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February 6, 2012

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Rooted in ancient rites of spring and pleasures of wine

CARNIVAL comes from the Latin words carne meaning flesh and vale, meaning farewell. Thus, it's farewell to pleasures of the flesh until after Easter.

The festival dates back to the ancient Greek spring rites and celebration in honor of Dionysus, the god of wine. Romans honored their wine god Bacchus and revelry was unrestrained. Participants often wore masks, danced and cavorted. Such Bacchanals were linked with the Roman Saturnalia, when masters and slaves would exchange clothes for a day of drunken revelry.

The Roman Catholic Church modified the Saturnalia into a festival leading up to Ash Wednesday, and it quickly evolved into a massive celebration of indulgences.

The traditions of Carnival spread through Europe, including France, Spain and Portugal. The Portuguese took Carnival to their colony in Rio de Janeiro around 1850.

Brazilians used to riot during Carnival until the government accepted it as an expression of culture. Black slaves became actively involved in celebrations and were set free for three days.

Nowadays black slum dwellers are actively involved in Carnival preparations and they are the people to whom Carnival probably means the most.

By the end of the 18th century, people not only dressed in costumes but also staged parades accompanied by various instruments. Until the 20th century, Carnival in Rio was very Euro-centric, featuring polkas, waltzes, mazurkas and other tunes.

Meanwhile, emerging working classes of Afro Brazilians, gypsies, immigrant Russians, Poles and others developed their own music and rhythms.

They mostly lived in the central part of Rio, on hills and in the swamps behind docks, areas that the rich did not want. It became known as Little Africa, the cradle of samba.


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