Carnival 2024: Afro-Brazil and the Indigenous Amazon meet up at this year’s parade

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Resistance, folklore, and gambling

Rio de Janeiro’s first samba school parade took place in 1932, but themes centering on the Indigenous only became more common from 1970 on, according to the historian Luiz Antonio Simas, author of several books on Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, and Afro-Brazilian religions. That year, Portela won with the theme “Legends and Mysteries of the Amazon.” Like most subsequent parades about Brazil’s original peoples, the topic explored Indigenous myths without linking them to these peoples’ struggles to maintain their lands and secure political space. “Many themes were based on the folkloric logic of a literature of Brazil that romanticized the Indigenous as ‘good savages,’ in myths about nation-building,” says Mauro Cordeiro, a Carnival scholar who was born in Morro do Andaraí, near Salgueiro hill, and has been a member of the school since childhood, when his father was the club’s director.

Mauro, a professor and PhD candidate in anthropology, recalls that it was a Black Carnival director, Fernando Pinto (1945-1987), who first showcased the demands of Brazil’s Indigenous peoples in a parade by one of Rio’s top-tier schools. In 1983, before the 1988 Constitution enshrined the rights Congress now wants to overturn, Fernando Pinto created the theme “How Green Was My Xingu” for the school Mocidade Independente de Padre Miguel. In 2017, when the far-right was gaining ground, Raoni Metuktire, the most eminent representative of the Indigenous struggle in Brazil, took part in the parade by Imperatriz Leopoldinense, whose theme was “Xingu, A Cry from the Jungle.”

At the time, agrobusiness associations saw themselves in the “beautiful monster” who “steals their children’s land”—a line from Imperatriz Leopoldinense’s theme song—and they protested. But the school wasn’t focusing so much on the land grabbing that is laying waste to the Amazon, or on the conversion of the rainforest to pastureland for grazing cattle or raising soy, or on illegal logging, but rather on a destructive hydroelectric power plant built near the city of Altamira when the Workers’ Party was in power. Officially called Belo Monte—Beautiful Mountain—the hydroplant has become known in the region as Belo Monstro—Beautiful Monster.

In 1998, with “Parintins, the Island of Boi-bumbá,” Salgueiro touched on the Indigenous world, but this topic has never been its trademark. Founded in 1953 on a hill settled by Black Brazilians formerly enslaved on coffee plantations, the school was among the first to showcase Black history and heroes in their parade. Zumbi dos Palmares, the leader of enslaved Africans who rebelled; Chica da Silva, a freed woman who grew to a position of great wealth; and Aleijadinho, a Baroque sculptor born to a Portuguese father and one of his enslaved women, were all the subjects of parades as early as the 1960s. “Salgueiro has probably presented Black themes in Carnival more times than any other school, so I wouldn’t say that an engagé Carnival is anything new for them. What’s really new is that this is about the Indigenous issue,” says Professor Mauro Cordeiro.

The historian Luiz Antonio Simas points out that samba schools are chameleon-like—one year they take up a theme about resistance while the next year they stick to the status quo. Even so, he argues, there is always an underlying engagement, whatever their theme. “I start with the assumption that a samba school is always engagé. You have a community structure that is part of Afro-Rio sociability; you have the sound of the percussion, which dialogues with Candomblé and Umbanda terreiros [Afro-Brazilian religious sanctums]. So it’s a manifestation of non-white cultures even when it apparently isn’t,” says Simas.

This characteristic has held true even though some of Rio’s major schools have close ties with the city’s illegal gambling business, which started out with a traditional lottery game where gamblers bet on animal names and now extends to clandestine bingo, slot machines, and casinos. For over thirty years, until the late 2010s, the Salgueiro samba school itself was under the direct or indirect command and patronage of the so-called Garcia clan, a family of gambling bosses who were the target of murder attempts and were accused of involvement in violent crimes. This meant the school had lots of money—and many championships “on the avenue.” To this day, rumor has it that family heirs are attempting to regain control of the school through allies. This doesn’t stop Salgueiro members from boasting their school is “authentic,” meaning it has deep roots in its community. In 2024, only two of the school’s 26 wings allowed non-members to buy costumes and dance in the parade.
The contradictions of Rio’s Carnival are evident. Likewise evident is the potential impact of a parade by a first-division school, a category that comprises the best-placed schools from the previous year—a ranking Salgueiro has always enjoyed. Broadcast to millions of people, a school’s parade can send a message if the theme captures the spirit of the times and its song is powerful. With this homage to the Yanomami, Salgueiro’s theme and song are already being heralded as one of the best, if not the best, this year. “It’s the type of theme song where you say the samba won’t be left forgotten on the avenue,” says Simas.

Professor Mauro Cordeiro hopes for a “spectacular parade” that plays the role of “raising awareness about the reality of the Yanomami people and the need to recognize their rights and dignity.” This is also the intention of Davi Kopenawa, who will ride on the last float, along with other leaders and artists of the Yanomami and Ye’kwana peoples (a second ethnic group that lives in the same Indigenous territory) and guests from other original peoples. Davi will also bring two shamans, who will summon to the avenue xapiri, the beings who help shamans care for the forest. “It’s not just a celebration, it’s not just a tribute, it’s a way of touching people’s hearts and minds,” explains Marcos Wesley.

Hornets and the Black struggle

When he was in Rio de Janeiro last October, Davi Kopenawa got to know the whole Salgueiro circuit. In addition to visiting the community perched on the hills, he toured the school’s nearby rehearsal grounds and the large facility in the portside neighborhood of Gamboa where work on its six floats was underway. A statue of Omama, creator of the Yanomami, will be featured on a float near the front of the parade. When Davi saw a drawing of it, he frowned. He didn’t say anything at the time but later asked Marcos Wesley to deliver the message that Omama had to be the “most perfect Yanomami,” with very short hair and proper body paint.


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