8 words you need to know to get by at Carnival in Brazil

The beginning of the year in some countries can be quiet and bring about those dreaded winter blues. But not in Brazil! February is a time of sun, partying, dancing, colour and celebration… February is Carnival time!

Carnival is a major part of Brazilian culture. It’s basically a massive festivity of parades, dance, music and fun, usually happening before Lent. This year, it officially starts on the 9th February and lasts until the 14th. But all throughout January and February you’ll see parties and celebrations up and down the country! I’ve come up with some of the most common words you need to know to get by at Carnival. Here goes:

1. Folião / foliões

Foliões are the party-goers who participate in folias (another word for parties, usually used during Carnival). According to the dictionary, foliões are happy and like to have a good time, so it’s not hard to see why we use this word for those celebrating Carnival!

2. Sambódromo

Rio’s Carnival celebrates all the hard work of what we call escolas de samba (samba schools) throughout the year. 13 schools take part in the special group parade on the Sunday and Monday of Carnival week, telling a political, historical or biographical story through song and dance. This all happens in the sambódromo (sambadrome – a purpose built parade area where the main schools parade takes place). If you are lost, just ask for the Sambódromo in Marquês de Sapucaí.

3. Samba-enredo

A party wouldn’t be a party without music, right? So, as part of the parade in the sambódromo, each school presents their samba-enredo, which is the song they sing to tell their story to the audience. Each school usually has their own musicians and singers, and obviously dancers, who spend the whole year practising their samba so they can really show off their best on the big day.

4. Blocos de rua

To make Carnival an even bigger, better event, not only is there the beautiful parade but there’s also loads of other things going on in the streets. So don’t be disheartened if you don’t make it to the main parade in Rio – you’ll find blocos de rua almost everywhere in Brazil. These are basically street parties that follow a specific route along the main streets in the cities, lead by a group of people playing music. They are joined by foliões, dressed up in Carnival costumes, enjoying the music and just having a great time!

5. Marchinhas

Marchinhas de carnaval (carnival songs) are traditional rhythms that take over the streets during Carnival. There are the classics that have been around for decades and still make everyone sing along, and the ones that people come up with each year. Their lyrics can range from being about simple things to bigger issues like politics and social events. There’s only one rule: they need to be funny, sarcastic or ironic.

6. Frevo and maracatu

Carnival is not only about samba and Rio de Janeiro. In cities like Recife and Olinda (in Pernambuco), we also have frevo and maracatu, two other styles of regional dance. These are typical ‘up-and-down’ routines, where people dance with traditional colourful umbrellas (you have to have strong legs to follow, but it is definitely fun to have a go!). In these cities, giant carnival dolls fill the streets amongst all the foliões, making the whole experience even more unique.

In Olinda, there’s a unique bloco de rua (street party) called “Bacalhau do Batata” (Cod and Potatoes). This bloco was created by a waiter – known as Batata – who couldn’t enjoy Carnival over the usual period because he was always working, so he made his own on Ash Wednesday. One of the typical dishes of this bloco is cod and vegetables because, for religion reasons, many Brazilians prefer not to eat red meat on this day. Bacalhau do Batata became so famous that, in 2007, it was the theme of one of the escolas de samba in Rio!

7. Abadá

An abadá is a shirt that people get at Carnival-related events. Usually it identifies which bloco you are going to follow, which party you are going to, or even which singer you are going to see. It’s almost like a uniform for foliões, and having one at hand means that you’re up for having a good time!

8. Axé

Over the years, Carnival has taken different approaches across Brazil. During this time, the rhythm axé, which mixes samba-reggae, frevo, reggae, merengue, forró, samba, pop rock and many others, takes centre stage in Salvador, where it was created. So here’s an image of Carnival for you: picture a massive truck with a sound system, blaring out music to the whole city; famous axé singers leading their blocos from on top of the truck; people in abadás following their favourite bands with songs and dances that everyone knows and joins in with… What could be better than that?!

Of course, there’s a ton of other words that you’ll hear at Carnival in Brazil, but here you’ve got a good few to get you started! So if I’ve convinced you that Carnival is the cure to all your winter blues, there’s still time! Oh, and if you need help with your Portuguese, why not have a go with busuu?

Divirta-se!


Juliana is the Portuguese Language Expert at busuu. She is addicted to carnival – she can’t go a year without being there! 

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