Brazil’s annual explosion of samba and sexual titillation began Friday, with scantily clad revellers hitting the streets from Rio to Recife to celebrate carnival.
The pre-Lenten festivities kicked off in the tropical north of the country, and swept south to other cities for a five-day long weekend of extravagant summer partying.
In Rio de Janeiro, the self-proclaimed center of “the best public party on earth”, thousands of locals and tourists mingled under a hot summer sun on Ipanema and Copacabana beaches while “bloco” groups prepared to unleash infectious drum rhythms on the city center.
The highlight is yet to come on Sunday and Monday night, when Rio’s top 12 samba schools compete for hours in front of packed stands holding 50,000 people, in parades to be broadcast around the world.
Their performances have come to symbolize Brazil’s carnival, with lithe dancing queens dressed in little more than a few sequins and feathers atop floats featuring immense allegorical scenes.
This year’s parade ran into controversy when one of the schools, Unidos do Viradouro, wanted to put in an entry showing a dancing Hitler on top of a pile of emaciated Holocaust victims as a reminder to avert such atrocities in the future.
But a judge on Thursday banned the float at the urging of an offended Rio Jewish group.
The miffed school is now modifying its display to one enshrining “freedom of expression.”
A fierce row between police and Rio’s state authorities has also cast a pall over carnival.
Forty-seven officers have resigned to protest the sacking of their chief and nine other commanders who permitted miltary police to hold a protest over pay and conditions.
Both sides have vowed the dispute will not affect carnival security in the city, tasked to 9,700 military police officers.
The cops, though, put on another defiant demonstration Friday, planting 586 symbolic crosses in Copabana beach to represent comrades killed while earning “less than 30 reals (17 dollars) per day.”
Brazilians were largely ignoring the clouds over their biggest party of the year — even the literal ones forecast to bring rain washing over much of the country over the weekend.
They were snapping up masks and fancy dress costumes to let loose and enjoy the revelry in the few days of the year that the vast gap between the country’s rich elite and the poor majority evaporates into a sweaty street bash.
The top outfit this year was the sinister black police uniforms of highly trained Rio battalion made famous in an ultra-violent Brazilian film, “Elite Squad”.
Masks of Jack Bauer, the fictional anti-terrorist hero of the US series “24″, and “Doctor House” were also popular.
Authorities are making an effort this year to — as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put it — make sure the partiers “have fun responsibly.”
Crackdowns were being made on Internet sellers of illegal drugs such as LSD and ecstasy, and a ban has been imposed on streetside sellers of alcohol.
Authorities in the northern city of Recife have also overcome opposition from the Catholic Church to distribute the morning-after pill to women who have had unsafe sex.
The federal government has also dipped into its recently purchased stash of one billion condoms to make 19.5 million available to those taking the carnival crush to carnal extremes.
Sex and Samba Paradise
Brazil’s Carnival is a riot of drinking, dancing and partying, symbolized worldwide by the nearly naked Carnival queens who strut their stuff in the samba parades.
Carnival in Rio de Janeiro will run over the weekend through to Ash Wednesday, February 6.
* HISTORY: Rooted in ancient festivals, Brazil’s modern Carnival dates back to the 18th century and mixes the traditions of Portuguese settlers with the African culture of the slave population. The first parade of samba schools was in 1928. Carnival is supposed to usher in a 40-day fasting period for Lent.
* SAMBA SCHOOLS: The top 12 samba organizations, known as schools, parade in Rio’s Sambodromo stadium over Sunday and Monday nights to compete for the champions’ crown. Each features up to 6,000 drummers, dancers and other participants as well as spectacularly decorated floats. The schools develop an allegorical theme, or enredo, with a specially written samba song. Beija-Flor is the reigning champion.
* RAINHAS: Each school has a rainha, or queen, who leads the drums corps. Usually dressed in little more than a huge plumed headdress and high-heeled shoes, their role has become controversial as famous actresses or models now usually fill the role instead of someone from the school.
* BLOCOS AND BANDAS: Bands and social groups that take part in street parades are an important part of keeping traditional Carnival alive as critics say the Sambodromo parades have taken it away from the people’s reach.
* WHERE THEY ARE: Carnival in Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, now competes with Rio for popularity with much of the action taking place in the streets where “trio eletricos” — musical combos on the back of trucks — play to the crowd. The historic town of Olinda, near Recife, also has a noted Carnival.
Celebrations also take place across Latin America and the Caribbean, with Trinidad’s being especially colorful.