How London’s Brazilian Carnival builds a sense of belonging

9 Mins read

Every year, a collective helps Brazilians feel closer to home through lively revelry in London.

It is 11:00pm in Vauxhall, Central London. Anyone passing by on that Friday night in February will see an explosion of colour, glitter, fun accessories and wide smiles, forming a long queue under a bridge on Lambeth Road.

It may be just another party in London’s bustling nightlife, but it has a special meaning for the hundreds of people gathered there: it’s the Brazilian Carnival.

Two young guys are dressed as nuns. Not far behind, one girl dons a face full of glitter, while another wears a red flower crown on her head to match her strong lipstick. One man wears glow-in-the-dark glasses, and his friend has her arms full of those neon bracelets that only last for a few hours.

There is no right or wrong. The truth is that the Brazilian Carnival has no rules. Or rather, it has only one: enjoy the revelry to the full. And that’s exactly what around 700 Brazilians want to do under the mirrored glob and colourful beams of light at Fire Nightclub.

Brainchild of the DJ and musical director Fabio Terranova Favalli (known as Limão), the CarnaVai party had its first edition in 2019, resisted the pandemic and continues to take place every year in the British capital over two weekends, always coinciding with celebrations in Brazil (which vary between February or March).

But Limão isn’t the only carnival soul behind it all. In 2018, the World Cup was just around the corner. Having lived in London for almost 20 years, he had always liked to gather at home to watch the games.

That year, however, his house was getting too small to accommodate his growing group of friends (and friends of friends).

The profile of a man smiling, wearing a white T-shirt and a coloured shirt over it
DJ Limão at CarnaVai party [Courtesy of Vai Brasil]

“Although there are lots of places to watch a match, there weren’t any that suited our tastes, especially with the kind of music we like. That mix of old school with samba and MPB [Brazilian Popular Music],” says Limão.

That’s when the need arose to find a place for it.

His friend Alex Perego, a commercial director for venues, bought the idea. Designer Flavia Amaral joined the duo soon afterwards.

Limão, already a DJ by profession (who still plays an average of four nights a week at parties, weddings and other events in the city, as well as managing other emerging artists), would be in charge of the meeting’s setlist.

The trio managed to find a space in Central London to bring the crowd together. It worked so well that they continued to cheer, shouting “Go, Brazil” (“Vai, Brasil”, in Portuguese) with every pass of the ball at the top of their lungs, for four more games, until the team was eliminated from the tournament.

Thus, the Vai Brasil collective was born.

But one such gathering every four years wasn’t enough for them, so why not organise other parties?

“We’ve created an agenda, which gets more regular every year. We also organise Spring, Summer, Pride and Halloween parties. But Carnival is always the biggest,” Limão says.

Of the entire Vai Brasil programme, CarnaVai is the only one that doesn’t take place in Cafe 1001, in Brick Lane, which can accommodate around 300 people.

However, with the party growing in popularity every year, Fire Nightclub is also starting to look small. “We delivered a beautiful party this year, but it’s no longer the ideal venue for it,” Limão ponders, informing me that they are already looking for a new one for the 2025 edition.

As I enter the club at 11:45pm, I have a brief but pleasant shock, the kind that makes your heart beat faster and then calm down. It’s Portuguese here and Portuguese there. (Almost) not a word in English can be heard. It’s as if I am suddenly teleported out of England.

Even in the queue at the cloakroom, people who had never met before chat, laugh and hug each other like good old friends. Everywhere you look, it all seems like one big community.

There, I meet Amanda Moraes, a Fine Arts student who moved from São Paulo to London a few months ago. Her eyes are painted with green and blue eyeshadow to match her colourful long skirt, as well as large flower-shaped earrings.

“I feel that enjoying Carnival is how I feel Brazilian, how I celebrate my culture. I feel proud to be Brazilian with Carnival,” she says.

Her friend Daniel Sampaio, a furniture designer from Bahia living in London for three years, adds: “I think we are a mosaic of the culture of our origins, including music, food and people.”

There is no festival that better portrays this mosaic than Carnival. Since its origins, it has always been intertwined with the aspect of plurality.

“It is strongly linked to the crossroads between the cultural elements of European colonisation, the various ‘Africas’ that formed us and the centuries-old traditions of the Native indigenous peoples who were already here,” explains historian, writer and professor Luiz Antonio Simas.

It’s curious to think that this nationwide festival – so important that it’s spelt with a capital ‘C’ – isn’t expressed in the same way in every corner of the country.

“In Rio de Janeiro, Carnival is closely linked to [music styles] samba and marchinhas. In Bahia, to the rhythms of the Candomblé terreiros. In Recife, to the tradition of [folkloric dances such as] frevo and maracatu. These are just a few examples. I could cite many others, but this just goes to show that the plurality of Brazil’s cultural construction is expressed to the full during Carnival season,” says Luiz Antonio.

It’s with this in mind that Vai Brasil’s resident DJ Juliana Decanine puts together her playlists. “I listen to a lot of music on a daily basis and follow what people are listening to. Then, before each party, I try to create a playlist with new songs and old favourites, experimenting with how they perform together. I really enjoy this research and then I see the result on the dance floor,” she says.

A woman with short blonde hair and a sparkly dress behind a DJ table
DJ Ju Decanine at CarnaVai party [Courtesy of Vai Brasil]
Two men in red shirts and white trousers playing drums
Samba group at CarnaVai party [Courtesy of Vai Brasil]

There, you can hear a bit of everything, reflecting the country’s cultural diversity. The mix of Brazilian music genres such as samba, axé, forró, tecnobrega and MPB goes on throughout the night, with everyone singing each song with the same energy that they did at the start.

At one point, a samba group joins DJ Limão’s set. To the sound of the powerful drums, even the shyest and clumsiest revellers try their hand (or should I say feet) at it.

But it is when the song Eva, by Banda Eva, plays that the dance floor reaches its apotheosis.

The singing is so loud that you can hardly hear the music through the speakers. You can see nothing but raised arms during the chorus: “My little Eva…” some chant. “EVA!!!”, others join in the chorus.

“I was able to satisfy my nostalgia,” Daniel says. “It was great to enjoy the songs that are usually played at our Carnival in Brazil,” Amanda concludes.

For Limão, it’s a joy to be able to provide this kind of experience for other Brazilian immigrants who are in London.

“You know, especially nowadays, with a flood of monothematic publications on social media during Carnival days, there’s this desire to jump into Carnival that gets even greater. Like, it’s cold here and the sun takes its time coming out; meanwhile, people are out in the streets, in the summer. We want to deliver that. And people want to experience it,” he says.

“Apart from the fun and pleasure of dancing, dressing up, expressing yourself, meeting friends and making new friends, going to a Carnival party outside Brazil means being closer to what’s happening there,” Juliana adds.

This need to feel close to the culture of origin is common for those living abroad, regardless of the time of year. This is because our society is moulded around groups, and these groups arise from common desires and needs, such as a political ideology, a religious manifestation, a sport or an artistic-cultural expression.

“And to emigrate is to be exposed to many changes, which is why there is a need to be welcomed and to belong,” says Juliani Silva, a psychologist specialising in immigration.

There are several ways to do this. It could be through gastronomy, like cooking your favourite dish or going to a typical restaurant.

It could be through sport, like going to a pub or a friend’s house to watch a national team’s match. Or it could be through culture, art and history, like going to a Carnival party, for example.

The latter, in particular, exists as an instance of building sociability and collective belonging like no other: “Faced with a past of great violence and social exclusion, festivals build great sense of collectivity. And the Brazilian Carnival, being strongly guided by musical and choreographic elements, has peculiarities that no other carnival has. It is our great festival; just as other cultures have their great festivals. This doesn’t make us better or worse, it’s just a realisation that our great popular festival is Carnival,” says Luiz Antonio.

Through the sambas-enredos sung at Carnival, many Brazilians learn about important episodes in their country’s history, such as Canudos War, the drama of the drought in the north-east, the quilombola struggle, the mothers of saints and the cordel poets.

The choreographies bring folklore to life, challenge a violent colonial past and exalt figures that have been erased in other versions.

“It’s important to pay attention to our traditions because this strengthens emotional memories, generates warmth and even reinforces the process of acculturation, which is when the individual analyses which behaviours from their own culture they want to keep and which behaviours from the receiving culture they want to acquire. In order to do this, you have to open yourself up to the new place, see what’s positive there and go for it,” explains Juliani.

Living in London for two years, art director and performer Branca Peixoto from Minas Gerais seems to be fully aware of this: “At various times, I feel this need [to feel closer to home]. At those times, I call or text the people I miss. I like to cultivate these relationships, but I also see this phase of my life as a time to experience what Brazil can’t offer me, which is why I choose to programmes that are more local than Brazilian. Carnival, however, is clearly an exception.”

Wearing a pink chanel-style wig, she enjoys CarnaVai with her boyfriend (also wearing a wig – a big colourful mohawk) and other friends. From time to time, she grabs the hands of the only girl in the group who isn’t Brazilian and pulls her into the middle of the circle to have fun together.

At the bar, Amanda and Daniel are munching on a generous portion of coxinha (a savoury snack from Brazil, consisting of a crispy croquette filled with shredded chicken and cream cheese) while smiling broadly at other people who ask if they can sit at the same table.

In the toilet, girls who don’t know each other help put on their costumes or touch up their make-up.

Back on the dance floor, now to the sound of Xuxa’s Ilariê, dozens of people have their hands on the shoulders of strangers, forming a long queue (trenzinho, in Portuguese) that opens up spaces between the crowd. As it passes, it only gets longer. The energy is contagious.

Yes, it’s true, a Brazilian Carnival party abroad doesn’t quite replicate all the dimensions of a party back home.

When you think of it, you may immediately imagine huge floats, ostentatious colourful costumes and original samba-enredos, boasting the country’s rich history, folklore, cultural diversity and warm energy.

According to the Brazilian Ministry of Tourism, 49 million people took to the streets across the country to celebrate Carnival this year, representing an increase of 6.5% compared to 2023. 200,000 of them were foreigners.

As a result, the tourism sector recorded an economic turnover of R$9 billion (around £1.4 billion), an increase of 10% compared to last year. This is the first time this figure has exceeded pre-pandemic levels.

“Our Carnival is an injection of spirit, fun, ecstasy, collectivity. It’s summer, it’s the streets, it’s movement. It’s something that affects the whole country,” Branca describes. Some even dare to say that the year only begins after Carnival.

But it replicates the essence. At CarnaVai, a covered venue takes on the role of the streets, as improvised accessories replace costumes thought up weeks in advance and loudspeakers take the place of live performers.

However, that’s only what the eye sees. The mind and heart see much further.

At the end of the party, all I see are bodies sweaty from dancing so much, hoarse voices from singing so much, and glowing souls from partying so much. It’s 5:00am, but no one is ready to leave just yet.

That’s how I realise that the mission of Limão, Juliana and the other Vai Brasil members is becoming successful.

“I was happy to come to Carnival in London. It warmed my heart,” Branca says, summing up what so many other Brazilians experienced there that night, even 8,850 kilometres from home.

Featured image courtesy of Vai Brasil.

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