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Carnaval Brasileiro in Austin, Texas

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Carnaval Brasileiro is an annual one-night festival in Austin, Texas. It is the largest indoor Brazilian Carnaval in the world.


Carnival in Brazil derives from the medieval Christian revels in Europe held just prior to the forty days of Lent. This annual festival of flesh was further enriched in Brazil by African rhythms, especially the samba. Carnaval is an all-consuming nationwide festival in Brazil, celebrated by all social classes over a period of several days (or weeks). It is a social cathartic for Brazilian society, particularly for the sweating masses of urban poor dancing in the summer streets.


Carnaval Brasileiro in Austin began around 1975. At that time there were many Brazilian scholarship students at University of Texas at Austin taking a six-week long intensive English course. Faced with the prospect of a February without Carnaval, they decided with their local friends to hold their own celebration. Carnaval '75 took place in a small room at Austin's Unitarian Church. The two hundred or so revelers had planted a seed.

For the next several years the party moved further downtown, drawing ever larger crowds. Carnaval '76, held at the Bucket (a bar) on West 23rd Street, drew over three hundred, who struggled to keep their footing in the spilled beer. A highlight of that evening was the thunderous collapse of a low stage under the weight of fifty wildly drumming Brazilians. They just looked at one another for a second, saw no one was hurt, and partied on! A group of devoted "Brasilianistas" continued to organize a Carnaval that began growing rapidly beyond their control.

The last party to retain the original University focus was held at the Dobie Center in 1977, with over five hundred participants. The size of the crowd and problems with the home-style sound system pointed up the need for a large hall with professional sound equipment. As the number of scholarships dwindled, the Brazilian students were gradually submerged into a Carnaval that Austinites were making their own.

At this point Mike Quinn entered the picture. Quinn, the producer of Horizontes, a daily radio program dedicated to the music of Latin America on KUT-FM (Austin's NPR affiliate), was in 1978 a salesman at Discount Records. Quinn undertook the organization of Carnaval '78 as an outlet for his own creative interests in Brazilian music.

The celebration, held at the double-tiered Boondocks Club (later Club Foot, and even later a parking lot) on East 4th Street in downtown Austin, was the take-off for Carnaval Brasileiro as it exists today. Carnaval '78 packed in over a thousand bodies, sweating and gyrating to the drumming of Austin's first Carnaval group: an ad hoc assembly of local musicians including ethnomusicologists from UT and members of Beto y Los Fairlanes, all under the direction of Dr. Gerard Behague of the UT Department of Music. Though the drumming was improvised, the atmosphere was magic and it set the stage for the live music featured at every Carnaval since. That party went on until 4:00am, and the club had to repaint the dance floor the following week!

Accordingly, in 1979 Carnaval moved into the Armadillo World Headquarters (now defunct), where Austin's first Brazilian band, Os Imperialistas do Samba (later Unidos de Austin), played to a capacity house of 1800. The night's three-dollar tickets were scalped outside for as much as twenty-five dollars.

In 1980 Carnaval Brasileiro finally moved to the warehouse-like Coliseum, which, despite two sojourns at Austin's 7,000 capacity Palmer Auditorium (1981 and 1984), has become its home. The 1980 Carnaval also inaugurated the classic series of Austin artist Guy Juke's poster and T-shirt designs. The event continued to grow in size and sophistication throughout the '80s.

Meanwhile, organizers have searched for the right formula to make the party sizzle. The earlier costume contests were dropped because they interrupted the flow of the music and dancing.


Carnaval Brasileiro features GRES Acadêmicos da Ópera (aka Austin Samba School). The Music of Carnaval -- samba, march, frevo, trio eletrico, and lots of batucada, or drumming -- now pours out in seamless, driving, ninety-minute sets. This is the euphoria of a real Carnaval, magnified by an arena-style sound system that makes three or four drums sound like a hundred. The key to the samba sound is the heavy boom of the surdo bass drums set against the counter-rhythms and back beats for the smaller percussion.


Carnaval Brasileiro has been attempted in Houston on three occasions, from 1980 to 1982. The gig at the Washington Square Emporium in 1980 featured Unidos de Austin in a poorly heated converted warehouse on a bitterly cold evening. It was so cold that everyone wore their coats over their costumes. Things warned up later when a big, brawny, bald Brazilian worked up a sweat doing the limbo on the floor. With the steam rising off his scalp, he looked as if he had been electrocuted!

An Austin tradition

Carnaval Brasileiro has now become an Austin institution, one that nobody really planned as such. A small party grew into a giant public bash because there were Brazilians who needed a celebration, local individuals to nurture it along the way, a radio program (Horizontes) to promote its music, a series of bands to play the music, and, above all, enough Austinites who felt the magic and kept coming back for more.

This is an Austin story, one that has yet to take off in Houston, Dallas or San Antonio, despite larger Brazilian (and other Latin) populations, consular officers, and potential public interest.

Carnaval has emerged and thrived in Austin, because long ago it became a city of open attitudes and spontaneity. Now that bohemian attitude has mixed with just enough business sense and hard work to make music happen in a way that is attracting attention from around the world. Perhaps the greatest monument to that spirit—the Armadillo—is now just a memory. But Austin's Carnaval Brasileiro, our peculiar winterfest of flesh and fantasy, was nurtured in that unique semi-cohesive, culture-conscious environment, and still flowers every February.


This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at Carnaval Brasileiro in Austin, Texas. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.

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