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For Brazilians and non-Brazilians alike, no other word conjures up that country's culture more than alegria - a Portuguese word that means more than just happiness.

"Alegria means not feeling guilty about being happy," said Francisco Marques, the Brazilian-born co-founder, guitarist and lead singer of Boulder-based samba band Ginga.

Brazil - the largest country in South America, which will celebrate its  independence on Sept. 7 - is often equated with the contagiousness of samba, the exuberance of carnival and the magnetism of capoeira (not to mention futebol, the country's most popular pastime.)

"We're fun, friendly people, very warm and welcoming," said Bianca Torres, a native of Minas Gerais, Brazil, who has been in Denver since 2003. "We have a very interesting and broad culture that is worth getting to know."

A culture that Torres has been able to stay connected with thanks to the growing number of Brazilian events and restaurants in and around the Denver area.

There are not only a handful of eateries that serve up Brazilian fare like feijoada - the national dish made with beans, beef and pork - and rodizio - various kinds of speared meats - but there's also a Sunday radio show on KUVO 89.3 FM titled "Brazilian Fantasy," several capoeira studios, a samba school in Boulder and performances by local samba bands attended by hundreds every month.

More often than not, Torres is among those in attendance. 

"I'm the first one to get there and the last one to leave," she said. "The beats of the drums of samba just beat inside your heart and you can't help but fall in love with it."

But it's not only Brazilian natives who are attracted to these events. In fact, according to Torres, the majority of attendees are not from Brazil and have no connection to the fifth-largest country in the world, other than a genuine fascination with its culture.

At the Boulder Samba School, which opened about 2 ½ years ago, well over 100 people have participated in their introduction to Brazilian percussion class series, according to its music director Carl Dixon, with only a handful being Brazilian.

"People come to us for various reasons, some people are interested in Brazilian culture and want to learn more about it, some people have spent time in Brazil," said Dixon also the musical director of Bateria Alegria, a percussion ensemble out of Boulder.

Born and raised in Wisconsin, Dixon knew nothing about Brazil or its music before being exposed to it as part of the curriculum at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he earned a music degree. An aficionado of percussion instruments, it didn't take long for Dixon to get hooked on Brazilian music, which relies heavily on drums.

When it came time to obtain his master's degree, Dixon chose the University of Colorado, fitting in perfectly in Boulder, home to not only Ginga - for which Dixon is the percussionist - but also Sambadende, a Brazilian band in existence since 2001.

When asked what attracts so many people to the Brazilian culture, Dixon is quick to respond: "I think it's a little bit of everything, it's the music, and the language, and the food, and the drinks and the kind of enjoyment that everyone experiences when it all comes together."

Marques, Dixon's band mate, agrees.

"When people come to our shows, they don't feel self-conscious about dancing, they don't have a problem letting go," he said. "Samba rhythms are very different to what we're used to listening to here. It's a bubbly, light, free kind of music."

Brazil
Brazil

Although of a different kind, music is also what attracted Gaviao Fierros to the Brazilian culture. For the Mexican national, it was capoeira music - the rhythms that accompany this Brazilian art form, which has elements of martial arts and music and is deeply rooted in the country's slavery era.

"The music always attracted me," said the 32-year-old, who has been playing capoeira for the past 15 years, eight of which he has spent as an instructor. "It's similar to romantic music. It has a lot of poetry."

But what attracted Fierros even more was the combination of so many components including martial arts, dance, music, instruments and acrobatics.

"I truly wouldn't know how to describe it," he said. "When you're in it, you forget everything around you. You're in a trance."

 

Add to that the rich history behind capoeira, and Fierros was hooked.

"I've never denied my nationality, but I have learned a lot more about Brazil than about Mexico," said Fierros. "[Capoeira] is my passion, and I have to get into it 100%."

 

This has meant, among other things, learning Portuguese and changing his birth name from the Spanish Eleuterio to the Portuguese Gaviao (sparrowhawk) - a common practice within the capoeira community. The only thing missing is for him to go to the root of it all: Brazil.

"Capoeira changed my life. I was a nobody before it," said Fierros, whose family used to think it was just another phase.Now, he dreams about opening his own studio.

In all his years as an instructor, Fierros said he's seen an increase in the popularity of capoeira in Denver, where the majority of his students are non-Hispanic whites.

"I think it's because they're hungry for culture," explained Fierros. "Brazil is an exotic country."

Bianca Torres couldn't agree more.

"I don't know where the fascination comes from, but I'm happy for it because I want to live somewhere that people like me."


For the love of sports

Brazil will be hosting the two most important sporting events in the world in the next few years.

In 2014, the birthplace of famed soccer stars like Pelé and Ronaldinho will host the World Cup. This will be the second time the competition comes to Brazil - the first time was in 1950 - making it one of only five countries to host the Cup twice since its inception.

Two years later, in 2016, the Olympics make their way all the way to South America for the first time ever. Rio de Janeiro will be host city to the games after a multibillion dollar transformation, including a high-speed train linking Rio and Sao Paulo.


RECIPE

Feijoada
Ingredients:
8 cups dried black beans (previously soaked)
3 lbs. carne seca (salted cured beef)
2 lbs. sweet sausage
2 lbs. baby back ribs
2 bay leaves
1 large onion
2 cloves of garlic
3 tbs. olive oil

 

Directions:
Drain beans and boil in medium heat with enough water to cover them by at least 3 inches. Cut the carne seca and the sausage into 1-inch pieces. Cut ribs into 2-rib sections. Add all these meat and bay leaves to the beans. Simmer for about 2 hours or until soft, stirring occasionally, adding water as necessary to keep beans covered.

Chop onion and garlic and cook over medium heat with olive oil in a cast iron skillet. Add two spoons of beans and mash them and then put mixture into the pot.

Continue to simmer for at least another hour. A good feijoada should have a creamy consistency.

- Courtesy of Sheila Thomson