Decoding the Competition of Carnival in Rio

By Ana Gabriela Ribeiro, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Carnival has been the largest source of tourism income for Rio since 1982, and every year the major samba schools prepare themselves to impress the judges and spectators alike at the Sambódromo (Marquês da Sapucaí). The annual event has become so popular the venue is being renovated again to increase capacity to 90,000 and the city is ramping up for the Group Especial (Special Group) performances February 19th and 20th.

Carnical 2011 winner Beija-Flor de Nilópolis at the Sambódromo in Rio, Brazil News

Carnical 2011 winner Beija-Flor de Nilópolis at the Sambódromo in Rio, photo by Rodrigues/Riotur.

Most non-Cariocas (everyone not born in Rio) however, may have trouble following how the competition works or understanding all the terminology – even if they are fluent in Portuguese. To follow this year, here are the key judging criteria in alphabetical order:

Alegoria (Pageantry and Trimmings) – props and floats. Pageantry belongs to the decorated floats or stands with leading figures all telling a story.
Bateria – a percussion instrument ensemble in a bloco or samba school. The only item to be judged by the jury in the percussion item is how the rhythm progresses.
Comissão de frente –The School’s visiting card. It has fifteen to twenty people, and its role is to welcome and introduce the school to the public. The commissionalso give the theme’s brief description.
Conjunto – (Ensemble) the criteria evaluating how the samba school is as a whole. (music, drama, visuals and how the floats are integrated on the theme and the story)
Enredo – the theme, the judges will analyze the concept and the artistic creation while samba schools parade.
Evolução – (evolution) the enthusiasm. Participants will be judged by their enthusiasm, verve, spontaneity and vitality.
Fantasia – Fancy carnival costumes. In the parades they have to explain what the theme is about.
Harmonia – (harmony) the interplay between rhythm and singing while a samba school parades.
Mestre-sala – The duty of Master-of-Ceremonies is to pay court and introduce the Standard Bearer, as well as protect and proudly exhibit the School’s standard.

Beija-Flor de Nilópolis samba school in 2011 Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil News

Beija-Flor de Nilópolis samba school in 2011 Carnival, photo by Alexandre Macieira/Riotur.

Porta-bandeira – the standard Bearer, always female, dressed in a court attire.
Samba-enredo – the Samba Theme, they help to understand the theme, so they have to be clear, poetic and show good taste.

For American expatriate Michael Royster, long-time board member of The American Society of Rio de Janeiro, who has been in Rio for 34 years admits he still does not understand all the terminology.

Until he became a Salgueiro fan – at the encouragement of his Brazilian wife – he never followed the judging, “What is astonishing to me is that the [samba schools] manage to stage a one-time show with 4,000 or more participants, most of them rank amateurs who perform once a year, one and done in eighty minutes.”

Also for Bill Hinchberger, who lived for 22 years in Rio and launched BrazilMax online guide had never learned all the intricacies of Carnival, and says: “I might not be able to explain what Harmonia is but a samba school like Salgueiro, Mangueira and Vila Isabel that are into more traditional stuff [and is] more interesting to me then Beija flor or Unidos da Tijuca which is more into the spectacle.”