The overlooked, all-important rite of Rio Carnival: The Count

RIO DE JANEIRO — Carnival celebrations in Rio de Janeiro have ended, but the city cannot resume normal life until the “counting” of the parade competition results is complete and a winner is announced.

The carnival parade is considered the biggest party in the world, but few outside of Brazil realize that the flashy floats and flamboyant dancers are more than a spectacle. It has complex, ever-changing regulations and dozens of judges. In recent years, the samba school league has made changes to limit subjectivity, but skepticism about scoring remains, not least because of its checkered past.

And the hopes of entire working-class communities rest on the result. On Wednesday, they flocked to their respective samba schools to await the televised results. Victory confirms that the school’s painstaking work has been carried out to perfection, bestowing honor and prestige.

“It’s the pleasure of doing the parade correctly and the satisfaction of taking home the title,” said Maria da Conceição da Silva, 59, on Monday night before the parade. She swears she’ll keep coming back “until God takes me to parade up there.”

The parade’s esoteric regulations dictate that schools be judged in nine categories — including costume, drumming, singing, harmony, action, and development — which together number the months of designing, sewing, sculpting, welding, and rehearsing that go into production . Judges with proven knowledge in each category are trained and then distributed along the 700-meter (2,300-foot) parade route to watch the thousands of parades from each school parade by.

Rio’s samba schools began competing in the 1930s and were corralled into the Sambadrome parade grounds by the mid-1980s. Their 70-minute saves can cost 10 million reais (nearly $2 million), and the school with the lowest score is relegated to the lower league. Returning to the elite can take years.

The top six finishers receive percentages of box office receipts. But only the championship school goes down in history and nobody remembers the runners-up, said Jorge Perlingeiro, the president of the top division.

Perlingeiro has been the voice of the carnival for over three decades, announcing the judges’ scores one at a time. Each roar of “10!” – the highest score – with its strong Rio accent sends a school fanatic into ecstasy; anything else can evoke moans of frustration. He will be at the Sambadrome on Wednesday, opening the judges’ sealed envelopes that were transported there by armored car.

Last year’s televised ceremony lasted nearly 90 minutes, with no fewer than 540 scores being read out to 12 schools. The winning school scored 269.9 – a tenth of a point less than perfect. Realizing that Carnival’s grading system needed some simplification, this year the league reduced the number of judges from 45 to 36, meaning only 432 notes will be read on Wednesday.

“I’m going to speak a little less this year,” joked Perlingeiro.

According to Fábio Fabato, who writes and researches carnivals and Brazilian popular culture, the large number of judges is necessary to assess performance across the parade grounds and prevents a single bad score from torpedoing a school. It also helps curb corruption because it is more difficult to buy many judges free.

In 1974, the Mocidade samba school lost the title because a costume judge gave it an inexplicably low score of 4, Fabato said. In 1986, Brazilian soccer legend Socrátes was chosen to judge drums but had no expertise, so he judged schools solely on audience reaction. Samba schools were angry. The president of a school said Socrates was too drunk to judge and called for his grades to be annulled.

“He (Socrátes) jumped down the stairs to the parade ground, took off his shirt and started dancing along in tight white shorts. Officials protested and he was reluctantly lured back to the magistrate’s station,” reads his biography, Doctor Socrates.

The count sparked a bitter battle between rival schools two years later, and a 16-year-old girl was shot in the stomach, according to an O Globo newspaper report at the time.

David Butter, a Brazilian journalist who wrote a book about the carnival, remembers watching the count with his father as a child, which they enjoyed even more than the parade.

“We were given the newspaper with the blank scorecard to fill in as the count progressed. We were all excited about the results, the disagreements,” Butter said. “The Count became a spectacle in its own right, like an opera. It is an exclusively Brazilian entertainment product.”

Other competitions struggle with the subjective rating. Olympic figure skating was rated from 1 to 6 until a ratings scandal at the Salt Lake City Games – known as “Skate Gate” – led to the introduction of an elaborate system involving a technical panel. Decades earlier, dressage at the 1956 Olympic Games had caused an uproar after German and Swedish judges gave their compatriots top marks. A recent investigation revealed that several boxing matches were scheduled for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

That same year, Rio police investigated alleged fraud in carnival judging. More technical rigor and professionalism should prevent disputes and create transparency. The judges must justify any less than perfect scores with a handwritten explanation.

A judge judging costumes last year took a tenth of a point off one school because “a significant number of paraders’ hats slipped or fell off,” and she noted that another school had promised to supply “a variety of shades of green.” deliver, but only lime green has prevailed. A harmony judge noted “occasional loss of internal homogeneity” and that “the neglect or weakening of some voices robbed the song of its sonic mass”.

At a scorecard last year, a judge noted how difficult it has become to find fault when so few are committed that only a tenth of a point can earn a win.

If there is a gap between sections, the school may lose points. At this year’s parade, the lighthouse on Unidos da Tijuca’s float was badly knocked askew, which could cost them. Netizens joked that it resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Since last year, the judges’ reasoning has been posted online within 48 hours. And cameras in the judges’ booths record what they can see, so schools can review the footage and compare it to the judges’ notes for discrepancies. If any are found, schools can apply for a judge to be removed.

In interviews with two dozen parades Monday night, about half said they felt the judges’ decisions still reflected undue influence, rattling off the odd perceived injustice. But most of the recognized ratings have improved with each passing year.

“They are trying to organise, so the competition is just on the street, but there is still a lot going on behind the scenes. Every samba dancer knows that,” Carol Tavares, 40, said Monday before parading with Unidos da Tijuca. “It’s on the way to change.”

Perlingeiro noted that the judges’ interpretations were their own – and that there was also an indescribable quality at play.

“The category that doesn’t exist but does exist in everyone’s mind is emotion. It happens when you see the crowd cheering and waving. That’s what the judge sees and in a way it’s also tied up,” he said. “That has an impact.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *