Festival – Brazil

Brazilian Carnaval

“Carnival is held four days prior to Ash Wednesday, which is the mark of the beginning of Lent. So, carnival can be considered as an act of farewell to the pleasures of the flesh as you remember from the Christian studies. Brazilian carnival is very distinct, because it has used the occasion to express its culture and regional manifestations.

Carnival is a national festivity, but more to the young people. Families look more for peaceful places to rest, such as beaches and resorts.  It’s a common that businesses only start after carnival, since it usually takes place in the beginning of the year sometime in February. So, nobody wants to do much before carnival. Carnival happens in the summer, so the dress code is very casual, even in the expensive clubs. Men typically wear t-shirts, shorts, sandals, shirt, and pants. Women wear semi naked to very casual dress.

The famous carnival is in Rio, where there are the famous samba schools, very large well financed organizations that work the entire year in preparation for carnival. They parade over four entire nights as part of the official competition. In the northeast, specifically in Bahia, the carnival is different, but also very famous. The fun takes place more in the streets, where trucks are equipped with giant speakers and a platform where musicians play, called “trio eletrico”.  Massive numbers of people follow the trucks singing and dancing. The music is also different in the northeast. They have many regional rhythms, including axe and frevo especially.

I spent almost all carnival during my college time in the northeast, especially in Bahia and Pernambuco. My best trip was a almost 30 days or more travelling with 3 friends in a trailer and a jeep from SP to Rio Grande do Norte, which is the farthest tip of northeastern Brazil. During carnival, we enjoyed the street fun, went to clubs sometimes, and also enjoyed the beaches which are beautiful and vast in the northeast as you know. Tried a lot of typical northeast food (very spicy, lots of seafood) and learned some of their culture, although at that time we were more interested in fun like you. You can imagine carnival, the dirt and lack of hygiene, which lasted four days in the streets, were the only drawbacks that I can remember.” – Peter Wen


My dad told me about this history of this festival, which did not originally start in Brazil. The word carnival dates back hundreds and hundreds of years ago. Catholics in Italy started this tradition of holding a wild costume festival right before the first day of Lent. Because Catholics are not supposed to eat meat during Lent, they called their festival “carnevale,” which means “to put away the meat.”  The word is derived from the Latin words, “carne vale.” As time progressed, carnivals in Italy became famous and spread to other Catholic parts of Europe. As these European countries started to colonize parts of the Americas, the tradition of celebrating the carnival spread into those regions as well. The Portuguese brought Carnaval to Brazil. It is the last week to partake in festivities before the period of “quaresma,” a time when Catholics celebrate Lent and cannot have sex or eat meat. He even mentioned how the popularity of Carnaval has influenced another festivity-related event, Carnatal. This festival usually takes place before Carnaval, during the month of December in Natal (the capital of the Reio Grande do Norte state in the very northeast of Brazil). The name combines the words “carnaval” and “Natal.” During this festival, people also play traditional Carnaval music and dance and sing in the streets for about a week’s span. As we learned in class, this would exemplify the idea of multiplicity and variation since these Brazilian festivals sprung from the original Carnival celebrated in Europe.

My dad elaborated more about his memories of Carnaval than the actual history of the festival (he has lived in Brazil for approximately 20 years). Both locals and tourists engage in the same activities, some of which include dancing, singing, and feasting. He says:

“But one thing I can say about the people I saw on the streets, at the clubs and everywhere is that they wanted to have fun more than ever during those four days, like the farewell party. They forget the sadness of their lives and throw themselves into partying and whatever else comes during those days. My first time in the northeast during the Carnaval time was very unique. Being Asian and very few in those areas at that time, I could call attention wherever I went, specifically when I exposed myself sometimes dancing on the tables around the hundreds of kiosks, which was common for carnival on the streets. Friends who travelled with me were fun and also intellectual, so we had good debates during our trips, although less in degree if I compare to the States.  Those years of travelling were important to me as a way to learn to be more independent and confident, since I was still leaving with my parents until coming to the States, a different concept in Brazil. In addition, seeing different parts of the country, I felt more Brazilian and understood more of what Brazil was all about.”

The week of Carnaval is explored in the article, “Sex and Violence in Brazil: ‘carnaval, capoeira,’ and the Problem of Everyday Life,” by J. Lowell. This article basically explores how the themes of sex and violence are manifested in the annual festival of Carnaval and the traditional Brazilian dance, capoeria. It is a popular misconception to think that Brazilian Carnaval is “the furthest possible departure from the ordinary experience.” (540) This article tries to argue the contrary; that the rituals and traditions performed during Carnaval accurately reflect the everyday Brazilian experience.

The festival is much more than just a week of partying as demonstrated in the article. It is important for both native Brazilians and tourists to be aware of the festival’s origins and develop an appreciation for its religious and cultural meanings. According to a Brazilian friend of mine at USC, most young people today learn about the history of Carnaval from their history or Portuguese teachers, rather than their parents, which shows how uninformed native Brazilians are about their own culture’s traditions, let alone tourists who are generally more interested in the partying aspect than the historical significance.

Annotation: Lowell, J. “Sex and Violence in Brazil: ‘Carnaval, Capoeira,’ and the Problem of Everyday Life.” American Ethnologist (1999). JSTOR. 22 Apr. 2008.