Near midnight on a steamy weeknight in January, midsummer in Brazil, a stretch of Estrada do Galeão in Rio de Janeiro was closed to traffic. On the crowded sidewalk, in the ghoulish light of streetlamps and shadows, vendors sold beer in bottles and meats on sticks. Above the graffiti-marked doors of storefronts shuttered until morning, silhouettes stood on balconies and in windows.
Drums, hundreds of them, pulsed to life. A slow wave of smiling, dancing people snaked slowly down the street, bursting into a song that they had practiced for months.
In four weeks, União da Ilha, one of the most respected samba schools in Rio, would perform in the world-famous Carnaval at the Sambódromo a few miles away. The skinny, half-mile-long arena would be filled with more than 72,000 people. Millions would watch on television.
União da Ilha’s 3,400 performers — dancers, singers, drummers — and its six large, themed floats would be examined by judges in the arena and countless critics everywhere else, then ranked among 11 other top-division samba schools.
Only one can win Carnaval. União da Ilha never has.
The final weeks of preparation were a frenzy of work and worry. At Cidade do Samba(Samba City), an enormous complex like a movie-studio back lot, União da Ilha and its rivals scrambled to complete their floats and thousands of costumes. Every day, Cidade do Samba was a riot of active construction verbs — painting, gluing, sawing, welding, taping, screwing, cutting, sewing.
But in the evening, back in the quiet of the neighborhood, it was time for União da Ilha to rehearse this year’s song, “Olympic in Nature,” a theme chosen for the Summer Games that are coming to Rio in August.
“Ilha! Razão do meu viver!” (“Island! Reason I live!”) everyone shouted, arms waving in unison, at the song’s end. With barely a pause in the drums or a breath for the singers, the song repeated, echoing relentlessly through the neighborhood on a 90-minute loop. At Carnaval, schools have 82 minutes to parade, meaning that songs are performed in succession roughly 30 times.
The rehearsal parade moved slowly down the street, each of the school’s 31 sections (about 100 people assigned to each) distinguished by matching T-shirts or other rehearsal gear, like the African-influenced headscarves on the older, whirling women called baianas. When it came time for Carnaval, they would don enormous hoop skirts, 6.6 yards in circumference at the ankles and weighing more than 80 pounds.
The song’s melody came from ukulele-like cavaquinhos, overwhelmed by a battery of drummers banging furiously on an array of percussive instruments. The basslike surdo, the heartbeat of any samba song, set the pace. The plate-size, tinny tamborim, struck rapidly with a stick — often two-pronged, like a snake’s tongue — escalated the volume and chaos.
A truck loaded with speakers trailed the procession, pushing it along with the high-decibel octane of 10 singers shouting into microphones.
Eduardo Cerqueira, União da Ilha’s Carnaval director, has the job of keeping the disparate parts of the operation on track. Every year, every school spends millions of dollars and thousands of hours preparing for their one pass through Sambódromo. Every year, every school wonders if it has done enough to be ready.
Every year, at some point, Mr. Cerqueira momentarily believes that União da Ilha will not make it. “Today is that time,” he said with a tired smile.
The term “samba school” is a misnomer. Samba is not taught there. Samba schools are social clubs, really, fulcrums of community spirit tucked deep into a neighborhood, many in ramshackle favelas. Most Cariocas, or people from Rio, have two allegiances: one to a soccer team, one to a samba school.
Like soccer teams, each has a logo and colors. The biggest of the roughly 200 samba schools compete in Carnaval, the festival of celebration tied to the Lenten calendar, highlighted by the unique spectacle of its samba parades. This year, six first-division schools are to parade on Feb. 7, the other six on Feb. 8.
The parades are an orgy for the senses — giant floats with moving parts, thousands of dancers in full costumes, earsplitting music, gut-thumping drums, heart-lifting choruses. Over most of a year, every school conjures a theme, writes a samba song and mashes it together into a circus of color and joy. And feathers. Lots of feathers.
“If there are seven arts, with cinema being No. 7, then Carnaval is No. 8,” said Milton Cunha, known in Brazil as an eccentric Globo television commentator and a former carnavalesco, the term for the samba school art directors widely recognized for their annual creations.
On a recent Saturday afternoon, Mr. Cunha sat at the rail of a balcony at Mangueira, one of Rio’s most popular schools — in a Rio de Janeiro soccer analogy, the Flamengo of samba. Mangueira’s pink-and-green building, typical of samba schools, is a two-story fortress surrounding an enormous courtyard that serves as a dance hall.
Below Mr. Cunha, more than a thousand people pulsed to the beat of a band on a stage. Conversation was nearly impossible over the music and the singing. Sweat dripped from even those standing still.
The event was a feijoada, a fund-raiser common to all samba schools. More than 1,500 people came to Mangueira in the afternoon and were fed feijoada, a traditional stew of black beans, white rice and chunks of beef and pork. They stayed and danced deep into the night in a sweltering box.
Mangueira’s metal roof was retractable, and when it opened, like cracking a lid to let the steam out, it revealed Mangueira’s backdrop, a hillside favela that envelops the school on three sides.
“Samba is the art of the poor people,” said Aydano André Motta, a journalist who has covered Carnaval for decades and written books on the subject. “It is the one thing that is organized in their lives. It centers these neighborhoods.”
While the Carnaval parades look like slickly produced and choreographed undertakings, they are created and performed mostly by tens of thousands from Rio’s poorest neighborhoods. Most practice their school’s song at neighborhood rehearsals throughout the year, paid only with a costume. Others work at Samba City building floats and costumes.
“It is a Broadway show, but with no rehearsal,” said Paulo Barros, now the best-known carnavalesco, who creates the theme, writes the story, designs floats and costumes and oversees production. “We work all year for a show that happens one time, for a parade that last 82 minutes.”
Mr. Barros’s productions for various samba schools have won Carnaval three times. Top carnavalescos like Mr. Barros often move from school to school, like coaches of professional sports teams, and can command annual salaries of 1 million Brazilian reais (roughly $250,000 and sinking with Brazil’s economy); this year he is working with Portela.
In the months before Carnaval, they oversee roughly 200 workers creating floats and costumes. On a recent afternoon, Mr. Barros stood inside Portela’s sweltering Samba City operation, consumed by the smells of glue and paint and the sounds of power tools and hammers.
For Portela this year, Mr. Barros had chosen a time-travel theme, a trip through Earth’s history led by the school’s eagle mascot.
There was a float that evoked Greek ruins, another for Egypt and another for Eldorado, the lost city of gold. There was Gulliver, about 100 feet long and lying on his back, wearing Converse All-Stars, and an archaeological dig in which dinosaurs, Mr. Barros said, will come to life midparade and eat the scientists. And there was a silver spaceship inspired by the television series “Lost in Space,” circled with dozens of robot suits that will be filled by dancers during the parade. It was the only one of the floats that looked finished.
“My goal is to be ready for Carnaval 15 days before,” Mr. Barros said. “It’s impossible in Brazil.”
Tia Bené has been a twirling baiana at União da Ilha since 1953, when her husband and some friends formed the samba school. She is 85 now, her face deeply contoured. After the rehearsal parade on Estrada do Galeão ended, she sat outside with friends who poured beer from bottles and munched on French fries from a nearby stand. They had been practicing for this Carnaval parade every Wednesday and Saturday night since June.
“At the parade, there are fireworks to announce when the next school is coming,” Ms. Bené said. “And when I hear them, I still cry, even after all these years.”
Schools, open to visitors, have unique personalities. Salgueiro, a longtime samba power, feels relatively wealthy — the red-and-white walls of its dance floor are lined with electric sponsor signs, a gift shop sells souvenirs, and buses idle down the street, waiting to take tourists back to their beach-front hotels.
Imperatriz, bathed in green, has more of a neighborhood vibe. On the spectrum of flash, the blue-tinged Portela sits somewhere between.
The biggest schools have Carnaval budgets of roughly 10 million reais (about $2.5 million). The city and state of Rio de Janeiro give top schools 1 million reais in seed money, doubled this year to help the schools combat Brazil’s collapsing economy. Globo, the media company, and Petrobrás, the scandal-embroiled state oil company, pump support into the schools, too.
But historically, an untold chunk of money for some schools has come from jogo do bicho (animal game), an underground lottery in many neighborhoods run by mafia-like kingpins. When Beija-Flor won for the first time in 1976, it brazenly portrayed jogo do bicho in its parade. Now it is a samba power.
Some schools accept sponsorships in exchange for creative control. While commercial logos are not allowed in the parade, the food giant Danone paid Porto da Pedra to do a theme on the history of dairy products in 2012. Controversy erupted last year when Beija-Flor won with its theme on Equatorial Guinea, funded largely by the African dictatorship.
While commercialism has invaded Carnaval (tourism officials claim an infusion of 3 billion reais into the economy), the samba schools still feel like mom-and-pop operations. It raises the question of why social clubs in poor Rio neighborhoods spend so much time, energy and money on something so seemingly frivolous as a parade.
“I have no answer for this,” André Bonatti, the cultural director at Imperatriz, said with a laugh. He paused, then continued: “You don’t think just about the financial investment. You think about the human investment. We have some professionals working here. But more important are the thousands of people in the parade. They don’t have salaries. But they have love.”
Brazil’s withering economy has forced schools to cut costs, even recycling feathers and fabric from last year’s productions. Restraint may not be obvious during this year’s spectacle, but most schools are using one or two fewer floats and a few hundred fewer people. Some have suggested that the effect on Carnaval might be a good thing.
José Inácio dos Santos, one of samba’s top composers under the artistic name Zé Katimba, was a founder of Imperatriz in 1959. He misses the old days, when winning schools touched hearts with emotion rather than trying to dazzle eyes with production.
But receding budgets mean fewer floats, fewer participants and a chance to slow the songs without worrying whether the beat will move the giant procession through Sambódromo in the allotted time.
“This year we’ll have about 3,300 people, a bit smaller, so we don’t have to hurry,” said Zé Katimba, whose song for Imperatriz this year is several beats per minute slower than usual. “People can slow down, be more moved.”
Samba songs start as melodic ballads, often written for string instruments,but become something vastly different when hundreds of drums and thousands of voices are added. Mestre Ciça is União da Ilha’s master of percussion, overseeing a battery of 280 drums playing a song at 145 beats per minute, a bit slower than usual.
He began to sing “Is Today the Day?,” a União da Ilha song from 1982 considered a classic. It sounded like a lullaby.
“I wish we still had great samba songs like that,” he said.
Days later, on a steamy Sunday night, União da Ilha took its turn with its one allowed rehearsal inside the Sambódromo. The floats and costumes were still at Samba City, under construction, but under bright fluorescent stadium lights, more than 3,000 people in 31 sections marched down the 800-meter strip, as wide as a two-lane road, with a dashed line down the middle.
There were so many people shimmying down the track that the ones in front reached the end before the ones in back even began.
In a few weeks, those same people would be festooned with costumes amid audacious floats. The stands would be packed. Judges would scour for missteps and sour notes. Cameras would send the images across Brazil and around the world.
And when the fireworks go off to introduce União da Ilha, deep inside the section of baianas, an 85-year-old woman in a cumbersome hoop skirt might just shed a tear. It’s only 11 miles from the samba school to the Sambódromo, but it can feel much farther.