Rio's annual colourful Carnival tainted by shootings ahead of main parades

A reveller from the Alegria da Zona Sul samba school takes part in the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on Saturday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A reveller from the Alegria da Zona Sul samba school takes part in the annual Carnival parade in Rio de Janeiro's Sambadrome on Saturday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Tens of thousands of people prepared to flood Rio's streets Sunday to watch dancers wearing dazzlingly exotic outfits expose maximum flesh for the city's spectacular Carnival parade.

Over the next two nights, 12 elite samba schools each comprising some 5,000 participants will sashay along the city's Sambadrome.

An anticipated crowd of more than 70,000, from great-grandmothers to babes in arms, will sway and cheer on their favourite school in hours-long parades in Rio's annual party to end all parties.

As locals and tourists alike, some scantily clad in hot and humid conditions, danced their hearts out, violence put a dampener on proceedings in three other cities holding their own festivities.

In Sao Paulo, web news portal G1 quoted police as saying a man was stabbed to death at a street fest late Saturday, while 10 revellers were injured in an overnight shooting in popular tourist destination Paraty, west of Rio, CBN radio reported.

Another shooting saw one person hurt in the northern city of Salvador, which hosts one of Brazil's most spectacular carnivals.

In Rio, the urban violence that so often scars the life of the city of more than six million has faded into the distance, at least for five days of festivities that began Friday and drew more than a million people Saturday to "blocos" street parties.

Huge crowds descended on Ipanema Beach to watch some of the most popular groups, including Simpatia e Quase Amor (friendship is almost love).

Although the atmosphere has been joyful, Rio authorities have deployed 15,000 police just in case emotions boil over amid the heat mixed with alcohol.

Cordao da Bola Preta, Rio's oldest street group, had hoped to attract as many as two million people Saturday.

But Globo newspaper reported that only about a million attended, with the venue shifted slightly owing to pre-Olympic roadwork.

"I'm not sure the figures are right - but in recent years, carnival has grown so much maybe there's nowhere else for it to go," said Luiz Benevides, a 39-year-old drummer with a top bloco playing Beatles songs with a samba flavour.

"Street parties are the best thing that could ever happen to carnival. I have stopped watching the main parades as they are now so commercialised - though maybe the street versions will go the same way." After Sunday and Monday night's elite parades, the jurors will elect the winners ahead of next Saturday's Parade of Champions.

A panel of judges will run the rule over the dancers and massed ranks of percussionists as well as their spectacular floats before determining who takes the crown worn currently by the Unidos da Tijuca school.

The main parades at the Sambodrome designed by Oscar Niemeyer are the culmination of months of preparations.

"The excitement builds and builds. Then it's your school's turn to go and there you are, under the lights, the noise. It's an indescribable feeling," said Megumi Kudo, a Japanese-born solo dancer with the Salgueiro elite school.

The sweltering heat means the parades, broadcast live on television in an all-night spectacular, do not start until late night.

The last school is not scheduled to finish until late afternoon, leaving residents of the "Marvelous City" bleary-eyed - though they will be dancing again through Monday and into Tuesday.

The first record of carnival celebrations dates back to 1723 - but the first samba school was not formed until 1928.

Other cities, notably Sao Paulo, with its own Anhembi Sambadrome a major draw in Brazil's business hub, and the northeastern cities of Salvador and Recife, are also engaged in their own spectacular festivities.

This year's carnival comes after a difficult year for Brazil, whose economy is facing zero growth this year while flagship oil firm Petrobras is mired in a huge corruption scandal.