Sometimes it happens like this: you’re prone on the couch in the midst of a physical and moral recovery from a baile the night before, virtuously reading the decadent history of the last Medicis, when Carnaval calls.
Carnaval is your friend who is offering an extra costume for the last wing of a scrappy samba school that will parade in just a few hours. In the Sambadrome. And Carnaval is getting up off the couch and going.
The year before last, I almost fell asleep in the Sambadrome. Actually, I’m fairly positive that both my companion and I fell asleep at various points. Each samba school takes nearly an hour to make its snaking, thundering way down the concrete echo chamber that is the Marquês de Sapucaí, and from the heights of the bleachers, unless the group is particularly, excitingly creative, sparkly fatigue is bound to set in. The União da Ilha had a particularly inventive tribute to London, complete with bobbies and Beatles and kings and queens, but most of our time was spent drowsily guessing from afar which mountain of sequins and plaster was meant to represent what. I concluded from the experience that samba is not my favorite spectator sport.
But Carnaval was very convincing as it called me back to the Sambadrome. The school with the extra costume, G.R.E.S. Em Cima da Hora [the “Last Minute” Samba School], does not figure in any sort of hall of fame as far as their parades are concerned. The school’s last triumph in the samba elite came in 1978, and the decades that followed were a series of increasingly debt-ridden stumbles, dragging Em Cima da Hora down to the fourth tier of competitive samba schools. (Yes, there are major and minor leagues. Samba is no game around these parts.) And yet they clawed their way back up over the past decade.
This year’s theme would be a legendary one, which both wrote the school into history and damned it to decades of failure. In 1976 Em Cima da Hora took to the Sambadrome with a parade commemorating the Canudos War, the legendary struggle in the barren Northeast between the forces defending a messianic settlement and successive waves of the Brazilian army, with the latter finally managing to wipe out the ragtag city. The jagunços fought until the end/Defending Canudos in that doomed war. Wherever it rises, Canudos will always fall. And in 1976, Em Cima da Hora fell defending Canudos. The song became one of the classics of the samba-enredo, but the parade itself was destroyed by a brutal rainstorm just as Em Cima da Hora was entering the Sambadrome. Costumes and instruments were soaked and ruined, and the floats broke down and sat unusable on the concrete stage. The school was relegated to the second division. Continue reading