These finals are where a Samba School chooses the song which will represent its theme in next year's carnaval. Each school has scores of composers. In May/June/July the schools theme (enredo) is chosen for the following year, and sent out to the composers. Many sambas are then submitted to each school and these are then whittled down in competitive heats, quarter finals and semi finals, until there are only 3 - 5 left. Then a grand final is held in the school's Quadra (home and permanent rehearsal space) to select the winner. This is really important as a good song, catchy and easy to sing along to, is essential if the school is going to stand a chance of winning at carnival.
We visited the finals of 4 samba schools, Caprichosos, Rocinha, Grande Rio and Mocidade. We also got to the semi-final of Estacio de Sa. These schools range from big and wealthy to quite small, and the crowds varied from a couple of hundred to several thousand. But all the schools finals had a great deal in common.
The finals night starts with a brief exposition/demonstration/introduction to the schools theme. In Caprichosos we were treated to a folkloric dance troupe of Gauchos (Caprichosos has a regional theme this year), and in Mocidade we got some spectacular circus acrobatics (their theme this year is 'the Grand Mystical Circus'). Next the crowd is warmed up with a bit of batucada, then various old sambas, 'greatest hits' sambas and the samba of last years carnival. In Caprichosos they played us this coming years sambas from the samba schools Imperatriz and from Portela, which had only been chosen a couple of days earlier.
Once the crowd is buzzing, the finalists are played. The schools are very careful to ensure that no individual song is given any unfair advantage through presentation. Within any one samba school all of the finalists have exactly the same arrangement, with the same breaks and tamborim parts played by the bateria. This arrangement should go equally well with each song. The song is sung say 3 times without the bateria and 4 times with; whatever combination is chosen it will be the same for every song in that particular final.
But beyond that it is up to the composer of the song to create a good impression. The singer is chosen by the composers, and a good singer makes an enormous difference. The song sheets are printed by the composers, and hundreds are handed out to encourage audience participation. Each composer has their own group of supporters who come on with a variety of props and radiate enthusiasm, hoping to fire up the public.
Some of these props are pretty sophisticated. One (losing) samba in Mocidade had foam clown heads on long sticks, maybe 50, each one maybe a meter across. In the smaller schools people had various combinations of balloons, streamers, sticks and hoops; anything which would fill the air above the crowd. The winner in Mocidade unfurled a flag (I think of Brazil) slowly over the heads over everyone in the entire quadra; it must have been the size of a couple of tennis courts. Some composers must have spent a fortune on fireworks to spice up the atmosphere whilst other songs were (blessedly) firework free. Each song has completely different props; it must be very expensive to put a song through the finals. Maybe this is one reason why Samba Enredos always have lots of composers; it costs too much for individuals to provide all these props for all the heats, quarter and semi finals and then to stage a final entry.
And did the best song win? Well I'm not in a position to say; having only heard the entries for the first time on the night of the final. Samba enredos need to be heard many times without becoming irritating; good ones get better and better the more you hear them but bad ones become worse and worse. Certainly the ones which won in Grande Rio and in Mocidade were crowd pleasers; everyone was singing along to them. They had catchy choruses which even I managed to master, and they stand a good chance of catching the crowds in the sambodromo when it comes to carnaval. I really liked the winners to Imperatriz and Portela, even though I heard them being sung only once or twice each.
But who knows what they will sound like in the Sambodromo on the day of competition, when the Mestres and Directors of the Baterias have completed their arrangements and breaks and tamborim patterns. Sometimes something which sounds really mediocre at first stands out at carnaval, and something which sounds good at first just doesn't work in the Avenida. We will just have to wait and see.