If Brazilian Carnaval conjures images of lengthy legs and barely-there bikinis, Tania Santiago wants to macerate your illusions as surely as the limes on the bottom of a caipirinha glass. The Bahia-born artistic director of the ODC’s carnaval contingent, BrasilCuba-SF, winces every time she hears a reference to buttocks and beauty regarding her country.
“A lot of people think Brazil is all bikinis, nudity, sex,” said the stout 38-year old with energy as bouncy as the long twists of hair that cascade down her back, before a recent rehearsal. “They don’t talk about the culture.”
In her 52-member troupe that has been practicing out of the ODC’s Mission District studios, there will be no bikinis, no heels, and no fishnet uni-tards on parade at this Sunday’s San Francisco Carnaval celebration. In place of an exhibition of skin will be a presentation of Afro-Brazilian culture.
“For me, what I do here is I want to show that part, the folkloric part. It can be sensual, but I don’t need to show my body, my butt.”
Don’t get Santiago wrong. Among her dedicated, mostly female, followers at ODC, where Santiago teaches Afro-Brazilian dance year-round, are six-pack abs and buns to be proud of. But if Santiago achieves her goal, what will peak this Sunday’s crowd’s interest will be her choreography and the talent of the performers, who have been rehearsing their routine since January.
Not only are the contingent’s original costumes—with enough fabric to cover one leg, and both breasts, thank you very much—from Salvador, in northeastern Brazil, but the creative duo behind the performance is too. And thanks to Santiago and the musical director, Gamo da Paz, 45, the contingent brings a Brazilian tradition to the local carnaval parade that defies the usual stereotype.
The shift to directing a San Francisco Carnaval contingent is a big one for both of the Brazilian artists. Salvador da Bahia, the northeastern Brazil region where they both grew up, is home to one of the largest and liveliest celebrations. There the contingents, or blocos, rehearse year round and, says da Paz, “the small groups have 1,500 people.”
Both da Paz and Santiago came of age in Salvador during a movement of black pride and equal rights for Afro-Brazilians, who make up a majority of the population in the northeast of the country. In response to racist policies of the traditional carnaval blocos, they formed all-black contingents.
Santiago’s father played percussion with one of the oldest of those, Filho de Ghandy, or “Son of Ghandi.” When she was twenty and a performing arts student, Santiago auditioned for Olodum, one of the biggest blocos to emerge from that time, and was chosen to be the Carnaval Queen.
Da Paz is also the son of a drummer, and though his father died when he was a child, he took up the instrument as a young teenager as a part of his initiation with the Candomblé African spiritual tradition. By 18, he was performing professionally, and continued to play in the band with huge bloco-afros at Carnival and with musicians like Gilberto Gil around the country.
Touring with Brazilian companies brought both artists to Caifornia—Santiago with Olodum and da Paz with the Bahia Folkloric Ballet—and since they resettled in the Bay Area they have each developed a following among students of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Nowhere is that more evident than at the annual carnaval parade. “Carnaval is about representing your culture, your city,” said da Paz in the Mission District space of ODC. The BrasilCuba-SF contingent will represent both the culture of Salvador and that of Cuban dancer Yismari Ramos, who leads the adjoining Cuban squad.
In Brazil, da Paz and Santiago explained, each year the blocos decide on a theme to represent. Often it is a culture, like Angola, and performers will study traits of the culture to feature in the performance. The theme for BrasilCuba-SF this year came to Santiago during a trip home last fall. Watching the news, she saw stories of clear cutting in the Amazon. “So it’s about protest for the Amazon.”
This Sunday, when the group dances through the streets of the Mission in large green dresses to the 6/8 beat of the drum corps, think Amazonian warriors, their movements symbolizing protectorates of the rain forest and the life of its ecosystem. Think of the current threats to Brazil’s wildlife, of the African lineage of the samba rhythm, and of the resilience of Afro-Brazilian traditions. Just please, for the sake of da Paz and Santiago, don’t think of bikinis.
Carnaval SF takes place May 23rd and 24th on Harrison St. between 16th and 22nd St. from 10am to 6pm. The parade is Sunday beginning at 9:30am. It goes down 24th from Bryant to Mission, then up Mission to 17th, and east on 17th to Harrison.