Sounds of samba flood the streets of Rio

Rio happily swapped a group of ageing British rockers for scantily clad dancers and the relentless beat of hundreds of drums on Monday as Brazil’s top-tier groups faced off in the yearly carnival’s annual samba parade.

Just more than a week after the Rolling Stones played a free concert for one million people on Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro’s samba parade—the highlight of Brazil’s five-day, pre-Lent blowout—opened after two nights of partying in the streets.

For two nights, 14 of the city’s top-tier samba groups present 80-minute parades costing about $2-million each in the hopes of wowing the crowd and the judges, and being declared champion—a distinction that brings little more than bragging rights.

The samba group Salgueiro kicked off the parade under hail of fireworks on Sunday night and three-time champions Beija Flor closed the first day of parading in bright the morning sun, just before 8am local time on Monday.

Salgueiro brought 3 800 dancers to the Sambadrome stadium and serenaded a crowd of about 70 000 with a number called Microcosm: What the Eye Doesn’t See, the Heart Feels.

There was plenty for the eye to see: enormous, opulent floats draped with dancers wearing little in the way of costumes, and below them legions of dancers decked out as elaborate as small parade floats. There was also plenty for the heart to feel: the merciless thudding of a 300-piece drum corps.

“It’s madness. There’s so much colour, dancing and music,” said Des Ryan, a 48-year-old stonemason from Ireland who was experiencing Rio’s world-famous carnival for the first time.

Also on hand to watch the festivities was Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona.

Reigning champion Beija Flor is vying for its fourth straight title and judging from the crowd’s enthusiasm it has another shot.

A win by the group would make it the first with four consecutive wins since the parade was moved into the specially designed Sambadrome stadium in 1984.

The Portela school, which was to close out the parade early on Tuesday morning, was declared champion seven times in a row between 1941 and 1947 and holds the record for most championships with 21, but it has never won in the Sambadrome.

While Brazil’s 185-million people celebrate carnival in different ways, the samba parade is broadcast live nationwide and the groups inspire the kind of passions normally reserved for the country’s soccer teams.

In a poll published on Sunday in the Rio de Janeiro newspaper O Globo, 37% of those surveyed said the best way to celebrate carnival is to watch the parade on television.
The next-largest group, 16%, said it is best celebrated by leaving town.

Another popular option is to flock to the streets, where informal samba groups draw large crowds and snarl city traffic.

Carnival celebrations capped a week where Brazilians were treated to nationally televised concerts, first by the Rolling Stones, and then by U2, which played for two nights in São Paulo’s Morumbi soccer stadium.

Following the U2 show, the band headed to Salvador, a coastal city about 1 200km north-east of Rio, where frontman Bono performed an impromptu duet with carnival singer Ivete Sangalo.

The visit inspired dozens of bands, which ply the city atop sound trucks, to crank out samba-fied versions of U2 tunes long after the Irish rockers had left.

So many large rock concerts on the eve of carnival, however, rankled some samba traditionalists.

“I’m totally against it; it has nothing to do with samba,” said Max Lopes, who was in charge of designing the parade for the samba group Mangueira, which paraded on Monday night. “They have nice songs and all but it’s just the wrong season.”—Sapa-AP

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