For the Academics of Rocinha, the samba school from Brazil’s most famous favela, 2021 was supposed to herald a new dawn.
Twelve months ago the troupe had hit one of its lowest ever ebbs: drowning in debt, riven by infighting and relegated to the third division of Rio’s carnival championship after coming bottom of its group. This month, as the annual festivities returned, its new directors were determined to bounce back.
“I’m extremely competitive,” said Marcos Freitas Ferreira, a Rocinha native who became president after last year’s debacle and dreams of leading his school back to the Grupo Especial, carnival’s premier league. “We need to do things people will still be talking about a century from now.”
The coronavirus outbreak, which has killed nearly 240,000 Brazilians, has temporarily scuppered Ferreira’s fightback, forcing the cancellation of Rio’s official samba parades – which should have kicked off on Friday – for the first time since they started in 1932. Not even the second world war managed to extinguish the spectacular all-night processions for which Brazil’s cultural capital is famed.
As a rainstorm lashed his school’s eerily subdued headquarters at the foot of the mammoth hillside community this week, Ferreira said depriving Rio of its carnival was like denying a human water.
“It’s surreal. I’ve never seen anything like it,” the 39-year-old attorney sighed, glancing around a largely empty dancehall that, in normal times, would have been heaving with costume-makers and performers making the final preparations for this weekend’s contest.
Jorge Mariano, the school’s carnival director, said he felt a muddle of emotions at the absence of a spectacle that defines his life and provides much-needed employment for residents of the 100,000-strong community and favelas across Rio.
“There’s sorrow. There’s emptiness. There’s longing,” Mariano said, showing off a 23-page sketchbook filled with designs for flamboyant, feather-dusted costumes that would no longer be made, not this year at least.
“And that’s to say nothing of all those people who are financially dependent on this – the prop makers, the seamstresses, the carpenters, the cleaners, the security guards, the guy who sells them all food.”
Marcus Paulo, the carnavalesco who conceives Rocinha’s kaleidoscopic costumes and floats, said he had never seen his seaside hometown so out of sorts.
“Everything’s just so cheerless. It’s like we aren’t in Rio but in some other awful dimension, at another moment in time,” the 44-year-old said, mournfully.
“It’s such a colourful city at this time of year – but everything feels so grey and dreary without the sound of percussion.”
Until recently Rio authorities had hoped they could simply postpone February’s festivities until July, by which time the worst of the epidemic might be over. But Rio’s terrible death toll, which at more than 17,500 is higher than any other Brazilian city’s, fears over new variants and a second wave, and the delay in vaccination scuttled that idea.
Earlier this month the mayor, Eduardo Paes, announced the complete cancellation of festivities between 12 and 20 February and warned groups who disobeyed they would be banned from next year’s event. All police leave has been cancelled as authorities prepare to snuff out any unlawful revelry this weekend.
“Don’t be fools,” Paes urged those considering cavorting in a time of Covid.
Oscar Niemeyer’s 88,500-capacity Sambadrome, where many of the parades are held, has been turned into a drive-through immunisation centre where elderly locals are being vaccinated.
The Rocinha sambistas said that for all their melancholy they backed the cancellation. They hoped Paes, a samba enthusiast who lives just up the road from their community, would soon visit and help them clamber out of a financial abyss made worse by the pandemic.
They were less kind about Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right populist who has attacked carnival, rarely ventures into the redbrick favelas, and whose dismissive response to coronavirus has been globally condemned.
Bolsonaro has claimed his decision not to impose any kind of lockdown was designed to protect Brazil’s economy and the livelihoods of workers living in low-income communities such as Rocinha.
But the sambistas had little time for a leader who has shunned face masks, touted unproven remedies, called Covid a “little flu” and held up the very vaccination programme that might allow them to parade once again.
“He isn’t interested in the people. This president only cares about himself,” said Maurício Amorim, a veteran composer who joined Acadêmicos in 1991, three years after it was founded with the help of Dênis da Rocinha, a gangster who controlled the favela and its drug trade for two decades.
Dênis, who reputedly chose the school’s symbol – a multicoloured butterfly – while behind bars on trafficking charges, was found dead in his prison cell in January 2001. Weeks later the Acadêmicos would secure promotion to the carnival’s second division with a procession that paid tribute to Brazilian women. In 2005 they made it to the top flight.
Mariano said he was determined to repeat and surpass those past glories and said his mind was already buzzing with ideas for 2022’s parade, which the mayor last week vowed would be the best in Rio history.
“Rocinha’s a relatively young school, compared to the others, but we have a grand vision of the future,” the sambista said as he stood on the roof of his family home at the favela’s peak, staring out across Rio’s muted but still breathtaking landscape.
In the coming days he planned to go into the studio to record the samba track he hoped would help catapult the Academics back into division two next year.
“Samba might agonise,” sparkled Amorim, quoting a lyric from one of Brazil’s greatest living sambistas, Nelson Sargento, who was recently vaccinated against Covid-19 aged 96. “But it will never die.”
Additional reporting by Alan Lima