As the samba drums began pounding in the late afternoon sun in a neat Rio suburb, a woman in a flowing, sparkly pink skirt, glittering corset and feathered headpiece moved with the rhythm, raised an embroidered banner with the name of the street party – and the carnival madness began.
Literally, in the case of this bloco, as the thousands of free parties that throng streets across Brazil are called. Its name is Loucura Suburbana (Suburban Madness) and among the hundreds rattling out hypnotic percussion or dancing in colourful costumes were doctors, patients and friends of the Nise da Silveira municipal institute – a public mental health hospital.
“Carnival is in the roots of Brazil,” said Ariadne Mendes, a psychologist at the hospital who has been organising this bloco for 18 years to bring mental health patients and the community together. “It is a moment of total integration.”
Integration is something that Brazil is in urgent need of as it dives into the world’s biggest street party. The country is deeply divided socially and politically ahead of October’s presidential elections, struggling to emerge from its worst-ever recession, and spooked by record levels of violent crime – two children were shot dead on one day in Rio last week. There is also growing contempt of political leaders indelibly smeared by corruption scandals.
So, more than they usually do, Brazilians are seeking consolation in carnival: a five-day hedonistic holiday during which they dress up, drink, play, joke, dance, seduce and are seduced. “It is like therapy for everyone in Brazil,” said Alberto Policeno, 65, who helped set up Suburban Madness, “to forget all the problems we have, to renew our memory”.
At Rio’s Sambadrome stadium, thousands will perform tonight and tomorrow in elaborately choreographed samba-school parades broadcast live to the nation. Vast crowds will cram street parties such as Rio’s enormous Beatles-inspired Sargento Pimenta (Sergeant Pepper) and Bunytos de Corpo (Beautiful Bodies) – a kitsch, mixed gay event whose aficionados sport neon-coloured 1980s workout wear.
“It is a moment when people are happy and forget some of what unfortunately is happening in our country,” said street cleaner Mônica de Oliveira, 26, who wore glitter and orange overalls as she waited to sweep up behind Suburban Madness.
But the relief will be temporary. Brazilians say the year only begins after carnival and this year threatens to be turbulent. In October the country faces its most fractious and unpredictable presidential and congressional elections since returning to democracy 33 years ago, according to David Fleischer, an emeritus professor of political science at the University of Brasília. “It is full of uncertainties,” he said. “There is a lot of discontent among Brazilians.”
In recent decades Brazil has been run by two parties – the centre-right Brazilian Social Democracy party, whose candidate, São Paulo governor Geraldo Alckmin is floundering in the polls, and the leftist Workers’ party, which ran Brazil for 12 years until President Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 for breaking budget rules in a corruption scandal that engulfed her party and energised a resurgent right.
Rousseff’s political mentor and predecessor, the charismatic former union firebrand Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, leads in the polls but may well be barred and jailed following a controversial money laundering conviction his supporters say is a setup. Running second is Jair Bolsonaro, a hard-right former army captain and Donald Trump admirer who praises Brazil’s former military dictatorship and advocates freeing up gun control to combat crime.
Across Brazil’s voluble social media networks, left and right exchange vitriol and ire. That leaves room in the centre, but so far, nobody has stepped up to fill it. President Michel Temer was Rousseff’s vice-president and his Brazilian Democratic Movement party colleagues plotted to oust her. He is widely despised. Congress voted twice last year to stall legal action against him for graft and then racketeering and obstruction of justice, and insists he won’t stand. Environmentalist Marina Silva has failed to get past third place in the last two elections. Increasing numbers in the polls say they will vote for nobody at all.
“It’s a lot of uncertainty. Carnival is a good means to forget everything for a few days,” said Fleischer.
But try as Brazilians might to forget their country’s woes in the frenzy of carnival, politics has followed them here too. In São Paulo, a street party named after a dictatorship-era police intelligence agency that tortured dissidents was banned by a judge. A rising feminist movement has targeted the aggressively predatory behaviour of many Brazilian men at carnival with “no means no” stickers, social media posts and even speeches at some blocos.
A widely circulated video even detailed politically incorrect costumes to be avoided – including men dressed as women, indigenous people and sexy nurse outfits.
Such recommendations made little impact on the thousands at the Carmelitas bloco in Rio’s colonial Santa Teresa neighbourhood on Friday, where two bare-chested men sported indigenous head-dresses and another wore gold body paint and a tutu. Personal trainer Sandra Cailleaux, 47, was one of many wearing a nun’s veil in homage to the bloco’s name, inspired by a local convent. “We are characterised by the costumes,” she said.
Irreverence is a fundamental element of carnival, as are costumes mocking politicians or political scandals. In his 1979 book Carnivals, Rogues and Heroes, anthropologist Roberto DaMatta detailed how carnival’s temporary libertarianism and role-playing actually expose the rigid social structures and codes of Brazil’s deeply conservative society. The classic carnival costume of a poor man dressed as a king shows how hierarchical Brazilian society is. “It has a sociological role. It is an escape valve,” he told the Observer. “What happens in carnival dies in carnival.”
This became clear at a street party in central Rio last week, held by staff of government regulatory agencies including the National Petroleum Agency (ANP). Its drummers set up a polished samba rhythm in an upper-floor car park before descending to the street and entertaining crowds of office workers leaving for home.
Percussionist and ANP employee Alice Kinue, 35, said carnival mirrors Brazil’s social divides. “Even the blocos separate out the social classes. Here you see white people, basically,” she said, gesturing at her colleagues.
Her colleague Alexandre França, 46, the bloco’s president, said even government employees like these need an escape valve. “It is an act of affirmation,” he said. “We can overcome this difficult moment.”
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