Carnaval In Recife: Long History, Interesting Future

In northeastern Brazil, a pre-Lenten Carnival party has its roots in slavery and religion.

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JACKI LYDEN, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden. It's Carnaval in Brazil - that time of the year when people take to the streets and celebrate before the austerity of Lent begins. And while you may think the Rio de Janeiro when you think of Carnaval, we're going to take you north to Recife. It's considered one of the most diverse carnivals in Brazil. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Recife.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, BYLINE: Boom, Carnaval. I am on the streets of Recife during one of their biggest moments of Carnaval, the Galo de Madrugada, or the cock of the dawn, so called because the party starts as the sun breaks out into the sky, so the legend goes. And all around me people are partying hard. There is drink, there is food, there is dancing, there are costumes of every single imaginable description. But Carnaval is a lot more than the explosion you see on the streets these few days. It has a long history and an interesting future, according to some musicians. And to talk about that, we're going to take a step back from the streets right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We are sitting in the house of Nana Vasconcelos, a renowned Brazilian musician and percussionist who was born in Recife. He's playing for us an instrument called the berimbau. Its' a kind of bow with a gourd attached that is used in Capoeira, the Brazilian martial art. He's been chosen to open the Carnaval festivities this year because of his long association with the city and its music.

NANA VASCONCELOS: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He tells me other Carnavals, like Rio, has been commercialized but not Recife. They don't sell out their art here, he says. Things here are still innocent in a way. It's a street party and we can't lose that, he says. Unlike Rio de Janeiro, where samba is queen, here in Recife there are three types of music.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Frevo, which originated in the military marching bands of the late 19th century.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Maracatu, which has deep links to Afro-Brazilian religion and slavery.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And caboclinhos, which pays homage to the indigenous roots of the people here. That all speaks to the history of the state. The Portuguese and briefly the Dutch were the overlords here and that brought an imprint of both northern and southern European cultures. Africans came as slaves joining the indigenous peoples who lived here. Maria Alice Amorim is a researcher who specializes in Pernanmbuco's Carnaval.

MARIA ALICE AMORIM: (Portuguese spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: The culture here in Recife is a complex and varied and the truth is these cultures have been mixing between themselves and that has made them vibrant and allowed them to grow, she says. But grow into what?

ANTONIO NOBREGA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Antonio Nobrega is considered one of Recife's most famous artists, and this year's Carnaval was dedicated to him. He's known for using the rhythms and beats of Recife's music in his own work. The honor though has made him reflective and he talks about how the strong musical traditions here need to expand beyond Carnaval to become less insular.

NOBREGA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Our music is circumscribed, he says, by the seasonality of Carnaval. It has difficulty transcending the moment of Carnaval like samba has done for example, he says.

NOBREGA: (Foreign language spoken)

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I think Brazil is going through an important moment, he says, and our music here doesn't speak to that. We've had a year of protests and we should be talking about that in our Recife music, he says. Brazil needs that, the world needs that, he tells me. That's our future. So, now we are now back on the streets of Recife's Carnaval, and the party is still going strong, as you can hear. This is Lourdes Garcia-Navarro at Recife's Carnaval.

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