Brazil’s Hidden Carnival Festival

Most people are familiar with Carnival — the music, dancing, partying. But every year, a secret Carnival passes through Rio de Janeiro’s neglected urban peripheries and far-flung favelas. This secret celebration hasn’t always been popular outside of its loud, proud communities, but that’s changing.

Two weeks before the big fête, 20 men with prominent bellies and sinewy arms gather in a small, concrete shed, sweat beading and tattoos rippling with threaded needles pursed between their lips. The heavy bass of Rio’s characteristic funke music blasts over speakers as the lyrics ring out: “The nightmare has arrived.” Under the admiring gaze of teenage boys, men from a group called Nightmare stitch feathers to sparkling, brightly colored vests in 40°C heat. I can’t help but giggle as the men grimace in concentration, pinning, sewing and folding the glittering garments — such a stark contrast to the stereotypical Brazilian machismo.

They are preparing for their own Carnival festivities, known as “bate-bola,” which literally translates to “ball-bat.” Groups don elaborate costumes and macabre masks to parade through the streets, making as much noise as they can with football-size balls attached to batons. Member Leandro Braga says bate-bolas provide a sense of unity and identity for their communities, which are typically neglected by the city’s formal Carnival celebrations. “It’s culture. It’s our Carnival, and it’s our identity,” he says.

Nightmare turns 20 this year, but the bate-bola tradition stretches back to the 1920s. It has a bad reputation among Rio’s residents in more affluent areas of the city, being associated with violence over historical rivalries and links to drug-trafficking gangs. Although the celebrations have largely been conflict-free in recent years, Nightmare’s creator and leader André Luis Antônio is still quick to defend his group: “We’re different. We’re a peaceful group.”

On Carnival Saturday, the night of the parade, the air buzzes with chatter and laughter as hundreds gather. Parents, teenagers and small children play and dance to popular funke songs blaring from a wall of speakers, along with Nightmare’s own recorded tracks. The bass from the speakers vibrates up through the tarmac, and the music is so loud I have to move away. When midnight strikes, fireworks signal the start of their parade, adding another layer of syncopated beats. The crowd parts, and Nightmare spills onto the street, jumping, yelling, dancing and beating the floor with their batons to loud cheers. The community pride is as palpable as the excitement, which hangs almost visibly in the air.

This year change is also in the air — mainly to the typically male tradition of bate-bola. Fourteen-year-old Lorena is one of Nightmare’s two female members — last year she was the only girl. “But it’s really cool,” she says. “This year a lot more women are performing.”

After the big parade Nightmare piles into a rented bus and, chanting their own lyrics and sweating profusely, speeds toward a large celebration half an hour away. Thousands of people line a main shopping street in Rio’s north zone, where communities have taken advantage of a police strike this year to organize a baile funke. Twirling glittering umbrellas, wielding embellished staffs or beating balls on the floor, bate-bola groups bound through the crowds. But within an hour of arriving, remnants of old tensions between two of the groups surface and the party is over. Unfazed, Nightmare heads back to their bus with wide smiles and outbursts of rowdy laughter. I amble along behind, already excited for next year’s display.

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