Brazil Says Goodbye to the Master of Carnival: Dom Phillips

a | A

In Brazil, a country that loves nothing more than a good party, at times even funerals can feel like a festival.

This was particularly true on Dec. 19 in Sao Luis, as a multitude turned out to dance to the beat of massed samba bands at the funeral of Joaosinho Trinta, the celebrated "Carnivalesco" -- effectively, creative director -- of some of Rio de Janeiro’s most famous samba schools.

Trinta, who died on Dec. 17, created the face of modern Carnival, Brazil's most famous festival. Even President Dilma Rousseff was moved to comment.

"The Carnival of Brazil will be sadder without the joy and talent of Joaosinho Trinta,” the president said in a statement, according to the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper.

An artist for more than 40 years, he enchanted everybody with the creativity of his productions, the intelligence of his plots and the daring of his parades for the samba schools in Rio de Janeiro. It is a great loss. Joaosinho Trinta made the Brazilian Carnival one of the most beautiful festivals in the world.

As Brazil prepares to shut down for Christmas and New Year's, thoughts are already on February's Carnival -- a five-day holiday of immense cultural relevance in Brazil, when samba bands and hordes of revelers in fancy dress take to the streets.

Perhaps better than anyone, Trinta understood the essential Carnival concept -- that for one day, even a beggar can become a king. In an old television interview on TV Globo, reprised on the Estado de Sao Paulo newspaper's website, Trinta said:

To me, Carnival is the only moment of unreality, the only moment when you have to escape from the day-to-day of common things and leave for a moment of emotion, beauty and unreality.

With this philosophy, he transformed the Rio Carnival into what it is today: a tightly choreographed and extravagant display of musical theater and dance in which 3,500 members of local samba schools compete at Rio's enormous "Sambadrome."

For two days, Rio’s leading schools present an elaborate parade based on a theme. Thousands in costume dance and sing the theme song the school has chosen. The effect is an explosion of color, light and music that sets the whole stadium dancing. A panel of judges scores all aspects of the parade, and the school with the highest score wins.

Certain traditions have to be adhered to, one of which is the role of the "Queen of the Drums." Traditionally the queen was the most beautiful girl in the favela. Today it's often played by Brazil’s most glamorous actresses. Hundreds of less formal street parties take place in locations all over Rio -- helping attract legions of tourists to Carnival each year.

As Tourism Minister Gastao Vieira acknowledged at Trinta’s funeral: "To talk about tourism in Brazil is to also talk about Carnival," the O Globo newspaper reported. "And to talk about Carnival is to talk about Joaosinho Trinta."

Born Joao Clemente Jorge Trinta on Nov. 23, 1933, into a humble family in Maranhao, he arrived alone in Rio in 1951 with dreams of becoming a ballet dancer. As O Globo recounted, he succeeded in entering the ballet corps at Rio’s Municipal Theater as a dancer and a designer of sets and costumes.

In 1963, he joined Rio’s Salgueiro samba school. Ten years later he took over as Salgueiro's Carnivalesco and the following year won his first title for the school. He was to win many more. He then joined the Beija-Flor school, where he developed the theatrical themes that still characterize Rio’s Carnival parade. As O Globo reported:

It was at Beija-Flor from 1976 on, that Joaosinho Trinta established himself as the wizard of the parades, transforming the Carnival with immense floats and luxurious costumes. There he got three titles in a row -- To Dream With the Lion King (76), Grandma and the Saturnalia King at the Egyptian Court (77), and the Creation of the World in the Yoruba Tradition (78).

Trinta embraced controversy. In 2001, for the Grande Rio school, he put a man in a rocket. In 2004, he coordinated a parade called "Let's Wear a Condom, My Love." State prosecutors ordered that the school cover up three moving statues that were depicted having sex after the Catholic Church protested.

But his defining Carnival moment came in 1989, for Beija Flor, with a parade entitled "Rats and Vultures." As Geomar Leite, president of the Federal District's Samba School Union, wrote:

Rats and vultures, get out of my costume, the plot of 1989, was a parade of street characters, including beggars, alcoholics, urchins, crazies and vagrants, which denounced the inequalities and destitution of a country at the edge of collapse because of hyperinflation.

The parade's theme song went: "In life I'm a beggar, in Carnival I’m a king." Its central image -- a huge statue atop one of the floats that depicted Christ as a beggar -- was banned. Undeterred, Trinta covered the statue in black plastic and adorned it with the slogan: "Even though it's forbidden, pray for us!"

It was, Leite noted, Trinta's most "anthological" parade. "He went from rubbish to luxury. He revolutionized the Rio Carnival, transforming it into the biggest show on Earth."

But it was another famous phrase of Trinta's that kept popping up in the coverage after his death -- one he coined to explain his vision of Carnival in an era when poverty in Brazil was pervasive. It takes on a new meaning today, in the midst of a consumer boom and the migration of more than 30 million Brazilians from poverty into the lower-middle "Class C," after a decade of economic growth.

"It’s the intellectual who likes misery,” Trinta often said. "The poor like luxury."

(Dom Phillips is the Sao Paulo correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author of this story:

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Timothy Lavin at