By Chesney Hearst, Senior Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Unidos de Vila Isabel will be the opening samba school to enter the Sambódromo on the second night of the Grupo Especial (Special Group) competition for the 2016 Carnival championship. On Monday, February 8th, the school will parade down the Marquês de Sapucaí in Centro Rio, the first of six spectacular performances.

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G.R.E.S. Unidos de Vila Isabel last won the Grand Championship of the Rio de Janeiro Carnival in 2013, photo by Raphael David/Riotur.

A three-time Carnival champion, last taking home the victory in 2013, the school is well known for its sambas enredos (theme songs) and colorful parades that often depict rural and interior life in Brazil.

Unidos de Vila Isabel, also known simply as Vila Isabel began in 1945 as a football (soccer) club in the Zona Norte (North Zone) neighborhood of Vila Isabel. The team then gradually became a bloco, symbolized by the colors blue and white.

In 1946, Antonio Fernandes da Silveira officially registered the school as a Grêmio Recreativo Escola de Samba (G.R.E.S). Keeping the colors blue and white to represent the school, da Silveira, best known as “China,” became Vila Isabel’s first president. He maintained that position until 1958.

One of the best-known members of Vila Isabel is Brazilian singer and composer Martinho da Vila. Joining Vila Isabel in 1965, da Vila became part of the school’s ala (wing) of composers. There, he helped to restructure the sambas, introducing a new softer style of lyrics and melodies to the parade. He made a name for himself with the 1967 theme; “Carnaval das ilusões,” (Carnival of Illusions); 1968’s “Quatro séculos de modas e costumes Quatro séculos de modas e costumes” (Four Centuries of Fashion and Costumes); 1969’s Iaiá do Cais Dourado and 1970’s Glórias Gaúchas (Glory Gauchas).

In 1988, da Vila helped the school win its first Carnival victory with the theme, “Kizomba, Festa da Raça” (Kizomba, the party of race). A now famous parade, the theme addressed apartheid. the abolition of slavery, and Kizomba, which is a type of dance and music that originates from Angola, which like Brazil, is a former Portuguese colony.

Da Vila helped the school to win its other two victories in 2006 and 2013. In 2006, Vila Isabel lead by carnavalesco (Carnival designer) Alexandre Louzada, presented the theme, “Soy loco por tí, América: A Vila canta a latinidade” (I’m crazy for you America, The Vila sing of Latin America). Although it was a controversial theme, reportedly funded in part by then Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in association with state-owned oil giant PSDVA, the parade was widely acclaimed for its catchy theme song. For that parade, Da Vila worked to help develop the enredo (theme/plot).

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In 2015, Vila Isabel earning 4th place in the parading competition, photo by Marco Antônio Cavalcanti/Riotur.

For the most recent 2013 victory, Da Vila helped to compose the theme song and to develop the plot, “A Vila canta o Brasil, celeiro do mundo – Água no feijão que chegou mais um” (The Vila sings Brazil, world’s breadbasket – Add more water to the beans, one more has arrived).

For this year`s parade the theme will be “Memórias do ‘Pai Arraia’ – um sonho pernambucano, um legado brasileiro” (Memories of ”Pai Arraia’ – one Pernambuco dream, a Brazilian legacy). Alexandre Louzada will return as carnavalesco and a now seventy-seven year old Da Vila returned to help develop the theme and to write the theme song with his daughter, well-known singer and composer Mart’nália, and André Diniz, Arlindo Cruz and Leonel.

When recently interviewed by G1, Da Vila explained the difference between composing samba theme songs and creating the theme; “Oh, next year I’ll have to definitely make a new shirt, with the title of 2016,” said Da Vila while reportedly wearing a shirt that proudly featured the number 88, the school’s and Da Vila’s first Carnival victory. “Everyone associates me with sambas but I like to make plots. It is quieter: we imagine the story, research, write the plot and let the carnival have its turn, to create at will.”

The “Pai Arraia” in this year’s theme is a reference to Miguel Arraes, former mayor of the city of Recife, capital of the Brazilian state of Pernambuco. Arraes was known for fighting for the underprivileged and as a defender of popular culture and education. He would have turned 100-years-old this year.

“The plots have to bring information, enliven our minds, tell our story,” da Vila later added. “It can not be just hype. The plot of this year is not only a biography, it tells the story of a politician who had a social and cultural involvement with people through their education.”

To learn more about Vila Isabel, this year’s enredo and samba enredo, see the school official website.

Additionally, be sure to stay with The Rio Times to learn more about the other competing schools, winners and additional events during this year’s Carnival.

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