The Brazilian Carnival is famous worldwide for its unique music, the festival of colours, and the joy of its people. Held annually in the week leading up to Lent, it’s a time when the country comes alive with parades, parties, and celebrations. 

From the European tradition to the Sambódromo, the Brazilian Carnival has come a long way to become Brazil’s richest cultural heritage representative party we know today.

Tracing the First Origins of Brazil’s Carnival

Carne Vale, or “farewell to meat”, the period that precedes the 40 days of Lent, a Catholic period of fasting and abstention, was born as a pagan festival and was introduced into the Christian calendar after unsuccessful attempts to erase it.

Anticipating the period of abstinence they would go through, between Holy Wednesday and Palm Sunday, the congregation took the opportunity to celebrate with lots of food and drinks and other practices considered of the flesh, it became known as the “Fat Tuesday”.

Some historians trace its origins back to the Greek festivals to the God Bacchus, or even to the Egyptian festivals to the Goddess Isis, and to the Roman traditions of the closing of winter and the beginning of the spring and summer harvests, since the Catholic Church is based in Rome and sought to incorporate diverse traditions as a form of continuity.

Young Bacchus and his followers
Young Bacchus and his followers – William-Adolphe Bouguereau

How Different Cultural Influences Shaped Brazil’s Carnival Traditions

Something more similar to the current carnival appeared on the Italian peninsula during the Middle Ages. Carnevale di Venezia has its first documentation in the 12th century and from there it went to Spain, France, and Portugal. The costumes and masks aimed to disregard the social roles of each one, allowing them to assume other identities and be able to behave the way they wanted.

Masks from Venezia's carnival
Image by Franz W. from Pixabay

During the 18th century in Brazil the migration of Portuguese islanders from Madeira, Azores, and Cape Verde, took this as a street game called Entrudo, between the three days that preceded lent. 

Entrudo was a popular festival where people used to go out on the streets wearing masks and throwing strong-smelling liquids and flour at each other. Many enslaved people participated in the party, covering their faces with flour and imitating “Old Europeans”, already marking the form of protest and resistance that carnival has until the present day.

Carnival found in Brazil the influence of different peoples and popular cultures, being incorporated into other festivities that ended up shaping the faces of the party, as is the case of the Folia de Reis that takes place in the Northeast, resulting in the carnivals of Recife and Olinda, for example, which have quite unique forms of festivity, with rhythms such as maracatu and frevo.

Cordões, Carnival Balls, and Traditional Songs 

The cordões, with people singing and dancing in the streets, appeared in the 18th century in Rio de Janeiro. They consisted of a masked group led by a whistle, singing marches accompanied by percussion instruments.

Cordão da Bola Preta in 1936 Carnival.
Cordão da Bola Preta in 1936 Carnival. Source: BN Digital

Carnival Balls appeared only in the 19th century, inspired by French Carnival Balls, aimed at the most aristocratic families, who did not want to participate in the most popular festivities, but still yearned to celebrate the date in a more refined way.

At the turn of the 19th century to the 20th century, Chiquinha Gonzaga composed the first carnival song called “Ô abre alas”, for Cordão Rosas de Ouro, which paraded through the streets of Rio de Janeiro.

The composer Chiquinha Gonzaga, on her 85 birthday
The composer Chiquinha Gonzaga, on her 85 birthday; and on her 29th, 1877

Carnival Rhythms of The People’s Party

Samba was born within Afro-Brazilian communities, in the dance circles that enslaved people organized in secret, as a way of venting their daily pain. Prohibited and repressed, with the liberation of slavery, it gained wings and found fertile ground to grow and consolidate in Rio de Janeiro.

“Pelo Telefone” Was considered the first Samba
“Pelo Telefone” Was considered the first Samba – Fundação Cultural Palmares – Biblioteca Nacional

It was until the birth born of samba schools, around 1920, that samba became popular and gained the wealthiest strata of society. The organization of school competitions grew and became a spectacle itself.

Over the years, other popular rhythms have been introduced to Carnival in different regions of Brazil, such as Axé in Bahia, guided by electric cars that drag crowds to the sound of renowned singers such as Ivete Sangalo and Cláudia Leite. Currently, Funk Carioca has also gained ground, which goes through the streets of Rio de Janeiro with famous blocks, as is the case of the Bloco das Poderosas by the singer Anitta.

Every year, the parades of samba schools in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo attract millions of people worldwide. They are the true Brazilian cultural expression, a stage for art and political manifestation. They play the role of invaluable social, cultural, political, and institutional promotion instruments. Through its “sambas enredo” the Brazilian population expresses its indignation with the government, exalts its heroes, and honours its ancestry.

Brazilian Carnival in Tabajara City, Olinda, Pernambuco
Brazilian Carnival in Tabajara City, Olinda, Pernambuco. Picture from Shutterstock

The multiculturalism of the Brazilian carnival

It’s impossible to express just in a few lines, but only those who had the pleasure of witnessing the energy of a samba school drumming pulsating inside their chests can understand the magnitude of the importance of the Brazilian carnival for its people.

Discover more about the vibrant rhythms and rich cultural heritage of dance from around the world in our 10 Popular Dances Around The World article. 

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Author: Juliana de Paula

Juliana is a nerd who loves to stay home, read and watch TV. She loves cats and to lay down under the sun. Hopes to make some difference in the world. She also works as a lawyer and recently join SPEAK as a co-founder in Fundão.

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