Much of the pre-carnaval events are maybe even more worth it than the ones during carnaval itself. The participants are mostly local (vs. International and out of town tourists), the crowd is very energized, and there is a sense of novelty in the air. Aside from the main carnaval parade at the Sambodromo (the sambe city), there are smaller carnaval blocks (blocos) all over town. They are either traditional ones with a proper parade and typical samba music or special ones – dedicated to various themes ranging from Michael Jackson, to Beatles to Beards (the hipster bloco).
The way I learned that Brazilians classify the quality of blocos is according to the amount of beautiful (and rich) people that show up, rather than quality of music. The “best” blocos I attended so far we characterized by exactly that, plus being extremely crowded (so that even if you don’t want to, you are constantly touching and being touched by everyone) and barely audible beyond people’s chatter. They are normally happening in the wealthier Leblon, Gavea and Lagoa neighborhoods. I went to one of those, called “IMAGINÔ? AGORA AMASSA“, and got pretty claustrophobic from the amount of six packs, makeup and the amount of girls in uniforms and guys in Snow White and Mini Mouse(!!!) costumes.
By the way, it is important to note that dressing up in group costumes for girls and dressing up in female costumes for guys are the best ways to pick up persons of the opposite sex (this was a tip from a REAL carioca).
My good blocos were the special ones that were much smaller (“only” 200-500 people, instead of 10k-1million) and has some really great music. The best one was Rio Pandeiro which is a drumming band that played with explosive energy at Praça São Salvador (an awesome weekly live music location in Flamengo), partially instrumental and partially with live samba singing. I am thinking of joining them for next year..
Today, I also went to Bloco Fogo e Paixão (fire and passion) in Centro, where I learned about the concept of Brega music (cheesy, old school, tacky) and saw some great costumes and a very creative guy in a tutu skirt, climbing a tree to better position himself for dancing (go figure..).