RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – The samba group Salgueiro kicked off this year’s Carnival parade in a hail of fireworks on Sunday, driving out the last strains of rock ‘n’ roll in this city still reeling from a free Rolling Stones show.
Rio de Janeiro’s annual samba parade – the highlight of Brazil’s five-day, pre-Lent blowout – opened after two nights of partying in the streets.
Salgueiro brought 3,800 dancers to the Sambadrome stadium and serenaded a crowd of some 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 scantily clad dancers, and below them legions of dancers dressed in costumes 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 color, 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.
Over two nights, 14 of the city’s top-tier samba groups will present 80-minute parades costing some $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.
Reigning champion Beija Flor, which is vying for its fourth straight title, will close the first night of parading just before dawn today.
“We have the special effects. We have the luxury. Our parade just gets more spectacular – it’s the perfect marriage that it takes to win,” said Fran Sergio, one of Beija Flor’s five Carnival designers.
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.
Informal samba groups also draw large crowds and snarl city traffic on the street.
“It was amazing the way the band starts playing and everyone just joins in,” said Ralph Poetsch, a 48-year-old businessman from Orlando, Fla. “There were so many people, it was like a wave.”
Carnival celebrations capped a week where Brazilians were treated to nationally televised concerts, first by the Rolling Stones, which brought more than a million people to Copacabana beach, and then by U2, which played for two nights in Sao Paulo’s Morumbi soccer stadium.
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. “They have nice songs and all, but it’s just the wrong season.”