Salvador’s Pelourinho Square is named for the pelourinho, or pillory, where runaway slaves were whipped. Up to two million African slaves were forced to work on the sugar plantations before slavery was abolished in 1888.
Bahia – Long Read

Searching for Brazil’s African soul

Photo by Federico Tovoli

Bahia – Long Read Searching for Brazil’s African soul

Hello Brazil, where Bahia was a major shipping point for millions of men, women and children taken from Africa during the centuries of transatlantic slave trading. Their descendants have helped create a rich mix of music, dance, religion and cuisine that still makes the region central to Brazilian popular culture today.

Federico Tovoli
Federico Tovoli Photojournalist

“Africa is over there,” says Reuben Costa Bello, pointing out to sea. “Angola is eight days sailing away at 15 knots.” He is in charge of the Barra lighthouse, one of the symbols of the city of Salvador da Bahia, here on the northeast coast of Brazil. In front of us stretches a wide bay, where long waves that start in the mid-Atlantic finally collapse on the sandy shore, seeming exhausted by their long journey and the tropical heat.

On All Saints' Day, 1502, Amerigo Vespucci discovered this bay where Tome de Souza landed almost 50 years later to found the first capital of Brazil. The calm sea is now the playground of kids who splash in the shallows or body board its lazy surf. From the lighthouse I look down on people strolling, skating and jogging, or picking a spot on the grass to picnic and watch the glorious sunset. As the day ends, groups form to play, drink or watch one of the buskers, while the followers of Brahma Kumaris start their monthly meditation.

The time is distant when Brazil and Angola were linked in the Portuguese Empire, and even more distant are the centuries of slavery, when dark-skinned people were landed here from Africa in chains. As well as sugar cane and coffee, Brazil was also rich in mines but all of them demanded manpower in abundance and Salvador da Bahia became one of the main slaving ports in the New World. It all ended in 1888, but Africa is still everywhere in modern Salvador, a city where at least 70 percent of the population may be descendants of slaves. It claims to be the most African city outside Africa – Port-au-Prince and Kingston may not agree – but the famous Brazilian “melting pot” has produced a thousand shades of skin color.

“We all have a bit of African blood,” says Geronimo, one of the city’s most famous musicians, as he waits to go “onstage”. He and his band, Mont Serrat, play for free every Tuesday on the steps of a church on Ladeira do Carmo, a small hill in the Pelourinho district. He looks white but his biggest hit was called “Eu Sou Negão”. With a mother of Dutch descent and indigenous father, he performs in the costume of Candomblé, the African religion that evolved here. His face is painted like a Native American and he plays music based on samba merged with Afro-Brazilian and Central American styles. His lyrics proclaim political protest and anti-racism and the tunes soon have the crowd dancing, even when crammed shoulder to shoulder.

A pillory where rebellious slaves were whipped

Salvador, the fifth largest city in the country, is where many traditions of African origin are best preserved: Candomblé, music and capoeira, the martial art/dance for which Brazil is so famous. The concentration is even more marked here in the historic center. Pelourinho, its poetic-sounding Portuguese name, refers to a column (pillory) where rebellious slaves were whipped.

The story of Pelourinho mirrors that of so many other city centers. Originally a residential neighborhood of grand brightly-colored buildings and beautiful churches, it fell into decline as people moved out to more modern suburbs. By the 1960s, it had become the decayed home of the impoverished, with a reputation for crime and prostitution – a place to avoid.

Then came the 1980s, when recognition as a Unesco World Heritage Site brought a revival in fortune, turning Pelourinho into what it is now: the cultural and tourist center of the city. The churches have come back to life, cultural centers and schools of capoeira thrive, and tourists fill the shops, picturesque squares and restaurants with resident guitarists playing samba and bossa nova.

Showing off their fluid moves a few meters away from drunken beggars

While samba was invented in Bahia, the roots of capoeira are less clear but it is certainly an African art form. There are two kinds recognized here, the “Angolan” style and “Capoeira Regional”. Capoeira Angola is dance- like, with deceptive moves, while Capoeira Regional is faster, and more powerful – although both styles overlap. I first saw this fighting game on the streets of Italy, and I am surprised not to see it performed so publicly in Salvador. I find only one such group, putting on a show for tourists in the Terreiro de Jesus, the entry to Pelourinho, showing off their fluid moves a few meters away from drunken beggars, outdoor cafés and the ladies in traditional Bahian costume selling acarajé, a pancake filled with black-eyed peas and shrimp.

In his basement school behind a gift shop in the center, I find Manoel Nascimento Machado, known as Mestre Nenel, who has been practicing capoeira since he was 15 years old. Now middle-aged, he retains an enviable physique and self-contained bearing well suited to someone who is the son of the late Mestre Bimba, considered the founding father of Capoeira Regional. Nenel now runs an international federation with schools on five continents, and I am lucky to catch him in a break between tours.

While one capoeiria historian has told me the lack of public displays or “rodas” is because the city has imposed permits, Mestre Nenel says the reason is there are now so many schools. No one needs to practice outdoors any more. In fact, many say the public exposure pollutes the art, causing it to be about showy moves and acrobatics that are far away from its roots.

Nenel speaks of capoeira as a philosophy of life, almost a brotherhood, a rhythm that is in the blood, typical of Africa. The berimbau, a stringed bow, plays the music that leads the dance, while the songs recall the work songs of African Americans. “It is a complete martial art,” he says. “It is connected to the ancestors and a means of self discipline. That helps explain its spread around the world.” In the gym, a class starts that has only two Brazilians – the rest are foreigners from as far away as Japan. A mural on the wall shows Orishas, the deities of Candomblé.

People talk, sitting on doorsteps awaiting the cool of evening

Despite the tourists, Pelourinho remains a place where people live. A few streets away from the center, life goes on like anywhere else in Brazil. Families stroll along the steep streets and people talk, sitting on doorsteps awaiting the cool of evening.

In the two main squares, Tereza Batista and Pedro Arcanjo, there are music stages and I am lucky enough to catch Zelito Miranda playing on one. He is a leading light of Forrò, the most popular genre of music in this region, and people are dancing to its infectious beat. Like many musicians from Bahia, he tours widely abroad and has brought out a lively home crowd.  It’s Sunday morning, but the local beer is already flowing freely. A thunderstorm does nothing to dampen their enthusiasm, sending the audience under any available awning where they carry on dancing, ankle-deep in the water.

Every Tuesday night, Pelourinho comes alive with Terça da Benção (Blessed Tuesday). An offering of bread to the poor after 6 o’clock mass at São Francisco de Assis Church has grown into a street party with music and dance, including Geronimo’s weekly concert. The black soul of Brazil can be seen in the groups of drummers whose complex percussion fills the streets. Olodun, who have played with Michael Jackson and Paul Simon, began here and they play for free in Praça Teresa Batista. Along with the female band Dida, they also run music schools with a strong social element, offering hope to many of the poorer children of Salvador.

Rich landowners attending mass amid all the gilded altars

Drummers also fill the pews of Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Our Lady of the Rosary of Black People), built by slaves in their free time when they were not allowed to use any other churches. In the other ornate churches of Bahia, it is easy to imagine the rich landowners attending mass amid all the gilded altars, statues and paintings but this is a simpler building, as befits its home to ordinary people.

Making my way around Pelourinho is made easier by the Elevador Lacerda, a public elevator that was the world’s highest when it opened in 1873. It carries passengers between the Praça Cairu (Lower City), with its Mercado Modelo, and Cidade Alta (Upper City). Its art deco structure offers great views over the bay, especially at sunset.

Mercado Modelo, the former customs house, is a must-see for anyone interested in handicrafts. Apart from that, the lower city’s traffic congestion makes it a place to avoid apart from the historic Igreja do Bonfim. This Church of the Good End (referring to Christ’s death on the cross) is a site of pilgrimage, long associated with miraculous cures. A tradition for such pilgrims was to tie a ribbon around one’s wrist with three knots, making three wishes. When the ribbon eventually falls off, your wishes will be granted. One of Salvador’s annoyances is the number of street hawkers who will attempt to tie a “fita” to your wrist, refusing to take no for an answer, then bothering you for a “donation”.

Igreja do Bonfim is another church now seemingly given over more to Candomblé than Catholicism. Its white-clothed adherents fill the pews and spill into the square outside after services. Candomblé is everywhere in Salvador, from the statues of Jemanjà and Orixás, to the garlic cloves stuck with coarse salt to drive away negative energy in Rio Vermelho.

Candomblé was banned by the authorities as late as 1945

With help from Bahiatursa, the local visitor bureau, I arrange a visit to a Terreiro de Candomblé. White walls, white clothes and the bright paintings of the Orixás on its walls make Terreiro Ilé Axe Oxumarê a place of purity in a messy neighborhood. Salvador is said to have a church for every day of the year, but there are many more “terreiros” – some claim at least a thousand. When Candomblé was banned by the authorities, as it was as late as 1945, any spare room or empty space could become a place of worship.

Sandra, who welcomes me, is of pure African descent. She says the warmth among the members of the “church” leads to profound discussion, and they have just finished talking about gender issues and family equality. The terreiro is more than a century old and sits in a wooded area where many trees are wrapped in colored fabrics. These trees have become incarnate as the Orixá, each with its own festival, and all are sacred. Images may not be made of them, a taboo that causes me some problems as a photographer.

Sandra says the process of initiation can involve days of meditation in the terreiro. It does not seem like a closed place, having an area dedicated to aid projects for the disadvantaged. There is a sewing school equipped with a dozen outdated sewing machines. The priest in charge is the son and grandson of priests, and his grandmother is portrayed in a picture on the table which shows her with president Getulio Vargas. She asked him to support the Candomblè, which is still opposed by the Protestant churches as an animist cult.

Silvanilton, the priest, has ties with Nigeria, which still has a very similar cult because of its own slave history. Nowadays, there are official links. He tells me that the slaves from each region that arrived in Bahia were split up into different groups, so that they could not understand each other or unite. He tells me that the terreiro welcomes anyone and he spends a lot of his time giving free advice. They accept donations but will not deny a bowl of soup to the needy.

I hear it everywhere, always at high volume

From the terreiro, I head off in search of the third cornerstone of “Africanism” – music. I hear it everywhere, always at high volume, and it is always Brazilian music. During the two weeks I am in Bahia, I attend seven live concerts and the local media publicize dozens more.

Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil are from Bahia and have brought Brazilian music to the world. I’m lucky enough to hear Caetano’s sister, Maria Bethania, live at the Farol da Barra. The huge crowd sings along to all her songs, both sad and cheerful, while waves break on the beach a few meters from the stage. She sings only one piece in a language other than Portuguese, a cover of Edith Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien”, but translates the words as she goes.

I suspect that words are as important as music to the Brazilian public and my thoughts are confirmed by leading musicians Margareth Menezes and Tonho Materia. They tell me that in the 1970s the city consumed as much music from the US as from Latin America but has now gone back to its roots, in large part driven by carnival.

Can there be something more, I wonder? Where is the culture beyond the stereotypes of samba and drums? Fortunately I am put in touch with another member of the Veloso family, Jota, who manages a venue in the Santo Antônio neighborhood. Every Thursday there is a “happening” in the tiny space, crowded with patrons, where poets, singers and improv theater and music groups produce an exciting evening that you might call “underground”.

New talent would be better off now starting elsewhere

Back in Pelourinho, my search leads me to rapper Afro Jhaw who has been making music since he was ten years old. Now 35, he plays “Afrobeat”, with influences from Candomblé and elsewhere. All the musicians I’ve met say that living in Bahia was crucial both for the synergy and as an opportunity. He looks back on European tours that probably would not have happened if he was not from Bahia. But he says there is now a crisis, with a lot of good people who do not know where to perform, leading him to suggest that a new talent would be better off now starting elsewhere.

His mother is famous in Bahia for her African fashions, particularly colorful headwraps that she says were simply inspired by Tarzan movies she saw as a girl. Christened Valdemira Telma Jesus Sacramento, she was nicknamed João as a child because her short hair made her look like a boy. Embracing the name, and her African heritage, gave her the name Negra Jhô which hangs over her small shop on Rua Frei Vicente.

The shop spills out onto the street, where customers of both sexes sit on plastic chairs while nimble fingers work on hair braiding or other African styles. Negra Jhô is a natural show- woman, much to the delight of passing tourists whose cameras lap up the colorful scene. Her small empire also now includes music, dance, culinary arts and a fashion line. From a small sapling, it has grown into a tree that bears many fruits, much like Bahia itself.

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