Mike Quinn describes himself as a natural-born proselytizer. He’s the kind of music fan who insists on sticking with vacuum-tube stereo components and vinyl LPs. Because “tubes sound better than transistors, and vinyl sounds better than CDs — they just do.” When my wife and I visited Austin to check out the annual Carnaval Brasileiro that he’s been organizing in that city for 29 years — and that’s coming to the Castle at Park Plaza this Saturday — he was visibly pained, offended even, that we hadn’t taken his recommendation for Austin barbecue but had given in to a just-as-insistent Austinite who held us a captive audience in her cab. “You’re going to listen to an anonymous cab driver rather than someone who’s lived in the city for 40 years?!” Quinn was crestfallen.
The barbecue slight was a recurring theme of our 24-hour visit to Texas, but it was, after all, a secondary one. The real story was how Quinn came to organize Carnaval Brasileiro, an Austin institution that now draws between 5000 and 6000 people every year. It wasn’t an obvious move for this white guy of “mongrel” (as he puts it) Northern European lineage with an intellectual bent. Up till the mid ’70s or so, the only music he listened to was avant-garde. If it wasn’t Ornette Coleman, Karlheinz Stockhausen, Edgard Varèse, or Charles Ives, he wasn’t interested — nothing that could be described as even vaguely “beautiful or melodic.” In 1974, he attended the centenary celebration for Ives in the composer’s home town of Danbury, Connecticut, an event that included a marathon performance of all 114 of the composer’s published songs — “about eight hours, with a break for lunch.”
When Quinn’s avant-gardist impulses broke down during a class on Brazilian music at the University of Texas, his conversion was immediate and total. He studied Portuguese and made the first of many trips to Brazil. In his job at the Austin Discount Records, he began proselytizing. If he saw a customer buying an LP by the then-popular Brazilian jazz-fusion vocalist Flora Purim, he’d guide him or her toward some of the “purer” Brazilian product — Caetano Veloso, Milton Nascimento, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethânia, Martinho Da Vila. In one 18-month period, he sold 6000 records.
His friends are well aware of his single-mindedness. He’s made his living in a variety of capacities: graphic design; promotions director at Texas Monthly; a still-running audiophile column in Jazz Times. For years he did his own heavily Brazilian Latin radio show at the University of Texas station and ran the import label Ipanema Records. But unlike other concert promoters, he’s always had just one event, Carnaval Brasileiro. Long-time Austin journalist Michael Point, who works with Quinn on the event, told me, “The amount of concentration he has on this one event is abnormal, and it’s the kind of thing that only an obsessed individual can pull off.”
Carnaval Brasileiro began in the early ’70s as a private party organized by homesick Brazilian college students. Quinn attended one and was disappointed. There was no proper dance floor, the sound system was terrible. “I said, ‘Let’s fix this,’ ” and offered to help. The following year, the original organizers pretty much gave Quinn the party — it had become too much work. His first edition was at a downtown club called Boondocks, which gave him the space on the condition that he buy radio ads. He expected a few hundred people; a thousand showed up. The next year, he moved Carnaval to Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters and drew 2000. Then he went to the 3500-capacity Austin Civic Auditorium. Since 2003, the event has been held at the Palmer Events Center, which holds 6000. It’s a sellout or near-sellout out every year.
To describe Carnaval Brasileiro as a “concert” is inadequate. It’s more of a bacchanal, a dance party that surpasses the lunk-headed debauchery of New Orleans Mardi Gras and is, Quinn hopes, more in the spirit of Rio. Two “acts” alternate sets all night. A samba-school bateria — a large corps of drummers — pounds out a complex sequence of samba parade rhythms. Then there’s a full band — multiple percussionists, keyboards, bass, vocalist. In Austin, shortly after nine, the local samba school (the name for Rio’s neighborhood carnaval groups), Académicos de Opera, emerged from behind the stage in a long parade line and a heavy two-beat thump began to penetrate the room. (In Boston, the bateria will be the long-time Cambridge-based Samba Tremeterra.) Amid the throbbing 1-2 accented by carhorn blasts, the samba-school members, wearing tall, multi-colored Mad Hatter crowns with multiple blinking red lights, made their slow procession to the center of the room. Four giant papier-mâché puppet clowns — white-faced with black harlequin make-up and fringes of orange, yellow, and purple hair — towered over the crowd. The bateria assembled in the center of the room, a crush of a couple thousand people around it, and launched its first number. There were about 30 players, at least three different kinds of drums, from the phalanx of bass-drum surdos de primeira to the high-rattling caixa de guerra snares, and groups of hand drums. At whistles and hand signals from the leader, they’d shift from one rhythm to the next with a little counter-rhythm break — the paradinha — before all rushing back in again in unison and a new beat. It was deafening, the precision and sonics exhilarating, and it went on non-stop for an hour.