This March, millions of Brazilians dusted off their feather-filled headdresses, beglittered their masks, donned their bikinis, shook their caiparinhas, and flocked to the beaches of Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, and Olinda, Lindenberg Silva Jr. focused on bringing the party to us. Native to Recife, the capital of northeastern Brazilian state Pernambuco, Lindenberg Jr., as he is known, has now organized eight years of the Santa Barbara Brazilian Carnaval.
Having spent last Carnaval as one of the sweaty masses filling the grimy, human-saturated streets, blocos, beaches, and samba school rehearsals in Rio de Janeiro, I was both excited and apprehensive to experience the Santa Barbara Brazilian Carnaval. Two months after returning from Rio, it took only a brief chat with Lindenberg Jr., and some minutes hearing the samba performance at the first of the Carnaval’s events, to replace my apprehension with musical nostalgia.
Coinciding with the dive into Carnaval festivities down in Brazil, the Friday, March 4 event at SOhO featured performances by the Viver Brasil Dance Company from Los Angeles, the Los Angeles Samba School, Lula Almeida and Flavia de Melow of L.A., and Brazilian musician living in Boston Ju Marciano. And while SOhO wasn’t quite as free, public, or piss-and-sand-filled as the streets of Rio de Janeiro, the vibrations of many drums and the stomping of many costume-clad women’s heels added authentic factors to the celebration.
As well-articulated by Brazilian Ana Petta, who has been in Santa Barbara for almost two months now, the uniqueness of SOhO’s Carnaval event lay in its local crowd. Petta is a native of Aracaju (the capital of Sergipe state) who has lived in Natal (the capital of Rio Grande do Norte) for 35 years—both cities in northeastern Brazil. This was one of very few Carnavals she spent surrounded not by Brazilians but rather by Brazilian culture enthusiasts. She noted the locals’ curiosity “to feel that which is Brazilian; to experience the happiness that is Brazilian Carnaval from the people itself.”
While millions of Brazilians danced the night away in the motherland, the SOhO crowd enjoyed $8 dollar caiparinhas (traditional Brazilian cocktails), dances by scantily clad, feather-topped ladies, a full stage of musicians, and a quick roda performance by Contra Maestro Mariano Silva’s Capoeira Batuque Santa Barbara.
The following Thursday, Brazil’s professional folk dance company Balé Folklórico da Bahia performed at Campbell Hall, in partnership with UCSB Arts & Lectures, in the second event of this year’s Santa Barbara Brazilian Carnaval. The 38-person crew of dancers and musicians was more like an acrobatic troupe with cultural electricity. Their program, “Sacred Heritage,” demonstrated with technical precision and bountiful energy Brazil’s African roots.
This journey through Afro-Brazilian folk culture captivated audiences from the get-go as dancers swayed, singing, down Campbell Hall’s aisles to a tempo so slow that it almost concealed hints at the coming explosion of energy. Candomblé-themed dances followed, in which dancers replicated people being possessed by the orixás (spirits) in a typical Candomblé ceremony. The Capoeira portion of the night began with Capoeira at its sexiest: A female and a male member of the group performed slow motion, close-quarters, in only tiny white thongs. It sped up to feature men in colorful pants blurring their high, spinning kicks into one rapid but delicate wheel. The dancers and musicians wowed the audience with their apparently super-human abilities to jump, kick, spin, drum, and sing for almost two hours without seeming to tire at all. The performance was so electric, in fact, that it had the full audience of all ages dancing, jumping, and clapping their butts off in Campbell Hall’s rows, aisles, and everywhere in between throughout the final 20 minutes.
The last event of Santa Barbaran Brazilian Carnaval, which fell on the Sunday after Lent, was the screening of the documentary Moro no Brasil. In it, Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismäki searches Brazil’s lands and people far and wide for the roots of Brazilian folk music. His 4,000-kilometer journey brings him in touch with various genres including forró, frevo, embolada, and samba, and more than 30 musicians, including Seu Jorge, the Mangueira Samba School, and northeastern street and square performers.
Leoncio Martins, a Brazilian Santa Barbaran who attended the screening, said he enjoyed the event but mentioned the impossibility of tackling a subject so massive in a mere two-hour documentary. Martins said he spent the first 23 years of his life between Brazil’s biggest cities, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, joining family in Santa Barbara in 1979. The point implied by both the film and Martins was that it’s impossible to put a thumb down on Brazilian music—for hundreds of years, a diverse and ever-shifting array of genres, instruments, and musicians have occupied every corner of every region of the biggest country south of the border. The same could be said of Carnaval, which varies by region within Brazil, and even more so outside of Brazil. “Carnaval in Santa Barbara is different. In Brazil the country stops during Carnaval,” Martins said. “Carnaval in Brazil is a lot of excitement and a party with thousands of people with the same goal: to dance, to laugh, to sing, and to celebrate everything good in daily life.”
After the close of Santa Barbara Brazilian Carnaval’s events, I visited Petta, the least Americanized Brazilian I know in our community, to get a stronger sense of her 2011 Carnaval experience. In the fourth-floor office of her husband, São Paulo native Reinaldo Petta, a visiting scholar to UCSB’s geography department, Ana Petta first described her favorite Carnaval experiences.
The best Carnaval, she said, is the one in Pernambuco, because it is the “biggest popular manifestation. Unlike the celebrations in Rio de Janeiro, where people who follow the Trio Electrico [parade-leading music-blasting truck] have to pay to wear the same uniform and dance with the group, all you have to do is show up.”
She talked about the Carnaval at Olinda, also in the northeast, which annually sees one of the densest if not the densest conglomeration of people in the world, where 2,000 people fill one bloco (block party), and where the Galo da Madrugada (Midnight Chicken) and giant statues of famous people are carried around through the crowd. One general aspect she likes about northeastern Carnaval saturations is that they aren’t punctuated by tourist-oriented performances like those at Rio’s Sambodramo (where the aforementioned Mangueira Samba School earned its international fame).
Using Ana’s logic, if the Rio Carnaval’s commercialism makes it inferior to northeastern Carnaval celebrations, then a California Carnaval would be even worse. But such is the nature of a national holiday celebration displaced from its nation. Her husband, Professor Petta, of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, who normally just sits back with a beer and observes the festivities, said he had a good time.
While Ana Petta, who, with Reinaldo, will return to Natal in December, doesn’t think she’ll spend another Carnaval in Santa Barbara, she expressed hope that Lindenberg Jr.’s annual celebrations will grow. If the Brazilian community in Santa Barbara were to solidify, she said, it would help.
To put things in perspective, even the California rendition of a Brazilian party is still the party of the year in California. I certainly never imagined, after my year spent abroad, that I’d be serenaded with so much Brazilian culture this Carnaval. And I’ve got Lindenberg Jr. to thank. To stay in tune with Brazilian goings on, look for his magazine, Soul Brasil in print or at online at soulbrasil.com.