Every year around this time, Rio de Janeiro plunges into the party in two ways as the passionate determination of samba schools comingle with the joyful celebrations of street blocos.

This unique Brazilian city is the kingdom of not only one, but two Carnivals. Blocos (street samba bands that mobilize crowds) and world-famous samba schools peacefully share the urban territory and dive into the joy that bewitches the world.

This double-dose celebration takes on two independent lives in terms of style and ambition, format and demand, size and protocol. Protagonists perform their shows simultaneously, the only coincidence determined by the calendar.

At Ipanema beach, people dance to the sound of bloco Rio Maracatu.

Hudson Pontes / Riotur

On one side of the spectrum are huge samba schools like Mangueira, Salgueiro, Beija-Flor and Portela, plus smaller ones, totaling around 60 associations. On the other side are hundreds of blocos such as Simpatia é Quase Amor, Timoneiros da Viola, Bola Preta, and Cacique de Ramos. Long live the peaceful dichotomy of “ziriguidum” — the vocal imitation of the sound associated with samba's powerful percussion!

The explanation of the differences between these two worlds lies on their basic concepts. The wonderful and sovereign goddesses of Passarela do Samba (traditional samba parade ground downtown Rio) earnestly commit themselves to a competition full of limits and restrictions. The show is held under draconian rules, with size, timing and goals rigidly determined. In 2017, the samba elite in Rio comprised of 12 samba schools each with 3,500 components, will parade under strictly measured time in search of the jury’s vote. They all dream of being declared the winner on Ash Wednesday.

The passage through the illuminated altar of the samba masters marks the end of an odyssey and the culmination of months of dedicated rehearsals and production of costumes and allegories. At the time of the long-awaited parade, everyone must be in position, sharp and sober, and, of course, with the theme samba lyrics tattooed on its soul. Just try asking some of those thousands of artists if they ever considered quitting their devotion.

Bloco Cordão do Boitatá draws crowd to Rio's downtown area.

Tata Barreto / Riotur

To decipher the genesis of such a fascinating spectacle that alone ensures a unique identity in the world — our own proposed civilization — there is nothing better than a samba!

Hey, Apis bull

There in Egypt, feast of Isis

Hey Bacchus god, drink with no regret

You think this wine is water

It's Spring

In the Law of Rome

It's joy that reigns

Oh! Such beauty

Black mask

In Venice Ball

These verses, composed by J. Brito, Bujão and Franco entitled “Festa Profana” (Profane Party), of samba school União da Ilha, articulate the founding references of samba schools. From Egypt, Greece, Rome and Venice came elements that have joined the batuque —syncopated drumming rhythm — of slaves from Africa. From this mixture came a procession full of rhythm and dance into Rio's suburbs and held once more on Rio’s downtown avenue where samba was danced in the 1930s.

In the essential work Livro De Ouro Do Carnaval Brasileiro (Golden book of Brazilian Carnival), author Felipe Ferreira teaches that “for several reasons, the event played a centralizing and decisive role in formatting the national revelry.” In those events, which occurred in the streets of Brazil's former capital, tensions between the elite and more modest people were the defining ingredient.

“Since the first decade of the 20th Century, Rio's Carnival became the symbol of mestizo revelry, becoming Brazil's popular cultural paradigm,” writes Ferreira, a professor at the State University of Rio de Janeiro and one of the most knowledgeable Carnival researchers in Brazil.

Portela samba school at 2016 Rio's carnival.

Fernando Grilli / Riotur

This status quo is valid even today with street Carnival, the democratic apotheosis that bewitches the entire city, with more than 450 blocos. Democratic and plural, it welcomes everyone, anytime, anyway. Carnival welcomes different musical genres: rock, country, folk marches, and, of course, samba. All for free, in the middle of the street. All you need to do is join in like a typical carioca (Rio local).

According to historian Antonio Luiz Simas, the origins of blocos goes back to festivities such as “Ternos de Reis”, Catholic processions, afoxés (regional blocos related to Candomblé religion), and the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary (as celebrated in the Brazilian state of Ceará). They emerged in Rio at the time of the First Brazilian Republic (1889-1930), as Carnival groups halfway between the ranchos — seen as respectable manifestations, with storylines, solemn presentations to presidents of the country and other powerful people — and the cordões — carnival festivities of the “dangerous classes.”

Blocos were not as ‘respectable’ as the ranchos, neither highly dangerous and violent as the cordões,” explains Simas. “They formed almost spontaneously from neighborhood groups who wanted to go out to play and possibly get into some trouble.”

Some of them have turned into samba schools, when they decided to adopt a more rigorous organization. Baianinhas de Oswaldo Cruz later became Portela samba school and Bloco dos Arengueiros gave birth to Mangueira samba school.

All of them, blocos and samba schools, materialize the annual miracle of the enchanted land of the two Carnivals. So be it, forever.

Ipad EXCLUSIVA Rio de Janeiro 01/12/2011 Retratos dos colunistas do jornal O Globo. Aydano André Motta. Foto Guito Moreto / Agência O Globo
Aydano André Motta has been a journalist since 1986, covering local news, particularly government and public affairs of Rio de Janeiro, for publications such as Jornal do Brasil, O Dia, O Globo, Veja and Isto é. He also has served as a TV sports commentator for channel Sport. In 2012, he won the Esso Award, Brazil’s most prestigious prize for journalism. A Carnival researcher, he is the author of Maravilhosa e soberana – Histórias da Beija-Flor (Marvelous and sovereign – Stories of Beija-Flor Samba School) and Onze mulheres incríveis do carnaval carioca (Eleven incredible women of Rio's Carnival).