The Mythical Baianas: The Carnaval of Brazil

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brazilian-carnival

Legendary and mythical “Baianas” are one of the most known characters of the Brazilian Carnaval and surely represent the utmost samba tradition and authenticity (aside with the Flag-Bearers and Samba-hosts). Foreigners and Brazilians simply fall under a spell when they ‘float’ through the Sambadrome´s runaway. Some of the “Baianas”, having more than 90 years old, still show plenty of vigor and charisma, as they are reverenced by public and samba-school members themselves. They are respected not only by their age and costume distinctness, but principally because of the ritualistic folklore they symbolize. In this article, we will describe the unmistakable element of the ‘Baianas’ at the Brazilian Carnival culture.

Carnival historians note the origins of the Baianas are dated before the samba-schools existed. They probably came from days Brazil was still a colony from Portugal, when the “Taieiras”, black women dressed up as Baianas, formed a special guard in honor in the Nossa Senhora do Rosário and Saint Benedict (King’s Day – January 6th) processions. Moving to Carnaval in Rio, when the Samba-Schools were organized in the late 1920´s, the Baianas were introduced because of their profane-religious character, and thus became ‘mandatory elements’. They provided the incipient samba-schools a kind of spiritual-religious blessing.

Presence in Samba-Schools

Slowly, the Baianas figure gained more and more respect and authority by samba-school directors. According to testimonials of Caetano, Tia Vicentina, and Doralice, three elders from traditional Portela Samba-School, the Baianas ‘formed voice choirs and had influence in the choice of the best sambas that would be sung in the rehearsal courts’. Isnard and Candeia (authors of the book called “Escola de Samba”) also point into this direction: “Paulo da Portela (one of the founders of Portela Samba-School – all-time winner of Rio de Janeiro Carnaval contests) listened to the Baianas choir before defining the sambas to be sung in the parades”. Again, the Baianas represented not only the image of respect, but of wisdom too.

Moving up at the time-scale, at the early days of the carnaval in Rio do Janeiro, Baianas were also present. Ironically or not, the Baianas where in reality men dressed up in ‘Baianas-style costumes’ at the samba schools. There was a reason for this, protection: The ‘Baianas-men’ were lined up on the sideways of the parades, and had to defend the school from the violence suffered when rival groups met. The Baianas-men brought razors attached to their legs, under their costumes, and defend themselves, as well as the samba-school. Later, as parades became less marginal and gained minimum of stability, such ‘Baianas-de-linha’ were replaced by ropes for the samba-school´s protection. When Baianas were no longer queued on the sideways of the parade, an exclusive wing was created for them and they continued to participate thereafter at the parades.

Still on the origins of the quintessential element of the Carnaval, we could find historical notations in Brazilian Literature. Manuel Antônio de Almeida, a great Brazilian author of the 19th century, described in his book ‘Memoirs of a Militia Sergeant’, the presence of the Baianas in religious festivals in 1930´s : “corporation present in several processions, which used to go on the parade as a big group, which walked ahead the procession, attracting more, or as the saints, the stands, the sacred signs, the devotees eyes… black women dressed as the women from the province of Bahia and who danced in the intervals of the “Deo-gratias”, a special and extravagant dance.” (Free translation)

Baianas Performance in today´s Carnaval:

Today, the Baianas wings are exclusively composed of women, and there is a specific regulation for their “parading performance” during the official Rio and São Paulo Carnaval contests. The Baianas wings are not judged separately, but have mandatory presence at the official contest. Now let us take a look of some of today’s distinguishing attributes and characteristics:

– Their movement is made of out of spins, being more constant or with intervals, depending on the stimulus and the choreography rehearsed by them or by the responsible wing director. There are several kinds of choreographs specific for their wing, like: “Zigzag” (constant evolution by the school), “movement in column” by a compact group, as “side movement” by the school, “side change”, with constant spins.

– The Baianas in general have no fix position, although they must advance through the runway always in block, compact formation.

– The Baianas costumes are typical, have a class of its own, and do not need to be linked to theme. They may be made in the colors of the school, or not. Their costumes resembles early 20th century “samba aunts”

– They first registered appearance in carnaval parade happened in 1930, as way to pay homage to the “old aunts”, who pioneered samba singing during its prohibition days.

– During the 1940´s and 1950´s, the presence of men at the Baianas wing was widespread. Only in 1990, the Carnaval League that manages the official carnaval contest in Rio de Janeiro, decide to ban this practice.

– The Carnaval League that runs the parade today is studying to include a specific judging criterion for the Baianas section.

Obs. We have purposefully spelled “Carnaval” in some occasions, when referring specifically to the Brazilian festivity, whose proper name is Carnaval