Jochen Weber - Photography |  Photo Documentary


In a Sensual Frenzy
Brazilian Carnival in the ‚Sambódromo‘ in São Paulo - a photo documentary 

A contest between the samba schools from São Paulo. In the Sambadrome, specially
constructed for this contest, different schools compete against one another.

"You can buy a costume and traipse along in the Sambadrome wearing it. It will cost you 400 Reais. You have to be present for the rehearsal though," offered Dona Adeilda from the samba school Vai-Vai in the Italian quarters Bixiga in São Paulo. "This year, we have four different football costumes: France, Germany and Italy, the fourth one, I cannot remember it just yet."

The samba school seemed to me like a club with a huge but plain games hall: Plastic tables and plastic chairs lie scattered around, a couple of people are eating out of plastic plates or drinking soft drinks; there is no alcohol during the week. A samba school is not a dance school; rather it serves the exclusive purpose of organizing the carnival parade. Photography of costumes on display in front of the hall is strictly prohibited before the actual carnival. For questions, pictures and information about the new programme, journalists must contact the Press Department of the samba school. That sounds very professional indeed – Vai-Vai is after all one of the biggest samba schools of São Paulo and has won the contest more frequently than any other samba school in the city, a sort of ‘record-holding champion’! The members of the school can eat here for only 3.50 Reais, which is equivalent to about €1.50, there is rice with beans and chicken. There is not a trace of samba, good mood and bare skin. That is only on Saturday evenings, when the lyrics for new samba music will once again be rehearsed.

Football costume ‘France’ of the samba school Vai-Vai

For the members of the samba school, it is a question of honour, for some of them it is the fulfillment of a dream, to walk in the Sambadrome, the special stadium constructed specifically for the carnival parade, for their school and their district, to participate wearing a costume, to dance and to celebrate together, perhaps even contributing to a victory! The participants await this mega event the entire year with feverish eagerness. Many of them save for a long time so that they are able to afford the most magnificent costume – the Brazilians nicely call them ‘fantasias’.

A dense atmosphere in the sold-out Sambadrome. The theme is ‘Conquista’, the discovery and conquest of Latin America.
In the towers are the members of the Jury, who will judge the performance.

                       'Fantasias' in the Sambadrome in São Paulo
Every year the samba schools choose a new theme and implement it according to their capabilities and in compliance with the guidelines set by the carnival association. An Executive Committee of the school plans the performances in meticulous detail for the next year, naturally in accordance with the fixed theme – from the dance and choreography, artistic expression, technology to the lovingly processed details of the fantasias.

The enormous carnival floats are decorated in line with the theme. The melody of the samba music (samba-enredo) ¬is newly composed and lyrics are written in tune with the chosen theme. It is important that only new music is played in the Sambadrome, music that has never been publicly heard before. The sub-topics are also fixed and after that the different costumes are planned, designed, engineered and stitched – hundreds of them. The synergic interplay of the thousands of participants is merged together and rehearsed: dance, rhythm, choreography, presentation, pace of movement etc.

The enormous floats showcase the incredibly plastic motifs - this could also be a painting from Paul Gaugin!

The performance in the Sambadrome costs a lot of money and the schools obtain the funds through different sources: from the sale of costumes, revenues generated from the rehearsals and sponsorships. Above all, the money is sourced from the association, which collects the entrance fees and markets this extravaganza well. A samba school is thus an important client as well as an employer within a district, it provides a lot of employment opportunities. The samba schools of the greater districts of São Paulo celebrate the carnival in the Sambadrome together. Primarily however, they compete against each other in contests. Behind this extravaganza hides a fierce rivalry between the schools. Each performance is watched live by five jurors and then stringently judged. In this evaluation, points are given for the music and the percussion, costumes, the flag-bearer and the dancers, as also for the choreography, quality of the artistic implementation of the theme and for the synergistic performance of the school overall. Also, the total duration of the performance around the 530-meter long track in the Sambadrome, known as the pista, should be neither less than 65 minutes nor exceed the 85-minute limit. Up to 4000 proud, happy and partly enraptured participants per samba school, dance, sing and celebrate to the uninterrupted thunderous and demanding rhythm of the drums and samba through the night – it is just simply an intoxication of senses, colours and sounds – and that too for three nights long!

The carnival in the Sambadrome in São Paulo begins on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and continues through the night of Sunday into Monday morning with 22 samba schools competing against one another. Although the parade is broadcasted live with commentary on television, the effect of experiencing it in person in the samba stadium cannot be overstated. For the last several years, in the competition between the samba schools, two titles have been bestowed. One, in the ‘Group of Special Samba Schools’ (Especial das Escolas de Samba) and the other in the ‘Group of Samba Schools from the Football Club’ (Grupo Especial das Escolas de Samba Desportivas). The second prize relates to the liaison between the samba school and the football club; for example the samba school ‘Mancha Verde’ belongs to the Football Club ‘Plameiras’ or the Samba school ‘Gaviões da Fiel’ belongs to the Football Club ‘Corinthians’.

The highly charged atmosphere is contagious

It's an intoxication of the senses, colours and movement

                     The performance can also be rather strenuous

The biggest samba schools in São Paulo bear names such as Rosas de Ouro, Vai-Vai, Camisa Verde e Branco or Mocidade Alegre. The sequence of the performances of the samba schools in the stadium is a highly political issue. Therefore lots are drawn for it, and this draw is celebrated just like a huge samba festival by the Association of the Samba Schools.

The result is awaited with great excitement, because it has an indirect effect on the evaluation and chances of victory. The members of the jury often restrain from giving the highest points to the samba schools that enter first. Moreover, the participants of the schools positioned towards the end of the performance tend to get tired. Additionally, the atmosphere is also entirely different when it starts to turn bright again. In the stands of the Sambadrome designed by the star architect Oscar Niemeyer there is seating for about 30,000 spectators.

The parade in this arena always begins at 22:00 hours in the night and lasts till 8:00 or 9:00 in the morning every day of the festival. The counting of the points begins on Ash Wednesday and the victory gala of the victorious samba school is celebrated extensively with fireworks and festivities. All of it is broadcasted live on television. 

This and the next four photos are captured with a ‘Lensbaby-lens’

For a simple seat in the stands above, a Paulistano pays anywhere between €30 and €65 after conversion. For a reserved seat in the front in the pista he must fork out between €90 and €190. Besides, down below in the pista big tables and spectator boxes can also be rented out for big groups, which cost a few thousand Euros per night. In the week prior to the Carnival, the samba schools rehearse their performances directly in the Sambadrome. The occupancy and reservation of the stadium is planned a month in advance through the samba schools.

Although the enormous floats are not included in the rehearsals, the coordination of the thousands of participants, dancers, musicians and percussionists is a logistical challenge for all involved. On one side, the various groups from every school rehearse their steps, choreographies and the artistic interludes. On the other hand, the individual performances of these groups are coordinated to appear as one, and the movement of the dances is brought forward in unison. This enables the entire performance to progress harmoniously and be completed within the stipulated time frame. Also, the new Samba music is rehearsed again, so that everyone in the Sambadrome can hear the fervent reverberation of the chorus.

Behind all that hides much more than just the quintessential party mood

At nights in the Sambadrome during the parade, it is as good as a party. Time passes by without anyone realizing it. The constantly changing, thousand-fold impression of the fanciful costumes, the colours and themes, the people, the thunderous rhythm and singing, diminish the night into one single, short moment of limitless infectious festivities, and then suddenly it turns bright, as if the day wishes to stop the revelry – nevertheless the celebrations continue into the day - nothing can disturb the Here and Now.

But behind all that fun and freedom, behind all the competitiveness of the samba schools, hides much more than just the quintessential Brazilian party mood. This is particularly clear when one sees the old, the frail and the disabled walking along and singing fervently, dancing or being pushed along. The carnival transcends social boundaries to bring people together. In addition to its economic significance, the samba schools fulfill in their own way, an important, historically developed social and cultural role in their district and in the entire city. Similarly, the carnival marks an important event in the calendar year; one adjusts schedules ‘before’ and ‘after’ the event.

In São Paulo there are in total about 200 carnival associations – samba schools and carnival guilds. Besides the traditional parades of the big samba schools in the Sambadrome, the carnival in São Paulo covers a large part of the city. In some districts the carnival guilds (blocos) move with their drums and marching bands specifically for those in the cordoned-off streets.

Also, here loud and hot samba rhythms set the tone. Street vendors take the opportunity to sell ice-cold beer, soft drinks or just water. The guilds are organized and bear names such as Bloco Bastardo, Samba do Gringo Doido or Ilu Obá de Min. The latter, for example, comprises only of women with African influences working in Brazil. Unfortunately the next day in the Sambadrome sometime around 9:00 in the morning, the magic comes to an end. In the huge place behind the pista, big cranes haul dancers up from the enormous constructed structures of the floats. They then disappear from out of the huge parking spaces built around the Sambadrome. Outside, one can see oversized clowns, giraffes, towers, personalities or huge animal heads.

Here, now on the way home, everything intermingles, the audience and dancers, drummers and vendors, young and old, impressions and moods, ‘Zulus’ and ‘Masais’, rendezvous. Still, one last beer with meat on skewers or rather a coffee with bread and jam? Somewhere, celebrations, singing and dancing continue, or instead if you prefer, you could go home and sleep? Half naked women continue to pose on the streets….it was a night of sensual frenzy, one that will remain in the memory for a long time.

                                  ‘Zulus’ and ‘Masais’ rendezvous

Half naked women pose on the streets in the morning                


Empty 'Sambadrome' in São Paulo, seen from a helicopter

Copyright for text and photos: Jochen Weber