By Joshua Rapp Learn, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO – Every Saturday, Acadêmicos do Salgueiro throws a samba party, staging a run-off as associates compete for a glorified spot in the official Carnaval parade. Obligatorily, the competition unrolls with all the flourish of a miniature Carnaval, complete with extensive costumes, samba dancers and an explosion of music and noise to deafen your eardrums until at least the next party.
Samba schools have existed in Rio de Janeiro since the 20s when the famed Mangueira and Portela were derived from the structures of groups organizing parades in Nineteenth Century Carnavals.
Most of the schools, including the twelve groups in the Special Class, are based in favelas where the samba halls represent a sort of neighborhood social club. All host samba nights open to the public, where cover charges and drink profits help fund the enormous costs involved in creating the floats for Carnaval.
The level of competition is high at Acadêmicos do Salgueiro this year as the school was the Grand Champion of the 2009 Carnaval. Formed in 1953, the school’s traditional symbol is fire – red and white flags passed out among the crowds flutter through the samba halls on Saturday nights.
The thirty-person drum battery tore into an interlude of expectant silence as the softer group packed away their instruments and exited the main stage. The drum section occupied a special place above a floor milling with moving hips and shaking bodies.
There was a conductor leading the different sections, indicating rhythm changes with hand signals while the Carnaval Queen flashed her energetic smile for the world’s attention. The beat rumbled on for more than half an hour before crashing to a stop with a pounding crescendo.
It was August, more than five months until Carnaval, or 178 days as the countdown on Acadêmicos do Salgueiro’s website indicated. Although most people only see the extravagant glamour involved in the four days leading up to Ash Wednesday, samba schools spend nearly an entire year in preparation.
As the drums fell silent, school associates wasted no time in clearing a space through the hall to make room for the procession. A band came on stage and the drum section was joined by ukuleles to usher in a flock of body-painted dancers and a male singer with a feathered backdrop that made him appear like a giant peacock. The peacock man was wheeled among the dancers while sheets with song lyrics were handed out to the various judging parties.
The school’s location in the middle class neighborhood of Andaraí not far from Maracanã stadium makes the weekly parties a little more accessible than other samba schools. Direct participation in the Carnaval parade can be expensive, but is possible through the schools or with agencies such as The Rio Carnaval Guide at http://www.rio-carnival.net/.
Costs range anywhere between R$300 and R$3,000 depending on your role in the festivities and costume, referred to in Brazil as a fantasia. Acadêmicos do Salgueiro can be contacted through their website at http://www.salgueiro.com.br.