Learn about the history of Rio Carnival

Blocos de sujos, blocos de baianas

Cross dressing is a carnaval traditionThe cordões evolved into blocos de sujos, where everyone could join in plain clothes, and blocos de baianas. The curious detail was that these baianas were actually men dressed in white colonial clothes, and acted as security to the blocos. There was a percussion band and vocalist, with a women-only chorus of pastoras.

The peak of these blocos was in the 30’s and 40’s. Cacique de Ramos and Bafo da Onça are two of the most well-known. Today blocos still happen in Centro, and some attract as many as one million revelers. Carnaval in the streets of Rio is always free of charge.

Carnaval in the xix century

Dom Pedro I, the first Emperor of Brazil. Painting by Benedito Calixto on display at MASP.Grandes Sociedadesor Great Societies was a more
organized parade that debuted in 1855, with the presence of the
Emperor himself. A group of eighty aristocrats in masks paraded
with luxury costumes, music, and flowers. It was a big success.
Democráticos, Fenianos and Tenentes do Diabo were the three most
well-known groups.

Cordão Carnavalescois a concept that got its
start in 1870. There were characters like queens, kings, witches,
peasants and dancers, and they performed according to the costumes
they were wearing.


The stories behind the traditional Carnival characters lend meaning and significance to these unusual portrayals. Often an individual plays one specific persona year after year and is familiar with the traditions associated with that role. The custom is usually passed on orally to family members or other interested persons. According to Elma Reyes, some of these portrayals were performed as “mas’ for money” (16). The masqueraders would offer entertainment in the form of humour, songs or skits in exchange for money. In some cases threats and scare tactics were used to coerce bystanders into giving them cash. Some of the best known characters are as follows:

The baby doll character was portrayed mainly in the 1930’s, but is still seen every year at Ole Mas competitions. The masquerader portrays a gaily dressed woman, decked out in a frilled dress and bonnet. In her arms she carries a doll which symbolises an illegitimate baby. The masquerader usually stops male passers-by and accuses them of being the baby’s father. She would then demand money to buy milk for the baby. This character was sometimes portrayed by a man who would speak in a high-pitched voice.

The bat costume is normally black or brown and fitted tightly over the masquerader’s body. The headpiece covers the head entirely, with the player being able to see through the mouth, or lifting it up to his forehead. It is made of swansdown with papier-maché face, teeth, nose and eyes. Leather shoes with metal claws for toes are normally used. Ordinary shoes can also be adapted by attaching of long socks, metal claws and a second sole. The bat wings are made from wire and bamboo or cane, and are covered with the same cloth as the skin-fitting costume. These wings can extend to 12 or 15 feet, and the masquerader’s arms are fastened to them. Matching gloves complete the costume. There is a bat dance to go with the costume. During performance, the masquerader crawls, flaps, dances on his toes, and folds his wings in a series of choreographed movements, imitating those of the bat.

The Bookman, also referred to as the Gownman or Ruler, is a feature of devil mas portrayals. The other two groups of characters in the devil band are the imps and beasts.The Bookman’s costume consists of Tudor-style pants, or a richly embroidered gown made of velvet and satin, with a pleated or fluted bodice, and a flowing cape festooned with biblical scenes. On his head is an oversized head mask which contains small horns and carries a demonic expression. The face of this mask is supposed to mirror the face of the devil himself. The Bookman carries a pen and a large book in which he writes the names of prospective souls for the devil. The Bookman is the principal character in the devil band, and, in keeping with his status, his movement is waltz-like, with constant bowing. Musical accompaniment is provided by an orchestra of trumpet, saxophones, bass and drums playing conventional tunes.

Burrokeet, derived from the Spanish word burroquito (little donkey), is constructed from bamboo so as to give the illusion of a dancer riding a small burro or donkey. This masquerade was derived from both the East Indian culture and the Venezuelan Spaniards. The costume is comprised of a well-decorated donkey’s head made from coloured paper. This head is attached to a bamboo frame. The masquerader enters through a hole at the back of the donkey’s neck and carries the reins in his hands, thereby creating the illusion that he is its rider. The body of the donkey is covered in a long satin skirt with a sisal (rope) tail, sometimes decorated with flowers. The bit and bridle are made of coloured cord. The rider wears a satin skirt and a large matador straw hat and dances in a way that mimmicks the antics of a donkey. He also performs a dance called Burriquite, which originated in Venezuela.

The Cow Band, which dates back to the days of the Canboulay, consisted of a small group of men dressed in costumes of sacking made from rice bags. These costumes were completely covered with dried plantain leaves. Each masquerader wore a homemade papier-mâché mask representing the head of a cow surmounted by a pair of horns. Members of the band would frolic and move through the crowds behaving like real cows. This masquerade became dormant for a few years, and was later revived by the employees of the abattoir, and became part of the J’Ouvert celebrations.

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In later years, on Carnival Tuesday, the Cow Band came out in brightly coloured costumes, with picadors and a matador who would challenge the cows. The cow character’s costume consisted of tight-fitting breeches of yellow velvet or satin, with gold braid and spangles along the sides and around the bottom at the knees, a tight-fitting maroon satin long-sleeved blouse completely covered with a soutache decoration of gold braid, gloves, cream stockings and alpagatas. A well-secured cap-like contraption on the head supported a pair of highly polished cow horns. A short section of the hairy part of the cow’s tail was attached to the seat of the breeches. An imported wire gauze mask replaced the cow mask of the previous day.

Male singers and the musicians wore yellow breeches, maroon shirts with billowing sleeves tight at the wrist, a sash around the waist and red beret. The women wore yellow skirts, red or maroon bodices, and headties. All wore masks of the wire gauze type, those of the women being decorated with gold braid along the forehead and at the sides, with gaudy earrings dangling from them. Music was provided by such string instruments as the mandolin, teeplay, bandol, banjo, cuatro, guitar, violin and chac-chacs (maracas).

The Dame Lorraine or Dame Lorine was imitative of the mas played by the 18th and early 19th century French planters, who would dress up in elegant costumes of the French aristocracy and parade in groups at private homes, particularly on Carnival Sunday night. They also performed the sophisticated dances of the period. The liberated slaves recreated these costumes – complete with elaborate fans and hats – in their own fashion, using materials that were readily available, such as assorted rags and imitation jewellery-type items, but emphasizing and exaggerating the physical characteristics, and dancing to small bandol and cuatro bands.

The major Dame Lorraine performers through the years however, were descendants of the French planters and persons of some respectability, who hid behind masks, mainly of the fine wire mesh variety, and found their way into the downtown Old Yards, where they paraded and danced for all and sundry. The tune which became associated with the Dame Lorraines still exists, and is played whenever they appear in groups at cultural events.

This mas is based on the indigeneous people of North America. The wearer decides how expensive or expansive he wants this costume to be. The headpiece, in its simplest form, is worn with feathers sticking up, and more feathers making tails down the back. More elaborate headpieces are built over bamboo or wire frames. The headpiece then becomes so heavy, it needs to be supported by a structure that covers the masquerader’s entire body. This, the masquerader’s wigwam, is richly worked with ostrich plumes, mirrors, beads, feather work, papier-maché masks, totem poles, canoes and ribbons. Bands of Indians can comprise a warrior chief and his family, a group of chiefs, or a group of warriors.

The Fancy Indian is the most popular variety of Indian mas. A feature of this mas is the language or languages they speak, in a call and response pattern, possibly adapted from the Black Indians of the New Orleans Mardi Gras and their characteristic movements. Other kinds of Indians that are disappearing are generally known as Wild Indians. These comprise Red Indians (Warahoons) and Blue Indians, which have links with the indigenous peoples of Venezuela. There are also Black Indians or African Indians.

The name of this mas is derived from the French patois for «Diable Diable». It is pretty devil mas. The costume consists of a Kandal or satin knickers, and satin shirt with points of cloth at the waist, from which bells hang. On the chest, there is a shaped cloth panel which is decorated with swansdown, rhinestones and mirrors. Stockings and alpagatas are worn on the feet, while the headdress consists of a hood with stuffed cloth horns. The costume can come in alternating colours and be divided into front and back panels. The Jab Jab has a thick whip of plaited hemp which he swings and cracks threateningly. These whips can reduce the costumes of other Jab Jabs to threads.

Jab is the French patois for Diable (Devil), and Molassie is the French patois for Mélasse (Molasses). The Jab Molassie is one of several varieties of devil mas played in Trinidad and Tobago Carnival. The costume consists of short pants or pants cut off at the knee, and a mask and horns. The Jab Molassie would carry chains, and wear locks and keys around his waist, and carry a pitch fork. He may smear his body with grease, tar, mud or coloured dyes (red, green or blue). The Jab Molassie «wines» or gyrates to a rhythmic beat that is played on tins or pans by his imps. While some of his imps supply the music, others hold his chain, seemingly restraining him as he pulls against them in his wild dance. The differences among the various forms of devil mas were once distinct, but have become blurred over time.

The Midnight Robber is one of the most beloved characters in traditional Carnival. Both his costume and his speech are distinctive. His «Robber Talk» is extravagant and egocentric, and boastful. He brags about his great ancestry, exploits, strength, fearlessness and invincibility. This «Robber Talk» is derived from the tradition of the African Griot or storyteller, and the speech patterns and vocabulary are imitative of his former master. He wears a black satin shirt, pantaloons, influenced by the American cowboy tradition, and a black, flowing cape on which the skull and cross bones are painted. Also painted on the cape is his sobriquet. He also wears a huge black, broad-brimmed, fringed hat on which a coffin is often superimposed. In his hand he carries a weapon –either a dagger, sword or gun – and a wooden money box in the shape of a coffin. He carries a whistle which he blows to punctuate his tales of valour.

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Black and white minstrels are based on the American minstrel shows popular around the turn of the century in which white singers painted their faces black. The local minstrels are black persons who perform with their faces painted white. Their costume consists of a scissors tail coat, striped trousers, tall straw hat and gloves. One or two minstrel bands still remain, entertaining audiences with popular old American songs such as Swanee River and Who’s Sorry Now. They accompany themselves on the guitar and the rattling bones played between the hands. They may sometimes have a dance routine.

Moko is a derivation of the god «Moko», coming straight out of West African tradition. Moko is a “diviner” in the Congo language. The term «jumbie» or ghost was added by the freed slaves. It was believed that the height of the stilts was associated with the ability to foresee evil faster than ordinary men. The Moko Jumbie was felt to be a protector of the village. This mas is well-known throughout the Caribbean. It is an authentic African masquerade mounted on sticks. The stilt walker plays on stilts 10 to 12 feet high. His costume consists of a brightly coloured skirt or pants, jacket and elaborate hat. He would dance through the streets all day, and collect money from people on the upper floors and balconies. His dance was similar to a jig, and he was often accompanied by a drum, flute and triangle.

This character, which is now extinct, goes back to the pre-emancipation era. During that period, Carnival was observed mainly by the upper classes . While the slaves and free coloureds were not forbidden from celebrating Carnival, they were compelled to stay within their own stratum of society and not presume to rub shoulders with the aristocracy. The planter class on the other hand, often imitated the dress and customs of their slaves during the carnival celebrations. One of their favourite disguises was that of the Negue Jadin (Negre Jardin – French for garden slave).

This costume consists of tight-fitting satin or khaki breeches reaching to just above the knee where willows are hung, and a bright, plain coloured shirt with a «fol» or heart-shaped panel of contrasting colour sewn on the chest and bordered with swansdown. The fol is decorated with tiny mirrors and rhinestones. As with all carnival costumes during this period, the masquerader covered his face with a mask. After emancipation, the former slaves adopted the Negue Jadin character in their carnival celebrations, but as a satirical portrayal of the planter trying to imitate them.

The Pierrot Grenade is a descendant of the Pierrot – a finely dressed masquerader and deeply learned scholar, who displayed his erudition by spelling polysyllabic words and quoting passages from Shakespeare. He was also a feared fighter with a whip or bull pistle, and was followed by a band of female supporters who fought on his behalf against other Pierrot groups. His descendant, the Pierrot Grenade, is a satire on the richer and more respectable Pierrot.

The Pierrot Grenade is egotistical and retains the scholarly mien, but instead of the elegant costume, he wears rags. His gown consists of crocus bag (burlap), on which strips of coloured cloth, small tins containing pebbles, and small boxes that rattle, are attached. He may wear a hat or a coloured head tie on his head, and his face is covered with a grotesque mask. The mask provides anonymity for someone who delights in making barbed comments on «respectable» members of the community.

This character was introduced in the 1880s when British, French and American naval ships came to Trinidad. It is one of the more popular costumes, being lightweight and inexpensive. There are several variations on the sailor mas, including Free French Sailor, King Sailor, and Fancy Sailor to name a few. The costume of the Free French sailor consists of a black beret with the name of the ship on the rim of the beret, a tight-fitting short sleeve bow neck jersey with horizontal blue and white stripes, long, bell-bottomed black melton pants, and black shoes.

The King Sailor’s costume consists of white drill or corduroy pants and shirt with a sailor collar. There are epaulettes on each shoulder, a red sash across the chest, a crown on the masquerader’s head, cords, medals and war ribbons on the left side of the chest and a walking stick in his hand.

The Fancy Sailor was an off-shoot of the King Sailor. The Fancy Sailor costume consists of papier-mâché headpieces, decorated and painted to look like birds, animals or plants. The sailor outfit is decorated with ribbons, medals, braiding, swansdown and other embellishments to match the headpieces. There are several dances to go along with the sailor mas portrayal, such as the Bote, Crab, Marrico, Pachanga, Rock de Boat, Skip Jack and the Camel Walk.

Carnival in the early xx century

Rancho CarnavalescoThere were also the Cordões de Velhos, where participants would wear huge papier-mâché masks and walk in an old man’s gait. Ranchos
are a contribution of an immigrant from
Bahia named Hilário Jovino da Silva.

They started in 1872 as
working class festivity. People would dress up in costumes and
perform on the parade accompanied by an orchestra of strings, ganzás,
flutes, and other instruments. They were more organized than the
Cordões, and gained popularity around 1911. Street Carnaval was already a part of the city’s culture.

Hanseatica - Traditional brewery in Ro de JaneiroWith the sponsorship of brewery Hanseática, the Ranchos
started organized competitions. They became one of the main
attractions of Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival, together with the Great
Societies. The parade already included a first-wing (abre alas),
an orchestra,  a male and female choir, and a couple of
mestre sala and porta bandeira.

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The parades halted during World War II and started again
in 1947. By then the competition happened on Av. Rio Branco. The
last competition of ranchos was in 1990, and the winner was a club
named Decididos de Quintino. The Samba parade took over.

Croso CarnavalescoCorso was a novely intruduced in 1907 with a parade of cars along Av. Rio Branco (then named Av. Central). They were the granddaddys of today’s sophisticated floats. Revelers brought along streamers and paper confetti. Plus lança-perfume, a spray of highly inflamable cologne water that would give you a sort of a buzz. Enough to make some people pass out — evetually it was outlawed.

During the carnival, which lasts 18 days, people participate in:

  • Feast of Mary — a procession in which 12 girls in ancient costumes walk from the church of San Pietro di Castello to St. Mark’s Square, where the election of «Mary of the Year» will take place.
  • Feast of all Venetians
  • «Flight of the Angel»: a girl who has tried on the image of an angel descends the rope from the bell tower of St. Mark’s Square
  • In Mestre (a suburb of Venice), a man dressed as a donkey flies from the window of the town hall
  • Competitions for the best mask and costume
  • Costumed nightly dinners and dances, etc.

Life hacks from experienced

  • It is better to visit the carnival, which is held in the autumn-spring time, in the summer there is a real bathhouse
  • Check out the schedule of events in advance
  • During the festival, housing prices increase significantly. Try to settle in Mestre — a suburb of Venice: you will have to spend more time on the road, but you will be able to save significantly
  • Better to choose an apartment with a kitchen to save money on restaurants too
  • Do not hesitate to take pictures with passers-by in fancy costumes — they only welcome this
  • Walk as much as possible and try to attend as many events as possible!

Rio, birthplace of samba

Tia Ciata on leftIt all started in the end of the XIX Century in what was then known as Little Africa (Pequena Africa), the residence of the tias baianas. These were ladies who came from Bahia, and made a living selling food delicacies around town in their typical white dresses with big round skirts. They were also the priestesses of Candomble, and had a great influence in the community.

Tia Ciata may have been the most famous of these tias. Born Hilaria Batista de Almeida in the region of Bahia known as Reconcavo Baiano around 1854, she first lived near Campo de Santana.

Batuque - samba drumsBut the address that entered in history was Rua Visconde de Itaúna, 177. In her living room meetings were often entertained with live music played by talents like Pixinguinha and Donga (son of Tia Amelia). In the back lot of her house happened the samba, a term then used to denominate the ritual Candomble dance to drums and handclaps.

Eventually the two beats got together, and Pelo Telefone, the first song labeled as a samba, was composed in her house. Another song that made samba history is Noel Rosa’s Com que Roupa?, that had a broader range of instruments and it is still popular.

The birth of the samba school

Cross dressing is a carnaval traditionIn the end of the 20’s some organizers of blocos felt the need to evolve, and found inspiration in the ranchos that were somewhat more organized. The term escola de samba (samba school) is credited to Ismael Silva, from Estácio.

The samba gained more fluidity to be adapted to the evolution of the samba school. Mangueira, founded in 1928 is the first samba school. The nickname Estacao Primeira is because it is right at the first stop after train station Central do Brasil. Mangueira is one of the most beloved samba schools in Rio, the official colors: green and pink.

Cross dressing is a carnaval traditionIn the 40’s and 50’s the samba schools consolidate their evolution cycle, with a theme, a theme song, costumes and floats. In 1959 Nelson de Andrade, then president of Salgueiro, invited artists Dirceu and Maria Louise Nery to design their parade featuring painter Debret as the theme.

This initiative brought a whole new concept of design that would result in today’s carnavalescos.In the 60’s and 70’s the samba started to gain prestige with the middle class and upper middle class. Yet during Carnaval you also hear marchinhas, frevos, and even popular songs are adapted to the event.

Cross dressing is a carnaval traditionThe Samba Parade started to become more popular, and in 1971 for the first time there was a time limit set to the parade of each samba school. The songs gain a faster beat, and in 1972 the first album with the theme song of samba schools was released.

Today’s Escolas de Samba are much more complex, and there are many wings and floats. Everything is described in detail at All About the Samba Parade. More tips about Carnival history at Carnival Balls, Banda de Ipanema, and Meet the Sambodrome. Check out the Carnival Dates and for our ideas and suggestions visit our Carnval Party Planner.

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