RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Few Brazilians can claim to dominate their field as much, and at such a young age, as the 39-year-old Carnival showman Leandro Vieira.
Vieira has become one of the most decorated leaders of the annual parade competition in Rio de Janeiro. This year, as Carnival director of a samba school that hasn’t won in more than two decades, he could cement his name as one of the greatest since the festivities kicked off almost 100 years ago.
Rio’s is the nation’s premier Carnival parade, and the contestants compete for money prizes, prestige and fandom.
Vieira’s job includes helping to pick his samba school’s theme for the year, its material for costumes and who will feature on the top of majestic floats. Ultimately he decides how his school spends about 10 million Brazilian reals (almost $2 million).
Vieira’s prestige as an artist — and his fame as a party animal — has stretched well beyond Rio, achieving the kind of celebrity a film director might gain. He was recently interviewed on Roda Viva, a public TV traditional program that often listens to the most respected Brazilians.
He is a fixture not only in Carnival's formal parade competitions, but of the informal block parties throughout the city at this time of year.
“I can’t just work, I need to feel Carnival on the street to be happy,” Vieira told The Associated Press in an interview. “Even more so after a pandemic that made us suffer so much, made us stay home in 2021."
Vieira’s job title is carnavalesco.
He did it for Mangueira, the most popular samba school in Brazil, where he won the parade titles in 2016 and 2019. Later, he lifted two trophies in the second division, which makes him one of the most successful in recent years.
This year he is carnavalesco for Imperatriz Leopoldinense — named after a former Empress of Brazil — which recently was relegated to second division and where he hopes to earn the school's first trophy since 2001.
Vieira says he does not aim merely to shock or thrill an audience, but rather to deliver thoughtful statements.
“I am not a carnavalesco of surprises. I am not a man of spectacles,” Vieira said in the interview while he simultaneously worked on his group’s radio equipment that they will use to communicate during their parade.
His school's parade this year focused on the life of 1920s and 30s bandit Virgulino Ferreira da Silva, better known by Brazilians as Lampião. Vieira says he picks his themes with one motto in mind: “It is the history that official history doesn’t tell."
Lampião, for example, was not portrayed by the samba school solely as a vicious criminal but also as a brave man who earned the respect of many fellow Brazilians.
Ahead of this year's parade, Vieira walked through the performers fixing costumes and adjusting details with a smile on his face. He made sure all members were doing their part to sing this year’s theme music — a detail that can make a difference with the judges who sit in the audience in Rio’s Sambadrome.
A key choice for Imperatriz Leopoldinense this year was who to appoint as queen of the drum section — a role that the school traditionally has given to celebrities and fashion models. Last year it was pop singer Iza.
This time Vieira helped give the nod to a 21-year-old communications student and dancer named Maria Mariá who is from one of Rio’s low-income favela neighborhoods. She was crowned during an emotional ceremony last December at the samba school’s headquarters with a headpiece designed by Vieira.
“Leandro is a big inspiration to us all. He shows us we can be the best in any field we like,” Mariá said Tuesday while dressed as a devil who teases the character of Lampião.
Vieira takes his role in the Carnival parade industry seriously, but says that taking part in the holiday’s street parties is just as important for him. Earlier in the week he joined the Prata Preta street party wearing the costume of Brazilian singer Gal Costa, who died last year.
“The soul of the party is on the street,” he said.