The Birth of Carnaval in São Paulo

Carnaval used to be uncool in São Paulo, but now that's changing.

Feature by Ally Brown | 08 Mar 2016

“This is a historic moment for São Paulo,” Cleopatra tells me, six-foot high, his beard looming over my head, hairy chest in my face. When not dressed as a sexy drag queen of ancient Egypt, this man is a professional, working for Globo, Brazil's biggest TV channel. “São Paulo is a city for work and for business. But now we know we can have fun too. We don't have to go to Rio to have fun, we can do it ourselves.”

This is carnaval, but not quite as we know it. To the rest of the world, Brazil’s carnaval is strongly associated with Rio de Janeiro, and especially the Sambadrome parades that involve giant elaborate floats and squadrons of dancing girls in sequinned leotards, nipple tassels and multicoloured feathery headdresses. Rio owes much of its reputation as an exotic party destination to the TV footage of its carnaval. It’s easy to understand why those outrageous images of extravagant sexuality in tropical heat have been so powerful when beamed into TV sets in drab living rooms in the midst of northern hemisphere winters. It’s a bit more exciting than the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.

But carnaval is celebrated all over Brazil, not just in Rio: in Recife and neighbouring Olinda, in Salvador, also in the equatorial north-east, in the historic old town of Ouro Preto, and in hundreds of smaller towns too. But up until very recently, very strangely, it was hardly celebrated at all in Brazil's biggest city, São Paolo.

“Four or five years ago, the carnaval here was a bit dead,” says marketing analyst Mariana. “A few years ago our former mayor prohibited the blocos [street parties],” says Raoni, a photographer. São Paulo didn’t share the carnaval tradition of other parts of Brazil because – to simplify hugely – its culture was built by its European and Asian immigrants, not by African slaves and their descendents as elsewhere in the country. “When I was a kid, I remember it was actually cool to hate carnaval because of its non-productive and cathartic image,” Raoni says.

São Paulo: parades and street parties

Now, everything has changed. São Paulo has loosened up. Over carnaval weekend in 2016 there seemed to be a street parade or party in every barrio. As workers cleared up the mess and we slept off our hangovers, officials announced that the city had hosted 355 blocos, which were attended by an estimated total of two million people.

While the parades are the most famous aspect of Brazilian carnaval to foreigners, for the locals, the blocos are the main attraction. They’re typically organised by large groups of 10-30 musicians – a large team of drummers, the bateria and a horn section are essential, often accompanied by a few guitarists and singers. They gather on a street corner, sometimes as early as 9am, to play an endless stream of samba, funk and Brazilian carnaval classics as they walk behind a slow-rolling bus or van with a sound system. The people – from just a few hundred to several thousand  – walk, shuffle, dance and sing behind them, through the normally quiet residential streets of each neighbourhood, for hours: all morning, all day, and all evening, through all types of weather, and wearing all kinds of crazy outfits.

“Too conservative!” I’m scolded by the wagging finger in the crowd. She draws a line across her knee to show that my skirt – in red tartan, like a kilt – is too long. Clearly I should’ve worn a mini-kilt or a hot-kilt. There are other men around here in thongs, hotpants, sequinned swimwear; a man carrying a shower on his head, complete with shower rail and curtain, like a cloak; a cowboy, lots of 'Indians'. Cleopatra is a relatively common choice for big, butch men; the idea, I think, is to wear something feminine, or something bizarre, ideally as little as possible. The girls wear the same, though they’re not quite so extreme; at least they’re decorated further with glitter, flowers and elaborate face paint. It is 36 degrees Celsius, the street thermometer says. Nobody is overdressed.

Thirty-six degrees! So while the music doesn’t stop, and the dancing can’t stop, there’s plenty in need of refreshment too: at one bloco, a thoughtful local mechanic gets a hosepipe out to spray the whole crowd passing by his workshop; at another, equally hot, an elderly lady on an upper floor kindly waters us with her watering can, our hands and faces reaching up to her like flowers to the sun.

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“Carnaval is the best and happiest time of the year,” Mariana tells me. “During carnaval you can be and wear whatever you want and nobody will judge you. It's a party for everybody – old people, young people, kids. It’s just a time to have fun.”

At the crowded front of every bloco is the band, their friends and partners, and the biggest partiers; towards the back are mothers pushing babies in prams, fathers hand-in-hand with toddlers, grandparents out with the grandkids. One dad I see is wearing a gimp mask, bouncing his little boy up and down on his shoulders in time to the music. Another toddler is helped along on her feet by colourful clown mum and sexy surgeon dad. There’s plenty of alcohol around, but this celebration is open to everyone.

Thankfully, it’s not yet been discovered by everyone. "Smaller is definitely better!" Thomaz the trumpter says with a laugh. He and his friends have rejected media requests for interviews ahead of their bloco because they want it to remain a manageable size. "If it's too big, then you can't see the band, you can't hear the music, everybody is crushed, you can't dance, people are too drunk, it's chaos," he says, and I’m sure he’s right. If you've ever been to the main stage at a music festival, you'll know exactly what he means: tens of thousands of people partying together can very easily become too much. Some blocos in Rio attract hundreds of thousands.

Accommodation during Carnaval

Rio’s carnaval is so popular that you need to book accommodation months in advance, and the price is often several times the normal high-season rate, because lots of tourists have the same idea.

But on carnaval weekend in São Paulo, hostel and hotel accommodation was widely available even at the last minute, at low-season prices. Because if it's ultra-high season in Rio, it's low season in São Paulo.

“The music here is not quite as good as in Rio,” a local musician tells me. “But who cares, really? Look at this! Everybody is here and having so much fun!”

Mariana looks at it differently. “There is more variety here in São Paulo,” she says. “We have blocos playing different kinds of music – the traditional ones playing old carnaval music, some playing axé [a popular music from the north-eastern region around Salvador], and also some playing reggae, pop, electronic, jazz, funk, afro. So, even if you don't like the music, you can go to another bloco and hear what you like."

But really, it’s silly to compare carnavals. Rio’s carnaval is a wonder of the world. but why compare two fantastic things, when to do so means being negative about one? The spirit of carnaval is priceless, wherever it can be found. And increasingly, São Paulo is finding its own carnaval rhythm.