By Tyler Baker
The Rio Carnaval, the biggest show on earth! Those words played again and again in my mind as I started the long journey from Canada to Brazil. A few weeks prior to the long flight I had learned I was awarded a press accreditation to shoot the 2023 edition of the Rio Carnaval at the iconic Sapucai as part of a partnership with Soul Brasil Magazine and Aninha Malandro, CEO of the International Samba Congress. This was a big surprise to all involved, since accreditation by LIESA (Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro) is a very competitive process.
I had first visited Rio in 2016 with my wife Cecilia Ferreyra, an Argentine who is crazy about Samba and part of the International Samba Congress team. That year we watched the parade together from the bleachers. Suffice is to say we were blown away by the magnitude of the endeavor, the vibrance, the dance, the sound, the enormity of what is one of the greatest community cultural celebrations we had ever witnessed.
Since then, both my personal and artistic interest in the history and meaning of Carnaval, but more specifically of Samba, has increased dramatically. I have attended and shot Samba Congresses in Brazil, Toronto, and Los Angeles as part of the work of my nonprofit organization, Tyler Baker Photography. I have done portrait and promotional shoots with many talented Samba dancers from both Brazil and North America.
I have developed a greater understanding of the ‘drum orchestra’ nature of the bateria, and of the polyrhythmic nature of the Samba step. More importantly, I have learned of the history of the dance and its genesis in the ongoing struggle of the African diaspora in Brazil. I have increased my appreciation of the richness of this art form, which goes well beyond glitter and feathers to encompass many different styles such as samba no pe, samba de gafieira and samba de malandro.
Seven years later, and now confronted with the opportunity to actually be a photographer at the epicenter of Carnaval, I was unsure what to expect. Furthermore, I felt mixed emotions due to a self-imposed pressure to bring all of this to bear in my image making, aiming to create connected and informed images as the parade unfolded. In the end, my emotions and expectations were brushed aside the moment I entered the avenue and heard the excitement of the crowds and the beats of the bateria! The Rio Carnaval is an overwhelming and intoxicating experience, irrespective of the vantage point… it takes over the moment the drumming starts!
Outside the sapucai, the escolas get ready to parade in the “concentration”, including 5 enormous and very creative floats each in addition to 2400- 3000 people organized with different and amazing costumes in groups called “alas”, many lead by musas and musos wearing stunning outfits that reflect the theme chosen for that year (enredo). Believe or not, each escola must complete the parade in less than 55 minutes (omg?).
While there is much stress and last-minute effort taking place in the concentration, once the time is up, all is forgotten and the unbounded joy of parading, of celebrating each escola, of singing their “samba-enredo”, of being moved to dance by meaningful messages in the lyrics and the powerful beats of the baterias was something beautiful to see. It was particularly moving to see the Ala’s of the Baianas, representing the African roots and the meaning of Carnaval as a true celebration of AfroBrazilian culture, spirituality and traditions. It was very interesting to see the presence of foreigners parading with the schools, many of them in prominent places such as queens or musas.
It may not be well known to all visitors to the Rio Carnaval that the “escolas de samba” parading every night are judged, with results released the afternoon of Ash Wednesday (Carnaval is always scheduled for the weekend prior to the start of Lent). It may be even less well known that the judging criteria does not encompass the entire parade of each escola, only 5 mandatory components that do not include dancing by the Queen of Bateria or the alas de pasistas (professional samba dancers).
It was also interesting to observe the audience response. On Friday and Saturday nights I spent a lot of my time in front of the Portela Camarote in Sector 3, just before the area where the judges’ booth is situated. Talk about a discerning audience! What received the most applause and cheering was insightful. Queens and Musas that samba enthusiastically were cheered, those who limited themselves to a beat or so were not. Themes on floats that spoke to community and social issues were well received. The audience mirrored the energy that the participants exhibited.
The experience as an accredited photographer was not without its challenges… the noise makes the translate app almost useless and communication difficult for those of us not fluent in Portuguese, the tightness of the space with all the people and the limited access that we had. It is not easy. It feels a little like drinking from a fire hose, all the sound, the color the movement the support staff for the escolas managing, encouraging, and pressing their people to sing louder, to tighten up their drumming or to pick up their parading pace. That said, while frustrating from a photography perspective, the personal experience of being on the ground, surrounded by the vibrations and the power of the baterias, is not something I will ever forget.
Moreover, I was left with many unanswered questions and desires for greater understanding: why are samba dancing by passistas and queens not valued in the scoring? How will the Rio Carnaval retain its soul and meaning as a reflection and celebration of Afrobrazilian culture and resilience with an ever increasing number of foreigners who pay to parade? What is the place for women leadership of an event that mirrors the male-dominated governance structure of soccer teams? Some of my explorations in partnership with Aninha Malandro was the topic of our next installment: the International Samba Congress 2023 held in Los Angeles.
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