Just as there are many more Brazils than Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, there is much more to Brazilian culture(s) than samba and futebol, feijoada and Carnaval. Due to the fact that, amazingly, so little of Brazilian culture is known outside of Brazil, traveling around Brazil can constitute a true Cultural Challenge.

One thing you’ll notice about Brazilian culture as you travel through the country is how open it is.In 1922, Oswald de Andrade, a leading modernist intellectual, introduced the metaphor of antropofagia (cannibalism) that would become a guiding concept in modern Brazilian art (and culture). Andrade’s notion was derived from indigenous Brazilian rituals in which natives, instead of eating people to satisfy their hunger, consumed their enemies as a way of absorbing their more admirable qualities. Andrade proposed that Brazilian artists become cannibals as well; devouring not only elements of the European vanguard, but traditional Afro-Brazilian and indigenous arts as well. Once digested, these elements could be used to produce a uniquely Brazilian art that would reflect this vast nation in all its diversity.

One thing you’ll notice about Brazilian culture as you travel through the country is how open it is. Brazilians effortlessly incorporate disparate tendencies and influences – regional and global; high and low; rural and urban; past and future. They’re also experts at improvisation, hardly a surprising trait in a nation where you must often use your imagination to get around rigid rules and baroque bureaucracy, not to mention create your own solutions in the absence of basic public safety nets.

These traits permeate all aspects of Brazilian popular culture, but you’ll encounter them especially in the following cultural realms:

Mural of simplistic musician figures playing as a woman dances.

Photo © Michael Sommers.

Indisputably one of the most musical places on the planet, Brazilian musicality is quite simply off the charts. Samba, bossa nova, and MPB (Música Popular Brasileira) are only three of the best known styles – all of which you’ll encounter with great ease (although Rio and Salvador are particular samba hot beds). But Brazil is also rife with traditional regional styles (maracatu, música sertaneja, forró, frevo, carimbó, choro…) as well as Brazilian-ified urban styles (rock, funk, rap, hip-hop), all of which, in recent times, have been fusing and mingling with each other in surprisingly harmonious ways: samba-rock, tecno-brega, manguebeat, reggae-samba, axé, bossa-lounge, etc. Regardless of whether you hit the traditional samba gafieiras of Lapa or the funk bailes of Rocinha , an intimate MPB show in São Paulo or a Fortaleza dance hall crammed with hundreds of feverish couples swinging to forró eletrônico, your ears will hear things they’ve never before laid their lobes upon.

It’s near impossible for Brazilians to listen to music without beginning to hum, tap their feet, bang out the rhythm on a matchbox or table top, and sway their bodies to the music. It doesn’t matter whether the setting is a bar or concert hall, a public square, a beach, or a living room. Before you know it, people are singing and dancing and the gathering has morphed into a festa.

Brazil’s most monumental festa of all, of course, is the non-stop, 5-day (and then some) extravaganza that is Carnaval . While the Carnavals of Rio, Salvador, and Recife/Olinda are only the biggest and best known; there are multitudes of others (some of the most charming held in small towns).

But Carnaval is only the tip of the festa iceberg. Festas populares are rampant throughout the land. Like Carnaval, they all captivatingly fuse the sacred and the profane, mixing religious devotion, ritual, and pageantry with all-out hedonism. Where they get really interesting, however, is in the ways they incorporate local and regional traditions, not to mention music, dances, and food.

And so, in Salvador (which has a whole, non-stop season of festas from December through March), you have the Festa de Santa Barbara (Dec. 4). Devoted simultaneously to the Catholic patron saint of gunsmiths, miners, and firefighters, and to Iansã, the Candomblé orixá associated with fire and thunderbolts, this vibrant festa features saints being borne through the streets while sacred Afro-Brazilian dishes such as vatapá and caruru are served to the masses.

In Maranhão’s capital of São Luís, you also have the splendid pageantry of Bumba-Meu-Boi. For various nights in late June, locals clad in gorgeously embroidered costumes reenact a tale – whose origins are indigenous, African, and Portuguese – featuring a strict master, a wily slave, and a magical boi (bull), whose saga is played out against a backdrop of pounding drums and whirling dancers.

Meanwhile, in late October, the Amazon’s most important religious festival is the revelry that accompanies the procession of Pará’s patron saint, Nossa Senhora de Nazaré, over the Rio Guamá and through the streets of Belém. Following the main events, residents commemorate by digging into plates of pato no tucupi (a signature dish of duck cooked in juice from the roots of the manioc plant).

Art and Artesanato:
Until the 20th century, Brazilian art was invariably modeled upon European art (with the notable exception of the subversively Mineiro aspects of baroque dreamed up by master sculptor Aleijadinho whose expressive works can be seen in the sumptuous churches of the cidades históricas of Minas Gerais). Things only got really interesting in the 1920s when a collection of vanguard figures in São Paulo and Rio began looking to Brazil itself for inspiration – and for art.

Traditionally neglected in favor of the grand and the imported, today Brazil’s incredibly rich and varied regional art and artesanato (folk art) is increasingly recognized, not to mention celebrated. A few notable examples include the wood cuts of Bezerra (Pernambuco), the intricately woven lacework made by the fishermen’s wives of Maceió’s Lagoa de Mundaú (Alagoas), the ceramic dolls of the Vale de Jequititonha (Minas Gerais), and the delicate toys made from buriti palm fibers by caboclos (Pará).

You’ll find these objets d’art and many, many more in local markets and road-side stands, but also in both regional and national museums, many of which (such as the Museu Casa do Pontal in Rio and the newly opened Pavilhão das Culturas Brasileiras in São Paulo) have become proud repositories of the country’s once unsung, but increasingly recognized talents. Even more interestingly, however, you’ll find these traditional forms being constantly updated and reworked, the forms finding their way into new milieus (fashion, graffiti, video art) while the materials are modernized (you’d be amazed at what can be done these days with aluminum beer tabs and recycled pop bottles).

Yes, Brazilians love their feijoada, the national bean stew made with every single part of beef and pork imaginable, as well as their feijão (beans), which in preto (black), mulato, and verde (green) versions accompany meals throughout the land. They’re also might fond of caipirinhas, the ubiquitous cocktail made of cachaça, crushed ice, lime, and sugar, although here again you’ll find myriad variations, with umbu, siriguela, cajú and cajá replacing the tried and true limão.

However, real Brazilian cooking is all about the sum of its regions. In Minas Gerais and Goiás, this means robust pork and chicken dishes (chicken with okra, chicken in a sauce of its own blood, chicken with green ora-pró-nobis leaves), creamy white cheeses, and a wide range of delicious desserts made from local Cerrado fruits. Along Bahia’s coast, this means African-influenced dishes such as fish and seafood moquecas, shrimp bobó, and crunchy bean fritters known as acarajés, all of which rely upon the fragrant likes of palm oil, coconut milk, dried shrimp, cilantro, and hot peppers. In Rio Grande do Sul, it means succulent cuts of barbecued beef and erva maté, while in the Amazon it means fish galore, ranging from the gigantic pirarucu to the feared (but delicious) piranha, which makes a great soup. Of course, the Amazon is also famed for its fruits; cupuaçu, bacuri, açai are only three of the most common (and ambrosial) that find their way into cooling mousses, juices, and sorvetes (ice creams) and whose succulence has turned them into national stars.

Meanwhile – as is the case with music and festas, art and artesanato – big cities such as Rio and São Paulo have become laboratories for a new Brazilian cuisine. Inspired by regional abundance and global diversity, an increasing number of restaurants, bars, and even kiosks are behaving like cannibals, digesting disparate influences and mixing, matching, fusing, and concocting recipes that pay homage to the many Brazils – while constantly forging a new one.

In the end, if you come to Brazil hungry for culture, all of your appetites will be satisfied.