Samba school parades climax Rio Carnival extravaganza

RIO DE JANEIRO (AFP) - Top samba schools take centre stage at the Sambodrome late Sunday, set to dazzle crowds with giant allegorical floats and scantily-dressed beauty queens in a fiery climax to the famed Rio Carnival.

Over the next two nights, 12 schools will showcase their mesmerizing allegorical pageantry before a global television audience, the highlight of a five-day extravaganza.

Their floats are packed with dancers wearing huge headgear, feathers, sequins, body paint - and little else.

The fierce contest for the title of Brazil's Carnival champion is watched with the same fervor as football matches in this soccer-mad nation.

The first school to perform late Sunday will be Inocentes de Belford Roxo, with a colourful homage to Korean culture on a theme called "The Seven Confluences of the Han River" that will invoke the protection of the ancient Korean wind goddess Yondung Halmoni.

Salgueiro, last year's Carnival champion Unidos da Tijuca, Uniao da Ilha, Mocidade and Portela will then follow.

Six other schools will stage their own parades Monday night.

Thousands of participants bedecked in elaborate costumes made their way to Rio's 72,500-seat open-air Sambodrome, designed by the late star architect Oscar Niemeyer.

The parading schools are divided into sections, and each section has a number of wings of about 100 people wearing the same costume.

Between the wings there are several floats separating the sections. Most of the floats are pushed by men from the school's community, though some are motorised.

Preparation for the show starts months in advance, and each school mobilizes thousands of supporters who must create the various parts of the school's display.

Unlike the ubiquitous Carnival streets parties that are open to all, the parades at the Sambodrome are mainly for the wealthy and foreign tourists.

Carnival, however, is Brazil's most important festival and is celebrated with equal gusto across the country, including cities like Sao Paulo, Salvador, Recife, Olinda, Manaus and Porto Alegre.

This year there is a special tribute to Koreans to mark the 50th anniversary of their immigration to Brazil.

Parades in Rio and Sao Paulo are honoring Korean history and technological prowess, and the contribution the 50,000-strong Korean community has made to the racially diverse nation of 194 million people.

"We are paying tribute to the courage, perseverance and dedication of Korean immigrants in this country," Isabel Napolitano, an official of the 50-year-old Unidos de Vila Maria samba school, told AFP at the 30,000-seat Sao Paulo Sambodrome early Sunday.

"It's a historic moment, a recognition of the contribution Koreans have made to Brazilian society," said Marcelo Choi, vice-president of the Sao Paulo-based Korean-Brazilian Association.

"The whole world can see that we are an integral part of the Brazilian family. So yes, it's a moment of great pride not just for us Korean-Brazilians but for Koreans around the world," he told AFP.

In the north-eastern city of Salvador, South Korean pop star Psy performed to huge crowds Friday alongside Brazilian stars Claudia Leitte, Gilberto Gil and Daniela Mercury.

The rapper, who shot to global fame last year with his Gangnam Style hit, was warmly applauded Saturday when he appeared at the Rio Sambodrome.

Dubbed "the greatest show on Earth," the Rio Carnival officially got under way Friday, when the legendary King Momo received a giant key to the city from Mayor Eduardo Paes.

Authorities said six million people, including more than 900,000 tourists, were expected to attend the five-day Rio bash.

Rio, which will host next year's World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics, has mobilized 14,500 police officers to provide security.

Carnival is for many Brazilians a time for closure after the Jan 27 nightclub fire in the southern college town of Santa Maria that killed 239 people.

The tragedy prompted authorities to increase safety inspections at entertainment spots nationwide.

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