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Can Samba Bring the Carnival Spirit to Nottingham

21 October 19 words: Rich Hughes
photos: Rich Hughes

Music, drumming, dancing, vibrant costumes and an inclusive community spirit. Meet Can Samba, the organisation that brings the Carribbean Carnival spirit to Nottingham.

‘We are Can Samba, You Can Samba too.’

These words are prominently displayed on the social media pages of Nottingham-based street theatre and carnival-arts troupe, Can Samba. Part of the UK carnival scene for the past five years, their bold, colourful and wonderfully noisy performances thrill audiences in Nottingham and beyond. Their proclamation is more than a gentle play on words, it’s a statement about inclusion. Carnival is for everyone.

Established in 2014, Can Samba is the creation of Nottingham residents Sarena Kay and Ceri Howells. Bringing a Brazilian influence to Nottingham’s annual Caribbean Carnival, it’s always a particular highlight of the city’s cultural calendar. They encourage everybody to be part of the carnival scene, if only once. From costume creation to parade performance, volunteers are drawn to be part of this vibrant and affirming experience. 

In 2013 Sarena and Ceri journeyed to Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, the home of the biggest carnival on the planet. With an average of around 5000 members per carnival troupe, it is carnival on a truly massive scale. This immersive and profoundly moving adventure proved to be an event which would go on to inform and influence Can Samba’s work.

But carnival isn’t just about sequins and feathers, drums and dancers. There are many stories being told; frequently poignant and often political. During their trip to Brazil, Sarena and Ceri were able to embrace the spirit of Rio Carnival, and experience first-hand the carnival community in South America. What was clear was the contribution made by all members, regardless of their age. The sense of inclusion was shown by performers remaining as members of the troupe throughout their lives, progressing through the different tiers of costume and dance routine in accordance with their experience and maturity.

“Since going to Rio and seeing every age represented, we wanted to bring that ethos to our work in Nottingham,” Serena says. “We wanted to champion the inclusion of elderly people and their involvement in the cultural events of our city. We like having a purpose. Performing and parading affects our troupe in such a positive way. We know the audience shares this positivity.” This recognition of larger values, such as confidence and self-worth, is intrinsic to understanding the character of carnival.

In 2015, during Can Samba’s residency at City Arts, Sarena would often work with older citizens at the Thursday Group, an art workshop. The workshop promoted art and craft activities in order to maintain healthy, active and social lives. Through this workshop, Sarena was able to encourage members of the group to participate with Can Samba in the 2015 Nottingham Carnival. No less than 100 performers attended, with the youngest being eleven, and the oldest being 94.

We like having a purpose. Performing and parading affects our troupe in such a positive way. We know the audience shares this positivity

Winning ‘Best Troupe’ and ‘Best Band’ awards that year was a fitting testament to the work, commitment and contribution that everyone had made; proof of how the removal of social barriers can work wonders. Can Samba’s effort to include all members of the community in the rich cultural vein of Nottingham continues. Chelsey Everatt, Cultural Development Officer at Nottingham City Council understands the importance of inclusion, and supports community groups to further promote diversity in the arts.

Chelsey shares Can Samba’s passion for community engagement: “There are barriers and larger issues to overcome, such as loneliness,” she says. “Events like Lightest Night, where there’s intergenerational integration, helps to address these issues. It’s really important for everyone to have a sense of value, to feel that they are part of a community.”

The Lightest Night 2019 event, hosted by Nottingham City Council and Nottingham BID, featured senior citizens in a prominent role on parade. Can Samba, working closely with Shop Mobility, dressed mobility scooters in the finest carnival style, so the senior members of the troupe could drive around Nottingham in fine style.

It was the first of its kind in Nottingham and a great success, both for the audience and elderly performers. Is carnival a metaphor for successful community? Of course. The importance and need for inclusion is essential.

Can Samba will be parading around the streets as part of Hockey Hustle on Sunday 27 October
Can Samba Facebook page

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