Rio's raucous Carnival kicks off in a celebratory -- but anxious -- mood. The city won the honor of hosting the 2016 Olympic Games, but drug-gang violence is sharing Page One headlines along with the triumph. Carnival 2010 will be seen as a test of the city's ability to keep visitors safe during 2014 World Cup and the Olympics. The 2009 Carnival champion, Salgueiro Samba School, will be defending its title at what is described as the world's biggest street party. Carnival draws some 700,000 visitors.
Salgueiro edged last year's champion, Beija-Flor, to win the Carnival parades championship. Salgueiro's parade theme this year focused on the history of the drum dating back almost to the dawn of man. It was the ninth time Salgueiro claimed the crown, but its first win since 1993. Beija-Flor had won five of the previous six competitions. Rio will be using one of the world's biggest sporting events to economically boost the city and nation. A prolonged firefight between rival gangs in one of the city's slums two weeks after Rio was awarded the Olympics killed 12 people and saw a police helicopter shot down and eight buses set on fire. And Carnival is a draw for criminals of all kinds. In 2006, under cover of the carnival commotion, gunmen forced staff at the Chacara do Ceu to disconnect the building's alarm and camera system. They stole the museum's precious Picasso, Matisse, Monet and Dali paintings then disappeared into the vast crowd of revelers outside. The 2007 Carnival was held under the shadow of weeks of gunfights and turf battles that killed dozens of people. A well-known leader of the Salgueriro samba school and his wife were slaim execution-style after leaving a Carnival rehearsal. In 2006 the justice ministry admitted to a murder rate of 150 per day for the country. Crime aside, the 2010 party promises its usual spectacle. Neighborhood groups known as "blocos" begin the party on a beachside avenue and in city streets across Rio on Friday afternoon. That evening the city mayor hands the key of the city to Rei Momo (King Momo), the lord of Misrule and Revelry, in a ceremony regarded as the formal start to days of samba parades, balls and parties. For the main event in the Sambadrome, an arena flanked by tiered seating for 60,000-70,000 people, each school of some 4000 performers will be judged on its individual song, story, rhythm, dance and costumes. A panel of 40 judges examines everything from the music and lyrics to how much enthusiasm the group generates among the spectators and how evenly the paraders flow through the half-mile Sambadrome. Throughout Carnival, hundreds of bands play in the streets, with revelers joining in. Rio's 100 samba schools exist for the annual Carnival season and parade competitions. Nov/09
Date written/update: 2010-02-12