In the years before Conceição Damasceno’s death in April at 61, her friends urged her to take it easy, assuring her that she’d done more than enough to champion Brazilian culture in the Bay Area (and far beyond).
Despite fighting an array of maladies stemming from lupus, the dancer, choreographer, teacher and indefatigable organizer of exuberant celebrations continued to run BrasArte, the Brazilian cultural organization based since 2007 in the brightly muraled cinderblock building occupying the southeast corner of San Pablo and Hearst avenues known as the Casa da Cultura.
It’s not that she hesitated to share responsibilities. Damasceno had a gift of cultivating and motivating collaborators sharing her love of Brazil, including her daughter, dancer and choreographer Tainah Damasceno. But Conceição, or Conce to her multitude of friends, always insisted on being in the thick of the action, making decorations, sewing costumes, cooking and keeping projects on track.
“She did four or five festivals a year,” said percussion maestro John Santos, a close friend and Conceição collaborator since she arrived in the Bay Area in the mid-1980s. “At a time when a lot of people were saying you’ve done enough, slow down, she’d say, ‘That’s what’s keeping me alive.’ Just preparing a group for Carnival is an exhausting, full-time job. You prepare all year for that, making costumes, gathering musicians, composing. She did that and prepared kids groups, ran kids camps, and put on the Yemanja Arts Festival and Lavagem.”
While outside of Brazilian cultural circles Damasceno was best known for Ginga Brasil, the samba-powered music and dance troupe she led in the Mission District’s annual cross-cultural Carnival celebration, no event meant more to her than the Lavagem. This year’s celebration, which is dedicated to her memory, returns to the Casa da Cultura’s environs Sunday, Sept. 4, from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. Held mostly outdoors, the festival includes a children’s village, beer and wine garden, caipirinha lounge, food and artists’ booths, dance performances and lots of live music. The event is free and open to the public, but depends on supporters buying VIP tickets to cover expenses.
“I remember lots of times in her backyard preparing for the Lavagem or a parade,” said flutist and vocalist Rebecca Kleinmann, who’s performing an early set Sunday with Brazilian-born Berkeley guitarist Ian Faquini and percussionist Will Martins. “She’d be there helping me put together a headpiece, sewing on flowers or sequins on a costume, making suggestions. She has this beautiful way of not just coordinating large events, but getting into the details, full of love for her community and culture. Even when she was struggling with so many health issues she was still involved as possible with every little detail. Her spirit was so brilliant, all that sickness was never able to dim it.”
BrasArte’s Lavagem references the Lavagem do Bonfim, a massive cultural celebration in the northeastern metropolis Salvador da Bahia that culminates on the steps of the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim following a long, percussion-powered procession through the city. After ceremonially sweeping the church’s steps (the lavagem), white-clad Bahian women initiated into the syncretic Yoruba faith Candomblé bestow blessing and libations on all who request them.
“My mother was very into the religion, Candomblé and Catholicism, and every year she took me to the ocean to pray to Yemanja,” Damasceno told me in a 2017 interview, referring to the orisha, or goddess, who presides over the waters. “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.”
Damasceno grew up in Salvador, long considered the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture. The youngest of 12 children, she was an infant when her father died, and her mother struggled to keep the children fed. Drawn to Afro-Brazilian music and dance, she spent years immersing herself in the region’s folklore and religion. Planning on making it to France when she left Brazil in the mid-1980s, she got as far as Florida, carrying little more than her trove of knowledge and love of dance. In Fort Lauderdale, she met an Englishman named Nick Harvey and before long they were keeping company.
“We were introduced by friends,” he recalled. “I hadn’t had much exposure from the musical end, but coming from England I was into Brazilian soccer. And I’d watched documentaries on Brazil on BBC, so I knew about Rio and something about the socioeconomic situation. I’d thought about going to Brazil and learning Portuguese. But I’d never heard about Bahia.”
Harvey had some friends living in Berkeley, and the couple landed in town around 1988, renting an in-law unit in the hills for a year before they found an apartment at College and Alcatraz, where they stayed through the mid-‘90s. When Tainah was born in 1995, they bought a house in Rockridge, which became an unofficial hub of the East Bay’s Brazilian community.
Damasceno also maintained close ties with friends in Brazil, like Margareth Menezes, who was just starting to emerge as a star known for samba anthems and high energy axé dance music. Those friends and connections turned into a two-way cultural pipeline linking one bay to another, as Damasceno led groups of people eager to absorb Afro-Brazilian culture to Bahia and brought Brazilian performers to the Bay Area for shows and classes.
Santos was playing a lot of Brazilian music in the mid-1980s when Damasceno “caused a sensation around the community, this incredibly beautiful dancer who made an instant impact,” he said. “There was a pretty vibrant scene with several dance companies and she dug right into it, representing carnival and Afro-Brazilian tradition like no one before her. It was the right time for her to come here, and she just kept going.”
After years of teaching dance around the region, from Santa Cruz to the Mission Cultural Center, she eventually got her own space when she took over the No Sweat dance studio on Solano in 1998. Her enthusiasm and organizational skills inspired other people to join the cultural fray, most importantly Dennis Broughton.
“She taught me many things about Salvador, Bahia and Brazil, and changed my life for the better,” he wrote in an email from California Brazil Camp in Cazadero, which for three decades has provided a sylvan forum for studying and communing with some of Brazil’s finest musicians. “She was very much responsible for helping me start the California Brazil Camp, which now has 350 students and 25 teachers mostly from Brazil teaching all forms of Brazilian music and dance. Conceição was with me from the beginning, and now her daughter Tainah has taken her role, continuing on with her energy.”
Part of what made Damasceno such a force was her expansive and welcoming vision, said Santos, who witnessed her magic with children up close. “She was very much responsible for several generations of kids embracing Brazilian culture, including my kids, who grew up at Casa da Cultura,” he said. “My daughter was four or five when she started dancing there. Conce took her under her wing and she became a really good samba dancer. And as much as she was all about Brazil, Conce went out of her way to open Casa da Cultura up to all of Latin America, Afro-Peruvians, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Colombians. She hosted concerts by artists from all over.”
More than celebrating Damasceno’s memory, Sunday’s Lavagem is a chance to witness her legacy in action. “It’s going to be emotional,” Harvey said. “Of everything we do the Lavagem was the most her thing. It’s the living culture and everything that she wanted people to experience.”