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Brazil’s 'Carnaval' Comes to Washington

Brazilian musician and artist Caique Vidal performs during a Carnaval celebration in Washington, D.C.
Brazilian musician and artist Caique Vidal performs during a Carnaval celebration in Washington, D.C.
More Than Just a Party, Brazil's "Carnaval" Comes to Washington
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Caique Vidal first experienced Brazil’s Carnaval celebrations as a baby living in Salvador, the capital of Bahia State.

Before he was even a year old, his mother took him to his first Carnaval event. Afro-Brazilian groups performed during parades in the city’s historic Pelourinho neighborhood.

The cultural traditions of Salvador have stuck with him. And, Vidal, a trained musician, now performs the unmistakable music of Bahia in the United States. He often plays in the Washington, D.C. area.

Right now, it is Carnaval season in Brazil and other countries around the world.

Even the DC area celebrates the season. Last week, Vidal, Brazilian singer-songwriter Cissa Paz and other musicians performed here for a Carnaval celebration. They played at Tropicália, a colorful event space named for the Brazilian artistic movement of the 1960s.

Performing in Washington and other U.S. cities has helped Vidal and Paz stay close to their Brazilian roots. Vidal spoke with VOA before the show.

“Being here now living in the U.S. and not being able to enjoy Carnaval as I’m used to back in Brazil with my friends and family is really heartbreaking. And that was the reason why I decided to start making my own events – Carnaval parties – just to get connected to my roots, to my happiness.”

It may come as a surprise, but Washington is said to have one of the largest followings for Brazilian culture in the U.S. This year alone, there are more than a dozen Carnaval celebrations in the DC area.

Here, the season isn’t celebrated on city streets as in Brazil, where it is currently summer. February is one of Washington’s coldest months. So, the events take place indoors at theaters, restaurants, and other places.

Audience members in Washington, D.C. dance to songs by Caique Vidal, who performed at Tropicalia during Carnaval.
Audience members in Washington, D.C. dance to songs by Caique Vidal, who performed at Tropicalia during Carnaval.

Diverse crowds gather to joyfully revel together. The revelers include Americans from all walks of life and a number of Brazilians.

Carnaval is one of the world’s biggest celebrations. In many countries, activities take place for a few weeks each year and include huge parades and street parties with live music. Carnaval goers wear colorful, themed clothing and masks.

In Rio de Janeiro, hundreds of thousands of people gather outdoors for these celebrations in neighborhoods all over the city.

And, as many Brazilians know, Carnaval is more than just ‘one big party.’ Historically, it was a time for revelry just before the Christian religious observance of Lent. Today, Carnaval is non-religious and offers a wide mix of cultural and social activities.

Both Vidal and Paz say they recognize the importance of Carnaval apart from what’s observed on the street.

Paz grew up in Rio and has lived in the U.S. since the age of 17. Her music draws on many traditions, including bossa nova, forró, and other Afro-Portuguese and Brazilian influences.

Brazilian singer-songwriter Cissa Paz performs during Carnaval in Washington, D.C.
Brazilian singer-songwriter Cissa Paz performs during Carnaval in Washington, D.C.

Paz notes that, in addition to all the celebrations, the work that goes into Carnaval leads to unity and teamwork. Samba schools, for example, work for 12 months organizing, creating fine, elaborate clothing and floats, and training for performances.

“It brings everybody out, it makes everybody work together, and it just – it promotes happiness, it promotes enjoyment, it promotes music, it promotes dance, and it promotes the culture itself, and even religion...You know, there are so many different aspects of it, so I think it’s extremely important.”

For many of the performers, Carnaval is also a time to publicize socially-important messages.

Rio and São Paulo are at the center of Brazil’s most commercial Carnaval celebrations. But, even in these cities, many samba schools use their performance to publicize messages of social or cultural importance.

For Afro-Brazilian artists in Salvador, Carnaval has long been a vehicle for social expression. For many years, local samba-reggae musicians have sung about social issues, such as poverty and inequality. The musicians also sing to honor their African roots.

But, Vidal says, Salvador’s Carnaval has changed a lot, and those changes have made social and racial inequity more noticeable.

For example, wealthy Carnaval goers pay hundreds of dollars to wear the abadá​, a t-shirt that helps them gain entrance to an area guarded by security. Sadly, most of the people who cannot pay are the locals.

Back in DC, Vidal performs the socially-conscious music of his Bahian roots along with salsa, bachata, pop and rock. He sings with his band Batuque, which is made up completely of Americans.

Having a social conscience, he says, means seeing Carnaval “with different eyes,” but it’s still a joyful and unforgettable time.

“Carnaval is such a fun, happy time where you liberate yourself to express yourself artistically or just as a human being.”

And crowds in D.C. are happy when he jumps off the stage into the crowd and starts singing and dancing with them.

Vidal lives in North Carolina. But he says Washington is his favorite U.S. city for a performance because of the energy from the crowds.

Paz, too, says she feels lucky to be in DC, where the people are in love with Brazilian culture.

“It's nice. They’re very open. They’re very happy. They’re very excited and they’re very supportive, which is amazing.”

I’m Alice Bryant. And I'm Jonathan Evans.

Alice Bryant wrote this story for Learning English. George Grow was the editor. We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments Section.


Words in This Story

dozen - n. a group of 12 things or people

diverse - adj. made up of people or things that are different from each other

revel - v. to enjoy something very much

theme - n. the main subject that is being discussed or described in a piece of writing, music or a movie

Lent - n. a period of 40 days during which many Christians do not eat some kinds of food or avoid pleasurable activities as a way of remembering the suffering of Jesus Christ

elaborate - adj. made or done with great care or with much detail commercial – adj.

conscience - n. a feeling to do right or be good

commercial - adj. of or related to a business or earning a profit

floats - n. a vehicle with a flat surface that is used to carry something in a parade