BrasArte founder and artistic director Conceição Damasceno, who presents Sunday’s 14th Annual SF Brazilian Day & Lavagem. Photo: Nicholas Harvey
BrasArte founder and artistic director Conceição Damasceno, who presents Sunday’s 14th Annual SF Brazilian Day & Lavagem. Photo: Nicholas Harvey

A few weeks ago Alessandro Penezzi won a coveted Brazilian Music Award for Quebranto (Biscoito Fino), earning best instrumental album honors for his collaboration with fellow seven-string guitar virtuoso Yamandu Costa. On Sunday, Penezzi is part of a dazzling roster of artists performing at BrasArte’s 14th annual SF Brazilian Day & Lavagem, one of Berkeley’s signature community events.

The free all-day celebration at BrasArte’s Casa de Cultura on San Pablo Avenue marks Brazilian independence day (officially Sept. 7) and centers on an early enactment of the Lavagem do Bonfim, the January carnival that brings more than a million people into the streets of the northeastern city of Salvador da Bahia. Dancing to music by Afro-Brazilian ensembles like Ilê Ayê, Olodum, and Filhos de Gandhi, the massive procession dances through the center of the city and concludes on the steps of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, where white-clad Bahainas offering blessings for those who seek them.

For this year’s Lavagem, BrasArte founder and artistic director Conceição Damasceno is celebrating the legacy of Luiz Gonzaga, the accordion master, composer, singer and bandleader who forged the populist party music known as baião in the mid 1940s. In addition to Penezzi, who performs with mandolin great Danilo Brito, cavaquinho expert Alessandro Cardoso, and Bay Area Brazilian percussionist specialist Brian Rice, the program includes Maracatu Pacifico with special guest percussionist Pitoco de Airá (from the city of Recife, another vital northeastern center of Afro-Brazilian culture), Santa Cruz samba band SambaDá, Xaxado Mission with special guest Vitor Gonçalves on accordion, and vocalist Catia Lund.

The festival 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.).  “Inside we try to keep it more mellow, with Brazilian jazz and bossa nova,” Damasceno says. “Outside, it’s more dancing music. We’ll have great dancers too from Pernambuco, doing xaxado and frevo and samba, too.”

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“Every year we try to honor a great Brazilian artist or a style or movement, and last year it was bossa nova,” she continues, noting that she grew up in the dry, rural interior of Bahia known as the Sertão, a hardscrabble region that Luiz Gonzaga often wrote and sang about. “My mother was crazy about Luiz Gonzaga and we had our own forró parties. I’m missing my mother her and dedicated the festival to her and Luiz Gonzaga. We’re going to have different kinds of music, but the focus is Gonzaga. Penezzi just won a Grammy with Yamadu Costa and that’s huge. He’s going to be here with some other incredible musicians. We try to feature local bands too. The event is for the community.”

Most of the Berkeley community seems to have embraced BrasArte’s festival, but Damasceno says she almost didn’t stage it this year because one hostile neighbor has waged a steady campaign against the cultural center, with particularly vehement complaints about the Lavagem. She says that the added stress of dealing with an aggressive neighbor has exacerbated the numerous health challenges she’s already dealing with.

“This man is determined to stop the festival,” she says. “I invited him and said it’s much better to have a cultural place. We’re bringing life to this corner. The event has a part where kids learn how to dance and sing and do blessings, but he says ‘I don’t think you have a right to close the streets. Who do you think you are? I’ve invited him many times and say bring the family. He gets furious and I’m stressed out.”

From the City of Berkeley’s perspective, BrasArte is doing everything right. The organization works closely with nearby business to make sure they’re not adversely impacted, and notifies all neighbors about the upcoming event via flyers. In July, BrasArte hosted a community meeting to get feedback that was attended by a city staff member.

“The main thing is the organizers here are very proactive trying to resolve issues with the event,” says city spokesman Matthai Chakko. “So far, for both 2017 and 2018 we’ve spoken to one neighbor who’s had complaints and encouraged them to work directly with event organizers. BrasArte has submitted all permits and fees, and they’re very good about going through all city processes. The Midas shop has been very supportive and donated parking. The restaurants across the street are all supportive too.”

In its embracing cultural vision and exceptional artistic quality, the SF Brazilian Day & Lavagem represents the best of Berkeley. Damasceno should be getting the key to the city rather than disgruntled guff.

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Speaking of Brazilian music, San Francisco vocalist Sandy Cressman, who has honed a marvelous repertoire of classic Brazilian songs and beautifully crafted originals, performs Wednesday at the California Jazz Conservatory as part of Jazz In the Neighborhood’s Wednesday night concert series. It’s a family affair, with her husband, former Santana trombonist Jeff Cressman, and their daughter, trombonist/vocalist Natalie Cressman. They’re joined by ace bassist David Belove, drummer Dillon Vado, and the brilliant Brazilian pianist Vitor Gonçalves, who’s performed around the Bay Area with Israeli reed star Anat Cohen and Brazilian vocalist Claudia Villela.

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....