By Dom Phillips
Ambling through the blazing heat and Saturday afternoon crowds on Rio de Janeiro’s SAARA street market, I was getting nowhere in my search for a crucial purchase: my carnival fancy dress costume. Nothing seemed quite right. I hovered, briefly, before a Super Mario outfit in cheap fabric, lingered beneath an all-in-one Spiderman cat-suit, and even stopped in front of some sort of caveman combo that came with a cheap plastic club.
But I couldn’t see myself in any of them. Practical considerations dominated: how much would one sweat in all that man-made fibre, in a crowd, in the Rio heat? But time was marching on. The market was closing. The prospect of a late afternoon beach visit receding. And then I passed the uniform shop for the second time, and this time, turned and went in. Problem solved, or so it seemed.
With less than a week to go, you might think Rio de Janeiro is heating up for its carnival. Instead, it’s already begun: this year, more than ever, cariocas (Rio residents) seem to have decided to just get on with it, and cram in their carnival fun before the tourists swamp the place. Everyone says it’s much better like this. Pre-Carnival beats actual Carnival, hands down.
Consequently, over the last few weekends, the mobile, free street parties called blocos that have multiplied in recent years have been ramming city streets, increasing exponentially as the Carnival gets closer. Last weekend alone, there were hordes of them – a sound truck, a samba drum corps, and a crowd following in fancy dress.
Thousands packed into a square in Rio’s centre Sunday for an enormous party that celebrated the cheesy old pop songs, referred to as brega. In Ipanema, a bloco called Simpatia é Quase Amor (niceness is almost love) was rammed Saturday. Blocos are big on ironic names: one is called Me Beija que Eu Sou Cineasta (Kiss Me I’m a Film-maker). On Sunday, one of the best blocos I’ve come across, a brass and samba drums ensemble called Orquestra Voadora (Flying Circus) paraded through the rain at the Aterro do Flamengo. This was the third Sunday in a row I’ve seen them. And the bloco has just got bigger, and better, each time.
Led by giant tubas that tower above the musicians playing them, they specialise in brass-band arrangements of popular songs, with a heavy, syncopated samba beat. It works much better than that might sound.
Michael Jackson’s ‘Beat It’, Brazilian classics, movie themes, even the 1970s funk classic ‘Low Rider’ by War – with the lower-note brass instruments doing a sterling job on that funky bassline – were all greeted with loud, happy cheers. Even in a torrential downpour, with some of the band walking and playing under a gazebo, which helpers were obligingly carrying over them. Most of the crowd were already in costume. The carnival, for them, was already in full swing.
But I still hadn’t braved the fancy dress. I’m a Brit, and consequently somewhat reserved, and I’ve got through my whole life – and three Rio carnivals – without ever putting on a fancy dress costume. The closest I’ve come to it was going to a theatre do in London dressed, rather optimistically, as a ‘gangster’, in a dark suit and sunglasses. My partner was dressed as a flapper.
But the whole night, people kept asking me then where my costume was. The same thing happened at Orquestra Voadora on Sunday. It seems my fancy dress-free days are numbered. It’s time to bite the bullet and fall on my sword, to mix a few carnival-costume related metaphors (plastic swords and guns both being popular accessories).
So I explained the outfits I’d bought at the uniforms shop to the people I was with. One is an all-purpose cleaner’s outfit, with shirt, slacks and baseball cap in matching navy blue. I was planning to carry a brush, and had even begun mentally rehearsing a spiel about how the financial crisis in Europe had motivated a move to Rio in search of gainful employment.
A girl dressed as a bride and holding a flower frowned. “That’s no good,” she said. Her friends – Snow White and a girl in a leopard-skin print one-piece gym outfit – nodded in agreement. “Your costume needs to be interactive. It needs to invite some sort of exchange.”
I wondered what sort of interactive signals her bride outfit was sending out. But then she interrupted my thoughts with the killer line: “And I don’t think many women are going to be interested in a guy dressed as a cleaner.”
Damn. Once again, a clumsy attempt at self-depreciating English humour, this time in the shape of a carnival costume, had floundered on the rocks. I told the bride my back-up outfit was that of a chef. She brightened. “That’s good. A guy who can cook…” Her friend in the gym outfit interrupted. “It’s carnival. You have to be in costume. You have to go all in.”
This was more than evident the previous Friday night, at a carnival baile (party) at the Monte Líbano club in Rio, where many of the organizers of Rio’s main blocos were enjoying themselves dancing and singing along to a band on stage. This was the old guard, these were people who take carnival and its associated culture of creativity, celebration, and escaping from a year of drudgery in a three-day costume fantasy, more seriously than anyone else. Their costumes brought this home.
One guy was dressed as a Petrobras worker, in overalls. A girl had come in yellow, with a TAXI sign attached to her head. There were Bo Beep and Princesses, professional footballers, a guy dressed as Nina from the soap opera Avenida Brasil, Roman goddesses – and a guy who told me that when he is not serving on the management committee of the Escravos da Mauá (the Slaves of Mauá, one of central Rio’s most traditional blocos), he is an astrophysicist.
Then a Star Wars storm-trooper in full space-man uniform, holding a ray gun, walked in and stole the show. Photographers surrounded him. So did women. Never mind that he – or she – couldn’t even be seen behind the helmet. It’s carnival. And if you’re not in costume, you’ll stand out like a Star Wars storm-trooper at a wedding. With competition like this, I’m not sure how a simple British chef can even begin to compete…