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Blending cultures: Carnaval features music, dance styles of Cuba, Trinidad, Brazil, New Orleans

Every year, Frank and Pilar Leto start with a blank canvas.

From there they build up what becomes one of the biggest Carnaval celebrations in Albuquerque.

For nearly 15 years, the couple have celebrated with a dance and music party at the National Hispanic Cultural Center. This year’s celebration will be held tonight and Saturday, March 2.

And the couple still have fun with it.

“We start planning in September, and my wife begins to choreograph,” Frank Leto says. “She starts to think of things like costumes and themes, and we work from there. Working with the NHCC, they give me the freedom to do what I want with the show. Obviously, our goal is to make each show better than the last.”

Frank Leto is a member of Pandemonium, which provides the music. Pilar Leto is behind the Odara Dance Ensemble, which showcases dances from Cuba, Trinidad, Brazil and New Orleans.

Carnaval – the festive season occurring before Lent in many countries, including Latin American and Caribbean nations as well as parts of the United States – is one of the world’s most widespread celebrations and one of its biggest parties.

Carnaval was first celebrated at the NHCC in 2002 and has been part of the center’s regular seasonal programming since 2006.

This year’s theme is, simply, celebration.

The Letos have a lot to be proud of these days.

With their partnership with the NHCC, they have brought different cultures to be celebrated in New Mexico.

Last November, the Letos were honored with the city of Albuquerque’s Creative Bravos Award, where they were chosen as a “legacy bravos” recipient.

“It’s always been about exposing the community to a new culture,” Leto says. “We started out with performing songs from all the other cultures. Slowly, we’ve been adding in more originals to the performance. The event has grown along with the community.”

There will be an eight-piece band performing, as well as a cast of about 30 dancers.

“We’re also having a king and queen of Carnaval,” he says. “We’re celebrating ourselves and the relationships that have been built over the years. It’s a wonderful community to be a part of.”