Ramapo hosts interactive Afro-Brazilian music festival

Photo by Alyssa Rabinowitz

The husband-and-wife team of Amarildo Costa and Paula Straile-Costa took students on an interactive journey through traditional Afro-Brazilian music last Monday, during a live music and food festival held in Friends Hall. The event was hosted by Ramapo’s Culture Club, African Ancestry Month Committee, Africana Studies minor and the Psi Sigma Phi Multicultural Fraternity.

Staile-Costa is an associate professor of Spanish at the College. She delivered a brief lecture on the history and importance of music in the Brazilian city of Salvador, where her husband lived as a child.

“Salvador is on the Northeast coast of Brazil,” she said. “It was the colonial capital of Brazil from about 1546 to 1793.”

According to Staile-Costa, the city was “enormously wealthy” during that period, due to its placement on the “Transatlantic trade triangle.” International commerce made Salvador a cultural hub which fed and developed a vibrant musical tradition. In 2015, UNESCO recognized that tradition by designating Salvador as a “Music City” and member of the organization’s Creative Cities Network.

The population of Salvador is 80 percent Afro-Brazilian, said Staile-Costa, who described the city as famous for its “large expression of African culture.” This culture is on full display during the city’s annual celebration of Carnival, which is beginning this week.

“Carnival is a break from the regular rhythm of things,” said Staile-Costa. “It’s also a moment when people from all walks of life come together to celebrate life and all the “carnal” things: all the sensual pleasures of life.”

The word “carnival” comes from “carne,” or meat. The season of Carnival is a final celebration of life before Lent, the period in Christian tradition during which participants contemplate their own mortality, said Staile-Costa before concluding her presentation and ceding center stage to her husband.

Costa is the director of the Ramapo Brazilian Percussion Ensemble. Costa told his audience that as a child, he would fashion percussion instruments from pots, pans – anything he could lay his hands on, “anything to make rhythm.” The first instrument he introduced his audience to was the berimbau, a longbow-like object with a spherical gourd at its base. According to Costa, the wires used to string berimbaus are taken from the remnants of melted-down tires.

The berimbau is played as an accompaniment during bouts of Capoeira, the traditional Brazilian martial art. Costa said this is how he was first introduced to the berimbau. When he played the instrument, encouraging his audience to clap out a beat, it produced a sound similar to a guitar string.

Costa soon introduced more traditional instruments and brought up students to play them. A group of approximately 15 students comprised Costa’s newly-formed band, and he quickly granted roles. These students were assigned to the trio of massive metal drums positioned at the center of the performance space. They were flanked by students holding bell-like instruments, shakers and more drums.

Costa moved from section to section, chanting and demonstrating technique. Friends Hall filled with rhythm, singing and whistling. When the beat finally wound down, Costa discussed the impact of music on his Salvadoran childhood and subsequent life.

“It’s very powerful to have music in our lives,” Costa said. “I’m very fortunate to play music and make new friends wherever I go. I will keep embracing life with music.”