Can you imagine a Brazil without capoeira or samba, or even its famed Carnaval celebrations? So tied are these things to Brazilian culture and identity, but they come from one community in particular: Afro-Brazilians, those of the former slave trade and now their descendants. The epicentre of Afro-Brazilian culture is Bahia, in particular its capital, Salvador.
Situated on a hill separating it from the rest of the city, the Pelourinho charms immediately with its cobblestone streets, photogenic colonial buildings, beautiful views over the Bay of All Saints, and multitudes of grand churches. It’s the touristic centre of Salvador, but regular life continues for its residents sandwiched between the restaurants, shops, and hotels.
At night, the quarter takes on a completely different character, with tables and chairs set out on the streets, beers, caipirinhas, and snacks overflowing. Music comes from every direction, from the impromptu stages set up every which way, to the bars and restaurants and even convenience stores with live musicians, to the jam bands playing behind closed doors for a circle of friends, to the giant stages with samba bands playing to a giddy dancing crowd, just hidden out of sight around some corner here or there. It’s a joy simply to just take a walk in the evening, the air full of exuberant rhythms, the streets full of people, the buildings all lit up.
But beneath that beauty is the history: the Pelourinho, a UNESCO world heritage site, was the location of the historic slave market and its namesake “pillory” — the slave whipping post. All of the grandeur was built on the backs of African slaves. It’s hard to reconcile that with the large religious presence and the ridiculously lavish sanctuaries decked in gold and intricate woodwork, like that of the São Francisco Church or the Basilica Cathedral.
Banned from practicing their own religion, African slaves adopted Catholicism and also constructed a church for themselves, the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People, a humbler affair that nonetheless took 100 years to build.
Brazil received more African slaves than any other country, some four million over the course of three hundred years all along the west coast of Africa from Benin to Congo to Angola, and abolished slavery later than any other country, in 1888. Those who escaped formed quilombos, Maroon communities just like the ones in Suriname. Slavery’s end didn’t do much to improve the lives of those who didn’t though: with no place to live, no education, nothing to their names, and classist stigma all working against them, many ended up in a cycle of poverty that continues even today. It’s what led to the growth of Brazil’s infamous favelas (started by soldiers left without a home after a civil war, later joined by former slaves without a home) and severe inequality, with a grossly disproportionate number of the poor being black. In the case of Salvador, it means that while the touristic Pelourinho and Cidade Alta (upper city) are pristine, safe, and full of police, accessible by giant outdoor elevators, the immediate area leading to the Cidade Baixa (lower) is unsafe and crime-prone. Some commercial areas are completely abandoned at nightfall, and cars are allowed to run red lights after 7pm to prevent the chance of carjackings. Salvador in general has a notorious safety and poverty problem, with a high crime rate even for Brazil. Take a guess at the racial demographics of the Cidade Alta versus Baixa.
Yet despite being of a lower socioeconomic class, Afro-Brazilian culture has gone from ridiculed and banned to being embraced, and sometimes appropriated across the country. Bahia’s food is famously rich and heavy, with acarajé (balls of smashed beans deep-fried in palm oil, then filled with spicy paste and shrimp) and moqueca (seafood tomato stew with palm oil and coconut milk) owing much of their origins to West African cuisine, also heavy in palm oil. Samba takes its roots from the music of Angola. Capoeira, a combination of dancing and spin/kick-based fighting, also likely comes from Angolan dance traditions, evolving more into a martial art when practiced by slaves looking to disguise their fighting practice as a dance, then centuries later later into an art form.
Capoeira practitioners set up their rodas (circles) all over the city, always drawing a crowd. With a line of people singing call-and-response lyrics, playing the tambourine, berimbau (a one-stringed instrument), and providing hand-claps all setting a rhythm, capoeiristas take on attacking and defending against the other, seeming endlessly able to predict the others’ movements, one kicking and the other dodging, until somebody eventually stumbles or actually takes a hit. Then the winner takes on someone else, even from the crowd! There are two prevalent styles: Angolan, with its trance-like slower music and movements, and Regional, emphasizing the martial art aspect, going so fast and forcefully to the point where it might get a little dangerous for spectators standing too close.
The Forte da Capoeira in the Cidade Alta hosts several capoeira schools, open to visitors on certain days. Wandering in on an off-day with Nicolle from Germany, a capoeirista herself, while we didn’t see any practices going on, we were welcomed by Mestre Boca Rica, who showed us photos of places and students he taught around the world, before serenading us with an improvised song about each of us on the berimbau.
But there’s one other African tradition brought over to Brazil in particular that sparked my curiosity in Afro-Brazilian cultural ties in the first place: religion. Visiting Benin five years ago, I sat in on an Ifá consultation with a friend, visited a prominent museum featuring a Brazilian family’s collection of Vodun (voodoo) deities, and heard an unverified story of a Brazilian man who became president after his own Ifá consultation. While I never did learn whether that was true or not, I had heard enough about Brazil while in Benin to want to see what’s made it to the other side of the Atlantic.
Bahia is the center of candomblé, a religious amalgamation of traditional beliefs brought by slaves of Yoruba ( Nigeria, Benin), Kongo ( both Congos, Angola), Fon (Benin), and Ewe ( Togo) origin. The Afro-Brazilian museum goes a little into this, with a room showing some of the many religious beliefs imported into Brazil, including Ifá and the shell-reading divination practice I witnessed in Benin. There’s even a Casa do Benin in the Pelourinho, with some revenant costumes on display not unlike the ones I saw! Candomblé is based around the worship of orixás, intermediaries to the supreme god and demi-deities in charge of specific things, not unlike Hindu or ancient Greek gods, but one of whom is generally assigned by a mãe/pai-de-santo (priest) as a person’s protector and guide. Largely condemned by majority-Catholic Brazil until the late 1900s, orixás were syncretised with Catholic saints, both as a means to hide the practice of candomblé and also due to perceived similarities — after all, patron saints are a thing!
I timed my visit to Salvador to coincide the largest candomblé holiday in Brazil: Festa da Iemanjá, celebrating the goddess of the sea and mother of all orixás, syncretised with the Virgin Mary as Nossa Senhora dos Navegantes (Our Lady of Navigators). Swarming the beach of Rio Vermelho, thousands of devotees dressed in white and blue came to bring their offerings specific to Iemanjá: perfume, necklaces, combs, mirrors, but mostly flowers, all offered to her by way of the ocean in hopes of protection and good luck. It’s a bit of a one-upping display: while most devotees seem content to dress up a little and take selfies throwing flowers or pouring perfume into the water, some families dress to the nines, launch earsplitting firecrackers, and bring giant elaborate flower displays decorated with little mermaid-like statuettes of Iemanjá, loading them on boats to be taken out to sea… while bringing a private band and private camera crew with them!
The crowd isn’t just limited to the water. Massive lines for just to get into the flower display assembly area next to Iemanjá’s permanent shrine. Tables of holy water and leafy branches, used by devotees offering blessings, line the beach. Then there are the tents hosting terreiros — the candomblé equivalent of a church service. Despite the 38°C heat, the priest and devotees in their finest thick robes sing and dance non-stop to hypnotic drums, bells, and tambourines, attempting to channel Iemanjá herself. In one terreiro that I stayed a bit longer at, the priest, dripping in sweat, tirelessly sang in Yoruba for at least an hour in the heat, sprinkling the surrounding crowd and images of Iemanjá with popcorn. His singing may have been tireless, but his dancing certainly did slow down! Off the beach, the surrounding streets for several kilometres were closed off to traffic and stuffed full of at least several ten-thousand people, with capoeira rodas and samba groups passing through every so often, squeezed between revellers and the countless vendors of much-needed drinks. True to Brazil, it’s a combination of a celebratory street festival and a non-stop party, full of music, dance, colour, and high-spirits.
All of which gets to be a little too much for me! But hey, with some 30km of nearly-uninterrupted beach in Salvador alone, there’s plenty of places to wind down before or after the festival, and so I spent some time wandering the waterfront neighbourhoods, trying not to worsen my sunburn or dehydrate in the process by downing as many iced bowls of açaí as I could take in the shade. (It’s not hard. They’re delicious.) Barra in particular seems to be where the locals enjoy going on the weekend, being the closest to the centre of town, and its beach in particular is at times extraordinarily packed. More interesting to me there was the Farol da Barra (lighthouse), including a nautical museum that touched on the Portuguese discovery of Brazil in 1500 up to the fight for full independence in 1824. The Portuguese were the ones who brought and enforced Catholicism onto Brazil; they were so devout that a statue of a saint, now displayed in the museum, was declared a lieutenant colonel, even earning a salary!
Roughly 80km away north of Salvador, Praia do Forte is a touristy beach village, but one that clears out on weekdays. Aside from having its own very photogenic beach, it’s also home to Project TAMAR, a turtle conservation group that works all across Brazil. While it was very cute to see turtles, rays, and even sharks on their aquarium-like grounds, I did feel for the animals and their rather small enclosures… Their work has been vital though, notably pushing for alternative fishing methods instead of the trawler nets that catch every aquatic creature in its way, promoting more environmentally friendly standards and waste management, educating the population on the harm of light pollution near turtle nesting grounds, and protecting the nesting grounds themselves. On average, only one out of 1000 baby turtles survive to adulthood, so they need all the help they can get.
All of this in four days, whew! I feel like I only got a teaser of a bunch of different facets of Bahia. Hardly any time for a sunset caipirinha! There’s plenty that I didn’t get the chance to visit but had hoped to: the art museums, the Church of Our Lady of Bonfim and its colourful ribbons purportedly tied for miracles, the commercial districts, non-festival terreiros, capoeira studios in session, culinary courses… And I can’t pretend to be anything close to an expert on African traditions or Afro-Brazilian traditions, but this I do know — separated by hundreds of years and the Atlantic Ocean, the religious and cultural ties between Brazil and coastal Africa remain strikingly strong. It’s been a privilege to personally witness even a small part of it on both ends.