During the two weeks I am in the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, I attend seven live concerts and the local media publicize dozens more. Music is a cornerstone of Bahia’s “Africanism.” I hear it everywhere, always at high volume, and it is always Brazilian music.
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.”
In Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, 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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