Those who have experienced Brazilian culture have loved it, especially Carnaval, a long-awaited celebration in February. For members of Handphibians, a Madison-based pagode band, and Ótimo Dance, a Madison-based samba dance group, the love for Brazilian culture is what prompted them to organize Madison Carnaval.
Carnaval is a big party that precedes Lent, much like Mardi Gras in New Orleans, with the biggest celebration taking place in Rio de Janeiro. Regarded as one of the biggest parties in the world, it is characterized by large parades where escolas de samba or samba schools choreograph dances accompanied by percussion with the entire group wearing elaborate outfits. While there will be no parade in Madison, the Majestic stage will be buzzing with the infectious beats of samba Feb. 17.
Carnaval was brought to Madison by The Handphibians 24 years ago, introducing the City of Madison and subsequently the people of Wisconsin to something they had never experienced in person.
“The majority of people don’t know anything about Carnaval and what it is specifically to Brazil,” Handphibians music director Tom Ross said. “So we think it’s our responsibility as students of this art, to show the public what it is and introduce it because almost everybody in the group has connections with it.”
Their connections to Brazil range from a passion for the culture to having studied in Brazil to having grown up in Brazil, surrounded by the culture.
The group mostly does covers, but has written original songs, taking inspiration from the community they’ve built around their mutual love for the music.
“The first one [song] we wrote was about when we celebrated our 20th year anniversary,” Ross said. “It’s about the history of the group, the founder, Robert, and just how the evolution of the group happened.”
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The group’s founder, Robert Schoville, was inspired by his trip to Brazil and founded The Handphibians in the 90s.
As a way to deepen their knowledge of the art, The Handphibians and Ótimo Dance bring in masters to teach them.
“We went to the international Samba Congress a few years ago, where it’s just three days of all day dancing with a bunch of master dancers that they brought from Brazil and other areas around the country where these masters have kind of settled,” Ótimo Dance owner and director, Briana Gutierrez said. “We just want to expose ourselves as much as we can to the folks that are really doing the work in sharing samba with the world and creating the newest versions.”
Gutierrez also took a trip down to Bahia where she got to see the roots of samba in the Afro-Brazilian community. Her guide was Dandha Da Hora, who danced with Ilê Aiyê, one of the first afro-blocos in Salvador, the capital of Bahia. Blocos are music groups that play on the street, a staple of a Carnaval experience in Salvador, according to the Rio Carnaval website.
Brazil has the largest population of Black people outside of Africa, and while the dates of Carnaval align with a Catholic holiday, most aspects of the celebration, like the music, the dance and the costumes have deep roots in African culture and the favelas or slums. By the 1970s, Carnaval became mainstream for white people, with the majority of participants being of European descent.
“Despite the fact that [in] a lot of places in Brazil, the majority of their residents are of color, they weren’t allowed to participate,” Gutierrez said. “The European dancers were good and everything, but once the Afro-Brazilians really found their own voice and their own parts of Carnaval they’ve really deepened it to a whole new dimension.”
Knowing this, members of both Madison-based groups are committed to honoring the roots of samba by getting as educated as they can.
They also share their expertise with community members of all backgrounds and skill levels offering workshops for those who want to learn.
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The Handphibians specifically offer an 8 to 12 week long course that provides an overview of Brazilian music styles known as “Handschool.”
Joining either group is like joining a family. Handphibians and Ótimo Dance have a mutually beneficial partnership where they work together and support each other whenever they can. The relationships they form extend beyond the music with some members finding love, including Gutierrez, who met her husband when he was a drummer for The Handphibians.
Both groups also saw many of their members growing their own families at the same time.
“The most recent enredo we wrote, it’s called ‘Familia do Samba,’ which I wrote the main hook for yourself, because my wife and I were trying to have a baby,” Ross said. “And so we just wrote the song about The Handphibians having babies and just like, now there are a lot of babies.”
He recalls premiering the song two Carnavals ago when his wife, a singer with the group, was pregnant. They both suppressed tears while she sang and he played the cavaquinho, a small guitar important in the samba music, before they told the group the news.
With such passion for the music, group members often create sub-groups. Ross is a co-founder of Grupo Balança, which will also perform during Carnaval. Other performers include Canção Bossa Nova project, Forró Fo Sho and Capoeira Brazilian Martial Arts, according to the Madison Carnaval website.
Doors for the show open at 8 p.m., and the show starts at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased online or at the door. Attendees must be 18 or older.