Take a (sub)tropical paradise with a strong sense of community, add some samba music, a bunch of sweaty, topless men, and a handful of women in skimpy bikinis and feather headdresses and you’ve got the makings of a serious party. So thought Brazilian ex-pat Lindenberg Jr. when he first visited Santa Barbara. Now in his fifth year of producing Santa Barbara Brazilian Carnaval, he has reason to celebrate.
Lindenberg grew up in Recife, the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco, and one of the country’s carnaval hotspots. Every year, for the four days leading up to Western Christianity’s observance of Lent, the streets of Recife come alive in a wild, noisy, and democratic celebration involving thousands of people from all walks of life. Traditionally, carnaval, like its American counterpart Mardi Gras, was a designated period for the enjoyment of bodily pleasures in anticipation of Lent’s 40 days of fasting and prayer. Today, the festival’s religious implications are lost on many, but what remains is the universal appeal of celebrating life.
The celebration of Brazilian carnaval isn’t new to California. For nearly 30 years, Carnaval San Francisco has brought its flashy costumes, bright colors, and intoxicating rhythms to the city’s increasingly hip Mission District, and this year marks Long Beach’s 12th Brazilian Street Carnaval. What makes Santa Barbara’s carnaval different, said Lindenberg, is its intergenerational tone and varied cultural offerings.
Most other Californian carnavals limit their one- or two-day celebrations to parades featuring samba music and Brazilian dance. By contrast, Santa Barbara’s mini-festival offers three days of Brazilian cultural activities, including a screening of a documentary film about the Rio de Janeiro choro music scene, a friendly soccer game open to all interested players and followed by a traditional Brazilian meal, and a samba and Afro-Brazilian dance workshop. The festival also includes two parties: one on Saturday night at Stateside Restaurant & Lounge featuring area Brazilian band PraKantar and Los Angeles samba dance troupe the Red Hot Rio Girls, and a Sunday afternoon celebration at EOS Lounge catered by a Brazilian chef from Los Angeles and featuring a live demonstration of the dance-like Brazilian martial art form capoeira.
Even before Lindenberg launched the city’s first carnaval in 2004, Santa Barbara boasted a small but lively community of native Brazilians, many of whom were busy importing Brazilian culture to the American Riviera. Brazilian dancer and vocalist Vanessa Isaac, singer/guitarist Teka, capoeira instructors Daniel “Chin” Yoshimi and Marcos Mariano Silva, and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu teachers Ricardo “Franjinha” Miller and Rodrigo Clark are among those who continue to promote some of Brazil’s most popular cultural exports.
“I think Brazil has some magic,” Lindenberg said, “a special essence that people want to be in touch with. We know it also faces the difficulties of a less-developed country, but we want to focus on what is positive.” Lindenberg speaks about Santa Barbara Brazilian Carnaval as an opportunity to bring people together: Brazilians living here and anyone with an interest in the culture. For him, Brazilian culture itself is a model for this kind of event. “Brazil is like a melting pot,” he said. “Moroccans, Italians, Germans, Poles, Afro-Brazilians-everyone is mixed together. Muslims and Jews in Brazil live together in peace. An American friend said to me once, ‘Brazil is the only country that everybody loves.'”
Extending this kind of communal cooperation to the carnaval has its challenges. Lindenberg said it has been hard to convince separate participating businesses in Santa Barbara to work together-many want to avoid promoting one another’s events. When it comes to participating individuals, though, it seems everyone is on the same page. Brazilian dancer and choreographer Jennifer Parker of the Red Hot Rio Girls said carnaval is “a great way to get a sense of the celebration. We just want to spread the whole genre, the vibe.”
Capoeira instructor Chin, who for years ran his own weekly Brazilian night at Sharkeez and will deejay the Saturday night party as well as lead the capoeira demonstration on Sunday, agreed. “It goes both ways,” he said. “Brazilians can hang out together, and they can also bring their friends to experience Brazilian culture.” For Silva, who sings for Brazilian band PraKantar as well as teaching capoeira and Afro-Brazilian dance in Santa Barbara schools and gyms, bringing the community together is what it’s all about. “For us Brazilians, carnaval is a kind of religion,” he said. “You look forward to it every year. The whole idea of carnaval is bringing everyone together for celebration.” Is it a religious tradition anymore? “In Brazil,” he said, “at the end of carnaval on Ash Wednesday, we all go to church. Here, some people just see it as a party. Either way, let’s have a good time.”