Samba school parades climax Rio Carnival extravaganza

Elite samba schools were poised for fiery climax to the famed Rio Carnival on Sunday, when giant allegorical floats and scantily-dressed beauty queens go on parade.

Thousands of participants bedecked in elaborate costumes were converging on Rio's Sambodrome parade ground, which was designed by the late star architect Oscar Niemeyer.

After a mammoth street party that drew nearly two million people in central Rio Saturday, all eyes were now on the Sambodrome, where two nights of mesmerizing allegorical pageantry were to begin, watched by a global television audience.

They feature Rio's top 12 samba schools competing on floats packed with dancers wearing huge headgear, feathers, sequins, body paint and little else.

The schools are vying for the title of Carnival champion in a fiercely contested showdown watched with the same fervor as football matches in this soccer-mad nation.

Unlike the ubiquitous streets parties that are open to all, the parades at the 72,500-seat, open-air 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 in 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 the country.

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 this vibrant and racially diverse country 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.

In Rio, another samba school, Inocentes de Belford Roxo, was also to pay its own colorful homage to Korean culture, with a theme called "the Seven confluences of the Han River" invoking the protection of the ancient Korean wind goddess Yondung Halmoni.

"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 Salvador, the Bahia state and heart of the rich Afro-Brazilian culture, 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 December 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 extravaganza.

The Marvelous City, 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 January 27 nightclub fire in the southern college town of Santa Maria that left 239 young people dead.

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