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Carnival’s History of African Rhythm, Brazilian Culture, and Italian Religion

Fat Thursday: Swinging to the Sounds of Samba with eMPathia and Rogério Boccato at NYU Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò

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“A Carnival Celebration on Fat Thursday” was held on February 28th with musical guests Mafalda Minnozzi, Paul Ricci, Rogério Boccato, Will Calhoun, and Art Hirahara at Casa Italiana. A night of music, food, and history brought Carnival festivities to the NYU campus in Greenwich Village.

What do the pagans, traditional African rhythms, Brazil, Italy, and New Orleans Mardi Gras have in common? They all intersect at Carnival, a grand celebration that includes parades, music, dancing, and feasts. For hundreds of years now, Carnival has been a Christian festive season. However, as NYU Casa Italiana Director Stefano Albertini noted in his opening statements, it is a holiday that is actually “borrowed from pagan pre-existing traditions in Italy…to drink and eat and violate all the possible commandments and moral values.” It’s meant to be a catharsis before Lent, but this Casa Italiana event on Fat Thursday endeavored to be representative of all the above cultures, and was, as Albertini put it, “a celebration of diversity.”

Paul Ricci, guitarist of the jazz duo eMPathia, was the first guest to speak. He began by explaining the importance of Carnival, saying, “Italy exported Carnival to the world, in countries like Trinidad…and Brazil.” Carnival is “such an integral part that helped to create [the] music of those cultures, and [they] have, in turn, influenced all music in the world,” Ricci said. He then introduced Rogério Boccato, described by Ricci as a musical artist that “tours around the world as a clinician explaining rhythm,” as well as teaches at both the Manhattan and Hart Schools of Music. Next was Will Calhoun, drummer for the rock band Living Color, and finally, Art Hirahara, an American composer and pianist.

Boccato was then invited to guide the audience through the origins of samba music. Although it is a rich history in and of itself that spans some 500 years, this story would be incomplete without also acknowledging the Brazilian cultural narrative as well. “One word that can sort of define the whole formation of Brazil and the Brazilian people is ‘mixed,’” according to Boccato. Indigenous Americans, European colonizers, and African slaves are the basis of the melting pot of Brazilian society, a mixture that also occurred throughout North, Central, and South America, he explained. “So, Brazil has [an] enormous African heritage and influence, and all the music…we hear [today]…is all truly based on the rhythmic material that comes from…African traditions,” Boccato stated. He further explained that the “grandfather of samba” comes from the Congo, and that samba was finally “distilled and formed” in Rio de Janeiro.

From left to right: Art Hirahara, Mafalda Minozzi, Paul Ricci, and Rogério Boccato prepare to share some samba with the audience.

Then, after this brief history lesson, Mafalda Minnozzi, glided onto the stage in a green floral gown, and the musical portion of the celebration began. Minnozzi is a renowned Italian singer who is nothing short of global: she has performed in several different countries in Europe and the Americas. She is also the other half of eMPathia alongside Ricci. Audience members were cheering loudly for the group; the scene was lively and vibrant as the sounds of samba filled the auditorium. I noted a bit of dancing in the seats as well. All in all, it was a Thursday fat with excitement, music, and Carnival.

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