RIO DE JANEIRO, Feb. 24 — Picking the King of Carnival here used to be easy: find the city's fattest, jolliest man and stick a crown on his head. But after being reproached for weighing in at nearly 500 pounds, the current Rei Momo has succumbed to critics, begun exercising, changed his diet and lost 175 pounds over the last four years.
To connoisseurs of Carnival, the heretical emergence of a "Rei Momo light" is one of the many indignities recently inflicted on the spectacle that natives of Rio once regarded as an expression of the character and creativity of their city. As they see it, the annual bacchanalia, which begins this weekend, is becoming less a people's festival than a tightly controlled industry.
"It's natural for any form of folk culture to evolve and change, but the official Carnival parade is turning into a pasteurized product, confined to a cold environment in which the creators of the samba no longer make the rules," said Fernando Pamplona, a renowned choreographer and judge of the Carnival competition. "We live in a capitalist society, so even something like folklore is subject to massification and commercialization."
As always, the focal point of the five-day celebration this year will be the Carnival parade, with its scantily clad dancers, pounding drums and elaborate floats. Over two nights, 14 associations, known as "samba schools," will compete in hopes of putting on the most dazzling show and winning the championship that will give them bragging rights for the next year.
But in place of knowledgeable samba fans, the stands along the parade route are increasingly filled with tourists, celebrities and high rollers, many of whom are guests of corporations that have spent huge sums on luxury boxes. And instead of choosing parade themes developed by their members and based on folk or mythological subjects, many samba schools now are paid by large companies to choose topics that are thinly disguised commercials. Outsiders are even infiltrating the parade, to the point that a majority of those parading with sections of some samba schools are not even members. Tourists as far away as Japan or Scandinavia can now buy package tours that include the right to parade with a samba school, wearing a tailored costume at a cost of an additional $300 or so.
"Those people can't sing, they can't dance, and they don't even bother to learn the lyrics to the theme song of the samba school they are parading with," said Dulce Tupi, a scholar who has written on the history of Carnival and served on the official parade jury. "All they do is detract from the beauty of the show and damage the performance of the samba school."
Traditionally, the lavish Carnival costumes and floats were put together by seamstresses and carpenters from the neighborhoods around a samba school. But those functions are largely subcontracted to professional companies now: last year, one school had points deducted because its costumes arrived so late that dancers were unable to start their procession on time.
"In the old days, the samba school supporters lived close to where they worked and had time to participate in the life of the school," said Joãosinho Trinta, an acclaimed samba school director. "Now they get up at four in the morning for a three-hour commute to work, and by the time they finally get back home, tired and hungry, all they want to do is sit in the living room and watch television."
Criminal gangs are now in control of most hillside slums where the samba schools were born, and that has also had an effect. Though the schools have been largely successful in keeping drugs out of their popular weekly rehearsals, waves of killings and robberies have forced several to move those performances into middle-class areas. The relocations attract tourists but make it more difficult and costly for their traditional supporters to take part.
Unable to attend the parade, whose tickets are increasingly priced out of their reach and quickly bought by travel agencies, many samba fans are reduced to watching on television. But what they are seeing is a shift away from the samba, which has been sped up to meet the time requirements imposed by networks, to a spectacle that emphasizes the visual over the musical.
A decade ago, the record containing that year's theme sambas of the 14 competing clubs could be expected to sell as many as two million copies. Now the same record is lucky to reach one-tenth that number.
In addition, television has encouraged scores of models and actresses to use the Carnival parade to promote their careers. Many of those B-level or would-be stars are affiliated with the network broadcasting the show or have undergone plastic surgery or breast implants specifically to parade naked in front of 70,000 people at the Sambadrome here and the millions watching in Brazil and abroad.
"People who really love Carnival want to hear the samba sung, see how the dancers are dancing and get a really good look at the floats and decorations," said Antônio Carlos Seiblitz, a 49-year-old lawyer here. "Instead, what we get are endless interviews with celebrities who have no genuine connection with Carnival, punctuated by occasional glimpses of the real thing."
But Carnival consists of much more than the official parade, and as the populace grows more alienated from that event, other forms of celebration are benefiting. Masked balls are proliferating and are more popular than ever, and the informal neighborhood associations known as blocos or bandas, considered moribund just a couple of decades ago, are making a remarkable comeback.
All around the city, local groups with whimsical or irreverent names like Christ's Armpit, Leopard's Breath, Meeting Without a Parade, Affinity Is Almost Love, and Hang On So You Don't Fall Down have already taken to the streets, encouraging residents to dress up and join them. According to a recent study, the number of such groups has doubled in less than a decade, and popular participation in them is zooming.
"With the parade having become an event just for the elite and tickets so expensive, my energy now goes into the neighborhood celebrations," said Isabel Cristina Lopes, 34, a marketing executive who used to parade with the Beija-Flor samba school. "You need to be an important person to get into the parade, but with the blocos, everyone can participate."
Others in search of the true Carnival spirit are abandoning Rio altogether in favor of cities like Recife and Salvador. There, traditional musical forms associated with Carnival, like the frevo and maracatu in Recife and the ear-splitting electric trios that play atop trucks cruising the streets of Salvador, have largely pushed aside Rio's commercialized samba as favorites.
"There is a tendency to try to centralize and domesticate Carnival, but it seems not to be working completely," said Roberto da Matta, a Brazilian anthropologist who has written extensively on the festival and teaches at the University of Notre Dame. "Carnival refuses to be dominated by one form or style, by one parade or event, and is coming to life again outside those ordained centers as old forms reappear and are reconstructed."