In its origins carnival traces back to celebrations on the Azores in the 15th and 16th century which were introduced in Rio in the course of the onset of colonialization. The poor, being excluded from clubs for a long time, organized their own carnival societies. Some of them became very famous, as for example the Cordão da Bola Preta, which traditionally opens carnival in Rio until today. The group's emblem is its flag with a black ball centered on a white background.

Carnival in Rio was celebrated in a larger frame in 1854 for the first time. Announcements invited everybody to participate - poor as well as rich. The organizing committee comprised lawyers, physicians, and journalists, public officials, business men, and officers. In 1870 the large societies were formed, which participated in the program arrangement until the samba schools (escolas de samba) appeared. These samba schools are nowadays the main attraction of carnival in Rio. The first one, Deixa falar, was founded in 1928, but in the early years the samba schools participated only unofficially. In 1938 they participated in the competition for the first time and the winner was the samba school Estacão Primeira de Mangueira. In the fifties the samba schools had managed to organize themselves well and meanwhile, introducing small modifications, they have become an institution.

The star of carnival is the poor mulatto girl from Rio's favelas. For 364 days the dancers exercise in the samba schools and dream of the one night, when they can be queens and kings, princesses and princes dressed in glittering costumes. By the thousands they leave their wretched huts in the favelas and devote themselves with body and soul to the spirit of carnival. And while they slip into the roles intended for them by the samba school and carnival program, the whole misery of their everyday life is forgotten for a short moment. During carnival the beautiful mulatto girls - heroines in the creations of famous Brazilian poets, composers, and painters - impress as allegories of beauty and of racial democracy. On those three days when Rio de Janeiro and all of Brazil, especially the northeast, sing and dance, everybody is carried by a kind of surreal humane brotherhood - everybody's friend, some sacrificing the savings of a whole year. This atmosphere of carnival can possibly be best expressed by the lyrics of the Samba Felicidade from the film Orfeo Negro:

    «Worries know no end,
    but joy does!
    The poor man's joy -
    it lies in the big illusion of carnival.
    A whole year filled with work
    for a moment of fantasy,
    making people kings
    corsairs or gardeners -
    until Wednesday dawns and everything ends...»

Lyrics and melody of any new samba are important discussion topics. In Rio and everywhere in Brazil the composers of popular sounds are adored, and not only by young people. Everybody knows them in the streets of Rio and they are held in correspondingly high esteem.

The carnival program starts on Sunday night and ends on Mardi Gras. After moving through Rio's center, the samba schools face the jurors at the parade in the Passarela do Samba (Sambódromo), which is 600 meters long and contains 1000 seats. There is strong competition between the samba schools and the grading by the jurors is final. Every school represents one district of the city and chooses a melody and a program. Color composition, costumes, and the artistic implementation of the theme are well-protected secrets of each samba school while they prepare during a full year for the great act. Not uncommonly the individual schools present 3000 to 4000 participants at the parade.

The Sambódromo, inaugurated during carnival 1984, was built according to a concept by Oscar Niemeyers, Brazil's most renowned architect. In contrast to other large cities, where festivals are on the decline, Rio massively supports the further existence of its carnival. Meanwhile carnival has almost become synonymous fore the city and attracts tourists from all over the world.

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