On a warm day entering Casa de Cultura can feel like being teleported to São Paulo or Salvador da Bahia. Before the pandemic, the Brazilian cultural center on the corner of San Pablo and Hearst was abuzz with capoeira and samba dance classes. The elastic twang of a single-string berimbau could often be heard on the street. While the pandemic shut down classes, concerts and gatherings, the annual SF Bay Brazilian Day and Lavagem Festival is proceeding with more brasiliance than ever, providing a direct portal to the heart of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Produced by BrasArte, the Brazilian cultural organization that shares the space with the Capoeira Arts Foundation (which purchased the building last year), Sunday’s Lavagem has moved online. The mostly live-streamed event on Sept. 6 features Bay Area acts like SambaDá and the forró combo Dona Francisca and some of Brazil’s greatest musicians performing from the northeastern states of Pernambuco and Bahia.
“The big name is Roberto Mendes,” says Conceição Damasceno, the founder and artistic director of BrasArte. “We’ve been trying to bring him for so many years. He’s really a treasure. He’s written hit songs for Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethania, but not a lot people know him. He’s the only one who can play the guitar like he does.”
The theme of this year’s festival is a celebration of the Reconcovo region of Bahia, where Mendes is based. Historically, it’s the area where more African people were brought and enslaved than anywhere else in Brazil. Mendes is known for his work delving into the extraordinarily rich forms of expression that developed as various African cultures met and merged with Portuguese and indigenous peoples.
“Other than being an amazing composer and musician, he’s a historian,” says Tainah Damasceno Harvey, assistant artistic director at BrasArte. “He studied with all these old legends, and he translated a lot of the music into a jazz context. So he brings these really old forms in a modern context. He can play a whole piece on a plate with a knife and spoon, a very traditional practice that’s been largely forgotten.”
One sign of the respect that Conceição Damasceno has earned for promoting the Afro-Brazilian culture of Bahia, the state in which she was born and raised, is that Bahian superstar Margareth Menezes is participating in the Lavagem with a video she taped for the event. Via BrasArte’s Facebook page anyone can join the celebration, which starts with an hour of dance classes at 11 a.m. and runs until 4:30 p.m. In much the same way that people can buy tickets to parade through the streets of Salvador with legendary Afro-Brazilian percussion troupes like Ilê Aiyê and Filhos de Gandhy, BrasArte is offering $25 tickets for a VIP Zoom room.
After the long percussion-powered procession through the streets of Salvador, the parade culminates on the steps of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim. White-clad Baianas, who are priestesses in the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, offer blessings and libations after symbolically sweeping the steps of the church (lavagem means washing in Portuguese). The BrasArte festival’s centerpiece is the traditional blessing ceremony, and this year it will be conducted through a video link with the groups Nicinha Raizes de Santo Amaro and Pai de Santo Baba Pote.
Bahia isn’t the only state with a rich history of Afro-Brazilian culture. With the big port city of Recife, Pernambuco has its own massive carnival celebrations, powered by an array of maracatu rhythmic traditions little known outside the region. BrasArte’s Lavagem celebration includes a live-stream performance by Recife drummer Pitoco de Aira and dancer Marcela Rabelo.
“He’s the leader of a lot of maracatu in Recife,” Damasceno says. “He’s partnering his percussion with Marcela, who’s partnered with us before, and they’re doing a mix of music and dance from Pernanbuco, which is a, super rich blend of Africa, Holland, and indigenous influences. It’s super specific to the region.”
BrasArte is able to put on the Lavagem because Berkeley Civic Arts is allowing grant recipients to keep their funding by transforming their festivals or activities into online events. Many Brazilian arts organizations are struggling with similar challenges, as the pandemic has spread widely across the vast country. Much like in the United States, Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has downplayed the seriousness of COVID-19, fought with his top health officials and generally sown chaos.
“It’s been a disaster for artists,” Damasceno says. “Bolsanaro cut funding for the arts, and there’s been no support during the pandemic. What worries me most is that people who do folkloric art, old folks who’ve been doing it their whole life, have no support. There are no gigs, nothing. BrasArte has always worked to preserve the culture.”