The journey to Rio de Janeiro’s Samba City feels a little sketchy.
Packed with tourists, our white minivan zips past the pristine sands of the Copacabana, away from the watchful eye of Christ the Redeemer and into a very different side of Rio.
As the streets grow narrower and the graffiti sprawls farther, the chatter onboard begins to wane. Barefoot children race across busy roads with reckless abandon and watchful eyes meet ours.
Did we take a wrong turn at the Museu de Arte Moderna?
Our guide, Arnaldo Bichucher, says not. “Where did you think samba originated?” he asks, bemused. “We’re not talking about the waltz.”
He has a point. Although Rio is synonymous with samba, we quickly learn that the origins date back to the 16th century when African slaves began arriving in their millions, bringing their musical heritage with them.
The style developed in the 1950s to include several percussion instruments and has since become recognisable around the world. This is largely thanks to the Rio Carnival, which is the reason our now silent group of tourists is here at all.
Our destination is Cidade do Samba, a complex of buildings in the neighbourhood of Gamboa, located just north of Centro and surrounded by favelas, Rio’s infamous concrete labyrinths that are home to about 1.5 million families.
Founded by freed African slaves, war veterans and immigrants, the favelas are currently home to about 25 per cent of the city's population. They crawl up the mountain slopes that rise from the middle of Rio. Life here can be hard, but from within the dusty streets have emerged some of the country’s best footballers, musicians and artists, and the neighbourhood samba schools are a beacon of light.
Like samba itself, Rio Carnival stems from the time of slavery, when on the festival day the normal order of things was suspended and music, dance and dress created a sense of freedom. Now, Carnival is the highlight of the city’s social calendar — schools shut, businesses close and millions take to the streets in a celebration of life.
Enrolling in samba school
When we finally pull up at Cidade do Samba, or Samba City, we’re met by Gil Braz, a longstanding member of the Rio Grande samba school, the reigning champions of the 2022 Rio Carnival.
As he leads us into the cavernous space to embark on the school’s Carnaval Experience tour, he tells us that 12 of the city’s top samba schools are situated here in the complex. This is where thousands of volunteers assemble floats, choreograph routines and make costumes for an entire year in the run-up to the next carnival. And, we’re about to go backstage.
“The best way to describe it is like a football league,” says Braz. “You can have endless amounts of samba schools but the premier league of samba is within these four walls.”
The stadium is certainly a sight to behold. Towering model jesters loom from gigantic floats, mythical fawns ride mountain goats on top of a fairground carousel and an alarming number of detached mannequin heads litter the warehouse floor. It’s a major operation, and it doesn’t come cheap.
“Each of the top schools spends about $2 million in preparation for each carnival,” says Braz. “We usually have around five floats costing up to $15,000 each and each costume costs up to $150.
“The funding mainly comes from sponsorship and fundraisers, and the whole community gets involved.”
Performers at Carnival range from five years old to 95 and although there is a competitive edge, the community spirit is what has kept the tradition alive for hundreds of years. “The carnival is a way of life for us here and as soon as one event ends, we start preparing for the next one,” says Braz. “Everyone contributes and it's enchanting to be part of it.”
A trip to the second floor sees us stepping over flamboyant headdresses and sheathes of colourful fabric to admire the costumes of carnivals past. There are thousands of outfits, some of which are displayed on mannequins and others that are slung into a gigantic pile resembling a teenager’s bedroom floor.
After a quick dress-up and an overenthusiastic “performance” from our group, we’re treated to some of the real Carnival magic during a private performance, before three local drummers try to teach us the basics of a samba beat.
Every year, the schools invite tourists to take part in the Carnival parade, although it’s made clear to judges who should be exempt from the point-scoring. There’s no denying that our rendition is abysmal, but somewhere between synchronised cries of “Ei!” and the frenzied wielding of drumsticks, we lose our inhibitions and start to experience some fraction of the joy that samba brings to the communities here.
A cause worth dancing for
The young performers who we meet are all part of a programme called The Youth Samba School or Pimpolhos of Grande Rio, which focuses on getting young people off the streets.
As well as providing a safe place for children to dance and sing, the programme also provides education and healthcare for the most vulnerable members of society. “Life isn’t always easy for young people growing up in Rio,” says Bichucher, who is the president of the tour guides union in Rio.
“The samba schools help to keep them away from drugs and gangs and give them a better start in life."
As our tour draws to an end, we head back to the minibus feeling humbled. What we thought would be an afternoon tapping our toes to the tambourine has turned into a far richer experience.