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By Vânia Maciel, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – The first school to parade on Monday, March 7th, the second day of the Sambódromo 2011 Carnival competition, is União da Ilha. A Ilha do Governador neighborhood samba school was first noticed during the seventies by their parading skills coupled with outstanding creativity, while not spending as much as its counterparts.

G.R.E.S. União da Ilha
G.R.E.S. União da Ilha in the 2010 Carnival, photo by CMC for Carnaval.com.

In Carnival 1977, they won third place with the theme Domingo (Sunday), when it was first distinguished by the rapport it was able to establish with the viewing public.

The school got a strong classification again in the 1980 Carnival contest with the theme Bom, Bonito e Barato (Cheap and Cheerful), when it took second place, as well as Carioca hearts as the friendliest and happiest samba school to ever parade down the Sambódromo.

This was achieved partly to the school Carnival concept to keep it simple, very light costumes enabling full movement freedom to each participant, and a down-to-earth approach to parade costs, and of course, great samba.

During its peak “the Ilha”, as the school is also known, has made history with the samba tune É Hoje o Dia (Today is the Day), from Carnival 1982. It is still one of the most sung samba tunes, recorded by many, including Caetano Veloso, one of the most prominent singer/composer from the Brazilian Popular Music elite.

Another Ilha samba tune which has enjoyed the same fame is O Amanhã (The Tomorrow), from Carnival 1978, which became a major hit since Brazilian songstress diva Simone recorded it in 1983.

Ilha was founded during Carnival 1953, its founders intent on creating a samba school in Ilha do Governador – the island just offshore Rio de Janeiro comprising several neighborhoods – more precisely in the Cacuia neighborhood.

It was mostly a secondary level school since its beginning until 1974, when it was promoted to the Special Group for the first time. After enjoying almost thirty years parading amidst the finest, União da Ilha had a setback and found itself back in the Access Group.

União da Ilha
União da Ilha in the 2010 Carnival, photo by CMC for Carnaval.com.

There it remained until coming back last year with the theme-plot Don Quixote, the Spaniard character created by Cervantes. The performance was not a huge success though, and the Ilha only just escaped demotion again staying in eleventh place.

This year Ilha’s theme goes North to old England, embarking a young Charles Darwin into samba-ship mayhem sailing through the history of his five year journey around the world.

From the departure of the HMS Beagle of travel up to his return to England, which was the inspiration to the theory of natural selection, Ilha will have plenty to parade and hopefully will get a better ranking this year.

Whatever unfortunate past results at the Sambódromo, Ilha is renowned for singing its own version of 1982’s Diga espelho meu. Se há na avenida alguém mais feliz que eu? (Mirror in the wall, who is the happiest on this avenue of them all?).

G.R.E.S. União da Ilha is found at Estrada do Galeão 322, Cacuia. A taxi ride there should cost around the same as a ride to the international airport, as the school is on the same island. More details of rehearsals can be found at the Agenda at www.gresuniaodailha.com.br.

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