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Samba Beat

Carnival, São Paulo style.

It’s a warm Sunday night in São Paulo in early February, the week before Carnival. At the bottom of a hill in Bixiga, a historic downtown neighborhood, three men in matching black-and-white T-shirts are erecting a fence across an intersection.

Outside the temporary perimeter, street-sellers arrive with boxes packed with cans of beer and bottles of water wedged between hunks of ice. Grills are lit and wisps of smoke start to drift across the street.

Welcome to the headquarters and rehearsal ground of Vai-Vai, an 83-year-old institution devoted to samba, Carnival and community.

Each year, Brazilians mark the beginning of the Christian Lenten season with a five-day Carnival festival and a multitude of ornate, highly competitive parades. Carnival costumes, music and traditions vary across Brazil, but one thing is certain: Daily routines come to a halt for the festival’s duration.

This particular evening has attracted hundreds of spectators who mill about the rehearsal ground buying cans of Brahma beer, fruity caipirinha cocktails and small skewers of grilled meat rolled in gritty farofa — toasted cassava meal. Over to one side, children are being lined up to practice their parade steps. As the drumming starts, the school’s respected elder women, the baianas, begin to sway in time.

Vai-Vai (meaning “Go-Go”) is one of hundreds of so-called “samba schools” spanning the length and breadth of Brazil. Known as escolas de samba in Portuguese, samba schools are community organizations that run events year-round, often holding open rehearsals in the run-up to Carnival for the purpose of both fundraising and community participation. It all culminates in the immense, spectacular parades that have become the face of Brazil’s Carnival — and indeed, of Brazil itself — worldwide.

Rio de Janeiro’s Marquês de Sapucaí sambadrome is Brazil’s best-known parade ground, where the annual competitive processions attract thousands of spectators, plus millions more via TV. But not to be outdone by its rival city 360 kilometers (224 miles) away, São Paulo has a sambadrome too. There, over three nights each year, 22 samba schools — 14 premier-league schools plus 8 in the second division — compete in a series of highly competitive, all-singing, all-dancing Carnival parades.

Glitter, feathers and — always — samba

Inside the sambadrome, there’s no such thing as “less is more.” Or to be more precise, too much is never enough. The gargantuan parade floats are loaded with paint, glitter and baubles and crowned by scores of smiling dancers, similarly dressed to impress (albeit scantily, in some cases). Each school’s parade features as many as 4,000 costumed marchers, who accompany the collection of lavishly decorated floats along the long, bleacher-lined avenue.

Fernando Penteado, whose grandparents helped found Vai-Vai in 1930, is the samba school’s director of harmony, responsible for keeping Vai-Vai’s portion of the all-night parade running smoothly. His teams of “harmony” and “discipline” monitors patrol the sidelines, discreetly exhorting the marchers to keep time, stay in line and — above all — keep singing their hearts out.

“Samba is of African origin,” Penteado explains. “But today, Carnival doesn’t belong to the black community exclusively. Here in Bixiga, [our samba school has] people of Italian, Japanese, Portuguese descent, but they are all preserving African culture.”

In each school’s parade, flag bearers twirl and spin along the avenue like lavishly plumed gods and goddesses; Carnival queens dot the processions like glittering butterflies; and at the heart of the noisy, gaudy, riveting spectacle, the samba school’s corps of drummers propels the floats and marchers forward to the beat of thebatucada — the tight, powerful rhythm of the samba.

To the casual observer, this might appear to be pure, unadulterated celebration. But to the samba schools, it’s the culmination of almost a year’s hard work — of endless planning and rehearsals, and of hundreds of hours spent creating and decorating floats and costumes, as carpenters, welders, sculptors and seamstresses come together with dancers, singers and organizers to make Carnival happen.

It’s also an incredibly serious competition in which winning is everything.

Márcio Paloschi serves as Vai-Vai’s artistic director. “It all comes down to the details,” he says. “Hundreds of them. We have to bear in mind the way the parade will look out there on the avenue, from up close and from far away — and also what it will look like on television. Carnival is very much made for TV.”

This year, Vai-Vai is competing to be crowned champion for what would be the 15th time in its history. The schools are judged on everything from the flag-bearers’ flourishes to the time-keeping, and from the overall execution of the chosen theme to the song (a new song is produced by each school every year and belted out throughout the procession, incessantly, by the entire troupe).

The finer points of the scoring system are all but impossible to understand for outsiders, who are mostly content to stand in the bleachers and be dazzled by the kitsch magnificence of the whole thing, as it rumbles and sambas past.

What’s easier to grasp, once you get a close-up glimpse, is the sense of community at the heart of it all.

Bixiga was founded by Italian immigrants and ex-slaves and is still a stronghold of São Paulo’s black community. In fact, Bixiga’s Afro-Brazilian roots can be traced back to the 19th century and the Saracura quilombo — a community of fugitive slaves living on the banks of the now-buried Saracura Creek.

In addition to lively rehearsals, held in the months leading up to Carnival, Vai-Vai runs neighborhood activities year-round. These include children’s dance and drumming classes, adult literacy and English lessons, and food and milk distribution projects for those in need. And on Saturday afternoons, the school hosts family-oriented fundraising feasts of Brazil’s most emblematic dish: a rich pork-and-black-bean stew called feijoada, served with rice.

Bixiga’s tenuous future

Down on the rehearsal ground, Vai-Vai’s Sunday-night rehearsal is in full swing. In one area, samba musicians and a powerful singer lead the crowd in this year’s song, Sangue da Terra (“Blood of the Land”) — an homage to the sponsor, Wines of Brazil.

Trying out their samba steps as they move through the crowd in a tight pack are 30 or so women clad in tight black dresses and dizzyingly high heels. Some will dance solo at the head of a “wing” of marcherswhile others will samba on tiny podiums on Vai-Vai’s various floats. Although they perspire with the effort on this hot summer night, they stay smiling with a queenly benevolence, heads held high.

There’s only one real queen at this rehearsal, though, and she’s the exquisitely beautiful Camila Silva, Vai-Vai’s rainha da bateria (drum-troupe queen) for the past five years. During the parade, the rainha’s job is to lead the massed drummers, responding to their powerful rhythms and thrilling the crowd with her smiles, flourishes, and burst of both charm and virtuoso samba dancing — all the more mesmerizing given the high heels, glittering costume and sculpted curves of glowing skin.

Silva is generally agreed to have the most highly prized quality a rainha can have:samba no pé, an innate, unfaltering sense of samba in her feet. She presides over the rehearsal regally, sambaing for a few moments at the head of the drum troupe, then hanging back on the sidelines, bestowing smiles and kisses on wide-eyed children or posing for photos with nonchalant-acting young men.

Silva’s husband and the president of Vai-Vai, Darcy Silva, leans against a podium nearby, watching the drum troupe and smoking a fat cigar. Besides the parade, Silva has a lot on his mind. He’s recently learned that despite the school’s deep roots in Bixiga, Vai-Vai’s days in the neighborhood are numbered: Its headquarters sit right in the path of a much-needed new line of São Paulo’s subway system.

Since learning of the potential construction project, Vai-Vai members have been combing Bixiga for alternative locations, as desperate to stay in the neighborhood as many local residents are to keep it there.

“Vai-Vai’s headquarters isn’t just any old place,” wrote the São Paulo architect and urban planner Raquel Rolnik in her influential blog, Habitat. “It’s an essential element in the important (and often invisible) presence of Afro-Brazilian culture in the city.”

“We can’t imagine ourselves anywhere else,” said Fernando Penteado when the news emerged in January. “If we had to leave Bixiga, it would be like tearing our heart out.”

But the area is heavily built up, like so much of São Paulo — a city whose skyline is a jumble of endless high-rises stretching to the horizon — and there are simply no suitable spaces available.

A number of local samba schools have previously been granted premises by the city government, which sees them as an essential part of São Paulo culture. With that in mind, Vai-Vai has set its sights on Luz, another historic neighborhood close by.

The once-grand Luz has fallen on hard times over the past 20 years or more and is in desperate need of revitalization. There’s a sense at Vai-Vai that the school could both solve its imminent problem and help revive a troubled area.

“Vai-Vai is about so much more than just Carnival,” says Darcy Silva. “We have big plans to increase our social projects among needy families and, given a bit more space, to open up a series of brand-new cultural projects.”

Lights, camera, action

At the sambadrome on the night of February 8, Vai-Vai’s big moment has finally come. The troupe is primed in the holding area, ready to roll as final touches are added to the floats. The merendeiros — teams of men who push the motorless floats along the avenue — brace themselves as the floats’ lights are switched on, costumes are adjusted and showbiz smiles are plastered onto everyone’s faces.

As the school sets out along the 530-meter-long avenue, Vai-Vai’s theme unspools with a series of tableaux straight out of a children’s coloring book: a Middle-Ages grape harvest, Cleopatra’s banquet for Marcus Antonius, and the biblical miracle of water turned into wine. In the latter section, a float in the shape of a goblet features white-clad women who enter on one side and men in wine-colored costumes who emerge on the other.

For most of the participants, the parade is everything they have dreamed of, and the school’s members are upbeat after performing. But at the results ceremony a few nights later, Vai-Vai learns that it has placed a disappointing seventh out of the 14 top-tier schools — its worst result since 2004.

But Vai-Vai’s members pick themselves up again, ready to swing into the preparations and challenges of next year, including the imminent exit from Bixiga. “If we have to leave, our goal is to be installed in our new home in time for the World Cup,” says Darcy Silva, referring to the football tournament scheduled to kick off in São Paulo in June 2014.

So who knows: One Sunday night in June next year, Vai-Vai might just find itself dancing in a new neighborhood in a brand-new home, sambaing to the beat as the whistle blows for kick-off inside the city’s new football stadium.

Whatever happens, though, one thing is certain: Vai-Vai looks set to be around, and at the heart of São Paulo’s Carnival culture, for many years to come.

Claire Rigby is the editor-in-chief at Time Out São Paulo. As a freelance journalist, she has written for Art Review, Frame and Mark,The Guardian, Telegraph, Buenos Aires Herald and South China Morning Post. Follow her on Twitter @claire_rigby.