A solitary and leisurely bass drum resounds in the middle of a group of samba players gathered in silence at the doors of the Museo do Samba in Rio de Janeiro: it is a lament impregnated with “saudade” by the victims of COVID-19 and by the carnival, canceled by the pandemic.
In normal times, the famous samba schools would be finalizing the preparations for their parades and the streets would be taken over by musical processions, glitter and party atmosphere. But this year the spirit of “King Momo” must wait to reign. “For the Brazilian sambistas, for the Afro-descendant people, it is a very difficult time. It will not be a time of celebration, but of mourning the deaths and vindicating our rights ”, Nilcemar Nogueira, founder of the museum, located at the foot of the traditional Mangueira favela, tells AFP.
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In the “symbolic opening”, the group honored the more than 236,000 victims of the COVID-19 pandemic and sang several carnival classics a cappella, while two women dressed in white and turbans “purified” the environment with bouquets of herbs. Among the themes, the famous “Samba, agoniza mas nao morre” (Samba, agonizes but does not die), by the composer Nelson Sargento, who at 96 years old and in a wheelchair participated in the act, weeks after having received the first dose of the COVID vaccine.
It is the third time in history that the authorities have suspended carnival in Brazil: in 1892 it was postponed by a government decree and in 1912 by an official duel. But the decrees did not prevent the celebrations on the traditional dates and there were then two carnivals in those years.
In 2021, in the middle of the second wave of the pandemic, with an average of more than 1,000 deaths per day and with vaccination still incipient, Brazil was forced to cancel the most popular festival in the country, which last year attracted almost 2 million tourists and moved 4,000 million reais (about 750 million dollars) in Rio de Janeiro alone.
Samba schools, which prepare their sumptuous parades for months, canceled practically all their operations, leaving hundreds of seamstresses, designers, musicians, props and mechanics, among other trades that give life to the show, without jobs. The empty sambadrome will be illuminated every night with the colors of the different “escolas”, after a brief act by Mayor Eduardo Paes scheduled for this Friday.
Fans of the show will be able to remember the glory years through TV Globo, which will show 28 parades considered historical. Some 5,000 ice conservators from the Ambev brand of beers, commonly used by street vendors of drinks, will be distributed to health posts to refrigerate COVID-19 vaccines.
The fact is that the more than 400 “blocos” (groups) of the street carnival will not be able to make the crowds vibrate melee. To suppress eventual agglomerations, the Mayor’s Office will deploy 1,000 police officers per day and those who promote them may face fines and penalties of up to one year in jail.
Instead of their processions, many groups – such as Cordao da Bola Preta, Céu na Terra or Cordão do Boitatá – will broadcast live performances from theaters without an audience. The stay in beaches, bars and restaurants will continue to be allowed and hotel occupancy (which last year was close to 100%) this year is expected to be around 50%.
In addition to the economic losses, with the cancellation of the carnival, Rio loses an important space for the construction of social ties, identity and belonging, says the historian and author of numerous books on carnival Luiz Antonio Simas. In an extremely unequal country, where marginalized classes “do not have access to bodies such as parliament, universities, schools, political parties, many times the carnival groups play this role of integrating, socializing, building a community identity,” he explains.
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“There is an image of the carnival, sold abroad, that it is just a party, a delusion. But it is far from being a party that celebrates Brazilian harmony. On the contrary, it is symptomatic of our enormous contradictions ”, emphasizes Simas.
The country “is only interested in the black population, in samba, during carnival” because of the profits it generates, but “those who build that great show later return to the favela, that place of absence of rights,” says Nilcemar Nogueira, granddaughter of the famous “mangueirense” composer Cartola. Like Simas, Nilcemar believes that the first post-pandemic carnival will be a triumphant return. “It will be a catharsis, people will want to make up for everything that did not happen this year,” he announces smiling.