*The following are my personal observations.
Unidos da Tijuca at their Samba enredo final.
When I arrived in Rio in mid October the samba schools were in the middle of the final composer competition to chose their school's samba enredo (song) for next carnaval.
The enredo is the theme for the year and the samba enredo is the song based on the theme for the year.
Each year the schools choose a theme for the next carnaval. For example, Viradouro's enredo/theme this year is Rosa Maria Egipcíaca. Who was a slave that was captured in Africa and brought in the slave trade to Brazil as a girl. She eventually earned her freedom with the help of her husband and learned to read and write so well in Portuguese that she wrote books. She was the first Black female author in Brazil. She was also a spiritual leader in her time having spiritual visions and took on the name Rosa Maria Egipcíaca.
After the enredo/theme is chosen, teams of composers will then compose songs about the school's theme and there is this big multi round competition to see which is the best. As I understand it, there is a lot of prestige and prize money on the line.
I arrived right in the middle of the last round competition for several samba schools.
Shows at samba schools tend to go like this...
The bateria will play their esquenta. The singers, bateria and dancers will run old favorites like sambas that were really loved by the school. The various alas like the Baianas, Porta bandeira and Mestre Sala, passistas and others come out and do some choreographed performances. This gets everyone all excited, singing and dancing then the competition starts.
One half of the stage at Grande Rio quadra. They have all their drums nicely laid out.
Porta Bandeira and Mestre Sala were two roles in samba schools that I had completely underestimated before seeing them in person. First of all the choreography they do is really beautiful and looks tricky! They hold hands and spin around each other leaning out so far it looks like their feet will slip.
They are very important to the school and to the point system for judging the school in the parade. The couple carry the flag for the school and present it to various individuals in the quadra for them to kiss and show their affection and reverence to the flag. It's really beautiful to see.
Then they move on to the nights' competition. At that point a HUGE mass of people jam their way into the quadra with flags, balloons, confetti cannons, and general mayhem to cheer for their samba enredo.
As someone who has not yet had covid (unless I was asymptomatic) this is when things get a little uncomfortably close for me. It's a LOT of people and it gets harder to dance and move around in the press of people.
I've heard that the various supporters do not actually get paid cash by the composers but they do get free beer, food and are coming for the party and spectacle of it.
So while the Samba enredos are being played the supporters are going bonkers. At the same time, supporters of other samba enredos are acting as if they are completely not interested. Looking at their phones and looking bored.
It was remarkable to me how when one of the groups of supporters at Viradouro had fireworks going on outside, were all jumping around and singing like their life depended on it, and then shot off a huge confetti cannon 2 or 3 times with long stringy things going everywhere and hanging in the rafters... and amongst all this festive mayhem the reaction of the non-supporters? Completely non-plussed. It was like a flight attendant was giving the safety announcement on an airplane. They could not care any less.
Bateria has their favorite.
The Bateria has to play for all of the samba enredos as they are presented to the crowd. Bruno Moraes had told me at one point that the bateria always has their favorite. At the time I didn't really know what he meant but then I saw it. When their favorite came up the bateria were all singing along, dancing around with each other and making it really clear that this was their pick.
Choosing of the enredo
After all the finalist composers have run through their songs then comes the voting. From what I understand specific people from the schools are able to vote like the school President, Mestre da Bateria, and other officers and folks in charge.
The whole thing goes until like 3 am or something.
Side note: Minor obsession with BAFs
Samba schools, soccer/futebol teams always have these HUGE flags. They have their logo on them and are made out of really thin material so they wave and float through the air really nicely and are really really big. Like 3 meters by 5 meters and bigger. I'd always wondered what kind of pole that people can use to wave that huge thing around and it turns out Bamboo!
Some quadras you can get close to the bateria, others no.
I'm a bateria nerd, so I like the schools where you can get close to the bateria. Unidos da Tijuca you can get really close!
Being in Rio during this time of year has been fantastic to see another side of how things operate in these samba schools. I am continually impressed at the level and variety of the shows that these schools pull off on a weekly basis. It's not like slap-dash kind of a thing. It's all scheduled, choreographed, timed and pulled off in great fashion! I think that the Harmonia has a lot to do with this.
I'm also impressed by all of the people doing more minor jobs. Taking drink orders, working in the gift shop, making food for the bateria during rehearsals etc. I'm sure that there are people working on building maintenance, and cleaning and tasks like that. It really is a complicated machine. The community connections are more integrated than I thought before. It takes a LOT of people to pull this off.
Let me know if you all have questions or something that you'd like to see covered!