Carnival is held each year four days before Ash Wednesday and marks the start of Lent. During Lent, Catholics are supposed to abstain from all bodily pleasures, so Carnival can be seen as a farewell to the pleasures of the flesh. It is celebrated as a profane event and believed to have its origins in the pagan Saturnalia, the most of Roman festivals celebrated with foolish behaviour and the reversal of social roles.
Brazilian Carnival differs from carnivals in Europe and other parts of the world, and even in Brazil there are distinct regional variations. In Rio, Carnival is heavily focused on the parade of Samba schools which takes place in an enclosed arena (Sambódromo), viewed by spectators in stadium-like seating. In Salvador, Bahia, Carnival is a procession of huge trucks carrying massive sound systems (trios eléctricos). People who pay can get close to the trucks; those who do not stay outside.
In contrast to Rio and Salvador, Carnival in Olinda and Recife is free and focused on participation. People of the city organise their own Carnival groups (blocos), play their own music and plan their own routes. Another difference is the variety of music rhythms which include Frevo, Afoxés, Caboclinhos and Maracatu.
Pre-Carnival, Carnival, Post Carnival
The four-day event starts on Friday, but rehearsals take place the whole year. Around the streets of Recife Antigo bands can be seen practicing in the streets most weekends the whole year. Rehearsals in the streets intensify week by week after Christmas, and Olinda on Sundays is filled with visitors to listen to the music. Then, in the week or so before Carnival, groups appear in the streets all over the city, even in small neighbourhoods, each of which have their own groups (blocos) and pre-carnival events. There are also traditional pre-Carnival parties around the city, some more organised than others. Among the most famous of these is The Baile Municipal.
During the four official days of Carnival, a program of events takes place in Olinda and in Recife Antigo. There are also other events in the downtown area of the city. All are on public stages or in the streets and are free of charge. Perhaps the most important event is the Galo da Madrugada, one of the biggest carnival parties in the world, which takes place on the Saturday morning of Carnival and features the morning rooster (Galo), conceived in 1978 at Padre Floriano Street, nº43, São José district by Enéias Freire.
The Night of the Silent Drums is one of the most spectacular events during Carnival. It takes place at Praça Terco in the downtown area of the city. It is an Afro gathering of Maracatus, Afoxé, Samba and Reggae that sees those of Afro origin, regardless of age, parade into the square and up to the church. As midnight approaches, the drum beats intensify to the point you feel your body shake. Emotions are raised to fever pitch, and on the stroke of midnight the drums suddenly fall silent and the lights go out. During several minutes of silence in memory of ancestors, all that can be heard is the weeping of old ladies. After the silence, the maes de santo – priestesses of the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda – start sing out together in prayer. In order “to receive the energy that comes from up high,” participants lift up their hands, request light and express their gratitude for divine grace.