festival spirit

Bhangra in Brazil: At Carnival, Sao Paulo did the samba to the sounds of Punjab

Call it Sambra.

Carnival in Brazil is that time of the year when fantasy and reality fuse into one or exchange places. Come February, the mood in the country changes. Almost every face is painted, everyone is dressed in kaleidoscopic colours, and every street wears a festive look for the festival that marks the period before the Christian fasting period of Lent, which started on Wednesday. Everyone walks around buoyantly – as if dancing to an invisible beat of samba. This multi-coloured celebration got an additional hue in Sao Paulo this year: samba with bhangra.

On February 25, a group of Brazilian drummers arrived at Rua Augusta, an iconic street in the heart of the city where a mobile DJ had already set up his sound machine. Almost all the people gathered at the spot were dressed in Indian attire. It was the venue of Bloco Bollywood, the first and only street carnival of the Indian community, in Brazil.

Organised for the first time in 2016 by the Indian community of Sao Paulo, the Indian bloco was purely a bhangra and Bollywood-style dancing affair. This year though, the bloco made a leap forward, offering a fusion of Punjabi bhangra with Brazilian samba – and it paid off with an attendance five times bigger than in the first edition.

In preparation for the event, the band from the institute of physics and astronomy of University of Sao Paulo, called Cherateria, had learnt to play all three taals of bhangra in less than two weeks. The morning of the party began with some Bollywood numbers and fiery dancing by members of the Indian community and large groups of Brazilians. Then the Cherateria arrived, with their samba drums and other traditional instruments, all prepared to play bhangra beats.

The band started with samba rhythms as the crowd, now totalling almost 2,000, broke into traditional Brazilian steps. The warm-up over, the drummers blasted bhangra beats and the whole bloco swayed from side to side in typical Punjabi style, guided by dance leaders – Indians and Brazilians – stationed at different spots in the bloco. For over 40 minutes, the Cherateria rocked the party with traditional bhangra beats, and a few Bollywood and Punjabi numbers. And then, as the deejay changed the track to Bollywood numbers, the drummers matched every Indian beat blasting from the giant speakers with their frenzied hands working on their drums. As the bloco moved down Rua Augusta towards the city centre, the fusion of Indian and Brazilian sounds rippled down the road, making hundreds of people come out of their buildings and join the party.

Though in its second year, Bloco Bollywood has become a fixture on the Sao Paulo cultural scene. Two days before the event, the organisers, their dancers and drummers from Cherateria were invited to perform on TV Globo’s flagship programme, Encontro com Fatima Bernandes.

Everybody outside Brazil confuses the Carnival with the samba parade that takes place in the Sambrodrome in Rio de Janeiro. But that lasts just two days. The carnival is almost a month-long affair, and the real action – and fun – takes place in the blocos or street parties. Rio de Janeiro has some 600 blocos. Sao Paulo, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere, has close to 500 blocos, each featuring a band of local musicians who belt out their favourite songs whose themes could range from funny to irreverent. There are blocos for everyone – children, old people, gays and transvestites.

A cosmopolitan city of migrants, Sao Paulo has various blocos that reflect its international character. There is a bloco made of refugees who have arrived here from war-torn countries in Asia and Africa. With Bloco Bollywood, the 3,000-strong Indian community people in this city of 21 million, has made a mark. And now, with the fusion of samba with bhangra, it looks all set to become more popular. (Some people are already calling it a new musical forms – “Sambra”).

Indian culture is already loved in Brazil. In the state of Bahia, one of the biggest samba schools is called Filhos de Gandhy (Sons of Gandhi), named after Mahatma Gandhi. According to legend, in the 1940s, as the Carnival in Salvador, the capital of Bahia, was often rocked by violence, a few workers who had heard of Gandhi formed a group to ensure the carnival was peaceful.

Photo credits: Elza Cohen, Mabbom Santos, Elisa Cordeiro, Oreste Nappi, Chaitali Chatterjee, Amitabh Singh, Patricia Magnani Pimenta, Adhemir Feliz and Florencia Costa.

Videos credit: Bloco Bollywood.

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