"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.
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