Have you heard? We’re starting a new festival tradition here in Tucson, a tradition rooted in one that’s rather old: the Carnaval. Read on to learn more about our upcoming local Carnaval, Carnaval as celebrated in other locales, and communal festivity in general as we talk with Cliff Berrien and Yarrow King from Tucson’s own samba troupe, Batucaxe.



jhon: Describe what the traditional Carnaval is.

Cliff: The traditional Carnaval was a celebration that happened in most countries where Christianity was practiced. There were pagan festivals that happened before that that continued through (as part of the Carnaval tradition -jhon) when the Church started up in different parts of Europe, festivals and rituals that celebrated the coming of Spring. The peasants would take a day off, have revelry. It was a kind of Bacchanalia, a mad celebration, and oftentimes poking fun at the order of things, the aristocracy, their own lifestyle. Basically just doing everything they could to have a great time.

When the Church took over, they tried to suppress it, because it was just too rowdy. But they couldn’t stop it really. People would still get together every year in so many cultures; they would gather and play music and dance in the streets together. It wasn’t really suppressed in a very strong way until Napoleon, who just made it law that there wasn’t going to be any more parading in the streets. But he couldn’t come out and say “no parades in the streets”. What he said was, the only parading in the streets that could happen was by the military. And to this day, when many people think of parades, they think a parade is watching military marching through the streets playing music. But for a long time it was the people parading through the streets, making music and having revelry with complete strangers. That’s almost out of our consciousness now, but that’s what it was.

But it still happens that way on a lot of places: it happens that way in the Caribbean, in Brazil, and most countries in South America have some kind of Carnaval.

jhon: Another thing I wanted to ask you about was what you think about the modern Carnaval celebration; how they’ve become so huge and increasingly commercialized, and are big money-making tourist attractions for their respective cities. What do you think about that, and does it take away from the spirit of the thing in any way?

Cliff: It’s a good question. Let’s take Rio and Bahia as two examples of places in Brazil where Carnaval is big. They’ve struck somewhat of a balance. Rio is able to make huge revenue as a city by having a kind of commercialized Carnaval celebration. But I would argue that there’s still a lot of artistry, and there’s still a lot of folk culture in it. I’ll give you one example. One of my favorites from 2008 was –I want to say it was Portela samba school, but I could be wrong– but their theme for the year had to do with nature, and they wanted to make a statement that Brazil had a responsibility to take its part in the global commons and that what was being done with the environment in Brazil and elsewhere in the world was something we needed to look at and take responsibility for. And they were going to do one float that spoke to what was happening in the Amazon. But the Carnaval committee said, “no, that’s too political, can’t do that”. And so in protest, they made a float, and everyone on the float was dressed in black, with their mouths bound, and their eyes covered, and their hands bound. You wouldn’t see something like that in the Rose Parade. So there’s still a sense that people who are there can take it in the spirit that it’s given, the spirit of just a little bit of protest. Still we’re poking fun at the order of things and making an artistic statement.

A group of sambistas in San Francisco decided with some other local musicians to start a Carnaval tradition there in San Francisco. Some of us went to their Carnaval about three years ago, and it was huge. It was a big tourist draw, there were thousands and thousands of people there. It’s a huge parade, very multi-cultural, all kinds of groups, some more and some less professional, kids groups. It was a real Carnaval. But, what’s happened is, they’re about to celebrate their (30th) anniversary, and a lot of the groups who are in it were petitioning not to be in it this year….not to do it. When it started off, the groups were trying to raise funds to pay the groups who participate in it something. Eventually, everybody who was participating in the Carnaval was making a little money, and it was something they could put a lot of energy into and do well because they were getting paid for it. And then, the city said, “whoa, this thing is getting popular….we should see if we can ‘help’ (Cliff laughs)”. So then various parts of the city came in and took control of various aspects of the event, until they had a pretty big chunk of control over what happened. There were two years in a row where the local groups didn’t get paid at all (because the city was spending major money importing “big name” acts from elsewhere –jhon).

And you know, to keep the arts alive, they have to get some funding. One of the things about Carnaval that was found out pretty early –that didn’t necessarily have anything to do with the Church, but with a grassroots commerce– was that people could have livelihoods out of making costumes. There were all these little grassroots industries of making costumes and making floats, stilt things and puppets….

jhon: And that was a whole year-round thing.

Cliff: Exactly. You could make a little livelihood doing something that you loved doing that also provided for this day. And when the city comes along, there is that aspect of commercialization that can actually take that away. I don’t think we have that worked out in our culture yet, whereas in Brazil I think they have it worked out a little bit better. Because while it’s true in Brazil that they have this huge commercial Carnaval with fifteen, almost thirty groups that parade in Rio, there’s also almost thirty other groups that parade in the streets from the people.

jhon: And those groups are autonomous; they’re not beholden to anyone?

Cliff: No. Especially in Bahia.

Yarrow: Part of how they do it is that they have weekly rehearsals that people pay to go see, so they raise some money that way. They don’t have to raise as much money so maybe they don’t have to end up getting corporate sponsorship.

Cliff: So yeah, there is that aspect of commerce involved. It’s a pretty fine balance….from the middle-ages to today.

Yarrow: One thing I wanted to say, and it’s not necessarily about the commercialization of it, but it’s been interesting for me to look at the idea of Carnaval now, participating with Batucaxe, and what I used to think it was….the whole Mardi Gras thing. I think that the whole debauchery and the drinking and everything that’s totally a part of it like in Brazil big-time, somehow when it converts here to the States it almost seems like it’s some kind of aberrated idea of Brazil sometimes. I don’t know, it’s unique how it changes. It’s how you dress up as sexy and lewd as you can and get as drunk as you can.

jhon: Are you saying that the libertine aspect of Carnaval is different somehow in Brazil than it is here in the U.S.?

Yarrow: It just feels different to me.

jhon: In what way?

Yarrow: I don’t totally know, I think I’m still processing that.

Cliff: It’s not necessarily to be provocative.

Yarrow: Exactly. Whereas here in the States, the translation has become that you sexualize it completely. Even though it is a festival of, let’s party it up, celebrate spring, and also having the celebration before Lent, I think there’s also a more sacred expression of it; like maybe the spring part of it, and the community part of it. I haven’t been in any other country during Carnival, but in Seattle when I lived there, and other cities through the years, it seems more like it’s about sex and alcohol. And maybe it’s because those things are just so much a part of Brazilian culture….

jhon: Is it like “hedonism with a heart”? (laughs)

Yarrow: It’s sort of like that.

Cliff: (tentatively) Yeeeeaaah….

Yarrow: It’s the sacred and the profane together. It’s more like both those are acknowledged and together in Brazil, and here, it’s more like, “let’s do the profane”.

Cliff: You do one or you do the other. You go to church for the sacred, and in the streets you do the profane.

Yarrow: I was at a terreiro, which is like a Candomble house of worship in Brazil, and we did an offering, and there was some music and dance, and it was specifically to provide food for the children in the neighborhood. So we did that, and as soon as we finished, I saw people coming in with cases of the local beer. They weren’t separate. It was all together.

Cliff: Even the Catholic church, you go to communion and there’s the bread and the wine: there’s still a little of the pagan roots of our sacred celebration there. We know that there has to be something like Bacchanalia.

One of the things that I find most interesting about the Brazilian version of this is, although Africa didn’t have a specific pre-Lenten festival like Carnaval, there are many festivals that are similar to Carnaval, and I think what was nice about Brazil is that they got the spirit of the European festivals and the African festivals, stronger than in the United States. But I think Yarrow’s right. Even the terreiro that she talked about: I grew up Catholic , and we celebrated mass, but in a terreiro, the ceremony is called a party. When you go in there, you’re going to a party. And what is the purpose of the party? Eventually, to get the gods to dance. And to be present with the people to bestow blessings. That’s the purpose of the party.

Yarrow: And that’s what I think also informs Carnaval, but there, it’s out on the street.

Cliff: There’s that fine balance, and somehow maybe only in Brazil where they hold that balance and integrate essential pieces from Africa and from Europe. The best of both.

Yarrow: One of the things I really felt (in Brazil) were the communities that are created around these groups, these musical groups. Even when I was in the Caribbean, I was there for Carnaval, and people would dance behind big speakers on flatbed trucks, and you’re dancing behind the music of that particular group, and it shows your solidarity with that group. But that idea that when you’re out on the street, and whether you’re observing or participating, it is a thing of getting an invocation of a particular kind of life-force by dancing and hearing music and singing.

When I think of Carnaval, and what I hope people feel at the end of the day on our Carnaval, is a greater sense of community, and, that feeling of they’ve been opened up to more life-force.

jhon: I want to ask: how is that energy sustained beyond the event itself? In Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Dancing in the Streets, at one point she compares the early Christian church with all the other mystery religions of the period that were competing within the Roman Empire and talks about why she thinks Christianity was the only one to persist in the end while the others did not. And her thought was that while the Dionysian offers something very vital to people that’s been a part of human culture for as long as there’s been human culture, that experience was in the moment, in the festival, in the gathering; whereas the early Christian believers were very community oriented, and they offered an ongoing experience, a continuity with the community that wasn’t based on an ecstatic moment. You could go to worship and there would be a meal for everyone, and you could count on this extended family that wasn’t dependent on a seasonal event or a festival. So how do we –all of us who are interested in fostering festal culture here in southern Arizona– how do we nurture the community element along with it so that it’s sustained throughout the year?

Yarrow: That’s a great question, and I have a couple thoughts. When you say “festal culture”, I found myself thinking that’s so much in Brazil; its just a festival culture. And I was there at a particular time so I was seeing a particular frame of it, but there were festivals pretty much every week. So consistency might be part of it. The groups themselves are consistent, and so partly through participation in the group, but what I saw in Brazil were these whole communities that form around them, and they go to their weekly rehearsals. So that might be part of it, at least in Brazil.

jhon: In Brazil. I’m thinking this has got to be embedded in that culture, because here, people may get really excited about something when it’s happening or about to happen, but when it’s over, it’s over….until the next time. That energy isn’t usually sustained somehow.

Cliff: I think one of the ways you can do it is what we’re trying to do by having Carnaval: you put out opportunities that can be meaningful and significant, throughout the year. My hope is that Carnaval can be like a bookend for the All Souls Procession, and in people’s minds, they will connect the two events. And then it might be easier I think, and also by other things throughout the year, so it’s not just the weeks before All Souls or the weeks before Carnaval. And I think we have great models in some of the other Carnavals in the world, and for us, particularly Brazil; the kinds of things you could tie into it. In some ways, Carnaval never ends in Brazil. And my sense was, that people get up every day, knowing that Carnaval’s not too far away. And whether their expression of it will be that next weekend when they go to the terreiro, or when they go to see a group play, there’s somehow not a difference.

I think one of the things that’s required is the building of a kind of culture that knows how to be festive, and how to contribute to festal culture, and I think that’s a matter of education. It would be hard to be in a coffee shop like this for this period of time in Brazil and not hear some music, and sometimes that would be live music. People sing, people dance, people do stuff. Here in the United States though, it’s like, “I can’t do that, I don’t dance”.

Yarrow: People would start singing right here (in the coffee house). I mean I was in coffee shops in Brazil and someone starts singing a song and someone else recognizes it and they’ll start singing along.

Cliff: And this is just a matter of education in our country, because we have really grown up with this idea that there are people who have talent and people who don’t have talent. We have an “American Idol” consciousness, that there are talented people and non-talented people. We’ve got a huge thing to get over there, and I think that’s one of our challenges.

Yarrow: What do you guys think about this: that there needs to be both things; the ecstatic experience, and then something very consistent, maybe not as ecstatic….and maybe those are different groups that do that.

Cliff: What I was inspired by in Bahia was seeing all the amazing grassroots-level projects that happen year-round, that benefit kids or women who would otherwise be homeless. That’s what inspired me the most. Carnaval was something that could be a thread that would continue to bring both the creative juices and some of the financial resources to keep these other things going.

jhon: What made now the right time for Carnaval in Tucson? Batucaxe’s been around for awhile; what was it that made that click now as being something you wanted to do?

Cliff: Flam Chen to a large degree; being in that building with them, and Odaiko Sonora (they all share the same studio space –jhon). Even though we don’t see each other every day and we aren’t yet the cohesive community that we could be, I think that we still inspire each other a lot. And the first time that we played for the All Souls and felt what it was like to be a part of something that big gave me the confidence that we could do it. And to see how crazy optimistic from my perspective people like Karen Falkenstrom (of Odaiko Sonora) and Paul and Nadia (of Flam Chen) are, that’s a huge inspiration to me; otherwise, something like Carnaval would have been too daunting for me to even think we could do.

jhon: What was the Carnaval last year like? How did it go?

Cliff: It was teeny. A cool little party in Himmel Park. We just invited people to come hang out and play music with us. We had a little party in the park for about an hour or so.

Yarrow: You’ve had a dream of Carnaval for a few years, and what I thought was pretty awesome about last year was just this idea of, “okay, let’s just put a foot in that direction”, just to demonstrate that this is where we want to go. And Jovert, and some other folks who will be in this year’s Carnaval were there.

jhon: Talk about the theme for this year.

Cliff: The theme for this year, I think came from someone’s unconscious inspiration from Flam Chen. “Many Mouths, One Stomach” is something that kind of hits and makes sense somewhere inside, poetically. So we had a meeting and said, “well what’s our theme going to be?” And someone had said, “Many Voices, One Song”. A difference between Carnaval in the States to a certain degree and Carnaval in Brazil is that there are so many cultures that have very different cultural expressions that they add in their Carnaval festivities. And one of the things we wanted to say about the community was that we’re still a part of one city, and we wanted to honor that. Say in contrast to “Tucson, Meet Yourself”, where you see this group and that group and there’s nothing that ties them together. The thing that we wanted to tie it together was that we’re all dancing, we’re all celebrating together. Look at how many different ways of doing it there are, but that’s what we’re all doing.

One of the other things I think it does for us is that, if we’re creative people, and we want to share our creative energy in the community, the kind of inspiration you get from seeing other people in the community….that’s good stuff. There’s a vitality that that brings with it. It buoys you, it does give you hope. It gets you to trust that, yeah, we’re going in the right direction.

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