Charlotte man spreads Brazilian music cheer at new festival
Luciano Xavier started playing drums in his native Brazil before he was old enough to reach the top of a drum.
At age 4, his godfather noticed his rhythmic ability and built him a special stand to help him reach the atabaque (“ah-tah-bah-kee”), the traditional drums used in the Candomblé faith.
Thus began Xavier’s training in the art of percussion in his hometown of Salvador, Bahia, in northeastern Brazil, a city known for its giant carnival celebrations. Xavier has been immersed in art all year through his religion and his daily life in Salvador.
Since moving to Charlotte in 2016, Xavier has focused on bringing authentic Brazilian drumming to the queen city through classes and performances in a way that respects the cultural context from which they originate.
During his conversation with the Observer, Xavier spoke in his native Portuguese, and his wife, UNC assistant dance teacher Charlotte Tamara Williams, served as an interpreter. The two often team up professionally.
The couple’s latest collaboration is “Lavagem!”, an indigenous and Afro-Brazilian arts and culture festival that will feature free performances as well as drumming and dance workshops. Events take place April 7-10 at various locations around Charlotte.
The festival is produced by Bloco Afro Ayédùn, a community organization the couple founded in 2021 to support and promote black culture and heritage. Funding for the festival comes in part from a Cultural Vision Grant from the Arts and Sciences Council and the North Carolina Arts Council.
Brazilian percussion and religion
For Xavier, the cultural context in which he learned to play atabaques is significant. Percussion is an essential part of candomblé, a religion with African roots widely practiced in Brazil.
It is normal for children to come with their extended families to the Candomblé place of worship, where they see daily activities such as music, dancing, women cooking and men working making the traditional drums.
“Without the percussion,” he said, “the whole ceremony wouldn’t even exist.”
The atabaques are more than accompanying instruments. In the Candomblé tradition, drums are believed to have divine spirits that must go through special rituals and ceremonies, just as a person would throughout their lifetime.
The same instruments are used in contemporary Brazilian music. But Xavier said it’s vital to know which rhythms are acceptable to play outside of religious practice and which are sacred.
“There are rhythms that do not leave the Candomblé house,” he said.
This is one of the reasons why knowing the cultural context and respecting tradition is so important when teaching this art form. It cannot be random.
“By sharing a culture, you have to have a responsibility because you are sharing people’s history,” Xavier said.
For him, that means being a teacher with a level of cultural understanding that goes beyond the surface. It’s “something that you’ve experienced or really studied in depth so that you know exactly what you’re sharing or talking about,” he said.
There is also a living history in the beats, which cover contemporary Brazilian music and dance. Knowing this history is also important.
Throughout Brazil, for example, you can find many types of samba. They all have the same percussive roots, linking them to the rhythms and dance known as Batuqué in Cape Verde.
“African ancestors brought so much information to my country,” Xavier said.
The rhythms they brought have been preserved by the Brazilian people. But they were also flexible enough to scale, allowing them to create the culture they have today.
Learn through cultural immersion
In the Candomblé house, Xavier learned mostly by ear. “I heard a song or a beat once and the next day I was playing everything,” he said.
Xavier’s more formal musical training began with Ilê Aiyê, a large community organization in Brazil centered on black identity and pride that began in the 1970s.
The group was one of the first “bloco afros” in Bahia, promoting global African cultures as a “bloco” or carnival performance group. It remains one of the most popular blocos during carnival, and Xavier has performed with them on several occasions.
When people think of this black community, they imagine it to be drumming, dancing, music and food, he said. That was all Xavier wanted, but he found that participation required more than that. There were always music theory lessons before they could play their instruments.
“In this community, you have to show up…with a notebook and a pen,” he said.
After that, he became involved in Projeto Axé, an after-school program that partnered with Ilê Aiyê and expanded his exposure to contemporary music outside of the Candomblé tradition. The organization was created by an Italian, Cesare de Florio La Rocca, to help young people, especially the most economically vulnerable, by promoting cultural pride through the arts.
“It’s really important to know his name because he saved many children and gave many opportunities to the children of Salvador,” Xavier said. “And I am one of those young people who were part of this project.”
He also studied contemporary music, training and performing with some of Brazil’s top music groups and dance companies, including Balé Folclórico da Bahia. And he has performed and lectured as a master percussionist across Europe, South America and the United States.
In Charlotte, the new Bloco Afro Ayédùn of Xavier and Williams is inspired by these types of community organizations. Ayédùn means “life is sweet” in the Yoruba language.
The group, which began hosting events via Zoom last year, will be dedicated to supporting and promoting all kinds of black arts and cultural traditions in Charlotte.
The hope is that it extends beyond the arts as well, with local professionals sharing their own knowledge and experiences with the community.
Washing ! Festival
A washingm is an Afro-Brazilian ritual symbolizing renewal.
“Music and dance are a marriage,” Xavier said. “Neither of them live alone. You need music to dance. But you also need dance to make and create music… the person dancing gives energy, the person playing gives energy.
This energy will be showcased at Lavagem!, April 7-10, which includes guest artists from Brazil teaching samba dance, capoeira martial arts, and other activities.
As the COVID pandemic subsides, Xavier said the festival provides an opportunity to bring people together and participate in symbolic community cleansing. This will also be when Xavier officially debuts the new instruments he purchased for the community, through a 2022 ASC Artist Support Grant.
In Salvador, Bahia, on every street you see men, women and children of all ages drumming, Xavier said. He wants everyone in Charlotte to have that opportunity here too.
Her goal is to make Brazilian drumming classes and workshops accessible to the entire Charlotte community. And a good place to start is this weekend’s festival.
“It’s up to everyone to participate. If you’ve been playing your whole life, if you’ve never played once before, you have to come,” Xavier said. “If you want to be a percussionist in the future and you’ve never played before? Good. You should come too.
Want to go?
Washing ! Festival events are free but registration is required. For more details, check out @blocoafroayedun on Instagram or online at https://blocoafroayedun.wixsite.com/come-unity.
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