Their turquoise headdresses in stylish unison, Eloane da Conceição Neves and her fellow passistas await their cue backstage during one of their samba school’s final rehearsals. A uniquely ’carioca’ musical style, samba was born at the end of the 19th century out of the fusion between traditional African melodies with the hybridized music of Rio.
Rio de Janeiro – Long Read

Largest party on the planet

Photo by Felipe Goifman

Rio de Janeiro – Long Read Largest party on the planet

Hello Rio de Janeiro, where crowded shantytowns rub shoulders with the wealthy suburbs whose residents want for nothing and live the good life. Yet despite the vast contrasts, one thing manages to unite the city, rich and poor alike. For a few days each year, Rio Carnival bursts into the streets, bringing with it the largest and most spectacular party on the planet.

Felipe Goifman
Felipe Goifman Travel Photographer

Rocinha is the largest and most notorious slum in Latin America, with over 100,000 people living packed together in an area roughly the size of the neighboring golf course. The contrast between this area and the affluent suburb of São Conrado is astounding. But this is, after all, the city of contrasts. Nowhere is this social rift more apparent than in Rio de Janeiro, a city with profound social inequality and a devastating housing shortage. There exists a kind of apartheid in this city divided by wealth and poverty. One side houses an urban concrete jungle, with modern homes and buildings and salaried, tax-paying citizens. The other side is home to the shantytown slums. The hills and mountainsides of Rio are dotted with thousands of favelas and home to more than three million people – a staggering 40 per cent of the population. Many of these people work minimum wage jobs or live off the grid entirely, having been abandoned by the state. They say that people who live in asfalto (“in the concrete”) have no idea what it is like to live in a favela. The utter lack of infrastructure and basic amenities would shock those on the fortunate side of the divide.

I am nervous about entering Rocinha for the first time. I have arranged to meet my guide on a bridge over the urban highway that bisects two of the most radically different neighborhoods in the world: Gávea and São Conrado. To the north I see Rocinha, the most overpopulated slum in Latin America. To the south I see part of a golf course hidden behind luxury apartment buildings and the Fashion Mall, the most extravagant and expensive shopping center in Rio. Like most slums, Rocinha is built on a steep mountainside. When I enter, I am greeted by the vile smell of an endless river of sewage. Enormous rats scour the debris just a few meters away. I seem to be the only one who notices though. We stop to admire the view at the top of the hill, and I have a little chat with the two guys smoking dope next to us. They are so calm and friendly that I almost miss the guns they are carrying. We continue our hike up the steep steps and alleyways until we reach our destination.

One of the most memorable nights of my life

We are greeted by Eloane, the first of the three women I meet on my trip. She ushers us inside and into what turns out to be one of the most memorable nights of my life. On the roof terrace overlooking the Rio skyline, she and her husband Bino are hosting a barbeque for friends. Music plays in the background and Eloane gently sways to its rhythm, as if floating on air. I tell Bino he is very lucky to have such a beautiful wife and ask whether he ever gets jealous about her dancing at the samba school. “Samba and dancing are part of daily life in Rocinha,” he replies. “Nobody can avoid it. And why should we if we love it?” Eloane is a bank clerk by day, but samba and carnival are so important to her that she has made dancing her second profession. She says she has danced the samba since she was in her mother’s belly and has represented her community in carnival parades since she was 11 years old. As a child she danced in the children’s section of the parade, known as the ala, for Império de Gávea, now the Acadêmicos da Rocinha Samba School.

The Grêmio Recreativo Acadêmicos da Rocinha samba school opened its doors in Rocinha 25 years ago. It has grown a lot over the years and has even performed with the elite dance groups in the parades. The school is also a serious contender for selection into the main group each year. Despite the fact that the samba school was formed in the favela and that most of its members live there, it has gained immense popularity among Rio’s rich and famous. Dancing in the parade is a symbol of status and power in Rio. Yet the samba school offers more than just dance lessons alone. It inspires confidence in its members and offers a social network and learning opportunities that range from computing skills to music lessons to dance training. It’s a wonderful way to keep kids occupied and off the streets.

Around midnight, I head back to the asfalto, accompanied by Eloane’s 16-year-old son Jefferson. She is terrified that he will be seduced and corrupted by the easy money of drug trafficking. Many of those she knew in the drug trade are dead now. Nobody retires in this business, they just die young. I reach the bottom of the mountain, leave the favela behind me and enter the luxury mall. It is like crossing a bridge from 15th-century Bangladesh to the opulence of L.A.’s Rodeo Drive.

Many people dedicate their lives to carnival

Carnival is a life-long project, and many people dedicate their lives to it. Preparations take nearly a year from start to finish and as soon as one ends, the professionals immediately begin preparing for the next. The modern Rio Carnival, with its dazzling display of costumes and lively street dancing, is the most famous of its kind in the world. It lasts for four days, usually in February or March, around the weekend preceding Lent. Pre-carnival excitement invades everyone’s thoughts and reaches fever pitch during the final samba school rehearsals. These rehearsals are open to the public and people of all classes and colors flock to the small, packed ballrooms to catch a glimpse.

The city undergoes a dramatic transformation during carnival. People from all corners of the world fly in to see the parade and get swept up in the flurry of excitement. Until the late 1970s, the main parade was staged outside in the streets. It is now held in the Sambódromo, an enormous stadium with 90,000 seats that was specifically designed for this event. Since its establishment, carnival celebrations have turned into large-scale, professional parties with all the glitz and glam of an extravagant Hollywood event. Big companies buy up the very best private rooms in the stadium, reserved for celebrities, politicians or the upper echelons of Brazilian society. This is the only class of people wealthy or famous enough to enjoy a night at the hotel. These rooms are also rented to moneyed businessmen who in turn rent it out to their commercial partners. These privileged guests can feast on caviar and champagne while watching an incredible orgy of color and movement swirl past.

Those that cannot afford a ticket to the Sambódromo take to the streets and bars instead, hoping to catch a glimpse of the main show. The majority of the celebrations are still held in the streets of Rio, with non-stop dancing and small parades.

The parade itself is the most demanding job

There is so much more to carnival than initially meets the eye. Scores of people from a range of professions work behind the scenes each year to create carnival magic: samba school directors and staff; stylists; designers; dressmakers; float makers; choreographers; dancers; musicians; composers and singers. The list seems endless. Taking part in the parade itself is the most demanding job: participants are required to pay for their costume and for their spot in the samba school. Looking fabulous certainly does not hurt.

The main parade is held on Sunday and Monday of Carnival. On these two key days, the most famous samba schools – Mangueira, Beija-Flor, Imperatriz Leopoldinense, Portela, Salgueiro, Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel, Viradouro, Estácio and Vila Isabel – all compete for prizes. The cariocas (as the people of Rio are called) support their samba school with the same level of passion and intensity as they do their football teams. Smaller schools like São Clemente or Porto da Pedra work hard to maintain their spot in the premier league. And it is no easy feat. Creating a parade that can face the stiff competition of the big schools is a very costly endeavor.

One might argue that carnival is the only time when the people of Rio become equals. Irrespective of class, color or creed, for one week each year the people of Brazil celebrate and dance as one. For one week their seemingly insurmountable differences are cast aside.

Eloane da Conceição Neves, who invited me to her barbeque, is a former percussion queen – a black woman from the Rocinha slum. Fábia Borges, an indigenous Indian, is a middle-class percussion queen fighting hard to make a name for herself. And the blue-eyed, blond-haired Adriane Galisteu is a famous TV presenter. These women come from wildly different backgrounds but are all members of the same Rocinha samba school. Although seemingly different, each woman is both a manifestation and reflection of Brazil; each woman brings me closer to understanding how Brazilian culture echoes the messy reality of slum life and how carnival can transform lives and shed light on even the darkest of times.

Her bikini leaves little to the imagination

I meet Fábia Borges on the seaside boulevard where the samba school is practicing. The road is blocked for rehearsal when I arrive and I end up waiting an hour for Fábia to show up. When she finally does arrive, she makes quite the entrance in a tiny bikini that leaves very little to the imagination. I ask her if she feels uncomfortable wearing so little at night. She says that most of the cab drivers here know her and think she is a transvestite, but she could not care less. That is typical Fábia: bursting with confidence and humor. She was practically born for carnival. Her mother, Juju Maravilha, was a famous samba dancer and took Fábia to the parades when she was five, the same age she began dancing for various samba schools.

Fábia has samba in her blood. All of her relatives are connected to carnival in some way (her great-grandfather founded the now defunct União de Vaz Lobo samba school) and Fábia devotes her entire life to it, seeing in it her roots and her lifestyle. “A samba dancer must have a positive outlook,” she explains, “because even when things aren’t easy, the show must go on.” And with carnival rapidly approaching, she practices at least three times a week. I ask her how it feels to dance for such a huge audience and she says it fills her with a mixture of fear and joy. She feels like a queen when she dances and even though her family supports her in all of her decisions, she is always alone in that moment.

Fábia’s long-term dreams are to become an actress, meet David Copperfield and find the love of her life. She is a passionate Candomblé devotee, an Afro-Brazilian religion, and prays every day that she will meet the right people and never lose what she treasures most – her freedom.

She is affected by the relentless violence

Money also plays an important role as Fábia’s lifestyle is rather expensive to maintain. Her lavish dresses and costumes are costly and she never leaves the house without being meticulously made up and impeccably dressed. She spends a lot of money on transportation, makeup artists, hairdressers, diet, a secretary and all of the other necessities of a deserving queen. Yet Fábia is no stranger to financial difficulties. When she was young, her parents divorced and shortly thereafter her mother and grandmother died and Fábia was forced to face the world alone.

Like all of Rio’s children, she too is affected by the relentless violence, a violence that curbs her freedom and makes her feel like Rio is just one great prison where everyone lives in constant fear of attack. She sometimes looks back longingly on her time in Madrid. But dancing is her escape into true happiness and she would never switch places with richer, more famous percussion queens. “I’d never want to just swap lives; I always want to earn my spot.”

I meet Eloane again in the barracão, or big tent. The barracão always manages to dazzle and delight: you enter through an anonymous-looking door to find a group of people designing dresses or costumes or simply creating a new bit of magic for the floats. Eloane seems a bit down today. When I ask why, our discussion soon drifts to the samba school. She believes the school was taken from its rightful owners, the residents of Rocinha, and is now being controlled by people outside of the slum instead. It is being transformed into a commercial operation that is slowly straying from its original purpose: to reflect the soul of the people. This is why they no longer make the elite groups, for the rich have stolen the school from the poor. And she is right. During the last rehearsal I saw the rich and famous congratulating themselves and patting themselves on the back. I saw Mauricio Mattos, the school president, award three people golden tambourines. Were they local residents? No. They were all members of the wealthy elite: Mr. Boni (former director of Globo TV); Lilbeth Monteiro de Carvalho (the ex-wife of impeached president Collor de Mello); and Adriane Galisteu (a famous TV presenter).

She was thrust into the spotlight

Adriane Galisteu was known for being the girlfriend of three-time Formula 1 champion and national hero Ayrton Senna. When Senna died, Adriane was thrust into the public spotlight. Her sudden fame, no doubt aided by her natural beauty and charm, helped her conquer a wider audience (and a slew of famous men as well). Adriane keeps very busy these days: she hosts a TV show, acts in theatre productions and is a percussion queen for the Unidos da Tijuca samba school. She is also a regular at the Rocinha samba school, where she teaches the children’s ala. Adriane dedicates a great deal of her time to the Senna Foundation, an institution created by the relatives of her late boyfriend, aimed at improving the lives of underprivileged children.

What these three women have taught me is that – rich or poor, black or white – Rio’s samba schools truly unite a city divided. I heard somewhere that if you squeeze Rio’s newspapers you will draw blood, and perhaps the battle against poverty, crime and social inequality is a losing one. But this city made me realize that where there is music, dancing and carnival, there is also hope.

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