Despatch from Sao Paulo | International

Revolt in the time of carnival

Brazilians turn samba into a means of protest against the government in their street parties

On a street with old warehouses and bars sitting side by side in the old quarters of the city, a group of 100-odd people — all wearing red T-shirts with an image of Fidel Castro smoking a Cuban cigar — danced around a drummer and singer belting out a samba song. With beer flowing like water, the group sang a samba that made fun of President Jair Bolsonaro. That was the birth of “Bloco Ursal”, a street carnival party in Sao Paulo, just a few weeks after Bolsonaro was inaugurated last year.

Brazilian carnival is often confused with the glamorous parade in Rio de Janeiro, which attracts hundreds of thousands of tourists and millions of television audience from around the world every year. But the real carnival takes place on the country’s streets in the form of parties called blocos — all centred around a specific theme — organised by common people who compose samba and play it for hours with their friends and neighbours. Bloco Ursal was created by a group of journalists in 2019 as a reaction to a bizarre episode during the 2018 election debate, when a fringe right-wing candidate accused Ciro Gomes, a centrist leader, of being part of “Ursal”, an imaginary “union of socialist republics of Latin America”.

The election got over and the right-wing candidate sank without a trace, leaving behind the term “Ursal”, whose intended insult was turned on its head by the creators of this bloco to celebrate the Latin American left. In 2019, the group paid tributes to Castro; this Sunday (February 16), they will be gathering at the same place to pay homage to former Uruguayan President Pepe Mujica, with a new samba. “From WhatsApp has leaked a news/It is Free Lula. So good/I miss my former President. I had a dream that democracy is back. In my dream the Earth was round again/And Mujica came back. In my dream, sexism disappeared…,” reads the lines of samba of Bloco Ursal.

Moment of liberation

Nothing defines — and describes — Brazil better than its carnival. Football probably comes a distant second. According to Roberto DaMatta, a Brazilian anthropologist, the carnival “reveals the background of Brazilian society”. “It reverses the role, brings the bottom of the well up, like turning a bag upside down or a suit inside out. In Brazilian society, ‘where everything is prohibited’, the carnival brings the moment of liberation,” says Mr. DaMatta.

To the outsiders, the carnival looks like a period of pure hedonism and non-stop partying. But as the country’s liberal traditions, progressive groups and mixed cultural values come under attack, the carnival has turned into a platform for political protest.

After Mr. Bolsonaro rose to power on a far-right message, last year’s carnival started a cultural war as several blocos and samba schools chose themes that challenged the far-right narrative. In his imitable style, the President responded by tweeting a graphic video as he condemned Brazil’s biggest festival and soft-power export to the world.

The tensions, sparked last year, have become more intense in 2020 as Brazil’s black population, women, followers of African religions and samba schools feel the heat of far-right propaganda that dominates the government narrative. The carnival parade of this year, which will take place in Rio and Sao Paulo over the next weekend, will turn into a political act as at least 10 samba schools have composed their lyrics criticising Mr. Bolsonaro. Mangueira, the samba school which won the parade trophy in 2019 by honouring Marielle Franco, the black and gay councillor who was assassinated in 2018, will be presenting the story of Jesus Christ as someone “who has a black face, indigenous blood and the body of a woman”. Luiz Carlos Maximo, one of the composers of the samba, says their idea is to “portray Jesus as a man persecuted by the State and kidnapped by the prophets of intolerance”.

The high glamour quotient of Brazilian carnival can’t hide the fact that this show is actually put together by the residents of favelas (slums), who are mostly black and poor. With them facing the brunt of Mr. Bolsonaro’s policies, the favelas are in full revolt at this year’s carnival. Padre Miguel, another top samba school, will be portraying social and racial inequality. “We need to protest through our samba as we are facing attacks on African-based religions and there is no debate about racism in Brazil,” says Marcio Silva, who will be taking part in the carnival parade. “We need to tell the world what is happening in Brazil.”

With millions on the streets, the message will be loud and clear.

Shobhan Saxena is a journalist based in Sao Paulo

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Printable version | Jul 7, 2020 12:37:34 PM |

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