Carnival is upon us! The big nights of the parade of the Samba Schools of the Special Group are on Sunday 7th February 2016 and Monday 8th, without forgetting the Champions’ Parade on Saturday 13th which is very worthwhile too.
Over the years the samba-enredo has evolved tremendously. The idea is that it should tell a story, which is then illustrated by the various alas (groupings of sambistas wearing the same costume) and the floats. There are standard items – the leading group (Comissão de Frente)– who recently have been doing elaborately choreographed routines repeated every 30 metres or so – the couple who carry the School’s flag (Mestre Sala e Porta Bandeira) who twirl and bow according to a set traditional routine, the group of portly elderly ladies dressed as baianas (with the wide skirts) and of course the heart of it all – the rhythm band (bateria). I think you have to be present in person to appreciate the tremendous driving force of the rhythm and the subtle cross-beats from the different instruments – it certainly doesn’t come across on television. From afar, you can hear the um-pah of the bass drums (surdos) but as they get nearer you pick up the fast beat of the caixas, and as they go by you hear the light sound of the tamborim, the cuica and other instruments. (You can see all these described on the site goodlistening.com.br, page of December 2004). All this is tied together by the Samba-Enredo itself, which is sung by a principal singer – the Puxador de Samba – into a mike on a sound car. It is he who has to animate all the members of the School to sing and dance along. If you are a Brazilian samba-lover, you learn the samba of your school before you go – and a measure of success is when the arquibancadas sing and dance along with the parading school, because of the infectious tune and rhythm – o samba pegou. (For gringos, trying to sing along is like trying to sing the Brazilian National Anthem – there seem to be too many complicated words to fit properly…!) Over the years, some features have become standard – an easy-to-remember refrain, a part where the words go slowly, instead of inside the rhythm, some Oh-Oh-Ohs (notes without words) and a space where the rhythm stops (paradinho). Each school has a long selection progress for the samba to be used, and the choice is made some 8 months before, so that everything can be organized and the samba learnt. It’s a brave school which tries to be original outside this, because the marking system is taken very seriously.
There are 12 Schools which make up the top grouping “Grupo Especial”, and here are comments on some of their sambas for 2016 –
Beija Flor has an extraordinary history of success at Carnaval, dating from 1976, when Joãosinho Trinta began as Director and established new standards for originality, decorative floats, elaborate costumes (or lack of them) and precision in the parade. His is the famous phrase “Pobre é quem gosta de luxo” which I interpret as “It’s poor people who like luxury and extravagance”. (This seeming contradiction you can find to be true again and again – witness for example that the TVs which sell in the favelas are big-screen plasmas and not small economical models….) Anyway, after taking Beija-Flor to the top for years, Joãozinho Trinta left them after a 7th place in 1992. The school only began to win again after setting up a guiding commission in 1998. In the 18 years since then, Beija-Flor has been runner-up 6 times and champion 8 times (including last year) – an outstanding record. For 2016, they are telling the story of Cândido José de Araújo Viana, the Marques de Sapucai (the street in the Cidade Nova which was turned into the Sambódromo was named after him). Their rhythm is fast and light, and the samba has all the requirements for winning – but I find it very dull! They have added some instrumental organ-like chords as backing, which for me doesn’t work at all.
Salgueiro’s samba is light-hearted with a splendid rhythmic impulse on the theme “Opera de Malandro”. The memorable slow bit is “É, filho da sorte eu sou/Vento sopra a meu favor…” Salgueiro has been runner-up for the last two years, so they evidently have the technique and organisation to do well. This samba should be a help.
A school which has done very well since 2010 is Unidos da Tijuca, in large part due to the Carnavalesco Paulo Barros (who left after winning in 2014). For 2016, they have an ecological theme – “Salve! A mãe natureza, a luz de riqueza / O dono da terra… a inspiração” and their samba and bateria sound very competent, if not exactly inspiring.
Portela is a traditional school which during the 40s, 50s and early 60s was as victorious as Beija-Flor is now. Recently, apart from some good ideas and their enormous eagle, they have not always pleased the judges, placing somewhere in the top ten. For 2016 they have contracted Paulo Barros, and their samba-enredo is “No Voo da águia, uma viagem sem fim…” This has some nice words: “Oh leva eu me leva, aonde o vento soprar eu vou / oh leva eu me leva, sou livre aonde sonhar eu vou”and some phrases in the music which are easy to catch. Will they make it this year?
Imperatriz Leopoldinense chose to take a ride on the success of música sertaneja (Country Music) – their samba has a very long verse, and a short refrain: “Chora cavaco, Ponteia viola / Pega a sanfona, meu irmão, chegou a hora….” with lots of sound of the accordion. They have the special participation of Zezé di Camargo and Luciano, perhaps the most famous Country duo of all. Whether this will work in the Sambódromo remains to be seen.
Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel became well-known through their bateria, and had their period of success in the 80s and early 90s. They have been struggling to achieve a better position in recent years, and their rhythm continues their strong point, with the subtle variations in the beat of the bass drums and their famous paradinho. Their samba “Brasil de La Mancha” (with references to Don Quixote), however, seems to have nothing of note.
Mangueira, another traditional school which is struggling to return to the top places, has appealed to the charm of Bahia, and the samba is “Maria Betânia – a menina dos olhos de Oyá”. I liked the rhythm and the refrain “Vou no toque do tambor…ÔÔ/Deixo o samba me levar… Saravá!/ É no dengo da baiana, meu sinhô / Que a Mangueira vai passar”. With a fine theme and words to sing and great rhythm, they are a hot tip for success this year.
Another iconic singer, Martinho de Vila, is behind the samba of Unidos de Vila Isabel “Memórias do Pai Arraia” This is a tribute to Miguel Arraes, former governer of Pernambuco, who died in 2005. “Dar para gente tão sofrida / Dignidade e Amor ” the rhythm is fast and light, like that of Beija-Flor, and the words quite serious in intent.
The judgement of the parades is done on 9 elements (Harmonia, Fantasia, Alegorias e Adereços, Mestre-Sala e Porta Bandeira, Comissão de Frente, Samba-enredo, Bateria, Enredo, Evolução), and 4 judges give marks in the range 9,0 to 10,0, in tenths. The lowest mark of the four given is discarded. All the elements have equal weight, which seems incredible. (Getting the whole school of thousands to parade closely packed and on time (Evolução) has to be much more difficult than two people doing a dance routine Mestre-Sala e Porta Bandeira, no?). As you may imagine, this system leads to lots of equal scores, and the loss of 0.1 in something is treated as a disaster. In 2015, just 1,0 in the aggregate of 270 separated the first five places, and the winner Beija-Flor just dropped 0.1 from a perfect score. So I will make no attempt, on the basis of the pre-recorded samba, to predict what might be the final result.
However, no doubt the parades will be the usual fantastic mix of beautiful costumes, spectacular floats, ordinary and extra-ordinary people – an amazing display of the art of the people, honed with great enjoyment and practised with much devotion. Music, rhythm, and dancing run strong in the blood of Brazilians, and this is the time when it has its maximum expression.
If you can, go to Sapucai… and enjoy!