"As soon as Christmas arrives, that's it," said taxi-driver Edson, grinning from ear to ear. "From then on it's carnival, carnival, carnival."

Each year carnival has a theme and 2004 is Viva a Povo Brasileiro, or Up With the Brazilian People. It starts officially on 19 February and lasts until the 24th.

Whereas Rio de Janeiro is world-famous for its own spectacular, it was overtaken by Salvador, the capital of Bahia, in the mid-90s by the sheer number of participants. Last year, estimates put that at 2.2 million people.

"Carnival is more important than Christmas and New Year's Eve here. It is the event. Absolutely everybody takes part. Every small town has carnival. Every neighbourhood has a bloco (a samba group). Salvador has the biggest and the best," said Edson.

Giant ensaios, or rehearsals, are entering their final stages. In truth, many rehearsals are a carnival show in their own right, save the fact that people are not yet dressed in their costumes or colours.

Rehearsal entertainment 

Margareth Mendez is holding one down in the dock area. Inside a huge warehouse, thousands are sweating and dancing, craning to see the diva on stage or sitting back and watching the action relayed on to three screens. It goes on until 6am.

Mendez, whose bloco is called Os Mascarados (The Masked Ones) has a huge local following but she is virtually unknown outside of the state. "She's black and a lesbian," said one of the throng.

Thousands of people even attend
the rehearsals and party till dawn

Salvador's most famous carnival export is the African bloco Olodum, who found fame after being recorded by Paul Simon. Their red, green and gold logo is found everywhere in the city.

Yet more enormous crowds have gathered to watch Olodum rehearse in Pelourinho, the recently restored historical centre full of mazy cobbled streets and imposing churches.

The square, a heavily policed tourist magnet, is uncomfortably full and the noise of the drumming deafening. However, aficionados consider Olodum to be past their best. If you want the real thing, they say, look no further than Ile Aiye in the neighbourhood to the north, Liberdade.

Ile Aiye, which means house of life in Yoruba, were the first afro-bloco to be founded in Bahia and this year will celebrate their 30th anniversary "struggling for affirmative action". To be a member you have to have African ancestry.

The Liberdade neighbourhood has the highest black population - 600,000 - in Brazil. Ile Aiye led a revolution in carnival in the 1970s with their new style.

Bridging gaps

"The objective of Ile Aiye is to preserve value and expand afro-Brazilian culture and, because of this, since we were founded, we pay homage to the African countries, nations and cultures and the rebellions of black Brazilians," said the group's mission statement.

"It's not just the enthusiasm which helps make the Bahian Carnival. There were around 184,000 new jobs created for the event last year"

Spokesman for the
municipal government

Everywhere there are invitations to take part with all kinds and varieties of groups.

"You work a lot for little money around here," said Anna, a waitress in a Pelourinho bar that looks like it has gathered every conceivable barrel of spirits in Brazil into one place. "And so everyone looks forward to Carnival. It's Bahia!" she smiled.

Dotted around the bar and plastered on the walls outside are times and dates and venues for an overwhelming number of pre-carnival events. There is even graffiti to let you know who will be practicing where.

Sweet Cotton, Hug Me

There are almost 200 recognised groups in Salvador, according to the local government authority which oversees the events. The eclectic names translate as Sweet Cotton, Beer and Company, Honey, Scent of Love and Hug Me. There is even a group who dress to look like Mahatma Gandhi, called Sons of Gandhi to spread a message of peace.

Salvador last year attracted
a record 950,000 tourists

Many of the country's musical greats hail from the state. Carlinhos Brown set up the Timbalada bloco and even the city's famous son, the Brazilian Culture Minister and musician Gilberto Gil has his own float, Expresso 2222.

This year his daughter, the singer Preta Gil, will be the star.

"It's not just the enthusiasm which helps make the Bahian Carnival. There were around 184,000 new jobs created for the event last year," said a spokesman for the municipal government.

The figures give some idea of the size and scale of the operation. For last year's party, which attracted a record 950,000 tourists, the city streets needed 72,000m of luminous cables using 7 million watts of electricity.

And then after you think it's all over, it isn't. There is still carnival hangover, which goes on for at least another week.