"Carnival, football, gorgeous beaches and stylish bodies, and some of the images that come to mind when thinking about Rio’s idiosyncratic culture. The vibrant enthusiasm of Rio’s residents make it one of the most fascinating places in world. The Cidade Maravilhosa, or Marvelous City, with its fun-loving musical people, has been a tourist attraction for decades.

On the Wednesday before Fat Tuesday, the keys to city are handed to Rei Momo, and the five-day blowout, Rio’s spectacular Carnival, begins. A symbol of polygamy and indulgence, the pleasingly fat Rei Momo, the king of Carnival, will preside over the city until Ash Wednesday, when the party ends. People dressed in all kinds of costumes line the main thoroughfares, social barriers fall by the wayside, and there are no limits to the imagination.

Throughout the city, Carnival bandstands are set up for organized groups and street-dancing. Blocos carnavelescos parade through the streets, dancing and drumming and singing. With European roots, Carnival’s beginning included fancy-dress balls in the Paris and Venice of the eighteenth century.

In 1908 at a hotel in Copacabana, the first modern Carnival party was held. Participants danced to the polka and Viennese waltzes. The very first carnival group was started by a Portuguese immigrant named José Nogueira Paredes, or Zé Pereira, as he came to be known. His concept was to get everyone in the group to play the same drum, which led to the idea for the modern samba school percussion section. Carnival nowadays how three main elements: the samba parade, the improvised street events, and the more traditional club balls. The club balls vary from sophisticated to anything goes, and most clubs and hotels hold at least one ball.

The more famous balls include the Copacabana Palace Hotel and the Scala. A best costume contest is a common party theme, and include some highly imaginative get-ups, everything from Brazilian politicians, to Archbishops to medieval troubadours. The Samba school parade remains the focus of every Rio de Janeiro Carnival, however. The many samba schools are divided into two different leagues.

The two leagues are the more pedestrian but free parade on Avenida Rio Branco, and the more extravagant Sambódromo parade. Schools have as many as 3,000-5,000 participants, divided into sections or wings, with up to thirty floats. Themes are chosen by each school, then songs are written and costumes designed to reflect the themes, which can be anything from literature to history to politics, or mythology and bible stories. The main float itself usually illustrates the theme.

The city’s neighborhoods are beehives of intense activity in the months before the Carnival parade. One of the biggest events of the year in Rio is the day the winners are announced, the Thursday after Carnival ends. Foreigners can participate in the samba schools alongside Brazilians. There are two weeks of practice though, including rehearsals and costume fittings, to be ready for the Carnival show. In the Afro-Brazilian groups, samba takes on both religious and social meaning. The word itself is said to be derived from the Angolan word “samba,” meaning belly button, or belly button thrust. The samba dance developed as a circle of dancers, clapping, singing, and playing drums, while one sambista dance the samba in the middle of the circle, stepping out after a while, and letting someone else step in.

The dance, samba de roda, is a common sight and occurrence in Afro-Brazilian communities all over the country. The first official samba, “Pelo Telefone,”was recorded in 1916, and registered by the composer, Donga, a Rio resident. The song become the hit of Carnival the next year. Later, Carmen Miranda introduced samba to Hollywood, and the rest of the world. Samba has many variations and genres, including samba do breque, bebop samba, samba-rock, samba-funk, samba-reggae, to name a few examples. The bossa nova, another popular Brazilian style of music, was introduced to the world on November 22, 1962, when Tom Jobim, the classically trained pianist, played the cool smooth “The Girl from Ipanema,” and “Samba de Uma Nota Só” at New York City’s Carnegie Hall. Vinicius de Moraes, a poet and former diplomat, as well as legendary partier, assumed unofficial leadership of the movement, creating gorgeous lyrics such as “Eu sei que eu vou te amar,” and the gorgeous “A Tarde em Itapua.” The heyday of Bossa Nova, which generally speaking means “new thing,” lasted from 1958 to 1964, and was centered in the neighborhoods of Copacabana, Ipanema, and Leblon in Rio. Some of the main bossa nova performers include Nara Leão, Baden Powell, Toquinho, João Gilberto, Luis Bonfã, and Astrud Gilberto. The American jazz saxophonist, Stan Getz, helped spread Bossa Nova to the rest of the world.

The national sport, football, or futebol as it is called in Brazil, is the country’s national pastime. Brazilian football players are known around the world for their skill, flair, and talent. While the last World Cup Brazil won was in Korea, 2002, the team is often mentioned as among the favorites. Brazilians didn’t invent football, but they did perfect the game. It was invented by the British around the turn of the 20th century, brought to São Paulo by a young Englishman born in Brazil whose name was Charles Miller. Futebol is so popular in Brazil, that the country has built some of the world’s largest arenas, including Rio’s giant stadium, the Maracanã, with a capacity for 120,000 fans.

While you’re visiting Brazil, checking out a game is an interesting way to understand the culture, if you’re at all interested in sports. Premier or “A” division games are generally scheduled for late Sunday afternoons or evenings, and Wednesday nights, although there are exceptions during the year, so check to make sure. In Rio, the local teams, Flamengo, Vasco, Fluminense or Botafogo have flag-waving, singing, enthusiastic fans that make the games a spectacle.

Another Brazilian national pastime, the beach, also becomes a spectacle on Sunday, especially in the summer. Everything people do, they do at the beach. Football and volleyball are common. Sunbathing naturally; the bikinis are skimpy, and easily live up to Rio’s mythology. Bodies and fitness are an integral part of the Carioca lifestyle.

Bodies are toned not only at the beach, but in the gym. Brazilians have become fond of Jiu-Jitsu and MMA-type (Mixed Martial Arts) fighting called Vale-tudo, or “everything goes,” and after winning many world championships, have become recognized around the world as being particularly adept. Along the beaches, there are paths for bicycles, runners, walkers, roller-bladers, and anyone who wants to stroll or do their own brand of exercises. On Sundays, Copacabana beach road that runs in front of the ocean is closed to automobile traffic, providing plenty of space and safety. Without most people off work for the day, the beach becomes family day on Sunday, and parents take their children out for walks or rides on bikes.

Brazilian architecture and design has thrived in Rio. An idiosyncratic style developed in the 1930s with the influence of the Swiss architect Le Corbusier, whose work held sway over a generation of Brazilian architects. The style was modern, with a Brazilian nod to nature, and nature’s place or role in Brazil. The rest of the world began to notice in the 1950s, as the art world began find inspiration in things Brazilian. Large, open, spacious building that were functional and practical were designed by innovators such as Oscar Niemeyer, Lúcio Costa, Affonso Eduardo Reidy, and the landscape designer Roberto Burle Marx. An innovative characteristics was the use of pilotis, or pillars on the ground floor, leaving an open space, with the floors above as the living spaces. It was the beginning of a modernist era in Brazil. Concrete and glass were commonly and extensively used. Examples of this new style can be found in Rio at the Ministério da Educação e Saúde (known as the first significant modernist building in Latin America), the Museu de Arte Moderna, the Catedral Metropolitana and the Petrobrás building.

Recent tendencies include shopping malls, residential buildings, and places of business made with granite and colored mirror glass that recall classical temples. Influenced by post-modernism, Brazilians architects have become renown for their hillside designs, creating buildings for steep inclines, In Barra da Tijuca and São Conrado, on the beach road, many of these gorgeous projects, home to the affluent, are visible.

Art

In 1922, the innovative Modern Art Week (Semana de Arte Moderna) gathered an influential group of artists and intellectuals who work continues to shape Brazil. By challenging entrenched bourgeois attitudes, and shedding the established deference to
Europe, as well as to emphasize the cultural diversity and social issues in Brazil, they pushed their own vision of art. Modern Art museums were founded in both Rio and São Paulo, sparking a type of rivalry between the two metropolises that led to some astonishing avant-garde art. The neo-concrete movement in Rio sought to incorporate art into quotidian living, and turn art into a more participatory experience rather than a spectator attraction. Influential artists of the time include Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, both of whom evolved a singular form of Brazilian modernism that stressed simplicity and spatial construction.

Hélio Oiticica’s work includes dance and music pieces, with extravagantly-costumed participants in parangolés (capes) from the poorer black neighborhoods and the samba schools of the favelas, to create crowded exuberant events. Brightly painted objects hung from ceilings complete the atmosphere in his elaborate spatial constructions. In Rio, a museum of his work has opened recently. According to Hélio Oiticica, “We are Black, White, Indian, everything at the same time – our culture has nothing to do with the European.”

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