Carnival in Rio is arguably the biggest party in the world and no wonder: not only are the costumes fun and colorful, but the music and instrumentation are big, loud, soulful, and will most definitely give you a feeling you’ve never felt before.
But behind all that fun and joy, there’s a lot of work and preparation involved, especially in regards to the musicians.
From largely known instruments such as tambourines, rattles, and drums to agogôs and cuícas (typical Samba instruments), Carnival music is so rich and full it’s even hard to have a recording that properly translates the feeling and emotion you’re able to experience live.
Many people don’t know much about how the Carnival parade works, including Brazilians, believe it.
The reason for that is that it is actually tough to find information in regards to this subject, as there are few or almost no textbooks about it and the learning M.O is basically empyrical: you watch, and you learn.
In this article, we’ll be taking a look at which are the key elements and instruments that constitute the Escolas de Samba’s (how Brazilians call the Samba Schools that parade every year) marching bands and how they are organized to make such a big party roll out so smoothly and beautifully.
Carnival Parade in a Nutshell
To those unfamiliar with how the Samba School parade contest works, I’m going to summarize real quick so you can have a better idea.
Every year, the Samba Schools in Rio de Janeiro develop a different theme (referred to as the Samba Plot – or Samba Enredo in Portuguese), which is presented on a big runway known as Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue or Sambódromo (in English Sambadrome).
The storytelling is provided not only by the theme song itself but also by all the costumes and the carros alegóricos (how floats are known in Brazil).
Over 2500 people are involved in a single Samba School parade, including singers, dancers, musicians, and support staff. So you can only imagine what a challenge it is to keep all of them organized and ready for the big parade.
A special judge panel keeps score on different categories such as Costumes, Floats and Props, and Time spent on the runway.
By the end of the 4-day parade, the School with the highest scores is chosen as the winner of that year, with the top 3 finalists not only receiving a cash prize but a chance to maintain their status and legacy as the best.
Key Elements in Samba Schools
Before we jump straight into the instruments that make Carnaval what it is, there are just a few elements that need to be discussed.
There are many parts involved in the making of a Carnival parade, from the interpreter to the dancers, to the song theme all the way to the band itself.
I’m going to give you a quick rundown on the main elements involved in making Carnival magic happen so fluidly while on the runway (or Avenida as Brazilians call it).
Marching Band Conductor/Maestro
Each Bateria (how the Carnival Parade marching bands are known in Brazil) works very similarly to the overall orchestras, with a Conductor leading the whole band to keep the sound nice and clean.
Some Maestros conduct in the same Samba School for years, some even managing to play for over 40 years with the same group.
This really gives it a sense of history in the making, as these Conductors not only are responsible for keeping everything in place, but they also help the Samba Schools shape up to be what they are today, almost becoming one with them.
Each Conductor is backed by some Directors (depending on how big the Samba School Bateria is), who help him maintain the sound cohesive and connected.
I mean, each Bateria is composed of over 300 musicians, so the Conductors really need all the help they can get to keep it all together and not lose any points from the judges.
There’s a Director in various sections of the band, so you have a Director for the Tambourine section, another for the Surdo Drums (we’ll see more on this up ahead on the Instrument section of the article), and so on.
Aside from assisting the Conductor during the live performances, the Directors also help create melodies and keep the sound sharp and tuned.
The Interpreter is the Samba School’s main voice, the person in charge of not only singing the theme song of the school but also of getting people hyped enough to sing along and cheer for the band.
Some Interpreters in Rio’s Carnaval are historical, like Arlindo Cruz and Ivo Meirelles, having become staples figures in the celebration,
The Interpreter is also accompanied by a group of backing vocals to help elevate the chanting and adding more emotion to the lyrics performed.
The Marching Band / Bateria
Also known as the heart and core of Samba Schools, the Baterias are like giant orchestras, basically composed of percussion instruments. Each musician is meticulously placed in a particular order so the sound can come out clean and balanced.
As mentioned before, each Samba School has over 300 musicians, more or less, who work hard in order to keep the music tight and entertaining.
It may sound like a fun job to do, but while the Samba Schools are performing, there’s really no time for the musicians to have fun, as they all need to be fully focused on their instruments, the Directors, and Conductor orientations.
And since we’re on the subject of instruments, now it’s time to check which are the main instruments played during the Carnaval Parade in Rio de Janeiro and how they contribute to making the big sound of Samba echo down the Marquês de Sapucaí Avenue.
8 major instruments take part in the making of a Samba School marching band. We’ve briefly discussed a few of them in our article called What Instruments Are (actually) Played in Brazil, but here we’re going to go just a little more in-depth on the ones relevant for Carnival in Rio.
If you’ve ever listened to a Samba song, you probably know that quirky monkey sound you hear sometimes?
The instrument that makes the monkey noise is called a Cuíca, it is originated in Africa, and that looks a bit like a drum (as you’ll be able to see in the video below), majorly made out of wood and leather.
The cuíca was originally highly praised by Samba musicians, given its very particular sound, adding a different flair to the songs. This later would give Samba (and consequentially Carnaval) songs a character of their own.
The Agogô is also originally from Africa, commonly played in traditional yorubá music. It’s made out of one or more connected bells of different sizes. Each of them provides distinct sounds when you hit them with a drumstick.
This instrument acts a bit like a metronome in Samba music, being majorly used to keep the beat and rhythm of the song in the right pacing.
They also play a major role in the percussion of Capoeira rounds, an Afro-Brazilian cultural expression that interpolates music, dance, popular beliefs, martial arts, and sports.
A rattle is a generic designation used to determine and comprehend a group of similar instruments like the Maracas, for example. They are usually composed of a hollow chamber with little objects like beads and hard seeds in its interior, so when shook, it makes a distinct sound.
The rattles used in Samba Schools are called soalheiras, and they are made out of little metal paddles with metal wires going through their middle. They produce the same sound when they slide through the wire and clash with each other. The more wires involved, the louder the sound.
There are dozens of these instruments on the Sanba School Baterias, usually appearing during the songs’ chorus to switch things up and add a little more oomph to it.
This well-known instrument is played not only in Samba music, but also in several other Brazilian genres such as Choro, Baião, Maracatu, and Capoeira, which we mentioned before.
It’s made out of a simple wooden/iron rim with a layer of goatskin or acrylic on top of it. It’s usually played with the impact of the player’s drumstick or bare hands on its surface.
The tambourines are a huge part of the sound of the Samba, which is why it is one of the sections that has its own Director in charge of it as it is closely observed by the judges in order for them to give a proper score at the end of the parade.
There’s an instrument very similar to the Tambourine called Pandeiro, that although often played in Samba songs, due to its low registered sound, is rarely used in Samba School marching bands live performances, serving sometimes as a prop by the dancers.
The Snare Drum is a part of the full drumset, but it is used as a separate piece by the Samba Schools’ marching bands. It has a very identifiable characteristic sound, used to keep the music in the right pacing.
The way the Snare Drums are played varies from school to school. Some prefer to play this instrument tied around the upper body, others around the waistline, and some even like to carry the instrument with one hand while playing it with the drumstick with the other.
Also know known as Repinique in Brazil, this instrument was created by the Samba Schools to conduct and help to keep the song in synch, frequently used to give out “cues” to other sections of the band, almost like they are conversating, as you’ll be able to see in the video below.
It visually looks like a smaller snare drum, being carried with one hand and played with a drumstick with the other, creating a variety of sounds. Some Samba Plots even include Repique solos, switching things up on the songs.
The Surdo can be best described as the Samba School marching band’s heartbeat, given its pulse-like sound. Just like the Repique, these drums were invented in Brazil also because of Samba, adding a different layer to the sound at times.
There are three types of Surdo Drums, named First, Second, and Third Surdo, respectively. The first two are responsible for the binary pacing you hear on the songs, and the Third creates a more complicated line, almost like it “cuts” in between the others.
The combination of the three sounds is what gives the basic rhythmic foundation to every Samba School.
In the words of late composer Ismael Silva, who helped to implement the instrument on the genre back in the ’20s, “samba was no longer just ‘tan tantan tan tantan’ and became ‘paraticumbumprugurundum.”
Don’t worry; this will probably make more sense after you watch the following video:
I hope this could give you a better idea of what instruments are played during Carnival in Rio and how it all works.
If you want to have a more interactive experience with each of these instruments, check out this website (works better with your smartphone), and you’ll be able to hear the different sounds of each one of them!
How many Samba Schools are there in Rio de Janeiro?
There are over 70 Samba Schools in Rio, and they all parade in the course of the 4 days of Carnival.
The best 12 are called the Special Group (Grupo Especial), and the remaining ones are split into minor leagues. Each year, the Special Group’s worst performer is demoted, and the best performer from the Access Group (Grupo de Acesso) is promoted to the main league.
How long does a Samba school parade last?
Each Samba School has a time limit of 75 minutes to cross the Avenida from start to finish. Going over this time causes the School to lose scores.
In the Special Group, there are two days of parades, with 6 Samba Schools parading each evening. If each of them takes 75 minutes to pass, that is already 7.5 hours!
However, it is not uncommon for some of them to face delays. Since the first Samba school usually starts their show at 9:30 PM, expect the parade to last until dawn.
What are the categories evaluated by the judging panel?
There are 9 categories which the judges keep score:
- Samba Plot
- Front Commission
- Floats and Props
- Marching Band / Bateria
- Mestre-Sala & Porta-Bandeira (traditional dancers)
The main league (Special Group) results of the Rio Carnival parade are always revealed on Ashes Wednesday morning when the carnival is over.
On the following Saturday, the five winning schools will parade again on what is called “Desfile das campeãs” (Carnival’s Champions Parade)
We hope this article has helped you to understand more about the Brazilian Carnival and its music, especially the Rio Carnival Parade music.
We think these other articles might also interest you:
- What Music Do Brazilians Listen To? – Dive into the diversity of Brazilian music shared in this post (we even have a curated Spotify playlist for you in there!)
- Jazz And Bossa Nova: What Is The Difference? – if you are looking for the more traditional Brazilian music, this post explains the difference between Jazz and Bossa Nova (we added some videos of famous songs)
- Rio in 2020: How much spending money do I need? Coming for Rio Carnival and wants to know how much money you should bring to Rio de Janeiro? This is the post for you!
Cover Image: Rio, Brazil – March 02, 2019: Unidos de Bangu during the Carnival Samba School Parade at Sambodromo – RJ 2019 | Dreamstime – Celso Pupo Rodrigues