By Chesney Hearst, Contributing Reporter

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – Carnival remains the biggest annual festival in Brazil, but in Rio’s Sambódromo what at first glance may appear to be solely a lavish and colorful parade, is also a serious competition. The contest is between the Escolas de Samba (Samba Schools) and like a professional sports league, they are ranked and grouped into divisions.

Escola União da Ilha do Governador 2012
União da Ilha do Governador’s Mestre-sala e Porta-bandeira (The Flag Carrying Couple), photo by AF Rodrigues/Riotur.

Currently there are over seventy competitive samba schools in six divisions: the Special Group (Grupo Especial) and Groups A, B, C, D and E.

All schools will compete during the four days of Carnival but only The Special Group and the schools in Access Groups A and B will appear in the Sambódromo.

The Special Group consists of the twelve highest ranking samba schools. This year the schools competing from that group are: Inocentes de B. Roxo, Salgueiro, Unidos da Tijuca, União da Ilha, Mocidade, Portela, São Clemente, Mangueira, Beija-flor, Grande Rio, Imperatriz and Vila Isabel.

When asked if Carnival was more exciting to watch than football (soccer), Elaine Maciel, Niterói resident, told The Rio Times, “Yes, because you see a lot of celebrities in the parade. The scoring is just a part of the whole experience but it is something to pay attention to if you watch the parade. They go together.”

For Paul Bradley, an American living in Rio, watching the parade was combination of competition and fun. “For me it was a combination of both. The Sambódromo is pure energy, but I found myself looking at the clock to see if the school was going to finish in time and I also found myself evaluating the themes and the costumes.”

Carnival 2012 Escola São Clemente
São Clemente’s 2012 Comissão de Frente (Front Commission or Vanguard Group), photo by Rafael Moraes/Riotur.

Annually, many months before Carnival begins, each school chooses an Enredo (Theme). Every part of their parade presentation should correspond with or be representative in some way of their chosen theme.

There are ten categories for which the samba schools are judged with The Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro (LIESA) selecting four judges for each category.

The judges are positioned in special boxes placed throughout the Sambódromo to ensure that schools maintain maximum performance levels throughout their procession. The judges score their respective categories on a 5 to 10 point scale, with the best score being a ten.

The categories judged are: Enredo (Theme of the Year), Samba-Enredo (Samba Song), Bateria (Percussion Section), Harmonia (Harmony), Evolução (Continuing Spirit Throughout the Parade ), Conjunto (Overall Impression), Alegorias e Adereços (Float and Props), Fantasias (Costumes), Comissão de Frente (Front Commission or Vanguard Group), and the Mestre-sala e Porta-bandeira (The Flag Carrying Couple).

On Ash Wednesday, following the conclusion of Carnival and the parades, the votes from the forty judges are tallied and broadcast live. “I always watch the competition on TV and I like to watch the score counting live because it is very exciting,” says Ms. Maciel.

“I know a few of the rules because I learned about them watching the counting. Some of the most important categories, in my opinion are: Bateria, Mestre-sala e Porta bandeira, Alegorias and Samba-enredo,” she explains.

Mr. Bradley shares, “I think my favorite part of the competition was waiting for the results. Being a novice, I wondered if what I liked was liked by the Brazilians.”

The Special Group school with the highest combined score from all of the categories becomes that year’s Carnival Champion. The lowest scorer from the Special Group is demoted to Access Group A and the highest scorer from that group is promoted to the Special Group for the following year.

The top six scorers from Special Group will return for Champions’ Parade, scheduled this year for Saturday, February 16th. A glossary of additional terms that might be useful when viewing the competition can be found here.


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