Rio Carnival continues to dazzle

2012-02-21 12:00

Rio de Janeiro - Tens of thousands of fans packed Rio's iconic Sambadrome late on Monday for a second night of dazzling Carnival parades featuring lavishly costumed performers, elaborate floats and thumping music.

A shootout between police and a drug gang that left one person dead and four wounded in a nearby favela failed to dampen the wild enthusiasm of the capacity crowd of 72 500 at the newly renovated "temple of Samba".

The night parades in the Sambadrome are the high point of the pre-Lent Carnival festival, which has brought this racially diverse country of 191 million people to a near-standstill.

Singer-actress Jennifer Lopez was one of several foreign celebrities to lend their star power to the event, appearing late on Sunday in skinny red jeans and a sequined top.

With a deafening burst of fireworks, Sao Clemente was the first of six elite samba schools to take centre stage on Monday, taking inspiration from a selection of popular Broadway musicals such as The Phantom of the Opera and Cabaret.

Uniao da Ilha do Gobernador was to follow with a presentation illustrating the connection between London and Rio, which will host the next two Summer Olympics in 2012 and 2016.

African heritage

The schools are vying for the title of Carnival champion. A total of 13 schools are competing for the honour, to be bestowed on Wednesday. Seven schools held their parades late on Sunday.

Several have chosen to celebrate the culture of Brazil's northeast, particularly the rich African heritage of Bahia state.

Salgueiro, which won the title in 2009, will present a tribute to so-called Cord literature, a genre of folk novels and poems which is very popular in northeastern Brazil.

Mangueira, viewed as the country's most popular samba school, will offer a homage to a popular Rio Carnival band, Cacique de Ramos, which has just celebrated its 50th anniversary.

The school has many national and foreign star followers, including Argentine football great Diego Maradona.

Unidos da Tijuca, which finished 2nd last year, and Grande Rio, one of the newest schools, will round out the proceedings.

Talent in shantytowns

Preparation for the Carnival parades starts months in advance, as each samba school mobilises thousands of supporters who must create the various parts of the school's display.

Favela residents are often members of a local samba school and are deeply involved with the performance and preparation of costumes.

The Carnival turns the spotlight on the artistic talent, creative genius and zest for life found in those predominantly black shantytowns which often lack running water, electricity and sewage systems.

The Sambadrome, which recently re-opened after a nine-month makeover, now has a boosted capacity, elevators, and access ramps for the handicapped.

Seats cost between $50 and several thousand dollars, depending on whether one sits on packed benches in the open or in air-conditioned VIP boxes stocked with champagne. Big-name companies invite luminaries like Lopez to their skyboxes to promote their brands.

The Rio Carnival, billed as "the greatest show on Earth", generates 250 000 jobs and revenues of $640m for hotels, bars and restaurants, according to state estimates.

Carnival is celebrated with equal gusto in other cities and towns, including Sao Paulo, Brazil's economic capital and Latin America's most populous city, and Salvador, the heart of the rich Afro-Brazilian culture.