Everyone knows about Brazil’s famously exuberant carnival celebrations, which bring millions of people onto the streets for all-night samba-soaked revelry. In Salvador da Bahia, the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture, the Lavagem do Bonfim rivals carnival when it comes to communal celebration, though it’s not nearly as well known. On Sunday, the Casa de Cultura at San Pablo and Hearst is hosting a festival marking Brazilian Independence Day with a Lavagem inspired by the traditional blessing ceremony that culminates on the steps of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim after a long percussion-powered procession through Salvador. (Watch the video above to get a taste.)

The celebration opens in the morning with free dance classes and features performances on the main stage from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. The Lavagem procession and blessing takes place at 2 p.m. For Conceição Damasceno, the founder and guiding spirit of the Casa de Cultura, the ritual is more about staying connected to her Bahian heritage than with summoning the orixás, the syncretic deities of Candomblé that combine Yoruban and Catholic mysticism.

Saxophonist Inaldo Cavalcante de Albuquerque (aka Spok) of Spok & Friends

“My mother was very into the religion, Candomblé and Catholicism,” Damasceno says. “Every year she took me to the ocean to pray to Yemanja. We would dress in white and do the procession every year. It’s a long walk. You get the blessings from the priestesses, the baianas, who offer you a mix of water. I’m not a religious person, but I like the rituals. I have the kids doing the blessing. We dress them in typical costumes, and have a little parade and people are dancing around the stage.”

In addition to teaching dance classes and leading a contingent in the Mission District carnival celebration every year, Damasceno has long served as a conduit for Brazilian culture, bringing Americans to Bahia to study traditional dance and music and presenting Brazilian artists in the Bay Area. Sunday’s festivities feature a dazzling array of musicians and dancers from across California including Slleyk da Bahia, Tania Santiago, Wagner Santos, Ian Faquini, Rebecca Kleinman, Kimberly Miguel Mullen, UCA Capoeira, Maracatu Pacifico, SambaFunk Funquarians, Batala SF, Tambores Julio Remelexo, and Fogo Na Ropa.

From Brazil, there’s Dandha da Hora, who was a lead dancer with the legendary Afro-Brazilian cultural group Ile Aiye, Amanda Santiago, a former lead singer with Carlinhos Brown’s hugely popular percussion-powered ensemble Timbalada, and Spok & Friends. Hailing from Recife, anther center of Afro-Brazilian culture in northeastern Brazil, saxophonist Inaldo Cavalcante de Albuquerque (aka Spok) revolutionized the turbo-charged carnival style known as frevo by bringing the music into concert halls without losing any of its vitality.

“He’s a master of frêvo and choros from the state of Pernambuco,” says Oakland reed expert Harvey Wainapel, who recorded a tune written by Spok on his gorgeous new album Amigos Brasileiros Vol. 2. He performs with Spok on Sunday, and celebrates the album’s release at the California Jazz Conservatory on Sept. 5. 

“At one point he assembled a big band for a tour and turned it into a frêvo big band,” Wainapel continues. “This is not something the used to exist. Frêvo bands marches up and down the street during carnival, playing the same songs and everybody sings along. He put a band together and started playing frevo with great precision as part of an instrumental performance like Count Basie. This was so new. He was able to get out of Brazil and toured in Europe. Wynton heard them and he hired them to play at Jazz at Lincoln Center next month.”

Conceição Damasceno: the founder and guiding spirit of the Casa de Cultura, performing in 2007

This year’s event is dedicated to the memory of another artist from Pernambuco, Jefé Guimarães, a teacher of Brazilian dance who contributed emigrated from Brazil to the United States in 1977 and first exposed the Bay Area to frêvo. He tested HIV-positive in 1985 and continued to perform long after AIDS started taking its toll, eventually taking his life in Berkeley in 1993. His brother, Beto Guimarães, also a Bay Area choreographer, will accept recognition on his behalf.

In addition to the music, Damasceno and a community of volunteers are transforming the streets outside Casa de Cultura into a slice of Bahia with with large white paper flowers, images and altars, samba and capoeira circles, food and arts vendors, a children’s zone, a caiprinha lounge and a beer and wine garden. In many ways, she sees her residence in the East Bay as responsible for fostering her abiding ties to her homeland.

“For me it’s so important, so much a part of my life, I don’t think I would last a year in this country if I didn’t bring my culture with me,” Damasceno says. “My friends tell me I’m more Brazilian since I live outside the country.”

Visit the brasarte.com for more information about the Berkeley Lavagem on Sunday Aug. 31.

Andrew Gilbert writes about music for Berkeleyside, the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.

To find out what is going on in Berkeley and nearby, be sure to check out Berkeleyside’s recently launched Events Calendar. We encourage you also to submit your own events.

Andrew Gilbert

Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....