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I once read a quote “Brazil is a country for the future and it always will be”. Whilst appearing somewhat harsh there is a sentiment in the throwaway line that does have more than a grain of truth to it.

Having visited the country on half a dozen occasions it is a place hell bent on having a great party no matter what else is going on around it. So it was in February 2007 that I found myself heading once again to Rio de Janeiro for “Carnaval” as Brazilians call it and landing in a City of extremes where property rentals are governed by “Bala Perdidas” (stray bullets) and the majority of cash points close at 10.00pm due to “Sequestro Relampagos” (short or lightning kidnappings). Prices shoot up during Carnaval but one thing in Rio that always remains incredibly cheap is life.


As I landed the City was in uproar after a car had been hijacked by youths. A mother and child in the front had been forced out of the car at gunpoint, but her other child a six year old boy was strapped into a back seat chair and the mother could not get him out. The youths tried to push him out of the car but João Hélio Fernandes was dragged 7 Km and his death had created great anger in the City. One of the youth’s fathers had handed his son into the police, but being under 18 he could not be charged for manslaughter under Brazilian law.


Carnaval officially starts at 6pm on the Friday before Ash Wednesday and finishes on the Wednesday with people returning to work on the Thursday. The Wednesday preceding the Carnaval the City awoke to the news that Guaracy Paes Falcao, 42, vice president of the parade group Salgueiro, was shot and killed in his car before dawn while leaving the group's headquarters near Tijuca, a middle-class neighbourhood surrounded by slums on the city's north side. He was with a woman who was also shot dead.

Brazilian media reported that as many as 20 shots were fired from an assault weapon. Police did not suggest a motive for Falcao's death, but media reported there had been a history of bad blood between Falcao and another slain Salgueiro leader, and it is an open secret that Rio's annual samba parade is funded by an illegal numbers game known as the "jogo do bicho."


This murder took place on the same day as João Fernandes funeral and 1million Carioca`s descended on Centro (The downtown financial district) in a march for peace and to show support for the young boys parents. The march culminated in a peace rally at Candelária ironically the scene of the murder of a number of street children in July 1993, later highlighted in the Film/Documentary “Bus 174” when Sandro do Nascimento took a bus hostage in June 2000.


At exactly the same time as England football fans were been let down by their team against Portugal in Euro 2000, Do Nascimento entertained Brazil. He reminded millions of Brazilians of the carnage at which he had been present, but survived 7 years earlier, as the hijacking was networked live across Brazilian TV. His reward and punishment for the death of hostage Geisa Gonçalves was death by asphyxiation in the back of a police vehicle. But his real crime was the humiliation he had heaped on the Brazilian security forces.   


Brazil and especially Cariocas have a great ability to put blinkers up to social problems and get on with life. Perhaps this is out of necessity as the majority lives in Favelas and does so overlooking Penthouses.


So it was under these shadows on Friday 16th February at 6pm that Carnaval 2007 officially started.


Whilst the North East of Brazil, mainly Bahia have danced historically to Forró this has to a large extent been superseded in popularity in the 1990`s by Axé (pronounced ash-ay) with artists such as Daniela Mercury, Chiclete  Com Banana and Ivete Sangalo taking Brazil by storm. However, Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval dedicates the whole time to Samba with even Bossa Nova taking a place on the backburner. Forró and Axé will be heard in clubs but the music of the streets is Samba as hundreds of Blocos take place throughout the City. A Bloco is a street procession whereby you follow a large vehicle with a huge sound system and local people from the neighbourhood play along. I followed my first Bloco from Botofogo to Copacabana as a friend’s daughter played drums in the procession. The pride with which the people participate in these Blocos cannot be emphasized enough but the serious business takes place downtown at the Sambadrome.


Carnaval is a very serious business with two leagues made up of Samba Schools which practice every week for 12 months of the year in the “Escola de Samba” (local Samba schools) and on the Friday and Saturday night of Carnaval the “2nd Division” parade and on the Sunday and Monday the “Premier league” parade. Each school is judged and relegation and promotion takes place with there being a Champion. In Britain it is probably thought this is just a large version of what takes place at Notting Hill but nothing could be further from the truth. Big business has now moved in as well as the “Jogo do bicho” with the 2006 winner Vila Isabel funded by a Venezuelan oil company. Rumours are rife of bribery and corruption and the last school to parade always complain as they parade as the sun comes up and therefore feel the spectacle for them is tarnished by the fact that they do not parade under floodlights. This year this was compounded as television coverage could not start until 9pm as “O Globo” the channel showing the parade live across Brazil had to fit in “Big Brother Brasil.” Whilst not owned by Murdoch, yet, it is a Channel which in the past has been shrouded in political controversy. So there are similarities.


In Rio de Janeiro during carnaval the wealthy area of Leblon becomes deserted as locals leave the City, for the countryside of Petropolis, Ipanema turns gay and Copacabana fills up with working girls from Sao Paolo, Brasilia and Belo Horizonte. Therefore the place to head to sample real Carioca life is Terreo de Samba.                   

 All the parading takes place at the Sambadrome which is in Centro. Next to the sambadrome however, is Terreo de Samba and this fills up with locals from the Favelas as they listen to music, drink beer and watch the fireworks from the Sambadrome. For 5 Reais or just over one pound sterling you can sit in a large fenced in area with the locals and take in the atmosphere surrounded by tight private security, not police. Although in 2005 when a fight broke out between transvestites and locals started pelting them with plastic chairs I looked on as the Security stood by with little effect. The atmosphere is electric with young and old partying until sunrise.

Outside the Sambadrome the security is made up of both Civil and Military police in armed vehicles and it did cross my mind how they were going to control the crowd with semi automatic weapons but I am pretty sure they had a plan should a problem arise, unfortunately yet another major disaster waiting to happen. If you wished to watch the parading itself tickets are available from touts for 20 Reais upwards, about 5 pounds. It is possibly the only event in the world I have ever attended where I did not come across a scouse ticket tout, but give it time.

On my final night in Rio I was pulled over at a police road block between Copacabana and Ipanema. There were several police cars with a number of police carrying automatic weapons. The officer in charge searched me and told me he was looking for “drogas”, drugs. I was going to tell him that if he turned 180 degrees and walked for a quarter of a mile through Praça General Osório he would come to a favela and he’d find plenty there. The fact he bore a remarkable resemblance in stature and look to Noel Blake as well as the hardware his colleagues were carrying had an influence on me keeping my thoughts to myself.


If drugs are found you go up a side street and for about 300 Reais (70 or 80 quid) you can avoid having your details passed onto the Federal Police and therefore your passport remains untarnished. I had my passport photocopied as ID which I produced on request, if you haven’t Noel Blake and his mates will come back to yours for a wander whilst you get your passport; this is to be avoided at all costs.  


As for the Carnaval I have always found it very overrated and not the best time to be in Rio. But as a mate of mine said, “You don’t live a tin hut though do you” and he has got a point. In short it is a good six days of partying for people who lead very difficult lives and a time for them to let off steam, they are more than happy for you to join them.

Whilst certain things are lost in translation between Portuguese and English, you have to admit Brazilians do have a sense of humour. Every time I look at that flag and see the words “Order and Progression” emblazoned across it I have to smile. Don’t be put off by bad press reports, sure Rio is dangerous, but where in the world isn’t? It’s a great country with a lot to offer, but coming back to this year Carnaval, there are winners and there are losers like in any major competition. This years winners were the Samba School “Beija – Flor”, who could bask in glory, but will be practicing for 2008 as you read this.


This years losers, well without doubt that has to be the Fernandes and Falcao families.

















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