The New York Times
February 15, 1999
On the Conga Line, Who Cares About the Crisis?



          RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- Financial centers may be worrying that Brazil's economy could be
          going down the tubes and taking the rest of Latin America with it. But in Rio, that's no reason
          not to dance.

          Brazilians are engaged in the last Carnival of the millennium, undeterred so far by driving rain and
          floods over the last few weeks, the arrest of the man in charge of the main Carnival parade on
          charges of money laundering and an economic scene that already bears perhaps a bit too much
          resemblance to the Big Top.

          "The Carnival of the crisis is here," Eduardo Giannetti, a columnist at the Folha de Sao Paulo, wrote.
          "Half of me will grow delirious, the other half will ponder."

          For four days, beginning Sunday and ending on Ash Wednesday, official Brazil rolls down its
          shutters. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso went off to his vacation home after promising not to
          spoil the fun by announcing any new policies.

          A team from the International Monetary Fund made sure to finish combing through Brazil's finances
          and reworking terms for its standby loan before Carnival began.

          And when buttoned-down Brazil pulls back, party Brazil takes over. The streets fill up with dance
          bands and costumes, known in Portuguese as "fantasias," in which the boundaries of convention
          vanish. In the seaside neighborhood of Ipanema, where an out-of-reach 14-year-old once inspired
          the song that is the bossa nova's anthem, the surest way to tell the men from the women is by the
          feet: The women wear flats.

          "Everybody lets go, without judging anybody else," said Ilson Pinheiro, 39, who was selling beer at a
          free seaside concert. Every few steps, the peddler dropped his cooler and broke out dancing with
          whoever was near, from a toddler to an older woman whose husband looked on, amused. "This is
          marvelous -- I wish it were like this all year," Pinheiro said.

          Sunday and Monday nights, fourteen of Rio's first-ranked samba schools bring in the dawn with
          parades highlighting places like Natal in northeastern Brazil, musicians like Heitor Villa Lobos, artists
          and political and historical figures. Here in Rio, the festival also features a growing number of
          informal street parades staged by neighborhood bands and private celebrations around the city.

          On the street where Rio's top samba schools use warehouses to build the scores of "carros
          alegoricos," as the mobile, multi-level stages that are used to present their performances are called, it
          is easy enough to see why Carnival endures. A walk through a vestibule into one of the buildings,
          heavily guarded to prevent spying by the competition, opens a world of four-story fantasies in
          styrofoam and full color.

          "Crises come and go," said Joaosinho Trinta, the creative director, of the Viradouro samba school,
          "but Carnival stays, because it's our soul."

          Trinta, who is 65, likens the samba school's parade to a street opera. The samba schools' stories are
          told in highly stylized music, dance and more than a half-dozen mobile tableaux, usually accompanied
          by 3,000 or more costumed revelers. The crowds react by singing the schools' lyrics, which radio
          stations have been playing since New Year.

          Trinta's show this year focuses on Anita Garibaldi, a Brazilian who was the wife of Giuseppe
          Garibaldi, the hero of Italian unification. Trinta used a reference to Anita Garibaldi's rumored
          involvement with sorcery as a springboard to illustrate different kinds of magic he associates with
          Brazil. In his first float, witches turn into butterflies, while elements of another float illustrate the magic
          of its African culture, and yet another, its indigenous tribes.

          Down the street, Rosa Magalhaes the only woman who is director of a major samba school's
          production, created visions of giant tigers jumping out of a library to illustrate the life of the
          17th-century Dutch naturalist Albert Eckout.

          In one room late last week, scores of women ran seams and fixed trimmings on the last of the
          costumes, while in another part of the warehouse youngsters pasted red and black feathers on giant
          birds. "Fun?" she asked. "Carnival is exhausting."

          Another part of Carnival unfolds on the streets. Carnival's street parades have nothing to do with the
          processions that New Yorkers line up along the curbs to see. Rio's are more like roving parties with
          blaring music, trailing coolers of beer. Conga lines of people inevitably snake along the sidelines,
          growing longer with each block.

          "Carnival," said Trina, "is a feast produced by the Brazilian soul."

          This year's Carnival also honors Carmen Miranda, the Brazilian who turned a fruit bowl into a
          wardrobe. The city threw a free concert of her music Saturday night, which ended with the audience
          of all ages, colors and sizes dancing and gleefully singing "Mama, Mama I Want."

          One samba parade was dedicated to "the Brazilian bombshell," as Hollywood dubbed Carmen
          Miranda, and so was the poshest ball in town, at the Copacabana Palace.

          The falling currency has made travel here cheaper, bringing many more Americans to Brazil. Some of
          them who ended up in black tie at the Palace seemed taken aback at first by the fast shaking
          bacchanal on the dance floor. A drag queen dressed as a wedding cake, complete with table,
          danced alongside Carmen impersonators, sailors who looked like Popeye and a man wearing
          nothing but a Road Warrior headdress, a G-string and chains.

          At 3 a.m., the percussion section from the Salgueiro samba school marched in, decked out in blue
          and gold satin and leading a fresh infusion of costumed samba dancers from the slums of Rio.
          Powerful nonstop drumming drove the inhibitions from all but the most diehard of wallflowers.

          By dawn, more than a few bow ties had been loosened.

          Roberto Prado, 29, who worked on the samba school's scenery, said that while he worried about
          the economy, Rio would seem alien and cold if it were not for Carnival.

          "Without Carnival," he said, "life would have no grace"

                     Copyright 1999 The New York Times Company