There are more than seventy samba schools in Rio, from the modest part-timers to the famous names of Beija-Flor and Mangueira, and every year the Independent League of Samba Schools (LIESA) chooses its best of the best, the grand champion as elected by the jury after a legendarily painstaking and suspense-filled scoring process on Carnival Wednesday. For behind the flamboyance, feathers and floats lies the crucial intricacies of fierce competition. This may be Carnival, but all the schools have strict guidelines that must be adhered to and the last-placed school suffers the ignominy of relegation down to the Grupo de Acesso.
The parade of the top division (Grupo Especial) takes place over two days, and in order to better understand the finer points of what is going on, Time Out’s resident carnival experts have come up with a few guidelines of their own to help the uninitiated get the most out of the madness.
Simply the school’s chosen story for the year that is told through the myriad of costumes, dancing and floats, and, of course, the song's lyrics. The subject could be a famous person, a celebrated story from history, even a homage to a city in Brazil, and responsibility for it all falls on the shoulders of the carnavalesco, the school’s creative mastermind.
Not to be confused with the general theme, this is specifically the song that tells the story through its lyrics and melody. Chosen from a host of possible contenders written each year, a strong theme should help the paraders to evolve and progress through their choreography, and get the crowd going. A good samba is often the first sign of a potential champion.
The Lead Committee (Comissão de Frente)
The name says it all really, and this group always opens up proceedings for their respective school. Greeting the crowds and presenting the theme to the jury via an intricate choreography is a crucial start, and one that has assumed great importance as a thermometer for the school’s performance as a whole, with the huge floats and a sea of dancers following on behind. If they fail to make an impact, you can presume that what follows will also lack sparkle.
Row of Baianas (Ala das Baianas)
Known as the ‘Aunties of Samba', this section pays homage to the Bahian ladies who, at the start of the twentieth century, housed illicit sambistas at a time when, unbelievably enough, the music was banned by the police. Not judged by the scorers, their presence is nevertheless obligatory for every school.
Drum troupe Queen (Rainha de Bateria)
Godmother, Muse, Queen or Princess, it doesn’t matter what they are called, their impressive, immaculately made-up physiques always lead the musicians and attract a veritable army of photographers with every shimmy. Also not troubling the scoresheets, they remain a huge element of the hoop-la of the modern-day parade, for good or bad.
Master of the Room and Flag Bearer (Mestre-sala e Porta-bandeira)
This couple repeatedly act out a specified choreography designed to display all the grace and movement of a ballet whilst also carrying the school’s enormous flag. For a decade now it has become the norm for Rio samba schools to parade with more than one such couple, but only the first is judged by the scorers.
Drum troupe (Bateria)
The rhythm instrumentalists train intensively all year round to ensure they keep conducting the school's parade in time, and the song flowing. The little showman's pauses they insert before each run-through have become a highlight of the event, a tricky manouevre to perform in time amidst all the noise and heat of the show between so many musicians but one which always sends the crowds potty.
The floats (Carros alegóricos)
These iron-based monsters, decked out in wooden, polystyrene and plastic sculptures are the physically imposing embodiment of the school’s theme. On the chassis of an old bus, materials and people are piled on up to a maximum of eight metres high, and each school is allowed between five and eight, the first of which, called the abre-alas, is usually the one with the most wow-factor.
The jury (Os jurados)
On the receiving end of the abuse on Quarta-Feira de Cinzas - Carnival Wednesday’s judgement day - the fifty-strong jury are responsible for dishing out the points. Split into ten disciplines and spread along the length of the avenue, there is nowhere to hide from their beady glare, with the smallest mistake proving costly. Marks are awarded anywhere between seven and ten out of ten, with every point knocked off having to be justified.