Some observations that have appeared in the press over the years:
“Best Public Bash”
Texas Monthly, June 1980
Forget New Year’s Eve, Halloween, the Fourth of July and even your birthday. Austin’s biggest party of the year rolls around again Saturday night at the City Coliseum. Yes, it’s Carnaval time. You poor souls who have not yet experienced this frenzied night of revelry owe it to your libidos to show up…
When [last year’s Carnaval] was finally over, I, like many other people, stood around in an exhausted daze–not unlike the afterglow of an orgasm–refusing to believe that such a high-level experience could ever end.”
The Daily Texan, 2/14/83
“…there’s enough madness at Carnaval Brasileiro for you to store up plenty of small sins to keep you warm for at least 40 days of Lenten austerity.
…when you arrive, you’ll swear the walls are going to burst with all that sound. It comes mostly from drums, the bateria; the drums really get to you. Their pulsating, syncopated beat is totally compelling. You don’t just hear it, you can feel it, coming up from the floor through the soles of your feet, and it’s so intense it will probably have you right out on the dance floor in no time.”
The San Antonio Light, 2/27/81
…Susanna Sharpe and dozens of drums presided over Austin’s best public costume party Saturday night.
While Halloween on Sixth Street is suffocating from crowds and regimentation, and few people dress for Eeyore’s Birthday Party anymore, Carnaval is healthy and adapting to middle age without losing its step.
Not only a splendid costume ball, Carnaval is probably the best dance of the year and, if anyone can stop samba-ing long enough to listen to the music, an interesting concert of Brazilian festival music…”
Austin American-Statesman, 2/8/93
Brazil Nuts Dept: I keep trying to think of reasons to disapprove of the city’s annual salute to bacchanalia, Carnaval Brasileiro, but I just can’t. After all, when you consider the capacity for magnum-force sensory overload engendered by thundering Latin percussion, sinuous lines of snake dancers, revelers in gaudy costumes or various stages of undress and ice-cold beer (often Brazilian Brahma), what’s not to like? Celebrating Carnaval is a hedonistic and riotously pagan job, but somebody’s got to do it.”
John T. Davis
Austin Weekly, 2/6/92
When it comes to ‘dress up’ occasions in Austin, there’s nothing to match the time and energy that goes into the preparation for Carnaval. The pre-Lenten festivity combines Mardi Gras madness with the non-stop Brazilian beat of the sensual samba, transposing a Rio de Janeiro-style celebration to downtown Austin. Carnaval is a sort of dance-happy Halloween for adults that infuses a concentrated burst of hot and steamy tropical energy into the usually dormant winter months. It has become one of Austin’s most beloved entertainment institutions, and the city’s premier event for festive fashions and just plain weird wardrobing.
Jenna Radke, manager of the S. Congress Avenue costume shop Electric Ladyland, said the event is the highlight of her year. ‘There’s nothing that compares with Carnaval when it comes to wild-and-crazy outfits,’ she said. ‘The Carnaval fans are really serious about their costumes. They want something that’s totally flamboyant, the more theatrical the better. We do more business for Halloween because it affects everyone, but we sell more really outrageous outfits for Carnaval.’
Austin didn’t invent Carnaval, but it has adopted and embraced it with a fervor that may be unmatched in North America. Organizers, who have researched similar events, proudly believe Austin does it better.
‘There are a few other places–mostly big cosmopolitan cities like New York, San Francisco and Miami–that have Carnaval celebrations, but ours is the best. In those cities, most of the audience is either made up of Brazilian natives, or else it’s a $75-ticket costume ball for the affluent. Here it’s more of a populist event, with fewer Brazilians and more people tat aren’t tied in directly to that culture who take time out to experience it. Also, there’s no doubt that Austinites just like to get wild and crazy like no place else,’ organizers say.”
Austin American-Statesman, 2/10/90
The pre-Lent festival is an all-consuming party, complete with outrageous costumes and non-stop dancing. It is not a night for the timid or introverted, although the anonymity provided by costuming frees even the most inhibited souls to celebrate with complete abandon.
…Carnaval’s uninhibited atmosphere allows partygoers to witness and take part in what one regular calls “a festival of flesh” as the Mardi Gras-type event brings out the wildly dressed and the barely dressed for hours of energetic dancing to the seething samba beat.”
Austin American-Statesman, 2/9/91
Discriminating party animals agree–it’s the wildest party in the known universe, a fevered boogie fest that strains the most exaggerated adjectives, a mass of bodies breaking into spontaneous combustion. What else? It’s Carnaval Brasileiro–a little gathering of a few thousand friends who know how to get crazy.
Know any other party that people fly down from Seattle every year to make? Longtime Austinites Dawn and Bob Haslanger have been doing just that ever since they moved to Seattle three years ago.
But is any party that good? ‘It’s a great party. I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else,’ Dawn said. ‘It’s kind of a magical atmosphere, a samba frenzy. You go out and get as crazy as you can. Since you’re disguised that makes it even easier.’
A jet-propelled cultural transplant, Carnaval transforms Austin into Rio-on-the-Colorado–Carnaval turns Brazil into one big street party.
Samba music gives Carnaval its torrid ambience. Organizers say, ‘Unlike any other party, this one has its own music to integrate the dancing and costumes. The music has been developing since the turn of the century; it’s honed to the right atmosphere.’
Under the spell of the music and in the anonymity of a costume, ‘people get all revved up. It’s an opportunity to unbridle lot of things that are normally bridled.’
Above all, it’s the crowd that makes the party, they say. ‘It’s a great crowd–you get over 3000 people on a bumper-car dance floor; it’s just fun. It unleashes the child in everyone.’
Austin American-Statesman, 2/4/89
In Austin, the occasion for civic debauchery has been, since around 1970, the fabled Carnaval Brasileiro. Some might argue that Halloween gives Carnaval a run for the money, but this survivor of both events disagrees.
[Carnaval is] a flagrant affront to all that is self-righteous, responsible and stuffy. May it be ever thus.”
John T. Davis
Austin American-Statesman, 2/21/87
They come in feathers, lamé, masks and papier-mache heads. They come dressed as film stars and suppressed desires. Herds of party animals costume around a single theme, forming a bloco. And every year, it seems, some woman comes dressed in everything she brought into this world.
They’re coming to Carnaval Brasileiro, perhaps the most uninhibited bash north of Copacabana beach. Only in Austin could a Brazilian-style pre-Lent carnival party become an institution. With Eeyore’s Birthday and Halloween, Carnaval forms the triple-crown of Austin costumed madness…it’s become the focal point for pent-up mid-winter madness.
Carnaval literally means ‘farewell to meat.’ Historically rooted in Catholic countries, it is a time to indulge before the ritual penitence of Lent, a binge before the fast. But its roots go much deeper, to pagan times, when it was a celebration to usher out winter and rejuvenate spring. In Austin, it has become a time to throw off the staleness of a shut-in winter and banish inhibitions.”
Austin American-Statesman, 2/9/85
Marlin Perkins of Wild Kingdom fame never saw as many animals as danced the samba, whooped, jumped up and down and just generally went bananas Saturday night at Carnaval Brasileiro, Austin’s annual answer to Brazilian Mardi Gras.
We are speaking of just one species of beast, though. Or, as they say in Rome, “partius animalaroonus.” An estimated 3,300 of these friendly critters jammed the City Coliseum for non-stop dancing to sensual, pounding Brazilian music played by a band called Carnaval Knowledge.
…It was kind of like the Cotton-Eyed Joe on steroids…The costumes at this bash, as usual, were fit for a Fellini movie. One guy who didn’t volunteer his name showed up in an outfit that sported a pair of fabric female breasts. Just who the heck did he think he was?
“I’m the whore of Babylon,” he said of his gear, which included an odd crown decorated, in part, by a couple of synthetic, curling ram horns. “It’s Carnaval, the festival of the flesh. Where else would the whore of Babylon be?”
A rather large fellow with a mustache sambaed the night away in a lime-green gown with huge hoops that made the outfit about 2 1/2 yards wide. He had a basket of white flowers on his head. Some of the female outfits were rather skimpy. A woman danced in front of the stage in a teddy. And later in the evening, she managed to make it onto the stage with the band.
Everybody seemed to have a good time. “That’s why I live in Austin, to go to things like this,” said Jackie Soliz, who was wearing a 1920s flapper outfit. “Don’t they have them all the time?”
Austin American-Statesman, 2/10/86
While in Austin it’s winter, in Rio, it’s the middle of summer. But no matter what the climatic conditions, the atmosphere at Carnaval Brasileiro will be hot.
In fact, Carnaval annually proves to be the hottest party of the winter.
The samba beat is largely responsible for the heat, said party organizers. ‘The beat somehow ties in with body rhythms and really gets you jumping. Samba seems to be the most motivating kind of music, it’s almost impossible not to dance to it.
The real attraction, though, will be the crowd. Austin’s wildest party animals come wearing feathers, lame, masks and at least one person will come dressed in little more than glitter. “The costuming is a way of changing roles or positions in the sociological hierarchy,” organizers say. “It’s a way for people to hide their identities while going crazy.”
Austin American-Statesman, 2/86
Rays of neon lights swirled about, revealing glimpses of a mass of pinks, greens, golds, feathers and sweaty flesh pulsating to the thumping of drums and the pounding Portuguese vocals. The room expanded and contracted in ecstatic frenzy.
Carnaval Brasileiro, Austin’s own version of Brazilian street carnivals celebrating Mardi Gras, took place Saturday at the Palmer Events Center. ‘It is about the music, the dancing and the outrageous costumes,’ said Mike Quinn, the event organizer.
‘I’m not here five minutes, and I already know I’m definitely coming back,’ said Paul Shugar, a consultant from Houston. ‘With this much skin, how can you not come back?’
Shugar and his buddies were covered in silver body paint and sparkles and wore boxer shorts, fishnet stockings and sandals. Shugar heard about the party from a friend and decided to come check it out.
The appeal of Carnaval is the opportunity to dress up as ‘your anti-personality, show up and have fun and at the end of the night, no one cares,’ Shugar said. ‘It’s like a license to have fun.’
The Daily Texan, 2/9/04
“TEXAS TAMBEM TEM SAMBA, ZIRIGUIDUM E BALACOBACO”
(“Texas also has samba, ziriguidum and balacobaco”)
O Globo, Brazil • AUSTIN, Texas. Thousands of people wearing Halloween costumes filled the arena feverously dancing to the samba beat. The drums inspired enthusiastic movements, while multicolored lights provided the ambience. The party-goers were celebrating carnaval, but it’s not Brazil: it’s Texas.
Since the middle of the ’70s, when Brazilian exchange students at the University of Texas began to organize a carnaval, the inhabitants of the city have commemorated the Brazilian festivity. The event has become one of the city’s most popular.
‘It was natural for Austinites to get into this. They are known for their party-loving attitudes,’ organizers say.
‘It’s crazier than in Brazil,’ says Andre Bastos, an engineer from Sao Paulo.
At last Saturday’s party, people were still buying tickets at midnight and when the box office closed, more than 4,800 had arrived. Organizers are already studying ways to make next year’s party even better.
In 2000, they flew in 13 drummers from the samba school Portela in Rio, and last year brought in a veteran samba group from New York. Twenty-seven years of carnaval have opened the doors for shows by Brazilian music stars like Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil and Milton Nascimento, who would normally not make tour stops in a city as small as Austin.
O Globo (Brazil), 2/2004
AUSTIN’S MIDWINTER TUNE RESOUNDS LIKE A SAMBA
Austin isn’t really Texas.
Despite being the state capital, this city of 680,000 has long had a slightly out-of-state sophistication, mixing international draws like the South by Southwest music and media festivals with some of the best barbecue anywhere. But for one night each winter, Austin goes even farther, channeling Brazil in what has become an over-the-top seasonal tradition. As it celebrates what organizers are calling its 30th anniversary on Feb. 3 at the Palmer Events Center, Austin’s Carnaval Brasileiro promises to once again shake off the blahs, bringing samba bands and giant puppets together with scantily clad revelers who, for one long, tune-filled night, trade their cowboy boots and jeans for beads, bangles, and feathers.
The music, Quinn says, is why he keeps the event going, and he proselytizes about it at every opportunity. For the throngs dancing, it’s less science than art and less art than just plain fun. “Initially, people go for the party,” he says. “But once they’re there, the music becomes a big part of it.”
Well, for some, perhaps. Regulars, several of whom maintain fan websites, spend almost as much time discussing their costumes and plans for future get-ups. What they don’t talk about are any of the usual disruptions newcomers might expect. Despite Carnaval’s ingredients–a large, dark hall filled with semi-naked participants, many of whom are drinking alcohol–the event courts and maintains a peaceful vibe.
Ample security helps, but the overall atmosphere is one of fun. An all-ages admission policy doesn’t keep Carnaval from being loud, crowded, and late. The biggest hassle I encountered was being cut off by an enormously long conga line. My husband and I waved at each other and tried to cut in. We ended up joining the line, running as much as dancing as it wove through the room. Maybe that was the point after all.
The Boston Globe, 1/7/2007
From Rio to Austin
Boston Phoenix, Feb. 16, 2006
Mike Quinn describes himself as a natural-born proselytizer. He’s the kind of music fan who insists on sticking with vacuum-tube stereo components and vinyl LPs. Because “tubes sound better than transistors, and vinyl sounds better than CDs — they just do.” When my wife and I visited Austin to check out the annual Carnaval Brasileiro that he’s been organizing in that city for 29 years he was visibly pained, offended even, that we hadn’t taken his recommendation for Austin barbecue but had given in to a just-as-insistent Austinite who held us a captive audience in her cab. “You’re going to listen to an anonymous cab driver rather than someone who’s lived in the city for 40 years?!” Quinn was crestfallen.
The barbecue slight was a recurring theme of our 24-hour visit to Texas, but it was, after all, a secondary one. The real story was how Quinn came to organize Carnaval Brasileiro, an Austin institution that now draws between 5000 and 6000 people every year. It wasn’t an obvious move for this white guy of “mongrel” (as he puts it) Northern European lineage with an intellectual bent. Up till the mid ’70s or so, the only music he listened to was avant-garde. If it wasn’t Ornette Coleman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, or Charles Ives, he wasn’t interested — nothing that could be described as even vaguely “beautiful or melodic.” In 1974, he attended the centenary celebration for Ives in the composer’s home town of Danbury, Connecticut, an event that included a marathon performance of all 114 of the composer’s published songs — “about eight hours, with a break for lunch.”
When Quinn’s avant-gardist impulses broke down during a class on Brazilian music at the University of Texas, his conversion was immediate and total. He studied Portuguese and made the first of many trips to Brazil. In his job at the Austin Discount Records, he began proselytizing. If he saw a customer buying an LP by the then-popular Brazilian jazz-fusion vocalist Flora Purim, he’d guide him or her toward some of the “purer” Brazilian product — Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, Martinho Da Vila. In one 18-month period, he sold 6000 records.
His friends are well aware of his single-mindedness. He’s made his living in a variety of capacities: graphic design; promotions director at Texas Monthly; a still-running audiophile column in Jazz Times. For years he did his own heavily Brazilian Latin radio show at the University of Texas station and ran the import label Ipanema Records. But unlike other concert promoters, he’s always had just one event, Carnaval Brasileiro. Long-time Austin journalist Michael Point, who works with Quinn on the event, told me, “The amount of concentration he has on this one event is abnormal, and it’s the kind of thing that only an obsessed individual can pull off.”
Carnaval Brasileiro began in the early ’70s as a private party organized by homesick Brazilian college students. Quinn attended one and was disappointed. There was no proper dance floor, the sound system was terrible. “I said, ‘Let’s fix this,’ ” and offered to help. The following year, the original organizers pretty much gave Quinn the party — it had become too much work. His first edition was at a downtown club called Boondocks, which gave him the space on the condition that he buy radio ads. He expected a few hundred people; a thousand showed up. The next year, he moved Carnaval to Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters and drew 2000. Then he went to the 3500-capacity Austin Civic Auditorium. Since 2003, the event has been held at the Palmer Events Center, which holds 6000. It’s a sellout or near-sellout out every year.
To describe Carnaval Brasileiro as a “concert” is inadequate. It’s more of a bacchanal, a dance party that surpasses the lunk-headed debauchery of New Orleans Mardi Gras and is, Quinn hopes, more in the spirit of Rio. Two “acts” alternate sets all night. A samba-school bateria — a large corps of drummers — pounds out a complex sequence of samba parade rhythms. Then there’s a full band — multiple percussionists, keyboards, bass, vocalist. In Austin, shortly after nine, the local samba school (the name for Rio’s neighborhood carnaval groups), Acadêmicos de Opera, emerged from behind the stage in a long parade line and a heavy two-beat thump began to penetrate the room. Amid the throbbing 1-2 accented by carhorn blasts, the samba-school members, wearing tall, multi-colored Mad Hatter crowns with multiple blinking red lights, made their slow procession to the center of the room. Four giant papier-mâché puppet clowns — white-faced with black harlequin make-up and fringes of orange, yellow, and purple hair — towered over the crowd. The bateria assembled in the center of the room, a crush of a couple thousand people around it, and launched its first number. There were about 30 players, at least three different kinds of drums, from the phalanx of bass-drum surdos de primeira to the high-rattling caixa de guerra snares, and groups of hand drums. At whistles and hand signals from the leader, they’d shift from one rhythm to the next with a little counter-rhythm break — the paradinha — before all rushing back in again in unison and a new beat. It was deafening, the precision and sonics exhilarating, and it went on non-stop for an hour.
After a short break, Grupo Saveiro took the stage. They’re a New York–based Brazilian outfit some of whose members played Carnaval in Rio for 25 years. Guest vocalist Kenia fronted the band with her booming alto, drawing from the entire history of Carnaval, and from all styles. The line-up has six drummers, including a trap drummer, plus leader Carlhinos Almeida’s ukulele-like cavaquinho and a keyboardist who chimed in with horn arrangements on some tunes. If they played a single ballad tempo in their first one-hour set, I don’t remember it. As with the samba school, the rhythms began at a breakneck tempo and never stopped.
The crowd, meanwhile, had grown by another couple thousand, churning in the color-dappled semi-darkness under the elaborate light rigs. Conga lines formed and snaked their way through the crowd and around the room — 50, 100 people long.
The costumes and masks were of every variety — from college boys as convenience-store Halloween pirates to elaborate hand-made suits, winged fairies and robed devils, feathered masks everywhere, and lots of bare skin and body paint. Middle-aged couples in jeans and T-shirts joined half-naked coeds to observe the festivities from terraced risers on either side of the room. And every body type was happy to flaunt it — one woman, solidly built, topless but for some strings of beads, with bare tree-trunk legs stuffed into black cowboy boots, jumped up on the riser so she could bump butts in a quick dance with a gay boy in panther body paint and a Speedo while her leather-clad escort took photos.
Although he’s happy to see uninhibited party behavior and judges the success of the event in part on the amount of dancing, Quinn says he’s somewhat bothered by the growing prevalence of semi-nudity in the last five years or so. “That’s not what this party is about. For me, it’s about the music, and it always has been. It’s an opportunity to lure people in with the promise of a really good party and slip in a really good concert of Brazilian music.”