Cliff Berrien is the founding director of Batucaxé, Tucson's Afro-Brazilian drum and dance ensemble, which he started nine years ago. On Saturday, Feb. 19, Batucaxé presents the fourth annual Tucson Carnaval at Armory Park, along with other arts organizations, including Flam Chen. The event is from 1 to 8 p.m., at 220 S. Sixth Ave., and includes a parade, children's activities and interactive workshops. Since the theme is "Dancing in the Streets," there, of course, will also be dancing in the streets. For more information, visit www.tucsoncarnaval.org.
What's new at Carnaval this year?
There will be a couple of small new additions, but the main thing is we are excited about the theme, "Dancing in the Streets." Wherever in the world where there is music and Carnaval, people are dancing. That's what we are trying to promote. Literally: We are taking the streets for dancing. We've got belly-dance groups, salsa groups and others to help promote dancing and give a little instruction, but (it's) mostly (about) getting people involved.
Why did Batucaxé decide to organize a Carnaval in Tucson?
Carnaval in Brazil is a pretty important event. You can't really separate (out) what we are doing musically as a kind of community drum-and-dance ensemble, like those usually associated with Carnaval in Brazil. We decided it's important for us to explore those (community-focused) roots, too, and the more research I did, I realized we had to honor that as much as the rhythms we dance to.
Each year, you collaborate with Flam Chen. How did that partnership begin?
Well, in the beginning, it was natural in that we share and practice in the same building, and we wanted to do things collaboratively, and things to support each other. But again, this is a real big part: ... In Brazil, there is a lot of collaboration and a sense that the arts are meant to be shared. There's no room for competition.
How has Tucson responded to the Carnaval idea?
In the beginning, I think people wondered what was different between Carnaval and Tucson Meet Yourself. I think the main difference is the aspect of encouraging people to participate by encouraging them to dance and be in the procession. I think we are still in the process of educating the people of Tucson about what Carnaval is and can be. But we've focused on getting the word out that this is a way for us to all come together and celebrate together.
We could use that right now.
I was in Washington, D.C., right after President Obama came out here after the shootings in Tucson. It was wonderful to hear people say how they could feel the spirit of Tucson by the way we bonded and literally rallied around each other. Everyone I talked to was impressed by that. Carnaval is the kind of event that is supposed to bring that same kind of spirit out.
Are you pleased with how Batucaxé has grown in Tucson these past nine years?
Well, Batucaxé hasn't grown in the way a typical school would in Brazil, but I think the idea of a volunteer community organization that demands so much is also a pretty new idea, and I think it is going to take a while for something like this to catch on. In Brazil, the samba schools have tens of thousands of people. The school, for example, that just had the fire in Rio de Janeiro had 500 people in the band—that's just the band, but it had 14,000 members. When you become part of something like that, there is a pride that no one takes for granted. One of the challenges of the time we are living in is the ability to understand that we have to be really active in our contributions as citizens in order to make some of the changes we want to see happen. But doing that—creating something like we have with Batucaxé—I believe that action gives us harmony. Celebration and harmony gives us an appreciation of living with each other.
How did you gain an appreciation for Afro-Brazilian music?
There was the first part of my own journey as a musician, and thanks to the great teachers I've had to work with, I learned how essential music and art is. It has not always been an easy journey, but it is so fulfilling on so many levels. I am also very inspired by the music of Africa, and the way that music inspires music and art in other parts of the world. It's a very powerful music, I've been studying it for 30 years, and I feel like I'm just a new student. ... I think as a culture, we still don't understand the music that came out of Africa, and I think we need to show that tradition a lot of respect.