For the first time in over two decades, the energizing Show Brazil! Carnaval will be postponed entirely this year.
The celebration’s co-founder, Eduardo Mendonça of Kent, decided to postpone the event, scheduled for Feb. 26 at the Crocodile, due to the rise in coronavirus cases led by the omicron variant.
“It’s not the same playing virtually when you get to dance, sweat and interact with the audience,” he said. “We did not feel the same connection and emotion” last year, Mendonça said, when Show Brazil! hosted a virtual event. The year prior, the 2020 Carnaval managed to eke out its party just as the pandemic was making the news.
Leading up to the 2022 celebration, Mendonça kept an eye on other Seattle-area performance venues to follow their lead, ultimately deciding to postpone given the communal nature of the event.
“I’m glad that performers are taking the best precautions to keep everyone safe, but Carnaval is different,” Mendonça said. “Carnaval is about dancing, and people take masks off and have fun. For safety, we decided to postpone.”
Carnaval kicks off the beginning of the Christian season of Lent and is often associated with party beads, the Mardi Gras parades of New Orleans and debauchery. Mendonça says that for him and millions of Brazilians, the festival is really about music and culture.
Since several members of his band and celebrants in the audience are not Brazilian, Mendonça typically taps into his first career as an educator by teaching the audience and his musicians about the stories behind the songs.
“My musicians don’t play anything before they learn the stories behind the music,” he said. “I also communicate with the audience about the music, I keep them entertained without feeling like they’re being lectured.”
Mendonça immigrated to Seattle in December 1994 after being invited to teach music workshops in Chicago and Seattle. Two months later, knowing very little English, he organized his first Carnaval event.
“I upgraded what Seattle had at the time and introduced the rhythm of samba to the Pacific Northwest,” Mendonça said. “I brought the diversity that Seattle didn’t have at the time.”
Margaret Wilson, an affiliate associate professor of anthropology at the University of Washington and a longtime friend of Mendonça’s who studied Brazil for 20 years, used to help Mendonça organize Carnaval in its early days.
They met when Mendonça came to a capoeira class — a Brazilian martial art that combines elements of dance, acrobatics and music — that Wilson was taking. It was shortly after Mendonça moved to Seattle, and they quickly bonded over the fact that she had lived in Bahia, the region in Brazil where Mendonça is from.
“What Eduardo does is he is able to bring joy. He is incredibly charismatic on stage,” Wilson said. “He can get out there and just make everybody ecstatically happy.”
The youngest of seven children, Mendonça was born into a musical family, but was not allowed to touch the family instruments because he was a hyperactive kid, he said. At the age of 10, he began sneaking into his brother’s room when no one was home and taught himself to play the guitar. His mother caught on to his clandestine talents and asked him to perform for the family. That first family performance earned their trust, and a young Mendonça continued to develop his musical career, performing in clubs, churches and private functions by the time he was just 16 years old.
The self-taught musician has received numerous awards and accolades for his musical work, including the Spirit of Liberty Award presented to him by the Ethnic Heritage Council of the Pacific Northwest and former U.S. Rep. Jim McDermott, given to an immigrant who has made an outstanding contribution to his adopted country; and the award for Outstanding Brazilian Male Singer Based in the U.S. at the Brazilian International Press Awards. He has also performed for the Dalai Lama, Pope John Paul II and former South African President Nelson Mandela, and was featured in the PBS American Masters documentary, “Paul Simon: Born at the Right Time.”
Truly, music has taken Mendonça across the globe.
In addition to his successes as a musician in his own right and as co-founder, arranger and composer for Show Brazil!, which also puts on a number of concerts throughout the year, Mendonça is the music director for iBuildBridges Foundation, a Seattle-based nonprofit that uses music and storytelling to build relationships with people of different backgrounds.
“My goal is to perform for the community. More and more, we see people from across all different ethnicities and cultures at our events,” Mendonça said.
Dave Pascal, a freelance bass player who has performed with Show Brazil! Carnaval since its early days, said he felt culture shock at his first performance, both in terms of the Portuguese language and the music he heard.
“Back then, a lot of American musicians were not really familiar with real Brazilian musical styles,” he said. “It used to just be Latin music. The music that was popular then was mostly salsa, so people who thought they were playing Brazilian music were just playing Brazilian salsa.”
During a regular Carnaval celebration, the Show Brazil! band typically plays four to five distinct styles of music from all over Brazil, including Indigenous, Afro and regional pieces.
“You do feel as though you’ve been transported to a different place,” Wilson said. “The energy is completely different than you would have in a Seattle party. He is able, along with the other Brazilians there, to transport you to Bahia.”
Wilson noted that Seattle is “very lucky” to have Mendonça in town. As for Mendonça, he just wants to get back to building connections through his Carnaval celebration.
“This is what music and culture are for, to make bridges, not walls,” he said. “Carnaval is for everybody.”