A Pall over Carnival, but the Show Goes On

A Carnival queen wears a black armband. i i

One of the queens of the 2007 Carnival wears the black armband that signified mourning for 6-year-old Joao Helio Fernandes Vieites, who was killed two weeks ago in a car robbery in Rio de Janeiro. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
A Carnival queen wears a black armband.

One of the queens of the 2007 Carnival wears the black armband that signified mourning for 6-year-old Joao Helio Fernandes Vieites, who was killed two weeks ago in a car robbery in Rio de Janeiro.

Julie McCarthy, NPR
One of the opulent floats in the cavalcade of Carnival. i i

An opulent float cruises in the cavalcade of Carnival. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
One of the opulent floats in the cavalcade of Carnival.

An opulent float cruises in the cavalcade of Carnival.

Julie McCarthy, NPR
Members of the Salgueiro Samba School march in a Carnival parade. i i

The Salgueiro Samba School steps onto "Magic Avenue," showcasing the dynasty of black African queens and their descendents in Brazil. The school's leader and his wife died in a hail of bullets last week, in what authorities say appeared to be a score-settling in the numbers racket. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
Members of the Salgueiro Samba School march in a Carnival parade.

The Salgueiro Samba School steps onto "Magic Avenue," showcasing the dynasty of black African queens and their descendents in Brazil. The school's leader and his wife died in a hail of bullets last week, in what authorities say appeared to be a score-settling in the numbers racket.

Julie McCarthy, NPR
The 'baianas' are a signature of Brazil. i i

A highlight of the samba schools' performances is the "wing" of the older women who parade in a glitzy version of the traditional costume of the state of Bahia, one of the main ports during the slave trade. The "baianas" are a signature of Brazil and represent the soul of Carnival and its African roots. Julie McCarthy, NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Julie McCarthy, NPR
The 'baianas' are a signature of Brazil.

A highlight of the samba schools' performances is the "wing" of the older women who parade in a glitzy version of the traditional costume of the state of Bahia, one of the main ports during the slave trade. The "baianas" are a signature of Brazil and represent the soul of Carnival and its African roots.

Julie McCarthy, NPR

Rio de Janeiro's Carnival is billed as "The World's Greatest Party," but the unbridled ebullience usually associated with the city this time of year was less evident in 2007.

Apart from the gold lame, oceans of sequins and crystal-encrusted g-strings worn by the beauties who serve as the pasistas (the finest samba dancers in Carnival's competing samba schools), there was a new addition to the costumes: a black armband.

It's become the symbol of a killing here two weeks ago in Rio that was so gruesome, it stunned even this crime-hardened city. Six-year-old Joao Helio Fernandes Vieites was killed Feb. 7, when car thieves drove for miles through the streets of Rio while he dangled from the seatbelt of his mother's hijacked car. By the time the young gunmen abandoned the car, authorities said, the boy's body had no fingers, knees or head.

Memorials have been staged during Carnival in honor of Joao Helio. Some of the city's traditional block parties were implored to stop for a moment of silence.

The front page of the Sunday edition of the newspaper O Dia featured a harlequin looking pensive and spoke of a city that has been "traumatized."

But whether the grisly death of a young middle-class boy will trigger something deeper remains to be seen. Sociologist Julita Lemgruber says that the situation will only change when the city starts to pay more attention to the poor children "who die every week" in the slums.

The last two weeks have been horrific, even by Rio's standards. Following Joao Helio's death, six people were killed in a shootout with police. It's emblematic of the brutality that afflicts the city's slums, or favelas as they are called. Rival gangs fight each other over turf and battle police trying to halt drug trafficking while the rest of the residents are caught in the crossfire.

But the city's favelas also produce the greatest show on earth.

They are the birth mothers of the modern-day Carnival. Prize-winning samba schools such as Mangueira, Vila Isabel, and Portela are located in some of Rio's most impoverished neighborhoods. Little wonder that an industry has grown up around Carnival. Its preparations are so elaborate that it provides year-round employment to many favelas residents.

One of the most dazzling displays this year came from the Salgueiro Samba School. They entered the "Magic Avenue," as the runway of the open-air Sambadrome is called, with a magnificent float depicting the dynasty of African queens. The ranks that followed represented their descendants in Brazil. But as the school marched, they were bearing a loss of their own: The leader of the Salgueiro Samba School died last week in a hail of gunfire that also killed his wife. Police suspect score-settling in the numbers racket.

The surging violence increased tension and police presence on the streets during Carnival. The Sambadrome was all but locked down. Uninterrupted were the lavish corporate parties sponsored by beer companies and banks that have private booths overlooking the half-mile parade route.

Still the pageantry spawned some unforgettable moments as well: the garbage man who stole the show during an intermission. He stood before the packed stadium and began to dance like a Brazilian Bojangles, leaving the crowd begging for more.

But more walls had been erected around the site than I recall there being last year. The festival that sprang from the people seemed to be farther and farther from their view.

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