I’ve talked about both the music and dance of frevo before but, aside from just barely touching upon it, I never went into why they use an umbrella (or sombrinha, in frevo-speak) in the frevo dance.
Why the umbrella?
Frevo came about in Recife towards the end of the 19th century, and it was common to have conflicts among frevo groups (ie, blocos) during Carnival. Members of any particular bloco (those who knew capoeira) would go ahead of their group to intimidate rival blocos in an attempt to protect their own bloco and banner.
Initially, the umbrella wasn’t more than a weapon to be used by the capoeira players, and was likely chosen for the very reason that it’s not normally seen as a weapon. Before the use of the umbrella, they used knives, clubs and even capoeira moves on their rivals. The problem is the police caught on and banned all of it, which made the capoeira players disguise their moves as a dance and make it appear that their umbrella was just for show. Plus, the umbrellas were actually old and beat-up so it wasn’t like they’d be ruining something otherwise useful. As time went on, these big, black, old umbrellas started to slowly transform along with the evolution of the dance itself, until they became the small, colorful version we see today, used to accompany the dance. [1 & 2]
As for the colors of the umbrella and the frevo outfits, just look to the flag of Pernambuco and you’ll soon understand.
There’s also a few folk versions of the umbrella’s origin. One of them says on a certain Carnival, it rained heavily but the people simply didn’t want to stop dancing frevo so they started to bring out their umbrellas. A second version says they’re used merely because it’s sunny a lot of the time. A third version says the small umbrella is the frevo’s version of the large umbrella used in Maracatu. Yet another version says it was just used as a means of transporting food for sale, with the umbrella open and upside-down.
Related: Frevo in Black & White (notice the umbrellas are, in appearance, midway between what they used to be and what they are today)