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The Great Popular Art of the Carnival
by Lélia Coelho Frota

Happiness, casualness and creativity, the trademark characteristics of the Brazilian people, achieve their maximum expression at the Carnival. During four days the country lives its most democratic moment, taking to the same catwalk and to the streets people of very different socio-economic and cultural levels. It is the moment when rich and poor share the same space and enjoy themselves at a festivity where social inequalities become diluted in Carnival euphoria.

Carnival is such an important date for Brazilians, that it divides the annual calendar into before and after the festival. The country stops from North to South to let themselves go at the revelry. Brazilian people and tourists from all over the world transform themselves into "foliões" (Carnival revellers), following the rhythms of each region (samba, carnival marches, frevos, maracatus, axé music and many other carnivals invented and reinvented each year.

The Carnival started with the barbaric and dionysian practice of the Iberian "entrudo" (carnival) portrayed by the painter Debret in the 19th century. At that time the fashion was to throw water, flour and soot, drenching people surprised by the revellers. Even rotten eggs and vegetables were thrown at the passers by. There were masked people, overeating and drinking. It was only when the beauty of the "ranchos" and "sociedades" (carnival groups) were introduced to the carnival that the downfall of the "entrudo" started, which has persisted despite consecutive interventions by the authorities.

Customs which were virulent and musically simple such as "Zé-Pereiras" (Carnival rhythms supported by drums), started to disappear in the face of more harmonious forms of enjoying the Carnival. With deafining rumbles of enormous sticks on drums, the "Zé-Pereiras" were composed of britadores and calceteiros (road workers) and blacksmiths. The "cordões" (Carnival groups) - where the space for the revellers was demarcated by a rope - formed by black revellers were in vogue in the country since the beginning of the 19th century. The chronicler João do Rio wrote that the "cordões" would come from "the festival of Nossa Senhora do Rosário (Our Lady of the Rosary), still during colonial times (...) they went out in the streets dressed as kings, animals, pages and guards, singing and playing African instruments and they stopped in front of the Viceroy's house with their enormous "cordões", singing and dancing."

Later these groups ("cordões") assumed a profane character and became known as "briguentos" (troublemakers), in part for incorporating to the group the "capoeira" (foot-fighting dance) players, but also because of middle-class prejudice. Also part of the Carnival were the "cucumbis", afro songs and dances, and the "afoxés" (black carnival group from Bahia). In Rio de Janeiro these were updated and then moved away from the African cultures of origin towards existing lyrics and music creations in Rio de Janeiro's urban environment, searching for a language and presentation closer to their reality.

The Great Societies that appeared in Rio de Janeiro during the second half of the 19th century were the product of richer social classes. Beautiful allegoric cars were used in the parades, with paintings and sculptures elaborated by artists of the school of fine arts, luxurious fancy dresses, themes ("enredo") with operatic songs and lyrics of a critical, social and political character. Some of the Societies of distinction in Rio de Janeiro's Carnival were Tenentes do Diabo (1861), Clube dos Fenianos (1869) and Clube dos Democráticos (1867). The balls used to take place in these clubs, to the sound of groups of military bands, where the maxixe (Brazilian music and dance form entwining European polka to the lundu of African origin) reigned. The Great Societies of Rio de Janeiro were a model to the other societies in different states of Brazil, before Carnival became a popular street phenomenom.

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