Brazil’s postcard-perfect Carnival competition officially kicked off yesterday, but the world’s most enthusiastic merrymakers have never stood on ceremony. For weeks now, the Cariocas, as Rio natives are known, have donned feathers and paint, mobbed the streets, and belted out provocative anthems.

One of this season’s biggest hits? Al, Al Gilmar, a sendup of controversial Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes, famed for ordering the release of big shots jailed in the country’s rolling corruption scandal. (The former Rio health secretary, accused of diverting $90 million [Dh331 million] from state coffers, was Mendes’s latest beneficiary.) ‘Hello, hello, Gilmar/I’m in jail, come set me free’, goes the refrain of the song, which quickly became a hit on the web.

OK, you won’t hear this mischievous number in the Sambdromo, the grand arena where battalions of samba dancers vie for glory and audience share. And no doubt, the headline show — featuring giant floats, columns of gyrating dancers, and nifty special effects — is a wonder. “Kind of like Las Vegas meets the Roman circus,” Nelson Motta, a popular music producer and critic, told me.

Yet, Brazil’s Carnival spirit never fit so easily in a concrete box. Since late January, the number of street parties and parades has soared with the summer temperatures, snarling traffic, emptying offices, and scuttling any hint of metropolitan normalcy. Driving this year’s merriment are rambling bards like the Band of Ipanema, and block parties like Christ’s Armpit (which gathers below Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue), the massive Cordon of the Black Ball, and, my favourite, Sympathy is Almost Love, which this year spoofed Rio’s evangelical mayor, Marcelo Crivella.

Sure, not everyone is enchanted: Outbound passengers despaired when 1.5 million revellers blocked the airport thoroughfare last Sunday, and my wife’s usual 10-minute commute has become an hour-long crawl through a beer-splashed gauntlet.

With the city’s crime rate spiking, 12 million people out of work across Brazil, and much of the political class under scrutiny for graft and payola, you might well ask, as a friend of mine did: What’s to celebrate?

Silly question. Carnival in Venice is more elegant, and the Andean version in Oruro, Bolivia, just as colourful. However, few societies have done more than Brazil to turn the date on the Catholic calendar into a collective catharsis, a moment when, with a headdress and some glitter, the poor become royalty and miseries, memes.

If once Rio’s Carnival was the privilege of tony ballrooms, it took its cues and its pulse from the streets. Samba got its start more than a century ago, when an ambitious city boss razed the slums to hurl up a monumental downtown inspired by Parisian urban planning. The poor picked through the rubble for what remained and trudged up the hillsides, inventing the favela and samba, as biographer Lira Neto writes in the engaging first volume of his trilogy, Uma Histria do Samba (A History of Samba).

Samba was squalour made song, an amalgam of African rhythms, Iberian chords and European melodies. As samba musicians travelled, they added jazz to the mix, creating one of those rare moments in a nation’s culture when the best music was also its most popular.

True, polite Brazilian society balked at the new sound at first. When samba ace Pixinguinha and his band returned from a successful tour of France in the early 1920s, having added instruments like the banjo and saxophone and rhythms like ragtime and the Charleston to the repertoire, critics blasted them as turncoats, “aping imported fashions”, as one wrote.

Such parochialism has resurfaced again and again, plaguing the country’s itinerant talents from Carmen Miranda to bossa nova’s Antnio Carlos Jobim. Yet, the resistance wouldn’t last. Samba’s envoys did only what Brazilians at their best, from maestros to urban planners, have always done: Gobble up global styles and genres, and repurpose them into something of their own. In time, samba became the national sound, and the favela masters, its icons. Every year, Carnival was a much anticipated contest among the country’s most talented composers — Ary Barroso, Cartola, Ismael Silva and Noel Rosa — whose sambas enchanted the ballrooms and the street parties.

Perhaps it was inevitable that Brazil’s successful high-low culture ended up encastled. Enter the Sambdromo, a great stadium sculpted of reinforced concrete by storied modernist architect Oscar Niemeyer. The Sambdromo was Broadway to Brazil’s popular opera, and every year the Carnival contest grew bigger and more exorbitant. Beer companies, telephone operators and, more controversially, even foreign governments poured fortunes into the official parade.

Yet, grandeur didn’t do much for samba. “Like on Broadway, the songs are overshadowed by the theatrics,” author Ruy Castro, a samba scholar and biographer of Carmen Miranda, told me. “The official pageant drowned out street carnival.”

Sure, the Sambadrome can still be sensational. There may be no inebriant like a 700-piece percussion section thundering by the bleachers. But the music itself had become predictable, the same song droning on for 80 minutes. “The arena took Carnival out of the street and put it behind walls,” anthropologist Roberto DaMatta, a Carnival scholar, told me.

Perhaps because of that very rigidity, the street festival is now flourishing again. “It’s a party that no one owns, no media group controls, and where the crowd sets the pace,” said Motta. So much the better for Carnival’s soundtrack, where once again revellers are flirting with a wide range of dance rhythms, such as Brazilian country, reggaeton, and funk. There’s even a Carnival band dedicated to mingling samba and the Beatles, Sargento Pimenta (Sergeant Pepper’s).

Brazil’s consumer retailers have taken note. They know a money note when they hear it.

— Bloomberg

Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. He is the author of The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.