Performers of the Imperio Serrano samba school take part in the first night of Rio's Carnival parade at the Sambodrome in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on March 3, 2018. (Photo by CARL DE SOUZA / AFP)

The untold story of Rio’s Carnival

“Brasil chegou a vez de ouvir as Marias, Mahins, Marielles e Malês” (Brazil is time to hear the Marias, Mahins, Marielles and Malês). This is part of the lyrics that will be sung by Estação Primeira de Mangueira, one of the most important and traditional samba schools in Rio de Janeiro, during the carnival parade this year, on March 4.

The lyrics are a tribute to the struggle for freedom, both in the fight against slavery (until its abolition in 1888), in the fight against the military dictatorship (1964-1985) and in today’s struggle against violence and for a better country of several brave Brazilian men and women and it highlights the resistance of the black people, especially black women like Marielle Franco and Luísa Mahins.

Carnival is the main event in Rio de Janeiro’s calendar. For a few days the population has the opportunity to forget about its problems and celebrate in the streets of the city, dress up and sing the samba of their favourite school. Carnival is also a source of income for thousands of families who work all year round to build the props of the samba schools in an industry of vital importance to the state of Rio de Janeiro. However, a society constantly marked by violence, whether of drug gangs, militias and the government through the police, could not fail to also sing about their problems in the Sambodrome.
It’s a party, but still rooted in the deepest social issues of Rio de Janeiro’s society.

Merielle, councilwoman and human rights activists murdered in an ambush almost a year ago (police is still investigating the case) in Rio de Janeiro, a case that caused worldwide commotion, became a symbol or resistance and her name will be on the streets of the Sambodrome Marquês de Sapucaí with her bravery (and of other historical characters) being sung by Mangueira.

The car she was in was ambushed, on March 14, 2018, by criminals who shot her 4 times in the head and also killed her driver, Anderson Gomes. It is suspected that the crime has the involvement of militia members, groups involved in various criminal activities and composed primarily of active and retired members of security forces, who are disputing with the traffic control of poor communities in Rio de Janeiro and who have great political support – the Brazilian president himself, Jair Bolsonaro, is famous for having already given favourable statements on such groups in the past.

“The fact that Marielle is the most praised symbol of Mangueira’s [parade] may indicate the emergence of specific agendas such as feminism and anti-racism, which is promising, but which does not yet represent the expression of a broader political position on the part of the population” says Antônio Spirito Santo, musician and expert in the history of Samba.

Luísa Mahins, a former slave of African descent who would have taken part in the articulation of all the revolts and uprisings of slaves that shook the Province of Bahia in the first decades of 19th century, like the Revolt of the Malês. is also one of those honoured.

Samba has a long history of resistance, however “it has never been radical, because the tendency of leaders of the schools has always been conciliation. Perhaps the most appropriate definition for this case would be resilience” explains Spirito Santo. Rhythm born of black people, with various influences coming from African music and customs (but also from European rhythms), samba is the highlight of Rio’s carnival and samba schools, with strong ties to poor communities and slums, historically sings about exclusion and struggle, about pain and love and this year won’t be different.

Gabriel Borges, PhD student of literature focusing on Brazilian music at UFRJ, says that “on the one hand, the marginal side of the genre had in black slavery one of its foundations. No wonder the urban samba initially approached the figure of the scoundrel [or vagabond], whose refusal to work is due to this social trail inherited from the exploitation of slave labour. On the other hand, the genre also represents abundantly the aspirations of black sectors to integrate into [white] society, trying to overcome this same marginalization. It is significant that the pioneers of the genre in the city of Rio de Janeiro sought to establish links with the urban middle class and kept the doors open to whites and mestizos who were public servants, journalists, intellectuals and other members of the so-called “carioca society” who embraced the novelties coming from the subordinate classes”.

Samba schools, then, are spaces of black resistance in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro – samba artists were persecuted and criminalised at the beginning of last century, but with great effort they ended up transforming samba and Rio’s carnival into symbols of Brazil –, but also a link between the subaltern classes and middle classes of the city, a way of maintaining a tradition of subalterns while the modernity and growth of the city of Rio de Janeiro deepen.

“It is very common that the sambas-enredos [the music of the samba schools] reproduce the official version of characters and the moments that they seek to portray, as the state is usually the one to sponsor the parades. However, the narratives that seek to do justice to the struggle of the subaltern classes, especially the blacks who struggled against slave oppression, until the recent past marked by marginalization, are also striking in their genre”, adds Borges.

Mangueira will parade in the early hours of March 4 in the Marquês de Sapucaí, Rio de Janeiro, carrying the message of Mariele, Mahíns and other freedom and justice fighters to the world.