Rio Carnival's overlooked, all-important rite: The count

Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival may have come to a close, but the city can’t resume regular life until “the count” of scores from the parade competition is completed and a victor is proclaimed

David Biller
Wednesday 22 February 2023 18:04 GMT

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Rio de Janeiro’s Carnival festivities have come to a close, but the city can’t resume regular life until “the count” of scores from the parade competition is completed and a victor is proclaimed.

The Carnival parade is billed as the world’s biggest party, yet scarcely anyone outside Brazil realizes the flashy floats and extravagant dancers are more than spectacle. It has complex, constantly changing regulations and dozens of judges. In recent years, the samba school league has adopted changes to limit subjectivity, but skepticism about scoring remains — not least because of its checkered past.

And the hopes of entire working-class communities ride on the outcome. On Wednesday, they were flocking to their respective samba schools to await the televised results. A win affirms that the school’s diligent work was executed to perfection, bestowing honor and prestige.

“It’s the pleasure of doing the parade correctly and the satisfaction of taking the title home,” Maria da Conceição da Silva, 59, said Monday night before parading. She swears she’ll keep coming back “until God takes me, to parade up there.”

The parade’s esoteric regulations dictate schools be scored on nine categories — among them costumes, drumming, song, harmony, plot and evolution — that together quantify the months of design, stitching, sculpting, welding and rehearsal that go into production. Judges with proven knowledge in each category undergo training, then are distributed along the 700-meter (2,300-foot) parade route to watch as each school’s several thousand paraders pass.

Rio’s samba schools began competing in the 1930s, and were corralled into the Sambadrome parade grounds in the mid-1980s. Their 70-minute parades can cost 10 million reais (almost $2 million), and the school that scores lowest is relegated to the lower league. Returning to the elite echelon can take years.

The top six finishers get percentages of box office revenue. But only the champion school goes down in history, and no one remembers the runner-up, said Jorge Perlingeiro, the president of the top league.

For over three decades, Perlingeiro has been the voice of Carnival, announcing judges’ scores one by one. Each bellow of “10!” — the top score — with his heavy Rio accent launches a school’s fanatics into ecstasy; anything less can elicit frustrated groans. He will be at the Sambadrome on Wednesday, opening judges’ sealed envelopes transported there by armored car.

Last year, the televised ceremony lasted almost 90 minutes, with no less than 540 scores read aloud for 12 schools. The winning school achieved 269.9 – one-tenth of a point shy of perfect. Recognizing that Carnival’s scoring system needed some simplification, the league this year reduced the number of judges to 36 from 45, meaning only 432 grades will be read Wednesday.

“I’ll speak a little less this year,” Perlingeiro joked.

The large number of judges is necessary to assess performance throughout the parade grounds and prevents a single bad score from torpedoing a school, according to Fábio Fabato, who writes and researches Carnival and Brazilian popular culture. It also helps curb corruption, he said, because it’s harder to buy off many judges.

In 1974, samba school Mocidade lost the title because one costume judge handed down an inexplicably low score of 4, Fabato said. In 1986, Brazilian soccer legend Socrátes was selected to judge drums, but had zero expertise, so he rated schools based solely on crowd reaction. Samba schools were furious. One school’s president said Socrátes was too drunk to judge and demanded that his scores be annulled.

“He (Socrátes) skipped down the stairs to the parade ground, stripped off his top and started dancing along in a pair of tight white shorts. Officials objected and he was reluctantly coaxed back to the judging station,” according to his biography, “Doctor Socrates.”

The count two years later sparked a vicious fight between rival schools and a 16-year-old girl was shot in the stomach, according to an O Globo newspaper report at the time.

David Butter, a Brazilian journalist who wrote a book on Carnival, remembers as a child watching the count with his father, who enjoyed it even more than the parade.

“We would get the newspaper with the empty scorecard to fill as the count went forward. We were all excited about the scores, the disagreements,” Butter said. “The count became a spectacle in itself, just like an opera. It is an exclusively Brazilian entertainment product.”

Other competitions have struggled with subjective scoring. Olympic figure skating had been rated from 1 to 6 until a judging scandal at the games in Salt Lake City — known as “Skate Gate” — prompted adoption of an elaborate system involving a technical panel. Decades earlier, equestrian dressage in the 1956 Olympics caused uproar after German and Swedish judges gave top marks to their compatriots. More recently, an investigation found multiple boxing matches were fixed at the 2016 Olympic games in Rio.

That same year, Rio police probed alleged fraud in Carnival judging. Greater technical rigor and professionalism were meant to head off disputes and provide transparency. Judges must justify any less-than-perfect score with a handwritten explanation.

One judge evaluating costumes last year docked one-tenth of a point from a school because “a considerable quantity of paraders’ hats were slipping or fallen,” and she noted another school had promised to deliver “a diversity of green tones,” though only lime green prevailed. A harmony judge noted “occasional loss of internal homogeneity” and that “the neglect or weakening of some voices emptied the song of its sonic mass.”

On a scorecard last year, one judge noted how hard it has become to find errors when so few are committed, so just one-tenth of a point can clinch a victory.

If a gap appears between sections, the school can lose points. In this year’s parade, the lighthouse atop Unidos da Tijuca’s float was knocked severely askew, which could cost them. Internet users joked that it resembled the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Starting last year, judges’ justifications are posted online within 48 hours. And cameras inside judges' booths record what they can see, so schools can review footage and compare to the judges’ notes for inconsistencies. If any are found, schools can petition for a judge’s removal.

In interviews with two dozen paraders on Monday night, about half said they think judges’ determinations still reflect some undue influence, and rattled off one or another perceived injustice. But most acknowledged scoring has improved with each passing year.

“They are trying to organize, so the competition happens only on the avenue, but there’s a lot still happening behind the scenes. Every samba dancer knows that,” Carol Tavares, 40, said Monday before parading with Unidos da Tijuca. “It’s on the path toward changing.”

Perlingeiro noted that judges’ interpretations are their own — and that an ineffable quality also factors in.

“The category that doesn’t exist, but exists in everyone’s mind, is emotion. It happens when you see the crowd cheering, waving. The judge sees that and, in a certain way, is captivated, too," he said. “That has an influence.”

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