Soon, between Saturday 22nd and Wednesday 26th February, it will be Carnival in Brazil.

For five days, millions of people will have fun and party in many Brazilian cities. As soon as I arrived in Hanoi to assume the functions of ambassador of Brazil, I could notice that the Vietnamese were particularly curious about what is considered to be the greatest popular festivity in the world and asked me about it very often. In this personal testimony I will try to answer them.

For me it is at the same time easy and difficult to describe the Brazilian Carnival. It is easy on one hand because I was born and grew up in a city that is famous for its carnival – Rio de Janeiro. However, Brazil’s Carnival can be explained from different perspectives and it is difficult for me to choose which ones to give privilege.

Carnival is constantly present in my childhood memories. It was the 1960s and, at that time, adults and children feasted and danced in the streets and clubs to the sound of carnival marches – the so-called “marchinhas”, a rather comical and satirical genre of music. Many of the songs are still widely sung in Brazil today. The unofficial anthems of popular Brazilian soccer teams are “marchinhas”. The unofficial anthem of Rio de Janeiro, Cidade Maravilhosa (The Wonderful City), is also a “marchinha”.

There was also the “frevo”, a rhythm that dominated Carnival in the state of Pernambuco, and the so-called “electrical trios” – a truck adapted with sound equipment playing live music – had already made their appearance in Salvador da Bahia’s Carnival. As the famous frevo song by Caetano Veloso says: “Behind the electrical trio just won’t go who’s already dead”.

Then came the samba, the famous afro-Brazilian rhythm. In fact, the parade of the samba schools in Rio da Janeiro’s main avenue during Carnival dates back to the 1930’s, but it was in the 1960’s that it started attracting attention, first nationally and then internationally. Very quickly the samba schools parade, which is a competition, became that great show that it is today. Each samba school parades with an average of five thousand people. In the beginning of the 1980’s a fixed concrete grandstand designed by the famous Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer was specially built to be the permanent stage for the parade. The “sambodrome”, as this structure is called, has become an architectural icon of Rio de Janeiro. I was fourteen years old when I first watched a samba school parade in loco. The impact was such that I went to watch several others in the following years.

Revellers participating in Bahian Carnival in Salvador, in the state of Bahia, northern Brazil. (Photo: VALTER PONTES)

In the streets, another very popular Carnival expression is the blocks – “blocos”. The blocks gather a group of revellers, which can range from only a few dozen up to thousands of people. Very popular, they parade in a semi-organised manner at the sound of a band. It is common to see blocks parading in different streets during the five days of Carnival. Revellers improvise costumes, but in several blocks everyone can “follow the block” or “go behind it” with their normal body clothes. Together with the samba schools, they set the tone of the Brazilian Carnival today.

Historians trace the origins of Carnival back to Roman festivals, to the Saturnalia or the Lupercalia for example. Both shared the main characteristic of loud music. About Saturnalia the Roman poet Suetonius said: “Everybody loses their mind”. But there are also those who say that Carnival originated from the religious festivals of the European Middle Ages. Christianity in the Middle Ages tolerated Carnival, and the Catholic Church even regulated it. In fact, Carnival’s date was only set after the date of Christian Easter was first set. From Europe, Carnival came into Brazil through Portugal. And, from the late nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, Brazil’s Carnival began to take the role of this great party of the masses that it has become, unique in the world, and incorporated new musical rhythms and dances, typically Brazilian.

The word carnival comes from the Latin "carnem levare", which means "to abstain, to depart from the flesh." The surrendering of the flesh was a requirement of Lent, a period of abstinence for purification imposed by the Catholic Church for forty days before Easter, and which faithful Christians had to comply with in the Middle Ages. Before Lent, which started on Holy Ash Wednesday, Carnival was thus a time of feasting to prepare the long period of surrender. Today it is the collective time set aside for having fun, for dancing, for playing and for feasting.

Carnival is a time to forget the arduous and difficult routines of everyday life and to try to be happy. As the iconic song “Happiness” by the great Bossa Nova masters Tom Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes says:

So the happiness of a poor man seems to be

The grand illusion of Carnival

We work the whole year round

To have a special moment of dream

To pretend in our costumes

To be a king or queen or just a jack

But all ending on the Holy Day of Ash.

During Brazil’s Carnival, the everyday world becomes inverted in a party that is essentially egalitarian. Rigid social relations become spontaneous, affective, and essentially symmetrical relationships.

For example, everything in a samba school parade – the plot: the story that is chosen to be told, the costumes, the allegories, the samba song that is specifically composed for each year’s annual parade, that is the samba-plot – everything is imagined, thought, built, and composed essentially by its members. Dressed in sumptuous costumes, or as exuberant samba dancers, the favela’s dwellers are the highlight of the parade under the stunned eyes of the public and the tourists. But alongside their traditional members, the samba schools parades also host the rich, the businessmen, the liberal professionals, scholars and college students, without anyone knowing or caring who the other is. Inside the “blocos”, rich, middle and low-income classes merge together to share the same collective joy.

Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival maintains a tradition that may give a good idea of what Carnival is: the gesture by which the mayor gives the symbolic keys of the city to the King of Carnival, better known as King Momo. The name Momo refers to Greek mythology, where Momo was the personification of satire and mockery. Joy and irreverence cannot lack in the plump man, in fact the hyper-obese man who is inevitably always chosen as King Momo. And from his mouth only one command must come out directed to his “subjects” upon receiving the symbolic keys of the city: “have fun”.

Carnival stirs up business. Tourism departments in many cities promote the festivity to attract tourists. Large, medium and small enterprises, plus micro entrepreneurs, benefit from it. Logistic support and subsidies are expected from official authorities. Regarding the city of Rio de Janeiro alone, it is estimated that Carnival generates an income twenty times greater than the public budget that is spent in support of the festivity.

Brazilian Carnival is a unique experience. It has become grandiose, so there are certainly many Brazilians who flee from the noise and the crowds to spend some days off and to rest. But those who have seen a samba school parading, those who have already felt the shiver caused by the drums of a samba school, or who have witnessed a block spontaneously performing on the streets, or those who have felt the energy that emanates from an electrical trio, hardly come out unharmed from the effects and have little chance of not becoming a great enthusiast of the party.

I myself am included in this group and I am proud to know that my country hosts – as many categorically claim, and what I fully agree, is – the greatest popular festivity in the world.

But all ending on the Holy Day of Ash.

Hanoi, February 2020