Saving Carnaval: The Woman Enticing the Mission’s Tech Newcomers into the Samba Spirit

By Marica Petrey

Raffaella Falchi is the epitome of a Renaissance woman: The quadrilingual dancer, architect, educator, and director is artistic director of the Sambaxé Dance Company, which will be parading through San Francisco’s Mission District during this weekend’s Carnaval. For the past decade, Carnaval has become a place where she can combine all of her artistic interests and professional strengths.

“You design and build a stage that moves, so there’s the architectural component of it, which I’m really drawn to,” she says. “There’s the dance, which I love. There’s the music and the traditional drumming, which is infectious. You get addicted to it.”

Falchi, who studied psychology and art at UC Berkeley, is just finishing up her largest and most complex piece yet, which she describes as a celebration of women, tradition—and a commentary on the ongoing gentrification of the Mission.

“I’ve been living in this neighborhood for 11 years and I’ve seen it change a lot,” she says. “It’s where I’ve been teaching my dance classes for the last 10 years, it’s where I started taking my first dance classes when I was 18, so I’m very much connected to this neighborhood…. There’s a lot of talk about tech moving in, money taking over, and a lot of artists that I know or who I’ve worked with in this neighborhood who’ve been evicted, or can’t afford it anymore. I know it’s not as simple as ‘tech is bad, Google is bad, Twitter is bad, and we’re not’—but there’s something to be said about respecting tradition and respecting culture.”

As an artistic attempt to explore this tension, she collaborated on the design of Sambaxé’s float with two other women: graffiti artist Cece Carpio and industrial designer Amy Espiritu. After what Carpio terms “a massive amount of brainstorming,” they came up with a design that combined the symbolism of the Afro-Brazilian goddess, Nana, with a huge three-dimensional, tech-inspired mother board. Nana, who in the Candomblé religion represents the “mother of all creation, female energy, and still waters,” is being painted by Carpio onto half of the float, while Espiritu is building a three-dimensional piece filled with LED lights onto the other half. “The LED light piece is going to be clashing into this female wave—clashing into this traditional, Nana kind of spirit,” explains Falchi.

The float will also be flanked by seven “wings” or sections of dancers, and each wing’s choreography and costuming will represent the different elements of Nana. “The Rivers have swooshes, Lakes have big wings, and are very voluminous,” Falchi explains. “Then there are the Marshes, which are green and have fringe everywhere. The kids are Rain, and they have little white fringe dresses and have clouds on their head. The drummers are Thunder and Lightning….” All of this fits under the overarching theme of this year’s Carnaval, Sacred Waters.

Falchi spends at least six months every year creating Sambaxé’s piece for Carnaval and “this year a bunch of women stepped forward and wanted to help,” she says. “We sat down and figured out committees for Costumes, Marketing and Fundraising, the Float, and Administration and Logistics.” Falchi designed and sketched out all of different costumes, went to LA to source materials and find fabric that she liked. Then she made prototypes of each costume and handed them over to the costume committed to get everyone’s sizes and replicate them. All of the years before these committees were formed, “I was making them all!”

Falchi recently noticed that a lot of women were showing interest in learning how to drum, and she suggested that her husband and musical director of Sambaxé, Alfie Macias, begin an all-womens’ bateria, or drum section. Now after only one year, Sambaxé already has 30 women taking the class and at least 18 of them will be performing this weekend.

Every year, Falchi also teaches all of the choreography to the 70-plus dancers who sign up to participate in her piece. The vast majority are women with little or no dance experience, between the ages of 9 and 70. “It’s a time that levels the playing field for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you are a janitor or a high-end plastic surgeon. There are no barriers,” she says. “That’s the essence of the event. I work really hard to break down those barriers. I don’t want [dancers] to feel uncomfortable or like people are judging them. It can be challenging to put yourself out there.”

A Berkeley native with immigrant parents from Argentina and Sicily, Falchi grew up speaking Italian, Spanish, and English. “I always wanted to explore dance. When I was in the 7th grade I found a dance school—we didn’t have Internet or anything, I think I saw it in a magazine…. I signed myself up for a jazz class and a ballet class, and I took a bus there. I was incredibly intimidated.”

At age 17 she discovered her passion for samba. “I was drawn to Carnaval because originally and historically, it’s from Italy and it’s a part of a Catholic, pre-Lenten celebration. So I was really familiar with it growing up. But Carnaval in Italy is totally different. It doesn’t have the music and dance element, which is what makes the Brazillian Carnaval and many other Latin American Carnavals so nice.”

Wanting to immerse herself in the culture and learn more about samba, Falchi went to Brazil during her junior year at UC Berkeley, and experienced Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro for the first time. “It encompassed all of performance art … there’s a visual element, the costuming and choreography, and costumes that compliment the choreography, and the float—it all goes hand in hand.”

Falchi returned to Brazil every year after that to train in samba schools, and also learned to speak Portuguese. She was inspired by how integral samba dance and music was to everyday life. Entire neighborhoods will rehearse together every single week for eight months out of the year. “Everyone has different roles, there are rehearsals every week, people who cook the food, build the floats, the musicians, the dancers,” she explains. “Historically, samba music and dance is from the poorer areas of Rio and Brazil. They are born out of favelas, or shanty-towns, where the sense of community is extremely strong.”

Eventually, Falchi would go back to work in favelas as a professional architect. She completed a master’s in architecture from California College of the Arts in 2007 and was awarded a grant to work with the favela community of Manguinhos in Rio de Janeiro under the architect Jorge Mario Jauregui and his Favela/Barrio project. While helping address such problems as lack of running water, public space and electricity, she also experienced firsthand how a favela’s samba school could pull the entire community together. “I wanted to continue that essence here, through the Carnaval in San Francisco.”

And she has. On top of founding her own dance company and teaching dance classes all week long, Falchi has a full-time job as a program director at Youth Art Exchange, a nonprofit organization that gives free performing and visual arts classes to high school students

But she worries that if SF Carnaval does not gain supporters from inside the tech industry, it may be impossible for her to put on Sambaxé’s act in the future. “It’s just me who’s putting all this together, fundraising the money every year, organizing the dancers and musicians, all of the logistical aspects, and we get no support from the outside,” she says, noting that two years ago, SF Carnival was at risk of possible cancellation after 35 years because of complaints from new businesses about the parade and music. Her hope is that her work and the parade itself will inspire others to keep the tradition alive—and also attract interest and support from the Mission’s newcomers.

And after this weekend’s festivities? She laughs. “I’m going to take a break,” she says. And then, “I’ve been talking about creating a dance-wear line….”

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