Austin’s Carnaval Brasileiro brings a bit of Rio to Central Texas

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Photo by Michael May
Carnaval Brasileiro

 

This past weekend Austin hosted it’s premier annual bacchanalia, Carnaval Brasileiro. The event, which has been going since 1975, is modeled after what’s been called the greatest show on earth: carnaval in Rio De Janiero.  In Brazil, the event is powered by dozens of samba schools that strut through Rio’s Sambadrom—essentially an auditorium specially designed to hold one of the world’s largest parades. People pay hundreds of dollars to watch the samba schools attempt to outdo each other with enormous floats full of thousands of volunteer musicians, drummers and dancers.

Leave it to Austinites to take a look at that epic event and say, “We should do something like that here.”

The highlight of the event is Austin’s own samba school, known as Acadêmicos da Opera. The school’s founder, Robert Patterson aka Tio Jacaré, is a retired doctor who spends part of every year studying samba in Brazil (you can read his travel blog here) and has managed to tap Austin’s exuberant volunteer spirit to build an authentic replica of a Brazilian samba school. My wife Rachel is one of the dancers, so I’ve watched the school grow over the past decade from a small troupe to an impressive force that includes well over a 100 performers. And Jacaré keeps adding more Brazilian elements to the show every year. The dancers now make elaborate feathered headdresses. The school now it’s own band and theme song. And the pulsing heart of the school, the drummers led by Jacaré, sounded tighter than ever and brought a whole new palate of rhythms that brought to mind a mix of hip hop, reggaeton and samba.

Austin’s Palmer Events Center is no Sambadrom, but the event mostly manages to transcend the sterile environment. The drums echoed off the ceiling and filled the auditorium with a polyrhythmic rumble. The crowd came dressed for hedonism with g-strings and body paint and exposed derrieres. There’s a lovely raunchiness to Brazilian carnaval that comes across a bit more lewdly here, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view. But even if you’d rather not see your neighbor in a thong, still come to carnaval and get close to the samba school: watch the dancers whirl and spin and gyrate around you, feel the drummers by the dozen shake you to your toes, and there’s no doubt that they’re conjuring a little bit of Rio right here in Austin.

Michael May is a former Observer managing editor. He’s now a freelance journalist based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.