Carnival – good for the soul

BeatCarnivalCultureNightBelfast2014What links the streets of Rio de Janeiro with those of Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Kerry, Limerick, Sligo and Wexford? Carnival! Hip-shaking rhythms, colourful costumes, fantastical floats, heart-lifting song and dance – you don’t need blazing heat to enjoy the carnival spirit.  (Just as well, really.) Since the ’90s, Ireland has taken up Brazilian rhythms with gusto, and carnival arts are becoming a popular way for people of all ages to come together to learn new skills and perform together.

Samba, or as I like to call it, “summer for the ears”, is perhaps the best known of Brazil’s musical styles, with the Rio de Janeiro carnival parades being led by samba schools or blocos. Samba-reggae and maracatu are popular in the north-eastern cities of Olinda and Recife. Since the 90s Ireland has taken up these rhythms with gusto, with carnival arts taking off as a way for young and old to get involved in musical and other artistic skills development. Major artistic production companies like Bui Bolg, Macnas, Inishowen Carnival, LUXeBeat Carnival, Artsekta and Streetwise, as well as the many hundreds of artists associated with each company, put on spectacular events for the public to enjoy both as spectators and participants. There is also a strong network of Afro-Brazilian-inspired percussion groups who regularly perform at events, carnivals and festivals, as well as collaborating on large scale projects such as Beat Carnival’s Land of Giants performance in 2012, Bloco de Dublin in 2011-12, Big Bang Festival, Drogheda Samba Festival, and Urban Ballet Belfast 2013 and 14.

Beat Carnival (originally the Beat Initiative), was founded by David Boyd out of a vision to bring Northern Ireland’s communities together through carnival arts, which didn’t traditionally ‘belong’ to any local culture. It aims to build people’s artistic and other skills, boosting career opportunities and wellbeing through their development.

I joined their BEATnDRUM samba band in 2007, after hearing them rehearse in Belfast’s Botanic Gardens one sunny Sunday afternoon, and running over to ask how I could get involved. Over the next five years I got to build my skills through free weekly tuition at Beat’s Carnival Centre and at masterclasses around Ireland with top-class artists like Grupo Bongar (Brazil), Moleque da Rua (Brazil), Barak Schmool and Rhythms of the City (London, and that site auto-plays music), Mariana Pinho (London/Rio, Olinda, Brazil), Jo Zanders (Brussells), Mariana Whitehouse (London), J P Courtney (Ireland), Niall Gregory (Ireland) and Stomp (London). I got to meet many fantastic people and perform at carnivals and festivals throughout Ireland and in Italy.

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I’ve seen first-hand the benefits people enjoy from getting involved in carnival arts – whether they’ve had any previous arts experience or are first-timers discovering skills they didn’t know they had. I’ve got so much out of being involved in carnival and I’d love it if some of you decided to give it a try – so I’ve enlisted some of my carnival friends around the country to persuade you!

Confidence & Community

I asked Matt Vernon, leader of BEATnDRUM, to tell you why carnival’s so good for boosting wellbeing.

Matt Vernon of Beat Carnival's BEATnDRUM Samba Band“Carnival has changed my life! For me, it is a way of life, as most things I do now are carnival or celebratory in nature. It’s such a positive and inclusive way of community celebration. Through over 10 years of working with thousands of individuals, I see people challenging themselves to do things they wouldn’t normally consider doing, like joining a street choir, putting on a crazy costume and performing in front of their neighbours, making pieces of art and displaying them to the world. Performing in front of an audience is incredibly good for building self-esteem and confidence. It’s great to see people with a twinkle in their eye after a performance basking in the glory of a great performance. The thrill from a good performance is as big a buzz as I get from snowboarding or mountain biking.

There is something truly liberating about putting your creativity on the line for other people to judge, because you know that you had the courage to do it where others did not! For some people this comes very easily but more often than not, with everybody else, it’s fear of self expression and “looking foolish” that holds them back. Learning not to worry about what other people think of you, and to overcome your fears with a “do it anyway” attitude will unlock so many possibilities for you.

My involvement in carnival has also provided me with a close circle of good friends, and a worldwide network of artists and musicians ready to collaborate at the drop of a hat. At BEATnDRUM we try and run things on the model of the samba schools in Rio, where the school is not only an artistic performance group but also a community association. We encourage band members to bring their children along to practices and feel like part of the band (also picking up skills at an early age!). We organise band adventures and nights out. The camaraderie is fantastic and gives a good sense of belonging.”


Simeon Smith of MaSamba DublinSimeon Smith, founding member of Dublin’s MaSamba samba school, whose patron is President Michael D. Higgins, talks about carnival as a way to express ourselves and let go of stresses.

“I think that carnival contributes to a person’s wellbeing because it is the one time of year where we can step out of the ‘everyday’ version of ourselves with all our problems and shortcomings, and re-invent ourselves to be who we want to be – it is an emotional, physical and spiritual safety-valve, which explains why some of the world’s most unequal societies have the strongest carnival traditions”.

MaSamba Dublin

If you’re in the Dublin area and want to get involved, MaSamba are open to new members all year around, and usually run at least one dedicated beginners’ course each year too. For details, email or call 01-6336797.

All-Ireland network

There are loads of bands across Ireland you can get involved with, BEATnDRUM’s Matt says.

“The scene is friendly and collaborative, we have friends from bands all over the island – Dublin’s MaSamba and Morro16, Cork’s Bloco Rebeldia, Wexford’s Bloco Garman, Kerry’s Samba Cuisle, Sligo’s Samboeire, Drogheda’s Cachimbo and The Sambamammas, and not forgetting our friends in the three other Belfast samba bands, A-FREEK-A, Chidambaram Samba, and Streetwise Samba on stilts.

There’ve been many annual events bringing all these people together to learn and celebrate, like Beat Carnival’s Urban Ballet parades [see video above, and more here], involving over 100 percussionists from around Ireland, the fantastic Drogheda Samba Festival which has been going for over 20 years, the brilliant “Sambafusion” workshops organised by Stephanie Pawula of Samboeire in Sligo, Morro 16’s “Bloco de Dublin” event and the European Maracatu Encontro organised by Maracatu Ilha Brilhante. Maracatu Ilha Brilhante is a band playing Maracatu rhythms from the north-eastern Pernambuco region of Brazil, incorporating members of other groups from Belfast, Cork, Wexford, Dublin, Kilkenny and Sligo – you can’t get much more all Ireland than that!”

Equality & connection

Mariana Pinho of Gandaia ArtsMariana Pinho is a dance teacher and costumer maker passionate about Brazilian carnival. Founder of Gandaia Arts, she is based mostly in London and Brazil, but has come to Ireland many times to work with Beat Carnival and other groups. For her, carnival is about breaking down barriers and bringing people together.

“Carnival is one of the most effective tools to break down hierarchies, as performers are equal and united in one great, powerful, contagious energy that slowly makes the audience take part and join in. It doesn’t matter your name, where you come from! The connection with the music and being present and connecting with each other makes carnival one of the great platforms for collective joy!”

See the pocket rocket that is Mariana in action here:

Have we tempted you..? If you’d like to experience carnival for yourself, Beat Carnival will be celebrating 21 years of Carnival Activity in Belfast and beyond on Saturday 20th June. They’ll be having a large community carnival parade in the centre of Belfast incorporating hundreds of young circus artists from Belfast Community Circus, who’ll be celebrating their 30th Anniversary.

Matt says, “We wanted to invite many of the bands whom with we have had involvement over the past years. We have invited the amazing Rhythms of the City over from London, who will bewowing the crowds with their own brand of funky carnival tunes.  We will also include our own amazing CarnivalBlocoBEATnDRUM who will be performing with 100 dancers, and there will be bands coming from all over to take part, namely,Morro 16,Maracatu IlhaBrilhante,A-Freek-A, Streetwise andChidambaram. There will also be performances from the fantastic Belfast Guitar Orchestra, Beat Jazz Band and the Beat Carnival Band.The Parade, which will incorporate several huge carnival floats representing different events in our company’s history, will leave Custom House Square at 12 noon and do a loop of the town centre before returning to the square at around 1pm. There will be a finale performance from several of the bands involved in the parade.”

See for more info.

Love life, love carnival!


I later did some volunteering for Beat Carnival, and then some consultancy work for them, overseeing the redesign of their website and social media presence, marketing their events and services and delivering social media/marketing training to local festivals through a Beat programme. Since this went to print, I was also fortunate enough to be home for an excellent workshop with top musicians Chris Quade and Serrinha Raiz, at the Beat Carnival Centre. Thanks Matt for having me back for some samba action – was so great to get playing again!

[A shorter version of this piece appeared in the Irish Sunday Mirror in June 2015.]

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