In sequins and leotards, they took a stand: the Brazilian carnival must continue

RIO DE JANEIRO — A young man sitting alone with a beer and his snorkel. One by one, his accomplices arrive. A man in a jerkin with a t...


RIO DE JANEIRO — A young man sitting alone with a beer and his snorkel. One by one, his accomplices arrive. A man in a jerkin with a trumpet. A shirtless drummer in a wizard’s hat. Another tuba player in a leopard skin bra.

They were a motley group, gathering near a popular square in the city center to break the rules and start a party. According to them, they were there to save the Rio de Janeiro Carnival.

After Omicron brought a new wave of Covid cases to Brazil, Rio ban traveling bands known as the “blocos” that fuel the free, impromptu street parties that make this city’s carnival such a democratic celebration. City authorities had scoured social media for planned blocos and vowed to break up anything that violates order.

Instead of blocos, the city allowed private, paid parties that could check for vaccinations. This has left many Rio residents worried that Carnival – one of few establishments where Rio’s social classes still mingle – was becoming more private and elite. Some of them wondered if it would really be a carnival.

But at the edge of the square, just after 9 p.m. on Friday, the first official evening of the Carnival, the resistance gathered next to a Chinese noodle stand. They were armed with sequins, fishnet and a full brass section.

“Carnival is a cultural manifestation, not an event,” said Rafael Comote, 30, a trumpet player wearing a pink wig and a Rio health department vest borrowed from a friend. “Carnival is not something you can ban.”

The bloco had formed over the previous days in a WhatsApp group of around 100 musicians from bands that had canceled their plans. After the cancellation of last year’s Carnival, these musicians wanted to play. They called their makeshift group “Repressed Demand”. To escape the police, they chose the meeting place a few hours before.

Around 10:30 p.m., the group headed for Olympic Boulevard, a waterfront promenade created for the 2016 Olympics. “We all have apprehensions,” Comote said as they walked. “It’s the first bloco of the first day, so let’s see.”

About twenty musicians and 30 spectators stopped in front of a warehouse. With flickering streetlights above their heads, they warmed up with a famous brazilian carnival song whose opening lyrics sent a message: “Make way for me to pass. Excuse me so I can vent. The small crowd bounced to the beat – and started texting their friends.

Benjamin Rache Salles, a physics teacher with glitter on his face, said he was visiting friends at a samba bar when he heard there was a bloco. Now these 10 friends were on their way here.

Within an hour, the group was surrounded by over 200 people dancing and singing. Vendors were selling beers for $2. The carnival had arrived.

“Music produces a vibration that reaches your heart and gives you emotion. And you sing, dance, jump, become happy and forget everything,” said Fabio Morais, a trumpet player in a red firefighter vest. “So you come back to reality.”

Suddenly there were flashing red lights. The police had also arrived.

This has left high expectations for this year’s Carnival, the celebration of indulgence which lasts several days before the Christian observance of Lent. Much like 1919, it was to serve as a pressure relief valve after the pandemic restrictions. “We don’t celebrate because life is calm, because life is beautiful,” said Luiz Antônio Simas, a Rio historian who has studied carnival. “Party is restorative.”

Then Omicron arrived. In January, the mayor of Rio postponed to april the official Carnival parade, known for its dancers and elaborately costumed floats, and completely bans the more than 450 blocos and their free-wheeling street parties. Most other cities have made similar moves.

But a loophole in Rio’s policy – allowing private Carnival parties, which had already become more popular in recent years – has allowed paid gatherings to thrive.

Dozens popped up, some offering elaborate musical performances and selling tickets for over $100. Almost immediately, many Rio residents viewed the policy as hypocritical.

“For what moral reasons do you stop the street carnival while various other gatherings and events are taking place?” said Mr. Simas. “The ban was not based on public health criteria.”

The town hall held firm. The man in charge of chasing the carnival blocos was Brenno Carnevale – yes, that’s his real name – head of the department that cracks down on illegal street vendors, taxis and, during the pandemic, parties.

The day before the carnival started, Mr Carnevale said he had 32 officers monitoring social media for blocos and hundreds of police patrolling the streets. They had infiltrated more than 50 WhatsApp group chats. And they gave a clear warning the previous weekend when they broke two downtown blocos during a pre-carnival celebration.

“There are always people who want to defy the rules,” he said. If the blocos come out, “we will look for dialogue”, Mr. Carnevale said. “We will ask them to disperse.”

When the police showed up on Olympic Boulevard on Friday evening, things became tense. In some ways, the encounter would set the tone for the rest of the Carnival.

The police wanted the bloco to move. But the officers didn’t necessarily say they had to stop playing. “We’re going to Harmony Plaza,” said Paula Azevedo, a feisty trombone player. “We are not going to stop.”

The police agreed that the party could move. Then Ms. Azevedo asked another question. “Do you agree that’s hypocrisy?” she says. “Is it hypocritical to have to pay to enjoy the Carnival?”

“Yes,” replied an officer. “Sure.”

The party became a parade down Olympic Boulevard, gathering energy and scale as it went. When the group turned left into a narrower street, it was difficult to get around.

At 3 a.m., thousands of people filled Harmony Plaza. They were greeting friends, hugging and moving to music. Some are mounted on a gazebo. People wore wigs, capes and feathers, and vendors sold caipirinhas, meat skewers and corn on the cob. And the band didn’t stop, drums and horns beating the heart of the party. Overlooking it all was a state police station.

At 6 a.m., Paulo Mac Culloch, a spokesman for Mr Carnevale, responded to a text message asking if the department had spotted any blocos that night. “So far,” he replied, “no.”

The party made it clear that Rio Carnival was underway. Although much smaller than usual and lacking the typical infrastructure, such as portable toilets and sound stages, the blocos performed on the streets of downtown for the next four days, sometimes attracting huge crowds.

The police, for their part, mostly kept watch. They tried to keep people out of the tram tracks and disrupt traffic, but tensions generally remained low. An officer said that everyone just wanted to get along because of the war in Ukraine.

On Monday, Mr Carnevale’s department said it broke 11 blocos from Saturday to Monday. “The street carnival, with the large blocos organized, did not go as usual,” the department said. “However, we had people celebrating in the streets and we followed everything.”

Renata Rodrigues, a sociologist and drummer in a feminist bloco who performed on Tuesday, said despite all the challenges, Rio’s street carnival was alive and well.

“There’s nothing more Rio than this street culture, this way of mingling, of getting together with people you know and don’t know,” she said. “We haven’t been able to do any of this for two years, so it was a memorable and amazing Carnival.”

She added: “Something that only the street can offer.

Leonardo Coelho contributed reporting.



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Newsrust - US Top News: In sequins and leotards, they took a stand: the Brazilian carnival must continue
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