Brazil Culture

HOW SÃO PAULO INVENTED ITS OWN CARNIVAL

Rio has historically held a monopoly on the “true Brazilian carnival”. This year, though, São Paulo has shown that it is just as much a place for samba

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Carnival São Paulo
Photo: Fernanda Carvalho/Fotos Públicas

“São Paulo is the graveyard of samba.” That famous quote was said by Vinícius de Moraes, the late lyricist who wrote Girl from Ipanema, and it has become a universal truth. From Saturday to Mardi Gras, the usually overcrowded and noisy streets of Brazil’s biggest city became deserted. Staying in São Paulo for carnival was an option for those who hate the popular party or a harsh sentence for those who couldn’t afford to travel, say, to Rio. But if dead it was, then certainly dead it is no more.

A tourist who saw São Paulo during carnival in 2008, for instance, wouldn’t have recognized the city during this year’s celebration. Around two million people took over the streets during the five-day party, joining 355 street parades (5 times more than four years ago). Long gone are the days when it was lame to stay in São Paulo and those who failed to go party on the beach would feel like losers.

But when and why have the changes started? For some, it was purely by chance. In 2009, Ana Luiza Mendes Borges was too lazy to go to the beach, and so she decided to stay in the city where samba goes to die. Borges was pleasantly surprised when, accompanied by her friends, she attended a traditional street parade. (Sidenote: while there have always been a few traditional parades, they were  too few and too small to create a real atmosphere). We liked it so much that we decided to join in. Next thing we know, we were up for creating our own parade,” she adds.

That’s when the Bastardo (the Bastard) parade was created, in the heart of the bohemian district of Vila Madalena. Her story is just one of many. What they have in common is the desire to have a more democratic carnival. In Salvador, for instance, one has to pay around $250 per day to join in on the fun – and each party has a mandatory uniform to avoid intruders. Not to mention the housing fees, which run up to $5,000 for five days in a tiny apartment. So, yeah, the paulistanos* wanted to go a different route.

“In 2012, we launched a manifesto in which dozens of us stated our intentions: the right to partake in the fun, the occupation of public spaces as an exercise of citizenship, the idea of the street party and also of the creative economy,” says Borges. From then on, their effort created a ripple effect. This year São Paulo registered its most popular carnival in decades, according to Mayor Fernando Haddad. Local tourism offices calculate that the city attracted around 40,000 tourists.

Since the São Paulo parades are essentially organized by small collectives, they rely almost entirely on social media. From the first actions to mobilize people, to finding musicians, writing original songs and setting up equipment and the event structure, everything is done without the involvement of traditional media. In fact, some of the carnival organizers want nothing to do with it.

“We don’t want to be talked about by the media. You [plus55] are the first ones we are speaking to,” says Tato Carbonaro, one of the people behind Cerca Frango, a kind of hipster parade that moves around the hilly neighborhood of Pompeia on Mardi Gras. “We have had many media requests, but the reason we have declined them is because we do not want to grow. Growing bigger may mean changing the spirit of our group, or at least the path the parade follows. Which would essentially change what we are now,” he explains.

The people behind Cerca Frango met in college and remained close friends, meeting every Tuesday. Just like the Bastard, their parade was a result of the boredom their endured during the 2013 carnival, when, by chance, some of the friends stayed in São Paulo. “It was spontaneous. We had a little trolley with music and we went into the streets through a neighborhood, in Pompeia,” he explains.

They have only confirmed this year’s event a week before Mardi Gras, after a crowdfunding initiative helped them collect $1,500. That was enough to welcome roughly 1,500 people.

While most parades certainly rely on samba, music is become more diverse. There is even one parade honoring David Bowie. It certainly doesn’t seem like a traditional Brazilian carnival, but 40,000 people came to dance to a fanfare playing some of the British singer’s greatest hits. It was one of the most attended events in 2016. Other parades play reggae, or the Beatles, or even jazz, all with a Brazilian samba-ish touch.

The people partying on the streets are also part of the spectacle. The costumes chosen send a variety of messages that vary from political to the absurd. Everything is allowed, so long as it is creative.

If the street parties look like a solid acquisition for the city, it is also a profitable one. São Paulo’s municipality calculates that it will generate almost $100 million this year alone. In contrast, the samba-school parades, which were traditionally the money-maker, brought in “only”  around $60 million. This is proof that São Paulo, a city often criticized for its ugliness, violence and lack of green spaces, also has the capacity to reinvent itself all while embracing fun. Cheers!


*paulistanos: people from the city of São Paulo