We may not have the samba schools of Rio De Janeiro, the gargantuan papier-mâché puppets, or thousands of people spilling out into the streets, but scaled-down Carnaval celebrations are—and have been for decades—alive and kicking in the Twin Cities.
“Carnaval is to Brazilians sort of like Thanksgiving is to Americans…if you’re American no matter where you are in the world you have got to have that turkey on Thanksgiving. Now if you’re Brazilian, Carnaval is like that,” said Doug Little, a member of Charagana Tropical, a mostly Cuban band playing at a Caribbean Carnival celebration at the Varsity Theater. “You’ve just gotta have that party during Carnaval. If you don’t, you’re somehow not part of Brazil.”
For hundreds of Brazilians in Minnesota, Carnaval is one of the few times a year they come together.
“The Brazilian community is not very close here in Minnesota,” said Goretti Aamot, a native of Recife who will be selling masks at this year’s Brazilian Carnaval at Trocaderos. “We have groups from Recife, São Paulo, or Bahía. But we are only unified during Carnaval or during soccer commemorations.”
There are several Latino community centers in the Twin Cities, but there is not a Brazilian community center, so events like Carnaval are particularly important in the community. (The Brazilian Connection, a store in Minnetonka that caters to the culinary needs of Brazilians in Minnesota, is perhaps the closest thing to a to a Brazilian cultural clearinghouse in the Twin Cities and is helping organizing a smaller Carnaval celebration this weekend.)
So, for years, the task of organizing Carnaval in the Twin Cities has fallen to musicians and Brazilians who are passionate about bringing their traditions to Minnesota. Luiz Vinholi runs a student exchange program for Brazilian and American university students and was involved in planning Brazilian Carnaval celebrations for ten years, beginning in 1986. Vinholi, who came to Minnesota with his wife nearly 25 years ago, recalled one unexpected outcome of transplanting Brazilian traditions to Minnesota at a Carnaval event at the University of Minnesota’s Great Hall in the early 1990s.
“We made a food called Feijaoda. You know, in the old days the slaves would take the old food and they’d mix the beans with the old pieces of the pork. And it was the incredible mix of the spices and the pepper and pork is what really makes the dish…”
That was in Brazil. In Minnesota the flavors didn’t fly so well. “Well at that Carnaval we had a dinner for 400 people and we completely forgot about all the vegetarians and I think 40% of people were vegetarians! That’s just not something you plan for in Brazil,” Vinholi said.
Then there was the drinking age. Many second-generation Brazilians youth who grew up in Minnesota have been to Carnaval in Brazil on trips but haven’t been to Carnaval in Minnesota.
“The University didn’t want to have any drinking,” Vinholi said. “But we went to them and said, listen, culturally you can’t go to Carnaval and sip a Coca Cola. So, we made the cultural argument, and they accepted it… But you’re not there to binge drink. You’re there to drink and also to dance, and dance some more, and eat, and dance and have fun.”
2009’s big Brazilian bang
This year the task of organizing the biggest Carnaval celebration is falling for the eighth year to Robert Everest, a Minnesota native who plays an array of Latin American music.
Last year Everest got 500 people out to Trocaderos on a frigid night, but he hopes one guest in particular will bring some authentic Brazilian flair to the stage and get even more people through the door this year. Dandara, a Brazilian singer now living in San Fransisco, is flying to Minnesota for the event.
Everest first met Dandara when she asked to sing with him while she was visiting a friend in Minnesota. “I wasn’t expecting that phenomenal of a singer. This press guy in L.A. calls her ‘The Tina Turner of Brazil.’ It’s kind of her moniker because she’s got that energy, she dances, I just think it means that she’s got a lot of fire.”
Getting acts like Dandara lined up is just part of the preparation for the event. The preparations are half of the fun of Carnaval, though, according to Luiz Vinholi. “It’s unbelievable what these people are going through to prepare in Brazil. They’ve been preparing since last Carnaval. I remember in the small towns and the girls are always in charge of sewing and putting your costumes together. And the fun part was the weeks before and doing the preparation.”
Unless you’re Robert Everest.
Everest says that planning the event is a “labor of love….it’s assiduous labor for two months and last year we made $300.” He added, “but it’s worth it at the end just seeing the crowd go crazy and bringing together all these Brazilians and non-Brazilians.”
Things do get hectic for Everest when he is in preparation mode. In past Carnavals he has sent out last minute frantic messages to get people to volunteer at the event. One year his mom and dad responded to the call and Everest says they have gotten more involved each year. This year his mother, a Minnesota native, is in charge of set design.
Twin Cities Carnaval, Carnival and Mardi Gras
Carnaval is not exclusively Brazilian. It is celebrated as Carnival in other Latin American countries and as Mardi Gras in New Orleans, among other places. The festival grew, in part, out of the age of European expansion when Europeans exported their masked balls to their conquered territories. Many of these traditions came to the Americans by way of Italy France, and Spain but some of these traditions also existed in other parts of Europe. Which is what the Sokol Minnesota, a Czech and Slovak heritage club, wants to remind its members.
Because, after all, before there was Samba there was Polka.
Sokol Minnesota is organizing Sibrinky, a Czech Mardi Gras celebration in St. Paul. The Sokol club itself came out of a tradition of secular groups that arose in Central Europe in the mid-1800s. When these Czech and Slovac secular groups, called Sokol, arrived in Minnesota they started Sokol Minnesota as a reading group. It later became more of a cultural community interested in preserving old world traditions.
“[Czech Mardi Gras] is part of the outgrowth of the Sokol philosophy. Music is huge, dancing is huge, ethnic costumes are huge. This celebration brings all these things together,” said Joe Landsberger, president of Sokol Minnesota.
Landsberger may also assuage the fears of those who think the the Brazilians might out dance the Old World Mardi Gras buffs. “There are a lot of people who are die-hard polka people—I mean die-hard, so it will be fun to see what will come of it.”
He added, “You don’t need to know how to dance, though.”
That is a theme that runs from Czech Mardi Gras to Brazilian Carnaval. As Luiz Vinoholi said of the Brazilian Carnavals, “It was always so much work, but it is always so much fun to dance samba. And it is so much fun to watch Americans dancing samba—not elegantly—but they are trying their best! And that’s great!”
So, Salsa, Samba, Polka. The option to dance them—elegantly or not—is out there.