Composer/educator/musician Frank Leto and his wife, dancer Pilar Leto, will get their house back this weekend. For weeks, it’s been the staging site for their annual Carnaval celebration. Frank’s band, PANdemonium, which includes some of Albuquerque’s finest players, is practicing in the back room, preparing his high-energy original music and traditional tunes under the musical direction of César Bauvallet. Meanwhile in the front room, a squadron of seamstresses, who have hauled their sewing machines into the house, are working away on eye-popping costumes for the equally eye-popping dancers of the Odara Dance Ensemble, who have been rehearsing under Pilar’s direction since October. Big pots of soul-satisfying foods bubble away in the kitchen to feed the occupying army, with Frank emerging from the back room between numbers to give them a stir.
This weekend, the entire extravaganza—costumes, music, dance, stilt walkers and more—moves into the National Hispanic Cultural Center to celebrate Caribbean, Brazilian and Louisianan traditions of Carnaval.
The Carnaval bug bit Frank Leto when he was teaching at a Montessori school in the Virgin Islands. Aside from the music—he heard the great Calypsonians Lord Kitchener and the Mighty Sparrow—and the general revelry, there was something else that captivated him. “Our school would always have a float for the children’s parade. The night before, we’d get the flatbed truck, and all the parents would come, and we’d all get drunk and decorate it,” he says. “There’s a community spirit involved in Carnaval.”
The same spirit fuels the Letos’ production today. “It just feels good to have a lot of people working toward a common goal,” he says. “That’s what Carnaval is about, to forget about all your problems and celebrate life.”
Carnaval has a “magical” quality for the Letos, he says, because it brought them together when Pilar auditioned for one of Frank’s first productions in San Francisco in 1979. It’s also helped keep them together, as they’ve collaborated on productions annually wherever they were living, from California to Hawaii to New Mexico. Their first Albuquerque production was staged 17 years ago in a restaurant. This year, in addition to its appearance on the main stage at the NHCC, the production will also be featured in this summer’s New Mexico centennial celebration and in the New Mexico Jazz Workshop’s annual fundraiser.
Frank confesses to being both an educator and an entertainer, and he uses each number to teach the audience something about the culture that underlies the music and dance. From the Yoruban gods carried from Africa to Cuba, to the charming traditions of Brazil’s Bahia region, to the steel drums of Trinidad—the production takes the audience through a tour of Carnaval experiences.
“The concept is to show people, without leaving Albuquerque, what it’s like to be in Brazil or Trinidad or Cuba,” he says. Ultimately, though, it all comes down to “getting people to think about the good things in their life.”