Ai Carnaval, Carnaval!

Feb 19, 2015
1:07 PM

So you’re celebrating carnaval…

It may be at a club, it may be a house party, wherever it is and whoever it throwing it, it’s not for me to say, “Don’t go!” The rhythms, the costumes, the melodies, the floats, the skin; the spectacle that is carnaval worldwide, especially the Brazilian version, can be hard to resist. I have been to some, performed at many in our local batucada (drum ensemble) group, and I have even marched and played with a samba school in São Paulo back in the day.[i] I’m a sucker for the drumming, I admit. It’s just that some of us with ties to Brazil or other nations that celebrate carnaval are concerned about the dark sides of carnaval that may be news to a lot of folks in the U.S. From a long history of organized crime and deep corruption, to assassinations, to sexual violence, to “Brazilploitation” outside the country, there are many causes for concern.

NPR did a pretty good job covering this last year after the murder of a prominent leader of one of the Rio schools and explaining the underworld of the jogo do bicho and bicheiros. This year, the typical corruption by the bicheiros has been eclipsed by a story of a new and scary level of corruption related to funding in the famous Beija-Flor school from the dictator of Equartorial Guinea. The Guardian has been running other related pieces of tragic, but important information surrounding carnaval.

lr 1Legendary singer Roberto Carlos with legendary bicheiro Anísio (Beija-Flor)

In the U.S., I think it’s important to ask those simple questions: “who, why, and where?” before deciding if a carnaval celebration is being done right. Are (Brazilian or other) true cultural ambassadors involved? Or is it a frat boy who just wants to get a bunch of women scantily clad, try to take advantage of them, and charge $10 for a beer? Red flag. What neighborhood is hosting? Do all people have access? There’s a strong LGBT-carnaval history and if these folks are not invited: red flag. You cannot separate carnaval from Africa. The different musical styles and dances all have common roots. So take a look around. Perhaps you don’t see many people of African descent. Red flag. But also, if there are Brazilians, what is the level of diversity within those faces you see?

The tie between race and class strongly divides a number of immigrant communities, and perhaps because I’m most familiar with it, I see it most prominently in Brazilians and Brazilian-Americans. In my own city (and I have heard from others that it’s similar elsewhere), outside of the performers on stage, there usually are not many Afro-Brazilians in the crowd for these parties. This is a parallel for the larger sambódromo (the stadium, most commercialized/popular version) shows. While many people save up all year to pay samba school dues and buy a costume to play or dance in a school, the cost just to get in the stadium to watch is purposefully too steep for the majority of citizens. But hey, you can pay for your ticket in six easy payments! Class also cuts deep. For years it seems that the only time everyone comes together locally is for a carnaval celebration. The next day, the wealthy go back to the suburbs, the rest of us scatter in the city, and we pretend that we have a “Brazilian community” for the next 364 days. Sadly, this again came over directly and is not too different than in Brazil’s two biggest cities.

It wasn’t always so grim. There was a time before the big samba schools were commodified, packaged, sold by a mafia and TV Globo or other Brazilian corporate media and bought by tourists and the elite. If you can find a celebration that more celebrates the street party version instead of the sambódromo-exclusive-hyper-capitalist-big-show, I would head there. I’ve only made it once, but carnaval in Recife/Olinda, with lightning fast frevo tempos and horns blaring or the slower more groove driven maracatu’s deafening drums, is more similar to the New Olreans Main Line/Second Line and is much more the people’s party. Anyone from anywhere can grab a drink, follow a band, and directly participate.

As I fell asleep on Ash Wednesday, the day the judges traditionally announce the winning samba schools in Rio and São Paulo, I heard on the radio via BBC that Beija-Flor had won and laughed myself to sleep. So enjoy your caipirinha and dancing, but know what you’re getting yourself into and how it ties into the bigger picture. Or, just don’t go. I guess it is for me to say.

[i] I went out of my way to join a school that at the time, had no ties to bicheiros. Over a decade later, unfortunately, I have no clue where it now stands.


Eric Silva Brenneman is a U.S.-Brazil dual national, a soccer-crazed fan and sometimes player, musician, teacher and a jack of other trades. Dabbling in journalism, he has been published by Zed Books in Shoot the Singer: Music Censorship Today and contributes to his neighborhood newspaper, The Corcoran News (Minneapolis, MN). Follow him on twitter @silvaculture.