Samba Fest’s return to Mortensen Riverfront Plaza on Saturday, May 2, doesn’t just signal a ninth consecutive year of Brazilian music and culture in downtown Hartford: It also marks the beginning of another much-needed downtown festival season.
Ivan Vilela returns with his trio to Mortensen Riverfront Plaza in Hartford on May 2. (Handout)
“We’re kind of the first event that happens for the summer,” said Eric Galm, an associate professor of music and ethnomusicology at Trinity College and Samba Fest’s founder. “If we can bring people out from Hartford and surrounding communities, it’s an opportunity to show people what a great time they can have in the city and give them reasons to come back throughout the summer and the year.”
These days, Galm has a relatively easy time convincing people of Samba Fest’s importance in Hartford’s cultural landscape: Aided by good weather, each of the last two festivals has drawn roughly 4,000 attendees. In addition to the musical performances, there will be dance workshops, crafts, Brazilian food, games and activities. (Nine years ago, when it was held on the Trinity campus, about 300 people attended.) If you count the nearly 5,000 elementary school students entertained (and educated) by dance troupe Ginga Brasileira in the buildup to Samba Fest 2014, that number soars to nearly 10,000 citizens served. (The festival is free.)
“I used to have to spend months saying, ‘OK, we need to do this,’ ” Galm said. “Now people are coming to me to say, ‘When do we start, and how do we get it rolling?’ ”
Samba Fest regularly features Brazilian, Afro-Puerto Rican, Afro-Cuban and West Indian musical groups. As Galm programs the festival each year, he looks for themes that stretch across the broader African diaspora, with Brazil as the focal point, and also at Hartford’s unique makeup.
“We have a lot of Trans-Atlantic, Trans-Caribbean and Trans-American populations that ebb and flow throughout the city of Hartford and in the whole Northeastern region of the U.S.,” he said. “Hartford is a global city with large populations from throughout Latin America, and I’ve always tried to incorporate that into my vision, depending on funding and the availability of artists.”
Samba Fest performers come up to Hartford from New York and down from Boston. There’s enough financial support, through grants and fundraising efforts to bring artists over from Brazil. After 2015, four different Brazilian ensembles — Berimbrown, a nine-member Afro-fusion band from Minas Gerais; percussionist/singer Dinho Nascimento from Bahia; last year’s headliner Ivan Vilela (returning this year with his trio) from Sao Paulo; and Meninos de Minas, a 12-member youth ensemble appearing this year — will have made their American debuts in Hartford.
Vilela plays the viola caipira, a 10-string Brazilian guitar with a chiming, bell-like sound; he brings along bassist Gilberto dos Syllos and percussionist Ari Colares. Meninos de Mina is an arm of a music-based social service organization helping urban teenagers in Minas Gerais, Brazil. At Samba Fest, they’ll be joined by Berimbrown trumpeter Adriano George. (The group also gives a noontime preview on Thursday, April 30, on the steps of Hartford Public Library.)
Other Samba Fest 2015 performers include local Brazilian jazz group Sambeleza (with vocalist Isabella Mendes); Galm’s Trinity Samba Ensemble; the GuakiBom Jazz Salsa Ensemble, led by Hartford trumpeter Ray Gonzalez; the Trinity Steel Band, directed by Curtis Greenridge; and Ginga Brasileira, who’ll conduct Brazilian dance workshops. All events are free.
When Trinity first hired him as a professor, part of Galm’s job description involved connecting the college and music department to the city and local communities.
“That’s been one of my missions since I started here,” Galm said. “When I first came up with the idea of Samba Fest, I thought we’d do a concert inside our arts center every semester. Then I thought, ‘What if we took it out to the front steps and played for anyone who was outside?’ ”
As the festival grew, Galm found new ways for Hartford’s Brazilian population, especially kids who’ve grown up primarily in the U.S., to experience their cultural heritage firsthand. But finding sponsors and funding is ongoing concern. For the 10th anniversary next year, Galm hopes to land an artist with household-name recognition, someone familiar to both American and Brazilian audiences.
“Think of the crowds if we had Gilberto Gil or Caetano Veloso or Milton Nascimento,” Galm said. “People within one to two hours of driving distance would say, ‘I really want to see that,’ and then they’d experience the rest of what we have to offer: the dance classes, the activities sponsored by Trinity student groups, or just a day of family fun, which is getting harder to find.”
SAMBA FEST 2015 takes place at Mortensen Riverfront Plaza in Hartford on Saturday, May 2, from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit sambafest.com.