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.

Cultural Spotlight – Bachata

If you consider Salsa to be wild and exhilarating, then Bachata could be considered the opposite kind of music in that it is both suave and smooth. While Bachata may not be the most exciting kind of Latin music, it is a genre that is both popular and historical. It may not be as skill-based as Salsa or Merengue, but you do need to keep a good rhythm and there is a good amount of variation to this kind of dance. The most important thing to be aware of when dancing Bachata is to watch your steps and make sure you’re moving seamlessly with your lady or gentleman partner in tow.

Bachata is a Latin music genre originally from the Dominican Republic, which came of being in the first half of the 20th century. One of the cool aspects about Bachata is that it combines European, African, and Indigenous musical elements to really captivate its’ listeners and dancers. Jose Manuel Calderon of the Dominican Republic did the first compositions, which formed the original Bachata songs back in those early days of the 20th century.

Bachata is considered to be a mixture of its’ predecessors: Merengue, Bolero and Son, which are other distinct Latin music genres. Similar to Salsa, Bachata takes both the form of a song and the form of a distinct dance that are supposed to go together. The mood of a Bachata song can be either very exuberant or more melancholy. Bachata’s original name was ‘amargue’ which means ‘bitter music’ or ‘blues mules’ reflecting in its’ origins the fact that Bachata used to be more somber and reserved when it was first created in the Dominican Republic.

A surprising fact about the Bachata music genre is that it wasn’t always that popular until the past few decades. Throughout most of the 20th century, especially in the Dominican Republic, this form of music was associated with rural communities who were mostly working class or poor in terms of their status. For a long time, Bachata was not allowed to be played on television or radio because it was too vulgar or crass for the elite members of Dominican society.

However, this attitude began to change in the 1980s and 1990s when both the instrumentation and the styles of Bachata multiplied to become more urban and diverse. Bachata has ended up in the 21st century as being one of the most popular forms of Latin music, up there with both Salsa and Merengue, and is played in bars, discotheques, and dance halls all across Latin America.

Bachata requires a group of musicians playing diverse instruments in order for an actual song to be played from the genre and for dancing to occur. There are seven instruments that usually make up the structure, rhythm, and beat of a Bachata song. You have your ‘Requinto’ (lead guitar), ‘Segunda’ (rhythm guitar), electric guitar, bass guitar, acoustic guitar, bongos, and guira. While none of these instruments are mandatory, you need them all in order to create a dance-oriented form of Bachata rather than a more classically oriented form that is most similar to Bolero.

While Bachata started originally in the Dominican Republic and became popular there eventually after a few decades, Bachata has now become one of the most popular forms of Latin music in the region. You can find Bachata music playing in countries such as Cuba, Panama, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, etc. Anywhere you go within the region, you’re likely to hear a Bachata song being played in your neighborhood or in your city.

The first Bachata songs that were composed by Jose Manuel Calderon, considered to be the modern founder of the genre, were titled ‘Borracho de amor’ and ‘Que sera de mi’. These songs came about in the early 1960s, which shows that the modern form of Bachata has been around for over five decades now. Hundreds of musicians, singers, and dancers have contributed to this unique and popular genre. Some of the more famous contributors to Bachata include names like Marino Perez, Leonardo Paniagua, Luis Vargas, Antony Santos, Juan Luis Guerra, and Romeo Santos. If you have the chance to listen or dance to some Bachata music, do yourself a favor and tune in, kick off your shoes, and enjoy this very popular genre of Latin music.

Cultural Spotlight – Salsa

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Hector Lavoe, ‘El Cantante’ (1946 – 1993)

If you’re walking in any city in Colombia or in most parts of Latin America and you start to feel the rhythm and the beat to some up-tempo music that sounds as if jazz and ‘son cubano’ had a baby, it would be known to the world as ‘Salsa.’ Salsa music has only been around for over five decades but has had a lasting impact on the world of music and its’ popularity has stayed consistent in the countries and regions where it was first introduced. While some folks may argue that old-school music genres like jazz, swing, and the blues are on the decline these days; that is simply not the case when it comes to Salsa.

Contrary to popular belief, Salsa did not originate in Puerto Rico, Cuba, or even Colombia. This form of music came out of the communities of immigrants in New York City during the 1960s from Cuba to Puerto Rico who wanted to introduce a new take on ‘son cubano’ music that had been around for a few decades and to bring it to new audiences before who had never been exposed to that kind of genre before.

The music of Salsa has been highly influenced by previous Cuban genres such as ‘son cubano, son montuno, guaracha, mambo, bolero, etc. as well as certain Puerto Rican genres such as ‘bomba, and plena.’ It also should be noted that Salsa was heavily influenced by the American musical genre of Jazz and certain experts have noted Salsa as being a form of Latin jazz. Salsa is a very flexible genre and can incorporate many different forms of music together in order to be innovative and unique. Even rock, r&b, blues, and funk have found their way into the rhythms, beats, and lyrics of Salsa music.

If there were a form of musical expression to represent the Americas whether it was North America or South America, it would be jazz. Salsa music would not be what it is today without previous music genres influencing the sounds and songs to change and adapt as the decades passed by. However, without the early Salsa bands made up of newcomer immigrants from the Cuban and Puerto Rican communities who came to New York City and America for a better life, Salsa would also not be the popular genre that it has become today. From the 1930s to the 1960s, these new immigrants brought joy, happiness, and excitement to both their local communities and cities from Boston to Cali.

From the streets of the South Bronx to the barrios of Cali, Salsa would spread from New York City to Colombia to Peru to all over Latin America. Salsa has become a global music genre today with people all over the world sharing together their passion and love for this unique form of self-expression. You can find Salsa classes and music clubs in most major cities all over the world. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, if you’re new to dancing, or can’t understand the lyrics, Salsa is a music genre open to everybody. Some of the big names in Salsa are Johnny Pacheco, creator of the Fania all-stars band, Hector Lavoe, Willie Colon, Bobby Valentin, Eduardo Palmieri, Marc Anthony, etc.

The instrumentation used in Salsa music is incredibly diverse and can really depend on what kind of style you’re going for whether it’s ‘salsa romantica’ or ‘salsa dura.’ It also depends upon how fast the tempo is and what the chord / verse arrangement is too. The most popular kinds of instruments used in Salsa music are percussion and brass instruments. It’s very rare where string instruments are used unless its’ an acoustic or electric guitar. When it comes to the most widely used instruments, they are usually the piano, the bongo drums, the congas, trumpet, trombone, claves, and different guitars.

Since the genre of Salsa has spread to many parts of the Western Hemisphere, there are many different styles of Salsa dancing that make the music more enjoyable for people to participate in by moving their bodies in various ways. While there is no clear consensus on which style of Salsa is the best or most popular, there’s the Cuban style, the New York style, Puerto Rican style, Los Angeles style, and Cali style from Colombia. Each style of Salsa is a little bit different from each other so once you master one of these types, there is another one out there to learn in order to keep your knowledge up to date. There are few parts of the world that haven’t been touched by Salsa music, which makes it one of the most fun and enjoyable kinds of dances to learn. Whether you’re in Peru, Colombia, Cuba, the Dominican Republic or the United States, you’ll have a chance to dance Salsa if you look hard enough.

By listening to Salsa music and learning how to dance to the rhythms and the beats of this genre, you really learn a lot about Latin American culture. Listen carefully to the lyrics, study the history of both the song and dance, and you’ll be able to gain insight as to why this has become one of the most popular music genres on the planet today. Few things make the average person happier than being able to cut loose on the dance floor and Salsa as a genre succeeds in doing that beyond measure.

During my time here in Colombia, I’ve enjoyed going out to learn Salsa in some classes, and putting the moves I’ve learned into practice when I go out on Saturday nights to a Salsa club. It’s really a joy to dance and sing to the point of exhaustion until your feet can’t move anymore while the beads of sweat roll down your neck. Salsa, to me, is a celebration of living life to the fullest and expressing the movements of your body the way you’re supposed to do. If you haven’t given Salsa music or dancing a chance yet, start to do so today. I promise you won’t regret the experiences you gain by enjoying this popular genre.

Carnaval!

 

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“A large crowd gathers to dance, listen to music, and enjoy the beginning of Carnaval 2016 here in Colombia.”

Carnaval Season here in Colombia has officially come and gone. Life here is starting to return to normalcy and I’m sure some of the locals are already beginning to count down to when Carnaval will be back in 2017. This was my first Carnaval ever and I can firmly say that it was some of the most fun I’ve had in a while. In addition to the festive parades and diverse costumes, there were also the live concerts, the neighborhood parties, and the street foods/drinks to add to the already festive atmosphere. Unfortunately, I was unable to make it to Barranquilla’s Carnaval this year but I still was able to enjoy myself by attending other parades, parties, and festivities in the Atlántico department.

The biggest highlight for me during the Carnaval celebrations was attending ‘La Gran Parada’ in one of the major towns located outside of Barranquilla. It was really cool to experience the parade from the seats and be able to enjoy a cold beverage and a warm snack while both the kids and adults danced, sang in their unique costumes as they came streaming down the main parade route.

Historically, Carnaval has been known as the main celebration associated with the Christian festive season that occurs before the period of Lent. There are many Carnaval festivals that happen around the world. The most famous one takes place in Rio de Janeiro, which attracts about a 1 million visitors to Brazil each year. Carnaval in Barranquilla is the 2nd largest in the world and brings in hundreds of thousands of tourists, partygoers as well. For those of us from the United States, we are more familiar with the Mardi Gras celebration and the infamous ‘Fat Tuesday’ which is also known for its size and scope of partying as well.

Before ‘Ash Wednesday’ and the beginning of Lent and the Easter season for Christians around the world, Carnaval represents a shedding of inhibitions, and an enjoyment of the pleasures in life. Some people see it as indulgent in heavy drinking, eating greasy foods, and fraternizing with the opposite sex but other people see it as a way to reconnect with their diverse culture, spending quality time with their family and friends, and enjoying a break from work and the daily grind. For my first Carnaval, I spent the festivities mainly meeting new people in my community, enjoying the company of new friends and my host family, and checking out the cool costumes and cultural dances that make up this very unique holiday.

I also had to deal with the tradition of young children and adults throwing great amounts of Maizena (corn starch) and white foam spray all over random strangers. It occurred multiple times where my clothes and my body, face would be covered with both substances during the festivities. Needless to say, I had to wash my clothes extra hard in order to get the cornstarch / spray out of my clothes and hair as best as I could. Besides getting messy, it was nice to drink a beer in public, eat some good food, watch the parade, and then reconnect with my fellow Peace Corps trainees later to celebrate together.

Carnaval was originally introduced to Colombia and Latin America from the Spaniards during the early days of the colonization hundreds of years ago. However, the celebration has evolved over hundreds of years to reflect the diversity in Colombian culture. In addition to European elements, Carnaval combines those traditions with those of the African, Amerindian indigenous cultures. It is a really interesting mix of cultures combined together and is reflected in the costumes, music, and dancing styles that are put on display in events like ‘La Gran Parada’ and ‘La Batalla de Flores.’ As for the types of music, they are various and diverse.

They include the popular Cumbia, Rumba, Vallenato, Reggaeton, Porro, Mapale, and African Congo music. Finally, it wouldn’t be Carnaval without the King and Queen of the festivities being anointed. For each town and city that is involved in the celebrations here in Carnaval, they must appoint a King and Queen to lead the main parade, to dance up a storm, and to wave to the partygoers in the stands. As far as I can tell in Colombia, being the King or Queen of Carnaval (Rey / Reina) is a huge honor and is very competitive between the young men and women vying for the title to represent their town or even the city of Barranquilla.

After experiencing my first Carnaval, it’s going to be difficult to top that kind of day party in the future. It truly was one of the best times I ever had in terms of celebrating a holiday. The only way I could top it in 2017 and beyond is if I was able to spend some free time and head to Barranquilla for the big kahuna there. I don’t know if it will be logistically possible but we’ll see what happens. If not, there’s always the biggest carnaval in Rio but that can wait until after I finish my Peace Corps service.