Rio's Decadent Days in Full Swing

Carnival! The very word arouses images of semi-naked dancers, breathtaking floats and days filled with decadence.

Throughout Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, people take over the streets with their own small samba dancing blocks. Costumes, music and dancing, and a general feeling of organized chaos, permeates the city.

The official Carnival event takes place in the city's Sambadrome, a stadium with a capacity for 65,000 spectators. There, each of the 12 samba schools that make up the Independent League of Samba Schools in Rio de Janeiro perform tightly honed, 80-minute routines that relate stories in a samba form.

Performances take on abstract subjects, themes of historical, political or social relevance, or even topics influenced by a sponsor — a sore subject for samba purists. 


And, of course, there are the annual Carnival scandals.

Scandals and Float Controversy

In the lead-up to this year's Carnival, a respected composer was sought by police for drug trafficking, and carnival queens had outrageous plastic surgery procedures, in a bid to score style points.

But the biggest controversy, thus far this year, involves the Viradouro samba school. Viradouro's creative director had decided to showcase a Holocaust-themed float, featuring a representation of Hitler dancing upon a pile of emaciated bodies. But after vocal protests from Brazilian Jewish groups, and a judge's order, he was forced to backtrack. Instead, the school produced a float decked out with gagged dancers, representing freedom of speech.

While Carnival is recognized as a time when rules are broken, it's also a chance to vent frustration over searing issues that have made headline news in the past year.

One topic was the environment. During the past several weeks, the Brazilian government has come under fire for not acting quickly enough to prevent deforestation in the Amazon region. One samba school decided to use that theme for its Carnival display.

The Portela samba school drew raucous cheers from the crowds as it displayed a float with a giant model of a starving baby, representing man's tendency to squander the gifts of nature. Even Brazilian newspapers applauded the message, calling Portela the champions of the Carnival competition, for its emotive display.

Summer Heat, Raging Libidos

There is, of course, another side of Carnival. Bacchanalian attitudes abound at this time of year. It is high summer, and libidos, as well as temperatures, go through the roof.   As the largest Catholic country in the world — with also the highest HIV/AIDS rate in Latin America — Brazil incurred the wrath of the Vatican by circulating tens of millions of condoms for free, at main Carnival events around the country. 

One state even provided free distribution of the morning-after pill, for those who failed to take precautions — no small feat in a country where abortion is still technically illegal, apart from extreme cases. A powerful archbishop called this policy "wicked and immoral," and threatened excommunication to the officials involved in the program.

While Carnival has its roots in European tradition, it is Brazil's African heritage that gives the event much of its unique flavor. The African oral tradition interweaves with how Carnival is performed for the duration of each parade.

Legendary music producer Quincy Jones, who took in the event at the Sambadrome, put it another way.

"You have the lyricism of Africa and all of Europe, and you have an African motor, a powerful African motor," Jones told ABC News. "An entire country, whose soul is involved in joy, and a celebration of life … it's fantastic. I feel every drop of it, every minute; it makes me cry with joy."

Brazilian singer-songwriter, Antonio Carlos Jobim described it this way: "Sadness has no end — happiness does." It may not have been the most uplifting thought, but it might help to explain why Brazilians know how to take advantage of this special time of year, to experience a moment when a humble person can become a demi-god, shining in the full glory of a Carnival night.