Hooray! Carnaval (that’s the Portuguese spelling) season is well and truly under way! I’ve been posting up a few photos from the bloco I went to last Sunday on the Eat Rio Facebook page, but I think it’s time I said a little more about this quintessentially Brazilian festival.
The main days of Carnaval are from Saturday to Wednesday – the exact date changes each year (the closing Wednesday is Ash Wednesday). This year it will run from 17th-21st February (check out the dates for future years here). I say “main days” because Carnaval actually kicked off weeks ago!
In much the same way that back home, people put plans on hold in the run-up to Christmas, many people in Brazil put a lot of things on hold in the whole period between New Year and Carnaval (I’ve heard several business owners bemoan this reduction in productivity!). I’m not sure about the cause and effect relationship here, but many people use this ‘quiet time’ to go to the many blocos that are held in the weeks before Carnaval kicks off.
A bloco is like a massive street party. Each bloco will have a name (often funny or suggestive) and a soundsystem – some move, others stay still. The ones that move usually give people a few hours to gather and get merry before actually going anywhere and the pace is always slow. During the gathering time, a leaflet is sometimes handed out which contains the bloco’s song – this gives people a chance to learn the lyrics.
I don’t think I’ve ever been to a bloco that could be described as ‘quiet’. Imagine thousands of people all getting together to have a big party. Everyone is slurping down ice cold beer – which is being sold everywhere for around R$3-4 ($2/£1). There will be a large group of people playing drums and various other percussion instruments – they belong to the bloco and all wear the bloco’s shirt.
Incidentally, the guy in the picture above is playing the Cuíca, that strange sounding instrument that non-Brazilians may know from the start of Paul Simon’s Me and Julio down by the schoolyard. This bizarre instrument sounds great when all the other music is going on, but this guy’s neighbours must hate him…
I’m not a big dancer, but when you’re immersed in the party atmosphere (and with the help of a few beers), it’s hard not to start shuffling around to the samba – it’s a lot of fun!
When carnaval really gets going (Satruday-Wednesday) some of the blocos get extremely busy. I don’t know the official numbers, but I was told that one of the most popular blocos, bola preta, has nearly a million attendees! When we tried to go to that last year, we didn’t even get close – instead we had fun at one of the many satellite bloquinhos that sprang up on the outskirts.
Unsurprisingly, those kinds of numbers put a lot of people off, so some blocos adopt coping strategies such as changing their name each year, or keeping the date and location secret. This then leads to rumours and tips and everyone trying to work out which will be the best place to be. Personally I leave all that stuff to the professionals and just go with the flow – the whole thing feels pretty chaotic anyway, so my advice is to just show up with a party attitude – the fun will find you!
I’ll leave you with some footage of the bloco last Sunday – sorry the sound is so bad and yes, that guy is playing a frying pan…