By Laura Madden, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – While most of the world considers Carnival synonymous with Rio’s Sambódromo shows, there are celebrations happening all across Brazil, notably in São Paulo and Salvador. The capital city of the northeastern state of Pernambuco, Recife, is known to have perhaps the most democratic Carnival in the country.
Brooklyn-based photographer Jason Gardner has seen it first hand and agrees, feeling Recife is an important part of the culture of Carnival. “It’s a Carnival for the people. It’s not Hollywood, you know, there’s no Sambódromo. You don’t need tickets.”
Gardner first came to Brazil in 2004 to document traditional musicians in Northeastern Brazil. Ethnomusicologists pointed him to Recife, where he returned to visit four separate times over the following six years.
“The magic of it for me was having music in the streets,” says Gardner. “These groups practice all year, and compete in different sections. It’s serious.”
Public health expert Rosemary Barber-Madden, a former Peace Corps Volunteer called Recife home from 1964 to 1966, before eventually settling in another Northeastern Brazilian capital city, Natal. Barber-Madden recalls frevo as the hallmark of Recife’s Carnival in those days.
“The old Frevo groups – that still march today – came in on a street, and another group would come in from the other end, playing completely different music. They almost meet in the middle but then each turns off onto a different side street.”
“Carnival [season] clearly began with Reveillon (New Years), and it went on until about noon on Ash Wednesday,” says Barber-Madden. “It was like your social life.”
Gardner recalls even meeting English-speakers during his visits. “Most were musicians from North America or Europe who wanted to learn the music,” he says.
Barber-Madden and Gardner both agree on the historical context of the music, such as different representations of kings and queens, a reference to the region’s colonial past.
There are also Afro-indiginous rituals such as the Encontro de Maracatus which Gardner documented in Nazaré da Mata in the interior of Pernambuco, where over fifty groups play music, sing and dance in honor of the orixás (deities).
Though partying begins early, Recife’s official beginning of Carnival is the Galo da Madrugada (Rooster of the Dawn) in the early hours of Saturday (February 18th) morning. Widely accepted as Brazil’s largest Carnival parade, more than a million people are said to flock around a rooster float forty feet high.
At Recife Antiga’s Marco Zero, the city’s main stage has live open-air shows. There’s a whole new music scene in Recife with genres like manguebeat and samba reggae. But, according to Gardner, “The official shows only represent about a third or half of what’s actually going on.”
Olinda, best visited during the day, is mostly blocos in cobblestone streets, but plenty of young folks bring a modern edge to the carnival there. “You’ll often see three, four, five generations of a family in a bloco,” says Barber-Madden.
A schedule of events is available for download. “But,” says Gardner, “part of the carnival experience is letting go.” So don’t overbook yourself trying to see it all.