São Paulo's Carnival: A history

The road from turn-of-the-20th-century street parades all the way to the mighty Sambódromo and the street blocos

Press image/Francio de Holanda
people dancing along the street in a bloco
Acadêmicos do Baixo Augusta bloco – following in the street Carnival tradition

As in other Brazilian cities, the roots of Carnival in São Paulo are in the merging of Catholic pre-Lenten celebrations and the percussive folk music of recently released slaves from the countryside, who arrived in the city in the late 1800s. One particular set of these African-based rhythms comprised the rodas de samba. This eventually transitioned to informal cordões (costumed samba groups), the first of which was the Grupo Carnavalesco Barra Funda, founded in 1914. During Carnival, these groups would parade through the working-class areas of the Centro.

Samba schools … and the Sambódromo

While the city’s elites already had their masked costume balls at this time, it was the cordões, with their sambas, that would eventually morph into (or be replaced by) the samba schools in the early 1950s. 1954 saw the first parade of samba schools held in Parque do Ibirapuera, and in 1968, the city finally got in on the act, organising the judged competition that created the rivalries and drama that continue to this day.

‘I think some of its spontaneity was lost when the city took over to make it a competition, but it would be impossible to do Carnival on such a scale for such a big city without that organisation,’ says Olga de Moraes von Simson, a researcher at the University of Campinas and the author of two books on São Paulo’s Carnival.

In the 1970s, the event was moved to Avenida Tiradentes, where seating stands were installed and the schools were formalised. Finally, in 1991 the city moved Carnival out of the streets and into the now-expanded Niemeyer-designed Sambódromo still used today.

Street partiers – the blocos

The Sambódromo gets much of the attention, but for many people, São Paulo's blocos – street parties – are where all the action is at.

Go back seventy years into the history of Carnival, and you’ll find spontaneous street parties with revellers marching in elaborate costumes, playing pranks on one another, making noise and parading with street groups known as blocos and bandinhas. In Rio de Janeiro, the birthplace of Carnival as we know it, this tradition has never died, and indeed goes from strength to strength, year in and year out. (Find full details of Rio's legendary blocos at Time Out Rio – Rio Carnival 2013: bloco survival guide.)

Traditionally, blocos and bandas are based on brass instruments – cornet, trombone and saxophone – and drums. They play traditional marches and popular Carnival songs with cheeky, humorous lyrics. Marching through the streets from the start of the Carnival season (usually a week or two into the new year) until Tuesday night, the eve of Ash Wednesday, it’s all about getting together with friends to enjoy festive music and a total lack of reverence for decorum.

Press image/Francio de Holanda
Acadêmicos do Baixo Augusta bloco
Keeping it street level

In São Paulo, the street Carnival almost died as samba schools grew and exclusive dances at private clubs gained in popularity. But in 1972, provoked by carioca singer-songwriter Vinicius de Moraes who declared São Paulo the ‘tomb of samba,’ writer and playwright Plínio Marcos created the Banda Bandalha (loosely translated as ‘band of the despicables’) that brought together artists, intellectuals, musicians and members of local samba schools.

According to Marcos, the Banda Bandalha managed to attract close to 10,000 people. Resistance from local municipal authorities (this was, after all, during the military dictatorship, and Marcos was considered subversive) forced the disbanding of Bandalha in 1974. In the same year, the members of the banda created a new one, Banda Redonda, that survives to this day, marching around the centre of São Paulo near the city hall before Carnival. This year, Banda Redonda will be kicking off its celebrations on Rua Teodoro Baima at 9pm on 4 February (2013).

Dancing in the street

There are more than twenty official bandas in São Paulo, and several other small groups that march around the city. Along with Redonda, Banda do Candinho is one of the oldest, having celebrated its thirtieth anniversary in 2011 in Bela Vista, marching into the centre and back again. ‘We just wanted to have fun on the streets, so we got together and decided to recreate Carnival the way it used to be,’ said Candido de Souza Neto, known as Candinho, the 62 year-old journalist who founded the group and still heads it.

'Now, the banda hires sambistas, a trio elétrico (a roving sound-system), and security guards and is followed by about 3,000 revellers', said Candinho. This year, Banda do Candinho will head out around the Bela Vista streets at 9pm on 6 February (2013), leaving from the corner of Rua Santo Antônio and Rua 13 de Maio.

Like samba schools, local legislation forced the blocos and bandas to become semi-professional. In 1981, when the city government built the Sambódromo, Candinho created the association of bandas, which lobbies for funding. The twenty bands associated with the organisation receive between R$14,000 and R$18,000 each, according to size, in order to pay musicians, buy equipment and cover other expenses.

In Vila Madalena, Brazil’s bohemian quarter, Bloco Vai Quem Qué (loosely translated as ‘anybody is welcome’) mixes tradition and irreverence, and this year will leave Praça Benedito Calixto at 8pm on 9, 10, 11 and 12 February, heading out around the streets of Pinheiros.

In 2010, nightclub Studio SP on Rua Augusta created the bloco Acadêmicos do Baixo Augusta, which attracts local residents and fans of the street’s alternative scene. In 2013, the Acadêmicos will get into gear at 2pm on Rua Augusta between Rua Marquês de Paranaguá and Rua Caio Prado on 2 February.

If big bashes at the Sambódromo aren’t your thing, but you still want to party, there may be a bloco headed your way on the next block. 

By Mose Hayward


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