This is the question some of my Brazilian Facebook friends are asking this year—a year where we’re in the throes of a serious recession and feeling the effects of a government drowning in corruption. I think it’s a valid question, but a complicated one. It doesn’t have a simple answer, such as: “We should cancel Carnival and spend the money on schools and hospitals.”
But that’s exactly the answer I’ve been seeing in a lot of the memes my friends (and friends of friends) are posting. I get it. They’re fed up with the inadequate services Brazil provides for its citizens (not to mention infrastructure, transportation, and so many other things), and they think Carnival is a waste of money. The truth is, a lot of Brazilians have never liked Carnival, even when things were looking rosier for the country. They get out of the city as fast as they can to spend the week in some quiet resort. I would venture to say that these are pretty much the same people who are posting negative memes about Carnival on Facebook.
OK, I’m a gringa expat…what do I know? Well, quite a bit, as it happens. I’ve been living in Rio for around 18 years, and quite a few of them were involved with Carnival and the samba culture (you can read about my experiences in my book, Getting Down to Brass Tacks, here: http://goo.gl/OfdMd7
I played drums in the samba school parades for 7 or 8 years, and came away with a clear sense of why Carnival is so important to many Brazilians—not to mention thousands of tourists from around the world—and why it should NOT be canceled—ever.
First of all, Brazilian Carnival is one of the most amazing events anywhere in the world—so much so that it has been attracting tourists for decades. But even more important, Carnival is an event that many Brazilians look forward to every year. It’s a wonderful vacation from the tedium of day-to-day living, and thousands of people from all walks of life are either spectators or take part in the parades. These parades range from the larger-than-life spectacle at the Sambodrome (in Rio) to the smaller groups (blocos) that parade in various neighborhoods all over the city. If you can’t afford to buy a costume and parade in the Sambodrome with the big groups, you can either go out with one of the smaller schools or blocos, or if you’ve got rhythm and the time and dedication to go to the rehearsals, you can play in the bateria and get a costume for free.
For many, this is the time to live a dream, a fantasy, to be someone you can’t be in your everyday life. It’s art, culture, music, theater, dance—all wrapped up in one—and so much more.
It also provides jobs. People work for months in the big warehouses (barracões) for months to create the floats and figures that are the focal point of the parades. These are artisans, artists, carpenters, and others without specific skills, who make it possible for Carnival to happen every year—without them, there would be no Carnival.
So what about the schools and hospitals? Would it be better to cut out Carnival and put more money into building more and better schools and hospitals? No, this isn’t where the money should come from. True, Carnival could be scaled down a bit (some samba groups are already recycling materials from previous years), but the funds for public services and institutions could easily come from all the money that is wasted by the corrupt government here.
What would life look like without art, music, theater, and other forms of culture? Would it really be worth living? Carnival is joy, inspiration—a health-giving activity for so many. I’ve seen up close the happiness and inspiration in the faces of so many of my samba school friends here, that I can’t help thinking: If Carnival is canceled, Brazil had better build more hospitals, because there will be a lot more people needing them!
Salve o Carnaval!