Cultural Spotlight – Carnaval

No one country does the festivities of ‘carnaval’ quite like Brazil. A festival that is just more than ‘Fat Tuesday’, it has become more than a month of celebrations beginning in early February and ending in early March even after ‘Ash Wednesday’ has passed by. The word ‘carnaval’ or ‘carnival’ comes from the Latin word ‘carnelevare’, which means to remove or to raise meat signifying how Roman Catholics would give up meat or poultry during the 40-day period of Lent before the Easter holiday. Because of the significance of Lent and not just for giving up meat but for other earthly pleasures as well, ‘Carnaval’ is a chance to enjoy some of those pleasures before the time of Lent and to revel in both culinary and cultural traditions.

Nowhere are these cultural traditions more proudly represented than in Brazil where the whole country has some form of celebration or observation of the Carnaval holiday. From the state of Pernambuco in the North to Bahia in the Northeast all the way down the Brazilian coastline to Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, each year there is an informal competition to see which city can put on the best Carnaval and whose parades are the biggest.

Each city is different regarding how they celebrate Carnaval in Brazil but there are some similarities such as having huge street parades where crowds can dance and march to the bands and drum groups assembled as they go through the city. There are a huge variety of costumes, music styles represented but the most common one would have to be ‘Samba.’ In Brazil, Afro-Brazilian culture is heavily apart of Carnaval celebrations from the music being played to the design of the costumes. There are a number of variations of samba represented and they are all represented in the popular ‘samba schools.’

These small groups of performers sometimes prepare for the whole year before carnaval begins and are competing against each other in the ‘Sambadrome’, which are huge parade grounds and spectator events where these groups are being judged based on a number of factors against other schools. The biggest Sambadromes are in Rio de Janeiro and Salvador along with Sao Paulo and these competitions take places over a period of four nights at the height of the carnaval celebrations. Not only are these groups being judged on their music style and quality but also their coordination, their rhythm, the theme of their performance, and the costumes, which can be quite elaborate and also quite expensive.

While there are different types of samba music involved, there are also lesser known music styles that are represented in Brazilian carnaval. They include ‘Frevo’, which is originally from Recife and Olinda in the state of Pernambuco and ‘Axe’, which is originally from Salvador in the Bahia state which combines different popular Afro-Caribbean music genres together such as calypso, marcha, and reggae. All of these popular music types mentioned have their roots in African cultures and diaspora influences.

In the 19th century, it was quite difficult for Afro-Brazilians to dance, sing, or even parade through the streets of Brazilian cities during Carnaval to express their cultural heritage but today, these forms of song and dance are the heart of the Carnaval celebrations. To put it simply, you cannot have carnaval without samba or costumes or drumlines. In a way, Carnaval is not just a celebration of indulgence and pleasure but of expressing your culture and your heritage. I found Brazilian carnaval to be also about celebrating the diversity and unity of the country itself and how that can bring people together despite past historical injustices.

In order to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, one does not have to go to a Sambadrome or to march in a formal parade or even wear an elaborate costume. You do have to sing, dance, and even drink or eat a little more than you normally would. The easiest way to celebrate especially as a foreign visitor is to check out some of the ‘blocos’ or block parties. They take place each and every day during Carnaval in different neighborhoods at different times. Each ‘bloco’ has different themes ranging from a celebration of ‘The Beatles’ to ‘R&B and hip hop.’ The blocos can also have ‘electric trios’ which are large trucks with huge sound systems where musicians on top of them sing famous samba or forro tunes to the crowd who often sing along with them as they cruise down an informal parade route.

These ‘electric trio’ trucks or floats can also include drum line groups or instrumental bands who walk down the parade route with these musicians. Each bloco has supporters who have specific shirts or costumes on to represent the theme of the block party as well. The trio truck or float is another symbol of Carnaval in Brazil similar to the block parties themselves, which can last from early in the morning until late at night.

While there is endless debate about where to go to celebrate Carnaval in Brazil, my hunch is that you won’t be disappointed if you go to either Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, or Recife. The great thing about Brazilian carnaval is each city is likely to have a different feel to it as well as different types of music as well as different kinds of blocos represented. Rio de Janeiro’s carnaval is the largest in the world but you may want to go with the carnaval in Salvador to see unique forms of samba and other music styles represented. If you want a somewhat more subdued carnaval experience, going to Sao Paulo may be what you’re looking for.

Carnaval in Brazil is not just about coastal cities as there are celebrations that are lower key and smaller in the state of Minas Gerais, located in the interior as well as in smaller cities such as Manaus, Porto Alegre, and Florianopolis. This month-long celebration has something for everyone and while I have celebrated carnaval before a few years ago in Colombia, I have never seen such a unifying event that brings a whole country together as it does in Brazil. If you are expecting to see a lot of tourist sites and enjoy some museums here, you may want to wait until after Carnaval to do just that. Instead, bring your best costume, study up on your Samba moves, and get ready to buy those tickets way in advance if you want to see the Sambadrome in all of its glory when you visit.

Experiencing Carnaval in Brazil is a really unique experience and opportunity that I would recommend to everybody who enjoys dancing, singing, listening to good music, and experience one of the most joyous celebrations in the world.

Independence Park at Ipiranga

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Camera: Samsung Galaxy J2 Core

Location: Independence Park; Ipiranga, São Paulo, São Paulo State, Brazil

“Tudo Bem?”

Tudo bem? or Tudo bom? is a simple yet intriguing greeting that has been one of the most culturally interesting aspects of living in Brazil. You might be thinking what is so interesting about these two words but the greeting itself when you translate it has much more of a significance than what you would think. I find it fascinating for a number of reasons, which I will divulge during this article and it is important to keep in mind that languages including English have different ways in which people can address each other from the very neutral to the very positive.

To give some background first, I have studied a few foreign languages thus far and one of the first things you learn in any language are the greetings / salutations. The way you greet someone in another language can teach you a lot about the culture and also about the country. No one greeting is the same although the meaning is usually quite similar. What has thrown me off about ‘Tudo bem?’ is not just the brevity of it but the significance regarding its inherent positivity. I did not expect this greeting to be so prevalent, but I am fundamentally glad that it is used so regularly.

Let us start by breaking ‘Tudo bem?’ or ‘Tudo bom?’ down in terms of trying to translate it into English, which is not so easy on the surface. You would think it means ‘How are you?’, ‘How is everything going?’ but that is not the right translation. If we are to translate it into English, it would be more like, ‘All is well?’ or ‘Everything good?’. Instead of saying ‘Como vai voce?’ (How are you doing?) or ‘Como voce esta?’ (How are you?), I have been surprised to learn that these greetings are not as popular while ‘Tudo bom?’ or ‘Tudo bem?’ are used frequently in polite greetings whether it is with a shop keeper, bank teller, a cashier, or your neighbor from next door.

What I really like about ‘Tudo bem?’ or ‘Tudo bom?’ is that you are being positive and outgoing right from the start. Even if everything is just okay or you might be having a bad day, it is almost expected to say in response ‘Tudo bem!’ or ‘Tudo bom!’ to indicate that everything is going well and you’re doing fine even if that might be the case. To me, this represents something very unique about Brazilian culture in terms of airing on the side of being positive and upbeat. Even if you are going through some tough times or don’t think everything is alright, you are unconsciously drawn to saying that it is and to stay positive.

You do not have to always respond with ‘Tudo bem’ or ‘Tudo bom’ but during my time here, I have not really heard any answers in Portuguese with the equivalent of ‘I’m doing alright’, or ‘I’m doing okay’, or ‘I’m fine.’ Even rarer would be to say that you are not doing well, or you are sick, or you are tired. ‘Tudo bem?’ is a very casual greeting and it is usually only common to respond with the same reply or with a ‘bem’ (good), ‘bom’ (good), or even ‘tudo certo’ (all right). You don’t really say that you are doing amazing, fantastic, wonderful, or any other exuberant English equivalent when asked about ‘Tudo bem?’ but this kind of greeting in Portuguese is much more positive, and warm than I have encountered with another languages.

Greetings tend to be neutral at the outside when the person asking expects a positive answer, but the response can also be neutral or negative depending on the language used. However, I have found that Portuguese among the languages I know or have studied is the only one which leaves very little room for a neutral or negative response. I do believe that is a good thing although it can be a bit difficult to express those emotions right away. It is kind of expected to start out any interaction on a positive note by saying ‘all is well?’ and ‘all is good?’. Unless you are with a family member or a close friend, it can be tough to really express how you truly feel because they are likely not asking how you really are but just trying to be polite at the outset.

Regardless, when you compare Brazilian Portuguese to English or to Spanish, the initial greeting is much more positive in terms of the translation. While you can say ‘All is well?’ or ‘Everything good?’ in English, these are not really the initial greetings that you would use when you are talking to someone for the first time. It is much more common to say, ‘How are you?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ instead. Saying ‘Hello, all is well?’ or ‘Hello, everything fine?’ at the outside to an English speaker would be a bit strange at first whereas ‘How are you?’ is much more of a common occurrence.

In my opinion, the same could be said with Spanish where you would address someone you have never met before with ‘Como estas?’ or ‘Como vas?’, which is a very similar translation from the English of ‘How are you?’ or ‘How are you doing?’ Now, you could do something similar in Spanish with a greeting of ‘Todo bien?’ which is similar to the meaning of ‘Tudo bem?’ in Portuguese. However, from my own experience, while ‘Todo bien?’ is more acceptable and can be heard from time to time, a more proper greeting in a first interaction with a native Spanish speaker is ‘Como estas?’ rather than ‘Todo bien?’ An exception would be if you had met that person before or a few times previously and consider them to be more than a stranger. That is when ‘Todo bien?’ would be used but not really when you meet someone for the first time.

Lastly, even with Turkish, the last language I have learned, you would say to somebody new: ‘Merhaba, Nasilsin?’ (Hello, how are you?) similarly to English or Spanish but there is no formal greeting used in the Turkish language where you would ask if everything is well right off the bat. In English, Spanish, or Turkish, it seems that the greeting to ask how someone is starts off as being very neutral in its meaning whereas with Brazilian Portuguese, it is fundamentally a different story. Out of all the languages that I have learned and studied, the greeting of ‘Tudo Bem?’ is fundamentally the most optimistic and positive out of all of them.

I have to say that it took me back at first when I arrived in Brazil how common it is and how it is customary to reply with a ‘Tudo bem!’ or ‘Tudo bom!’ in reply, usually with a smile. It is a testament to the positive and upbeat culture where even if you are having a bad day and things aren’t going well, people here try to have a happy outlook on life and to boost their spirits with a ‘Tudo bem?’ and a thumbs up. I am not a psychologist, but I can imagine seeing someone smiling and wishing you a ‘Tudo bem?’ will do wonders for your day and for your overall mood.

If you can learn any two words in Brazilian Portuguese, I would recommend that you first use ‘Tudo bem(?)’ because it is probably the most important words in the language and can both be a great question and a great answer to have under your belt as you navigate this fascinating and unique culture.

Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral and Templo Mayor

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Mexico City, Mexico

Frida Kahlo Museum (Blue House)

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Coyoacan, Mexico City, Mexico

Oaxaca de Juarez

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Camera: iPhone 8

Location: Oaxaca de Juarez, Oaxaca, Mexico

Cholula and Puebla

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Camera: iPhone 8

Locations: Cholula de Rivadavia, Puebla, Mexico; Puebla de Zaragoza, Puebla, Mexico