulo. There are plenty of food stands inside the area serving drinks and small snacks.

We climbed up the stairs and decided to make our small camp in the middle of the section. The rain had ended before the first school started their routine. After all, the plastic rain coats came handy as they did a good job covering our butts from the wet concrete.

I glanced at the programme, handed at the entrance. The samba schools performing on Friday were:

  1. Pérola Negra
  2. Unidos de Vila Maria
  3. Águia de Ouro
  4. Rosas de Ouro
  5. Nenê de Vila Matilde
  6. Gaviões da Fiel
  7. Acadêmicos do Tatuapé

A samba school after another took the stage. It was overwhelming. The attention to detail in the robot controlled jaws of a 15-meter human tiger or in the tribal costumes of some hundred dancers was absolutely stunning. The sheer amount of time volunteers had spent on the costumes and decorations is beyond me. The themes varied a lot: some schools portrayed periods in Brazil’s history while others concentrated on topics like tattoos or movie stars.

The samba schools play the same song throughout their performance. The lyrics were written in the programme so that anyone could sing along. The drumming groups (baterias) really knew how to win the audience over. They would often stop playing for some time and then continue in even more robust style.

The long night had taken its toll. After the first three schools (around 3 a.m.), it was hard to get excited about the following performances. But since the night before I had followed the last-minute preparations of Nenê de Vila Matilde and Rafaelle, leaving before the school was not an option. My girlfriend had never seen her best friend dancing in the Carnival. And I wanted to see if the school would get their shit together.

Picture from São Paulo Carnival 2016.

I have no clue how, but they made it! Everything was intact and glamorous as hell. The eagle that had laid on the dusty floor the night before was now spreading its wings and opening its beaks. I didn’t see the legless woman: she must have been on the other side of the car. And so was Rafaelle! She was dancing on the car no. 4, facing the other side of the arena, which means we ended up not seeing her. But altogether, their show was one of the best of the night!

After seeing four schools, it was time to go home. We called Rafaelle while waiting for a taxi to arrive. She had danced like there is no tomorrow. We would meet later on to discuss her special night. She must have had a blast!

My highlights

Many say that the samba parades in Brazil are a must go at least once in your life. And, yes. I agree. I guess there is no other place in the world to offer such a show. Even my girlfriend, who grew up watching samba parades from TV had an overwhelming experience seeing it live for the first time.

My personal favorite was the school of Águia de Ouro and their portrayal of tattoo culture. And the samba from Pérola Negra was definitely the best song of the night. Be aware, it is catchy as hell!

Despite all the beautiful costumes, catchy sambas and overall glamour, one thing is clear to me now: Carnival in Brazil is all about its people. Especially those who through the whole year give energy, time and love for 60 minutes of prime time in the Sambódromo.

I guess, again, it’s the samba.

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