Carnival – a dance to the music of crime

Financial Times, 13 March 1993

by Christina Lamb

The illuminated clock tower of Rio Central railway station told me it was 4.15 am. I was balancing three plastic peacocks, each a metre high, on my head and a pair of sequin-encrusted plasterboard wings on my shoulders. My torso was contorted by a body stocking several sizes too small and my legs tottered on silver boots. I reflected that I had never really wanted to parade, clad like this, before 60,000 people. Especially at this hour.

With my centre of gravity somewhere behind my neck, an armpiece fell off if I moved my legs. If I waggled my arms, the head-dress started to slide. As if to accentuate my discomfort, a group of wayward birds started a jarring rendition of the dawn chorus. The dull thud of a hangover was pounding my temples and my smile was a grimace.

I was about to compete in Rio’s yearly carnival parade as one of the 4,500 dancers defending the reputation of the Mangueira samba school - and still I had not mastered the samba despite the valiant efforts of Carlinhos de Jesus, my fleet-footed teacher.

The shout went up. It was our turn. Fireworks exploded and drums thundered until the whole road shook and the air quivered with excitement and anticipation. Our feet pawed the ground like racehorses. Pushing us into lines, a man with a stick yelled ‘Move it! Open your mouth! Sing!’. Then we were off, running suddenly into the glare of a thousand lights. All around in the stands, a blur of faces were waving pink and green flags - the school’s colours - and cheering ‘Mangueira!’

The digital clock marking our progress moved slowly. We had 65 minutes to pass along the 540m avenue. For the first 10, I thought I would never make it. My throat rasped like sandpaper as, over and over, I croaked out the words of our song: ‘I’ll devour this mango, even the core.’ Sweat poured down my face, glitter in my eyes. Suddenly, though, propelled by the energy surging from the crowd, my feet began skipping in an extraordinary way. I became part of an enormous magical opera, a wealth of feathers and glitter, of floats bearing giant golden elephants, painted zebras and fearsome warrior heads.

Carlinhos had said that samba moves people because its rhythm is like the beat of the heart - and he was right. It was addictive, I never wanted to stop.

The parade, which stretches from dusk to dawn on two nights, is the glittering centrepiece of carnival, the biggest, most lavish party on earth. A week-long jamboree, it involves hundreds of thousands of people and brings the whole of Brazil to a stop. But, unknown to the mesmerised tourists, the glamour and glitz hides the fact that it is funded largely by organised crime.

The sponsors of the party are the bicheiros, the men who run the jogo do bicho, or animals’ game - an illegal gambling racket - and whose tentacles spread through the underworld of Rio. Maria Laura Cavalcante, an expert on carnival from Rio’s Institute of Folklore, says: ‘Beneath the parade’s beautiful face of light and art lurks a dark underside of crime, killing and urban violence.’

It was not always so. Carnival has religious origins: the date marks the start of Lent and the name derives from the Italian carne vale (goodbye to meat). It began last century with European costume balls and parades for royalty, based on the Italian Commedia dell’Arte. At the same time, the African slaves on the sugar plantations in Brazil’s north-east had their own, far humbler carnival when one man would dress up as king for the day. The two fused late in the 19th century after abolition of the trade and a searing drought in the north-east sent many former slaves to Rio. The pounding samba beat was the result of a suggestion by a Portuguese named Zé Pereira that all the members of his carnival club should play their drums at the same time.

Founded in the 1920s, the first samba schools were so-called because they used school grounds for their rehearsals. Today, there are 60 schools in Rio, mostly in the poorest areas after which they are named, and they have become the heart of their local communities. The 14 top clubs, or Premier League, compete annually in the main parade. This used to be in Avenida Rio Branco, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare, but in 1984 it was transferred to the Sambadrome, a specially-constructed stadium designed by Oscar Niemeyer and consisting of a long cement corridor lined with rows of boxes and stands.

What really turned carnival from a somewhat ramshackle affair, with the poor scraping together their own costumes and floats, into the grandiose spectacle of today was the bicheiros. The jogo do bicho is as old as the republic, having been launched by a certain Baron João Batista Drummond to raise funds for his private zoo after the Portuguese empire ended in 1889. The lottery - in which different animals represent different numbers - was such a success that it was copied and multiplied, going underground when gambling was declared illegal in 1946.

Despite being illegal, there are gambling points visible on almost every street corner and around 300 bicheiros in Rio run a network of 1,200 lotteries employing some 40,000 people. It costs just Cr1,000 (3.5p) to bet and the game is so popular, particularly among Rio’s 3m favela (slum) dwellers, that it moves millions of dollars each week. No one cracks down because the police receive kickbacks, the politicians often have their campaigns funded by the bicheiros, and the people can dream of winning fortunes.

Bicheiros have long contributed to samba schools to gain support in the poor communities where most of their clients (and much of the electorate) live, but their patronage has become more explicit since the 1970s. The turning point was 1975 when a bicheiro known as Anisio hired a top carnival designer, Joãozinho Trinta, to produce a spectacular parade with huge papier-mache animals, spinning roulette wheels and fabulous costumes for his school, Beija Flor. Since then, the bicheiros have thrown money at the schools in attempts to outdo each other. In 1984, they created the Premier League, in which only the Mangueira school is not run by them but by an elected president.

Samba schools each spend an average of more than $1m on the parade and some as much as $4m, up to 50% of which is bicheiro money. Such large sums mean that the parade has, increasingly, become professionalised. Schools hire directors and keep dancers and singers on fat retainers, swapping and selling them like football stars. Watched live on television by 50m, the splendour of the costumes and floats has superseded the importance of energy and dance skills in judging each parade.

My school, First Station of Mangueira, is one of the oldest. It was founded in 1924 at Rio’s first suburban railway station. In its fierce struggle to retain some independence, it has obtained some sponsorship from companies such as Shell. But the bicheiros are infiltrating; they have taken one directorship already and the jaws of the big-timers who do not yet control a school are snapping at the door. The last-but-one president was assassinated and rumour has it that drug money is rife.

This year, a series of misfortunes suggested that Mangueira could keep out the bicheiros no longer. Already-scarce funds were frozen last month when a judge ruled in favour of a woman who claimed that Mangueira had stolen her song. Rehearsals were cancelled and fierce squabbles broke out. Dona Neuma, the school’s 70-year-old First Lady and daughter of one of the founders, attacked the ‘new administration’ and said she would not parade for the first time in 64 years. Roberto Firminho, the president, retorted furiously that ‘the old lady should retire and stay at home with her mouth shut.’ The case was, however, resolved a week before carnival and Dona Neuma relented.

Four weeks before the big night I visited the barracão, the school’s centre of preparations in an enormous concrete hangar with a corrugated iron roof and a pink gate, guarded to prevent rivals taking a sneak preview. Reeking of carpenters’ glue, hammers were banging and drills whirring everywhere. Disembodied papier-mâché figures and limbs lay discarded on the floor: here a cow’s head, there a count’s leg. It seemed they could never be ready on time and the work force was buzzing with talk about other schools’ sumptuous special effects. Firminho sauntered out to greet me. Rubbing his moustache, he claimed not to be worried. ‘It’s always like this,’ he smiled, unconvincingly.

He was right, though. The week before carnival, the barracão had been transformed into a magical kingdom of medieval castles, French drawing rooms complete with marble columns, green brocade, gilded mirrors and chandeliers, Portuguese galleons on a silver sea, 10 ft-high elephants, and zebras dancing around an enormous African warrior head.

A man with a clipboard of pencil sketches was barking orders at 100 people working round the clock on 10 floats, scurrying up and down ladders with hammers and paint brushes, creating marvels from foam, fibreglass, wire and paints of myriad colours. Ilvamar Magalhães is the carnavalesco, the man who creates the Mangueira ‘look.’ Having chosen this year’s mango theme almost a year ago, he buried himself in libraries to discover how the fruit came to Brazil and to design the floats and costumes (known as fantasias) to tell the story.

Carnival is an enormous industry, bigger even than shipbuilding. Preparations for the big week provide permanent employment for 80,000 people including musicians, architects, carpenters, electricians and sculptors. Samba schools are the main breeding ground for musicians and dancers, who spend the rest of the year giving demonstrations. Some of the painters in the barracão are well-known artists.

Parade day dawned cloudy and rain-laden but could not dampen the general glee. Inflation of 30% a month and searing recession were forgotten as society people and slum-dwellers mingled, worry lines falling from faces before my eyes. Walking towards the lights of the Sambadrome through a warren of tiny streets littered with beer cans and bits of fantasias, Cosmi Tudo, a drummer from Mangueira - resplendent in white silk tunic and gold turban and unrecognisable as a construction worker - said: ‘We’re poor and no one notices us but, for one day of the year, we’re kings.’

As we watched the other schools parade, our spirits soared. Surely, we said, the Mangueira song is catchier, its floats prettier. We laughed cattily as the Salgueira school’s flag-bearer slipped, someone lost a hat, and a dancer from Estácio fainted. On and on went the processions of warriors, Indians, voluptuous women in rhinestoned bikini bottoms (their breasts splendidly naked and surely silicone-enhanced), cavemen under showers, giant insects, mermaids, and older women whirling in wide, hooped skirts held up with hosepipes.

We marvelled at the giant steamships of Salgueira and the gadgetry of Mocidade with its flying model helicopter, lasers and video screens. It seemed an incredible waste in such a poor country for so much luxury to be created for just one night and then thrown away, but Trinta explained: ‘Intellectuals want poverty but the masses don’t. They want luxury.’

Finally, it was our turn as the last school of the second night, the pink glow of dawn visible already over the lights of the favelas. The roar of the audience sent us into ecstasy - except for five breath-stopping minutes when the mast of our Portuguese caravela got stuck under the television tower. Afterwards, Magalhães was jubilant: ‘It’s definitely our best since 1987 (the last time the school won).’

Convinced we had come second, the results announced the following afternoon were a huge disappointment: Mangueira was placed a poor fifth and Salgueira had clinched its first victory in 17 years, scoring top marks in all categories from choreography to floats, story, costumes and music. A devastated Firminho said the school would appear at the champions’ parade for the top five schools wearing black headbands. He complained: ‘Some judges always try to appease the most powerful.’ Dona Neuma was more philosophical: ‘Mangueira has been parading 68 years. We’re used to such results. I cry.’

Over at Salgueira, it seemed the celebrations would never stop. King of it all, in a white suit and banana grin, was Waldemir Garcia, known as Miro - a bicheiro who describes himself as a farmer. Only a week earlier, he had been in court - bracketed by heavily-armed security guards in dark glasses - facing charges for drug trafficking and running gangs.

Christina Lamb OBE

One of Britain's leading foreign correspondents, bestselling author and inspirational speaker.
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