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How Carnaval Became an Austin Institution, 
A First Person Account

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By Mike Quinn

In 1974, I was managing a record store in Greenwich Village when I discovered Arhoolie’s Roots of Texas-Mexican Border Music. I played this stuff constantly in the store, and one day while reading the extensive notes, I came across the name of the preeminent scholar in the area of border folklore in Texas, Américo Parédes, and learned he was teaching at UT-Austin. That was it. I packed up and moved back to Texas to continue my then-truncated college education. I started a program of study with Dr. Parédes, and enrolled in ethnomusicology courses with Dr. Gerard Béhague, all while working part-time at Discount Records on the Drag. In time I started jamming the bins full with music from all over Latin America, but especially that of Brazil—I had taken a course with Dr. Béhague in the music of Brazil and Argentina which made me a marginally knowledgable buyer for the store’s world music section.

It was during that class with Béhague that I had an epiphany—Brazilian music of the time was far more interesting than that of the USA, and I poured myself into it. I studied Portuguese, bought every Brazilian LP I could find, and then, out of the blue, John Wheat, then host of KUT’s Horizontes, and a customer at the record store, asked me if I would guest host that show during his vacation; that was August of 1978. During those two weeks, I decided to dedicate the Friday programs to the music of Brazil. The phones rang off the hook! So when I took over the show permanently a few weeks later, I made Brazilian Friday a fixture—Fridays then became the most lucrative day during pledge drives, so I knew Brazilian music had a much greater appeal than other Latin musics, at least to the KUT audience.

Ok, back up a bit. There was a student in my Music of Brazil class named Ileana Casanova, a Cuban. In February of 1977, she was the organizer of a small, more or less private, Brazilian Carnaval party that had been passed from organizer to organizer over the years. She rented a carpeted room at Dobie Mall for her party…she had to rent a dance floor! Plus she rented an atrocious sound system which was constantly blowing out. I couldn’t stand it, so I left early. The next week I offered to help her improve the logistics of the 1978 party, an offer she gladly accepted. When I called her in December of ’77 to find out when work would get started on the party, she told me she just didn’t want to do it again. So she agreed that I could go it alone, something I was a bit uneasy about doing. But thanks to the shoving and pleading of Jim “Hawaiian Prince” Hughes, a huge fan of that annual festivity, I decided to forge ahead. Were it not for Prince urging me on, Carnaval would have died on the vine at that point.

I had never done anything like producing a public event, but I soon learned it ain’t brain surgery. I knew two things: 1) Rent a room that already has a dance floor; 2) Rent a room that has a sound system. 

So I opened the Yellow Pages to the “Nightclubs” listing and the very first name in the listings was The Boondocks on East Fourth Street. I called them and proposed a $400 rental, with me keeping the door proceeds. I went down to look at the place and it was perfect. But the manager/owner proposed that, instead of giving them four hundred bucks, he wanted me to put that money toward advertising on KLBJ-FM, then Austin’s only decent music station, other than KUT—they had not been paying their bills and were cutoff at the station and they just wanted their name on the air in any context. 

I did as requested and got FIFTY TWO!!!! sixty-second spots. That was the key, and it was something I would have never done otherwise. I had anticipated, at the most, around 400 people. Instead, around 1000 showed up, about 200 over the legal capacity! We turned away at least another hundred or more. The Boondocks sold every drop of alcohol that night, so they allowed us to party until 4:00am! They also had to repaint their dance floor the next week because the one thousand partiers had danced all the paint off the floor! Yes, it was a great party. Oh, tickets were a walloping two bucks!

The following year we clearly needed more space, the obvious choice in those days was the Armadillo World Headquarters. We managed to put a little carnaval band together with the help of Dr. Béhague, so we had live music that year. (The previous party was fueled by cassettes provided by Ms Casanova.) Attendance was about 1800, easily filling the ‘Dillo, and nearly double that of 1978. Tickets a huge three bucks, maybe four! Some guy at the American-Statesman, I think his name was Joe Nick Patoski, wrote a story on the event which appeared the morning of the show. By 11:00 am, tickets were sold out—that story pushed demand over the top, the power of the press, at least in those days. I heard that during the show, tickets were being scalped out front for as much as $25! Quite a hefty mark-up, and a small fortune in 1979.

In 1980, the party moved to the Austin City Coliseum and attendance continued to grow. Legal capacity at that venue, at least in the early days, was 3,800. I’m sure at least one or two years, we had 4,000 in there, of course, not all at one time! Well, maybe. Eventually we expanded to two nights to meet demand, but finally the real solution arrived in the form of the Palmer Events Center with a capacity of 7,000. Currently we hover around 5,500 to 6,000, but in 2011, or 2012, we had at least 6,300 in the room. Interestingly, there has never, in my 38 years of hosting this thing, been any sort of major incident, such as fights, accidents, nothing. I doubt any other kind of large event with such a long history could make that claim, especially with a very intoxicated crowd such as mine. I’m knocking on wood as I type this.

The music has gotten much better. For many years we used Susanna Sharpe and Samba Police, but in 2004 I found a great carnaval band in New York composed entirely of Brazilians, all vets of Carnaval in Rio, and they were absolutely fantastic. To conform with the “Buy Local” movement, we’ve brought Susanna and her cops back for a couple of years—crowds are happy to have her back.

And now, we have an amazing performer from Salvador, Bahia, the home of Brazil’s craziest Carnaval celebration: Dandara Odara is an electrifying singer who has been referred to as “The Tina Turner of Brazil”! And if you caught her 2017 Carnaval show in Austin, you would understand why. We are excited to have her back in 2018!

Not coincidentally, a number of other regularly performing Brazilian bands have formed in Austin playing everything from Brazilian funk to the traditional carnaval music of Recife, a town in Brazil’s NE, called maracatú. To me, all these groups help make Austin a unique city in this country, and I’d like to think that I and my little party have had something to do with that. Even Roland Swenson, one of the originators of SXSW recently admitted to me that the success of Carnaval was one of the inspirations that gave him and Louis Meyers the idea to crank up the very first SXSW in 1987. 

Keep Austin weird, indeed!

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