Carnival Opening Wing and Front Commissions
Posted on 14 April 2020
A carnival parade in Rio Brazil is made up of a series of conventions and criteria, which somehow regulate the amazing show watched by millions of people around the globe. Some of the evaluated criteria include the size of floats, parade timing, and harmony within the samba-school members, which are analyzed by a judging commission. Today a Opening Wing brings much expectation and draws a huge crowd because they are becoming literally a spectacle on its own, it's the Pandora's Box of a samba school. It's their best kept secret to win the judges and the crowd.
To better understand, the front commission are composed by 10 dancers/participants or more. The "opening wing" is the main float that opens the parade, right behind the front commission crew. Most of the time they will use the "opening float" to tell their story. So these two element (dancers and float) are together. In the beginning of the century these two elements were separated. The front commission was a group of its own and the opening wing float another element. Below we will explain how they merged creating a big deal back then when the two merged.
Let's see how this opening wing transformed the parades since the 1900's.
The opening wing or “Comissao de Frente” (to use the original expression in Portuguese) is also one of these criteria examined by the carnival judging panel, to help determine the parade contest winner of each year. It's the best kept secret in a samba school. No one in the samba school is allowed to know what are they going to do.
The opening wing usually tells a story, with lot's of choreography, theatrical performance and lately magical special effect to literally wow the crowd. The opening wing is seen as the "welcome" group.
In the early ages, as a contrast, the opening wings had a wooden bat on their hands, almost like a "protection" to their samba school. It started with people walking in groups, now we see the samba schools adding bigger floats that allows them to perform their show. This "group" then became more organized as we explain below.
To understand why this element became a mandatory element in Brazilian parades, we have to go back at least 120 years in the history of Brazil´s Carnaval.
Front Commission from Unidos da Tijuca 2009
The entire samba parade is 60 minutes, so the opening wing has to be quick and perform many times during a parade and specially in front of the judges.
According to the judge's handbook, the judges' considerations for giving notes to the front committee are:
"- the fulfillment of the function of greeting the public and introducing the school, being mandatory to display in front of the judgment booths;
- the coordination, tuning and creativity of your exhibition, which will be mandatory in front of the judgment booths, and can evolve as you wish;
- the clothing of the front commission, which may be traditional (tuxedos, jackets, summers, suits, tuxedos, etc., stylized or not) or carried out according to the plot, taking into account, in this case, their suitability for the type of proposed presentation ”.
Below we will provide a small summary of the opening wings origins, innovations and present characteristics so readers can enjoy the carnival culture in Brazil with more comprehension.
In the early 1900's, before samba-schools formally existed, street carnival guilds called ‘carnival societies’, or in Portuguese, “Sociedades Carnavalescas” or "Carnival Societies" used to march in Rio´s street Carnivals.
These organized clubs and samba associations celebrated Carnival the old way, in a procession, and revelers would wear rich European carnival costumes. These were the first carnival groups assembled somehow in a parade organized style.
During these days, in the beginning of the caravan, men rode horses and wore tailcoat and top hats ahead of the floats literally opening the parade/procession, and greeting spectators. Women would were elegant outfits and playful makeup. Cars would be decorated to give the street parade a more festive look.
Later, horses and carriages were substituted by open cars at the procession, in what would be called “Corso de Carnaval”. In essence, the samba-schools from today “borrowed” the idea from the Carnival Societies of the last quarter of the 1900´s in Brazil. We will talk on another blog, about the Carnival Societies.
Photo Credit: Agencia FOTO BR
Isnard Araújo and Candeia, two famous samba scholars, wrote in a book called “Escola de Samba - Ärvore que Nunca Esqueceu Raiz” – that the first samba-school to present a formal opening wing during an official parade was Portela samba school.
At that time the opening wing was composed of the collaborators and founders of the school. They would literally "welcome" and wave to the everyone passing by. They would honor the oldest members of the samba school. It was a great way to say thank you for their dedication year round.
Below an excerpt from Portela's archives:
Gradually the other schools began to adopt some kind of commission to open the presentations. However, for decades, the front commissions would come after the opening wings that the schools took to the avenue.
Vizinha Faladeira, still in the thirties, sought to innovate, bringing commissions in limousine and mounted on horseback, as in large societies. However, despite the innovations of the Santo Cristo samba school having resulted in 1937, when it emerged victorious, the 1938 regulation, the first to recognize the existence of commissions, prohibited the use of elements foreign to the culture of samba schools, determining the directions that carnival would follow from then on.
If, in the first decades, the commissions were constituted using Portela's original commission as a model, that is, composed of the components that were representative to present the school, in the 1960's some associations would try to escape this traditional model.
"Portela innovated in 1938, and trying to overcome the absence of their known artist Antonio Caetano, the team prepared a mirrored wing, presenting this material for the first time in the parade of samba schools. It was left to a furniture polish man called Empata to push the wing opener on the avenue.
Under heavy rains, Portela entered Praça Onze. Mestre Betinho's drums tried to overcome the difficulties of the strong storm that was falling. Alvaiade, Head of Assembly, pleaded the wet components.
The 37 schools managed to present themselves, despite the problems, including Portela. But according to newspapers at the time, the parade was not tried because the jurors did not attend. The rain would have been the reason. However, two of the three jurors were at Praça Onze that night. The testimonies of each of them generated public discussion in the press of the time around the annulment of that year's parade."
Portela 1953 at a parade that happened at the beach front avenue.
This fact was confirmed by Hiram Araújo, another renowned samba historian in Brazil, and by carnaval researcher Amaury Jório in the book “Escolas de Samba em Desfile”. From that moment on, other samba-schools started to have a “Comissão de Frente” on carnaval parades. The samba schools then started to invest heavily on choreography and hired the top choreographers in the country!
Above, opening wing of Portela samba school 1980
On the below link you will see a very brief summary in videos on the Portela Samba School Opening Wings from 2000 to 2012.
Brazilian journalist Francisco Duarte, listening to testimonials from Unidos da Tijuca Samba-School founders, said that ahead of parade there was usually a live animal: “once there was a frog, another time a little she donkey, and finally, in 1936, a school member was there in a dragon costume greeting and opening way through people”.
After this live animal, escorted or carried by a samba-school member, there was an opening float, usually a boy carrying a signboard made of painted cardboard. Preceding the Opening Wing, circus type clowns known as Tico-Ticos wearing satin suits came up, carrying their big walking sticks and cages.
First Innovations at Parades
As we explained earlier in the blog, Vizinha Faladeira, was the first Samba-School to win a carnival contest in Brazil, and made a “small revolution” in the Carnival of 1935, with their great novelty an Opening Wing, elegantly composed by 12 limousines.
In 1936, Vizinha Faladeira Samba-School was again innovative and brought the Comissão de Frente on horses, just like the way Great Carnival Societies (Grandes Sociedades) used to do.
"In the thirties some schools tried to innovate, placing floats on the commission, which was criticized by the jurors, who believed that there was no need for that.
But the major transformations of the opening wings came after schools hired visual artists and choreographers.
The union of the two classes caused a real scandal, due to the beauty of the presentations.
The costumes are rich, according to the school's plot, the members rehearse choreographies related to the presented story. Often, the front committee is enriched with professional dancers, in order to present a parade of higher quality."
~excerpt above from BrasilEscola/carnaval
Below, a luxurious Opening Wing by Rocinha Samba-School.
Photo Credit: Agencia FOTO BR
From 1938 on, the Opening Wing became part of the official regulation for the parades. It was then formed by distinguished samba-school members, like directors from the board, patrons, elder samba players, or important people from community. This group had the mission to present the school to the jury to the carnaval crowd and authorities, while receiving applause from samba enthusiasts. They would go marching by foot.
Throughout the years, the Opening Wing always found a way to evolve and present a different look throughout its outfits, posture, the presentation, and members/components. In 1965, in the Carnaval of the IV Centenary, Salgueiro Samba-School presented “little donkeys” as Opening Wing (typical from the folguedos - typical popular festivals from several regions of Brazil).
The first time though women came on a “Comissao de Frente” was in 1969 by Samba-School Imperatriz Leopoldinense. They represented the Africans and the theme was “Brazil, lovely flower of three races”.
In 1978, another historical curiosity: Estação Primeira de Mangueira Samba-School presented two Opening Wings during their parade. The first, which would be analyzed by the jury, was formed by women, and the second, formed by the elders from the samba-school like Cartola, Nelson Cavaquinho, Grande Otelo, and others. Today, "Comissão de Frente" may be formed by men, women, or even children. They are fancy dressed, they come in white tie, black tie, suits, or costumes, whatever the parade-theme requires.
Every day stilt commissions become more common, performing acrobatics, somersaults and other adventures. Commissions that ensure the perfection of the choreographies, such as those of Imperatriz Leopoldinense samba throughout the 90's, and those that moved the public, such as the one that revived the great names of samba, from Mangueira samba school, in 1999 are already marked in history.
Front commissions are still evolving, and this show will have an additional chapter to write each year.
Last, we will show a small demonstration of one of the most creative Front Comission from Unidos da Tijuca samba school in 2010 (giving them the title), showing once again the personality of the carnavalesco Paulo Barros who definitely enters the gallery of the great carnivales of samba. Congratulations Tijuca, congratulations Paulo Barros! Years after that Paulo Barros continued to use special effects and many other samba schools started to copy his creative approach.