Logo of Portela’s storyline

Carnival in Brazil is not just a party, it is an event with continental proportions and has deep impacts on the culture, identity and history of the country. Each region has its own repertoire that in turn materializes in different costumes, not to mention the different musical rhythms. But the vibe is the same and a wave of joy makes the country literally stop during at least 5 days. We had the chance to see the Dutch commemorations in the Arnhem-Nijmegen region a couple of times and noticed that it has nothing to do with the Brazilian version. So it definitely sounds strange to think that these two nations would somehow be linked by carnival. But, strangely or not, it happened this February.

This amazing bridge was built during the most important and gigantic Brazilian carnival parade that takes place in Rio de Janeiro. Actually, it is a competition between 13 samba schools – teams with up to 3.500 people that in the rest of the year form very strong communities. Each samba school chooses its own storyline, a kind of briefing that guides the creative process behind a musical performance that takes place at an avenue specifically built for this purpose – the Sambódromo with its 700 meters long and designed by famous architect Oscar Niemeyer.

Yes, Brazil could have been a Dutch colony

For this year the samba school Portela chose to tell the story of the arrival of Johan Maurits van Nassau-Siegen on January 1637 in Recife, a city located in the northeast region of Brazil. At that time the country represented a land of opportunities for Dutch explorers and also Portuguese Jews escaping from the inquisition, and looking for a new land to settle in. As the governor of the Dutch possessions in Brazil, Johan Maurits proved to be a talented administrator, providing Recife with a Dutch accent through the construction of public buildings, bridges, and channels. This shared heritage is still relevant and visible nowadays. The town was then named Mauritsstad. In 1654 the Dutch surrendered to the Portuguese army and abandoned Brazil taking also 400 Jews that were dispersed between the Caribbean and the Netherlands. Also, twenty-three reached New Amsterdam (New York), founding the first Jewish community in North America. During the parade we were mesmerized seeing the cars carrying huge sculptures such as a Dutch windmill or the Statue of Liberty. Another one was conducting an armadillo whose exterior armour opened from time to time revealing lively people on its inside. With this storyline, Portela was fourth placed in the 2018 parade. And the whole spectacle once more represented the well-established samba creative industry of Rio, mixing dance, music and other artistic representations.

Besides the artistic effort, the annual event at Sambódromo involves a complex infrastructure to receive up to 90.000 spectators during 4 nights, impacting the city’s downtown region. When the party ends, the cycle restarts: each samba school chooses the storyline for the next carnival and the creative team starts immediately the research to produce the new spectacle. At the same time blacksmiths have to dismantle the heavy cars that sustained the weight of the sculptures and dozens of dancers, to build the new structures. Later, carpenters and sculptors give a new shape to these cars, while art painters, costume designers, dressmakers, makeup artists and set designers complement the work, bringing to life not only the cars, but also to dozens of characters that will parade on the ground to help telling the new story. Around October, an internal competition determines the music that will join all these pieces together and bring the new storyline to life. The process resembles the production of a play or opera, except for the huge scale and of course for being a one-of-a-kind show.

From this single event we can notice how the Netherlands is perceived by other nations. In the one hand, the Dutch stereotypes arise in full power, and reveal how the past still influence contemporary views of the country. On the other hand, the creative industry once more finds its way as a bridge able to communicate different cultures, overcoming barriers through universal languages and remarkable experiences. More importantly, the samba creative industry is an example of a successful endeavour where craftsmanship is the protagonist and still rules, while technology has to wait for its turn, somewhere in the future, to become essential.