Samba Schools Overview
The Rio Carnival Sambadrome Parade is a unique and exhilarating mix of camaraderie and competition among the top Samba Schools (Escolas de samba) across Rio de Janeiro. Rio is home to more than 100 Samba Schools, with only 12 making it to the prestigious Special Group, the premier league of Samba Schools.
Samba Schools are social groups comprised of members with some kind of geographic connection. Their main function is to prepare for and compete in the Samba Parades of Carnival.
Each school has two main headquarters, or facilities called Barracão: the Samba Hall and the Production Unit. A Samba Hall is not only a dance club, but it also serves as the school’s main administrative center and the location of the office of the school’s president.
The second headquarter is the School’s production unit, which is where members design and produce Carnival costumes, floats among other props.
In September of 2004, the city of Rio de Janeiro opened “Samba City”, a state-of-the-art facility that serves as a common production location for the city’s elite Samba Schools that make up the Special Group. Samba City is a 93,000 square meter complex in which each Samba School of the special group gets its own warehouse (or barracões) to rehearse and prepare for the parades in the Sambadrome.
Each of the fourteen buildings is approximately twenty meters high and divided into three floors, specially designed for the construction and maintenance of the massive Rio Carnival floats called Carros Alegóricos. The facilities are complete with all the bells and whistles you could imagine to aid in the Carnival preparations. The first floors have technologically advanced machines with lefts for transporting large objects and equipment. The second floor hosts administrative offices, in addition to painting studios and sewing machines to put together all the handmade Carnival costumes.
Visiting Samba City is a unique opportunity that will let you go behind the scenes of the Rio Carnival preparations. Upon arrival, you will be greeted by a “samba de rota” (a samba band) playing samba music at a bar behind the ticket booths. From there, you will be taken on a guided tour of Samba City in either English or Portuguese, where you will learn about every stage of the Carnival preparation process. On your tour you will learn about each of the instruments used in samba music. You will learn how the instruments are made, and you can also take classes that will teach you the basics of these instruments.
You may know all about Rio Carnival and you might have seen the glorious Sambadrome Parade, but Samba City will give you a sneak peek backstage into the creativity and hard work of making the parade elements come together. After the musical part of the tour, you will be taken to the sewing department where you will learn how the magnificent Carnival costumes are handmade. This is a hands-on tour, so you’ll be able to feel the irresistible material for yourself! From the costume department you will be taken to an exhibition of Carnival Costumes and Floats where you will see actual floats being built. While you’re marveling at the floats and costumes, a bateria will play the samba percussions and experienced dancers will teach you the moves of the samba dance.
Samba City is a great place to find gifts for yourself or to bring back to family and friends. There are several shops throughout Samba City offering snacks and souvenirs. The main gift shop sells many products made by the local artisans and other Carnival project students, many of whom are residents of the surrounding favelas. Items you’ll find in the gift shop include t-shits, masks and dolls.
Samba City has become one of the most visited tourist attraction in Rio. Located between the Morro do Pinto hill and Avenida Rodrigues Alves near the port of Rio de Janeiro in Gamboa, Samba City welcomes visitors all year round. Samba City is open daily from 9AM to 5PM every day except Tuesday, when the facilities are closed for maintenance. Tours take place at 10 AM, noon and 3:30 PM daily.
On Thursdays Samba City hosts popular Carnival shows and the hours of operation are different. Regular visiting hours run from 12PM to 5 PM, but then Samba City opens again in the evening for the Carnival show, beginning at 9PM. The government-sponsored Carnival show begins with a unforgettable on-stage performance boasting a spectacular cast of singers, percussionists, samba dancer, Bahian ladies, flag-bearers and masters of ceremony, all from the Samba Schools of the Special Group. The show features more than 141 unique costumes and six different stage sets. By 10PM Samba City turns into a mini Rio Carnival, where you will have the opportunity to parade alongside Samba dancers fully adorned in Carnival costumes followed by fireworks!
The schedule occasionally changes, but you can contact Samba City at 55-21-2213-2503/2213-2546 and [email protected] for prices and reservations.
Rua Rivadávia Correa, 60 – Gamboa
Rio de Janeiro – RJ-Brasil
Samba Parade Preparations
Beginning a month after the close of the prior year’s festivities, Samba School members spend the entire year planning, organizing, and practicing for the next year’s competition.
Perhaps a misnomer of sorts, it is easy to mistake Samba Schools for learning institutions that teach the steps of the samba, but Samba Schools do not offer samba classes. However, in the months leading up to the long-awaited and anxiously anticipated Samba parades, Samba Schools hold casual rehearsals called samba nights, that anyone can attend for a small entrance fee.
Complete with drinks and dancing, these samba nights have the look and feel of your typical Rio nightclub that play live samba music by the school’s percussionists; in fact, they only play the official annual song of that particular Samba School, giving the members an opportunity to learn and practice the lyrics in a fun social environment.
So if you are looking to learn how to samba, attending a school’s samba night and watching the members rehearse is a great way to learn from the pro’s.
The Rhythm of the Favelas: Samba Schools and the Community
Samba Schools are often organized by neighborhood, many of which are shanty-towns called favelas. For the people living in a favela, the Samba School represents is a symbol of the spirit of the neighborhood, bringing a sense of community and belonging.
The most well-structured organizations in the favelas, Samba Schools are often politically involved, and have a significant impact on the lives of Brazil’s poverty-stricken citizens. Samba nights and other parade preparation bring together thousands of community members, providing a major outlet for fun and entertainment while keep the kids off the streets and away from drugs and violence.
Samba Schools play an integral role within Brazilian society and serve a variety of functions apart from the annual competition. Aside from keeping the country’s culture and traditions alive, Samba Schools make responsibility to the community a top priority, with the younger members of a particular Samba School receiving guidance and wisdom from the school’s elders.
Each year since the early 1980’s, the children’s samba school kicks off Rio Carnival with a parade through the Sambadrome. Children’s schools are branches of the bigger samba schools in each community. This event takes place on Carnival Friday, and is free to spectators.
Children’s Samba Parades gives the kids a chance to put their talents on display, but there is a secondary motivation behind them. Samba Schools complement formal education by offering the children of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas training in design, costume making, carpentry, lighting, sound, music, dance, and other skills required by the samba schools. This both prepares a community for the future and keeps the children off the streets, giving them something to work toward each year.
The children’s samba parade is no less spectacular than the big league of samba schools — the costumes, floats, theme’s, songs, are all of the highest quality. And it’s especially impressive when you consider that the songs are all written by children, and the floats and costumes are made by them with adult supervision.
Not only does each Samba School officially support causes and social projects, but they also serve as an invaluable source of employment for thousands of members who are residents of Rio’s slums (or favelas). What’s more, Samba Schools offer community programs specifically developed to steer the underprivileged youth away from drugs and crime, in addition to offering resources for education and rehabilitation.
Rio Carnival is the backbone of the city’s Samba Schools, the revenues from which provide funding for much of the community activities. Additionally, Samba Schools engage in fundraising activities throughout the year, accept grants from the government, earn revenues from ticket sales to samba nights, and are often sponsored by or partner with one or more major corporations.
A Competition Amongst Samba Schools
With members connected by a geographic commonality, typically organized by neighborhood, Carnival is an intense competition amongst Samba Schools. Samba Schools function in a manner most easily comparable to the structure of European football (soccer) leagues. Samba Schools are ranked and placed in leagues, or groups.
Each of Rio’s more than 100 Samba Schools will compete in parades during Carnival 2021. The competition amongst Samba Schools functions much like that of sports teams. There is generally something that unites the members of a Samba School, and it is most often geographic; however, just as there can be multiple sports teams in one city, even within a particular neighborhood in Rio there may be multiple Samba Schools.
Also like in sports leagues, Samba Schools are ranked hierarchically into different tiers called Groups. The Special Group is the most elite group of Samba Schools. Below the Special Group is the Access Group, or group A — and below that are Groups B, C, and D.
While most Samba Schools will parade through the city of Rio in Samba Street Parades, the city’s top Samba Schools that make up the Special Group and the Access Group (Group A), will parade on one of the world’s biggest stages: the runway of the infamous Sambadrome.
Samba Schools compete with the aspiration of becoming Group champions, and thereby climbing the hierarchical ladder of Samba Groups. With the exception of the Special Group, the winner of which is crowned Carnival Champions, the winning school from each group is promoted to the next highest tier of Samba Groups for the next year’s competition.
Unavoidably, this means that the Samba School in each respective group that scores the least amount of points is knocked down to the group immediately below. For example, the last place team of the Special Group for Rio Carnival 2020 would be demoted to the Access Group for Rio Carnival 2021.
The top Samba Schools in Rio and its surrounding neighborhoods are governed by a centralized body responsible for organizing the parades of the Rio Carnival spectacle. LIESA, or the Liga Independente das Escolas de Samba do Rio de Janeiro, presides over and governs the Special Group; so when a Samba School is promoted from the Access Group, that school falls under the jurisdiction of LIESA for the following year.
Samba School Structure
Each Samba School has its own flag, colors, and styles, which are reflected in their costumes, floats, songs and choreography. These flags and colors stay with the Samba Schools throughout their history, and become deeply engrained symbols in the hearts and minds of community members.
After a theme is chosen, there is a lot of work to be done. Music must be written, costumes must be designed and created, floats must be built, songs must be written, and dances choreographed. And that’s just the planning. Then the schools must mobilize its thousands of members to practice and learn all the routines so that everybody is prepared to deliver a seamless performance on samba parade night.
For centuries, the city of Rio has hosted the world’s greatest Carnival festivals, but Samba Schools were introduced to Rio Carnival in the 1920s, quickly adopting the formal structure and organization of the old “ranchos” that paraded in Carnivals of the 19th century. Today’s Samba School’s adopted the roles of their predecessors including an abre-alas, a theme (enredo), a commisao de frente, alegorias (Floats), a mestre sala and a Porta Estandarte.
Every member has an important role to play, uniting people from all walks of life. Each Samba School galvanizes thousands of local supporters to create and implement the various elements of the school’s performance; oftentimes, residents of the favelas are the most involved members of the Samba Schools, and are intricately involved with preparations for the performances and costumes.
By December, rehearsals begin in full force, and by Christmas, the school’s songs are recorded and released to record stores nation-wide. Within each Samba School, songwriters compete for their Samba Song to become the School’s official song for the year. The songs tell stories related to the theme (enredo). Successful Samba songs often go on to become great commercial hits!
Samba Schools: How to Say it in Portuguese
Samba School – Escola de Samba
Parade – Desfile
Samba Parade – Desfile de Escolas de Samba
Special Group – Grupo Especial
Access Group (Group A) – Grupo A
Champion’s Parade – Desfile das Campeãs
Also available in: Portuguese (Brazil)