By Martina Merlo
From what we learned about Samba—a uniquely Brazilian form of dance, it came out of the Favelas. While we were in Rio, we even saw stages for Samba around the commercialized area at the bottom of Dona Marta Mountain in Santa Marta. The location for our intended Samba outing, too, was at the bottom of the Salt Steps near the Neighborhood of Good Health, which is also in a less cosmopolitanized area of the city. Samba not only defines Brazil from an external standpoint as a now popularized musical and dance style, but also symbolizes the “grassroots” of Brazil with its origin story lying in the slums. Samba is to Brazil as Blues is to the American South—specifically as it comes from slave songs. Carnaval was the time of the year when marginalized people were those who controlled the city through celebration and through their own form of dance.
What struck me the most, then, about looking at photographs of the Sambodromo Marques de Sapucai both during and outside of Carnaval was its cosmopolitan and universalized structure. The Sambodromo seems to have a very clear, stark contrast between its body as a concrete shell and the bodies walking and dancing down the immense runway. Additionally, it seems to cut through the city, creating a boulevard-like path that separates the highways and automotive part of the city and the nearby neighborhoods.
The reason for the existence of the Sambodromo and its Modernist construction that calls to stylistic cognates throughout the city is because of Governor Leonel Brizola (About Sambodrome). As previously mentioned, Samba had been an art that came from sites deemed informal in Rio. The Carnaval parades symbolized celebration of carne (flesh) and of excess before one of the chastest Catholic holidays.
Prior to the erection of the Sambadrome, parades ensued throughout the city in the form of informalized street parties, known as blocos, but collected into one main parade along Ave. Presidente Vargas. The blocos along Presidente Vargas allowed for a slightly more fixed viewpoint of the celebrations, and bleachers were temporarily set up to allow for this viewing (About Sambodrome).
That was the beginning of the structuring of Carnaval. A once informal set of festivities, the culture of which was incited by people in the slums, Samba and Carnaval started becoming events for observation, controlled by the government. The commission for the Sambodromo was given to Oscar Niemeyer, and was erected in 1984 (About Sambodrome). It consists of a 700-meter runway stretching along Marques de Sapucai. It is a linear, rational concrete structure with built-in, elevated stands that overlook the runway at ground level. The Sambodromo represents the standardization of a “grassroots” event, or type of festivity, and the commercialization thereof. By way of commissioning a world-renowned and yet purely Brazilian architect for the structure, Brizola turned Carnaval of Rio into an event that could, or rather should be reached from other parts of Brazil, in the very least. With the erection of the stands, the event now immediately became commercialized. With the bleachers set up in Presidente Vargas, there already came a separation between observers and observed, and Carnaval began to turn into a spectator event rather than its original form as a large and seemingly disorganized party. With the Sambodromo, the divide between the spectator and the observed was even larger once the spectator had to pay for seating at an exponentially higher cost as time went on.
The actual content of Carnaval within the Sambodromo consists of many distinct Samba schools, who practice for many months beforehand, parading with thematic costumes and floats. Each Samba school showcases a different theme, but they all have Brazilian-ness in common. While the origins of Samba seem to be lost in the commercialization and standardization of this event, the content provides themes of nature, such as the cosmos, or specific animals such as birds and lions. Many take inspiration from Amazonia, but others take inspiration from more “primitive” stories in mythology.
While the content of the show allows for the Samba schools to still have some control over the Carnaval experience, despite the organization and super-sizing of the event, there is an added element of economization that cannot be escaped. The Samba schools need to fill the runway not only with their dancing, but also with costumed people to walk alongside and create more volume within the Sambodromo. In order to both fund the Samba school and fill the space, wealthy and prominent Brazilians pay to don a costume under the school of their choosing and parade alongside the carne. Not only is there a divide between spectator and observed, but there is also an infiltration of a “non-native” species into a very “native” and “grassroots” event—right in the middle of the runway. Now, a government commissioned parade becomes even more similar to a corporately-owned parade, such as our very familiar Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Technically organized by the city, Carnaval is now completely immersed in the industry of entertainment to the point where the origins of Samba start to fade away with the mixture of socioeconomic classes.
In the end, the Sambodromo and all of its connotations took the one event in the year where Samba and those who invented it ran the city and had political power, power to educate, and power to entertain, and formed a voyeuristic and manipulative mega-event.
“About Sambadrome (Sambódromo) – Rio Carnival.” Rio Carnival. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.
Featured photo: http://www.sambadrome.com/sambodromo-seating/frisas-front-box/