OCTOBER 16TH 2005- THE NORTH SHORE NEWS
BRAZIL'S BLACK HEART LIVES ON
The priest turns to his audience. Thirty followers. Twenty priestesses. Their rhythmic clapping and joyous chanting intensifies. We are in a cramped back room of a suburban bungalow. His eyes have now switched from rheumy-blue to off-white, like veined ping-pong balls. His pupils have completely vanished
Two entranced priestesses lie prostrate on the floor in a heap of white tulle. Two more dance around the room in a half-crouch, yapping like small dogs. More join in. Yapping, clapping and chanting reach hysterical levels. The priest begins to grunt.
This is my first Candomble, a Yoruban-African word meaning “dance in honour of the Gods.” I confess to feeling a tad nervous as the only “observer” despite a “damp” reassuring hug from the growling, sweating, senior priestess. Puffing on a giant stogie, she is resplendent in a battered cowboy hat - her badge of office.
I look furtively down at my watch. The cab should be back in an hour. Will they unlock the door to let me out?
Salvador was established as the capital of Brazil in 1549 by order of the King of Portugal and remained so until 1763. Slaves were shipped here from Benin and Nigeria to harvest sugar cane, and later to mine gold and diamonds.By 1587 slaves numbered 4000 in a population of 24000 (which included 8000 Indians) and soon became the majority. Today it is home to over 2 million people and Brazil’s third largest city. Its “black heart” lives on.
I have flown a thousand kilometers from the tranquil, gentrified, rural towns of Minas Gerais to the capital of Bahia State. I take the hour-long bus ride down the wild coast road. Graffiti covers many older apartment buildings. Shabby thatched huts line the beaches. Surfers wait patiently for that perfect ride.
The bus finally stops in Pelourinho, the historic heart of Salvador. It reminds me of Havana, which was founded around the same time. Brightly coloured, renovated buildings prop up drooping facades, awaiting their turn at the UNESCO pot.
It’s as hot as Hades when I unzip the straps of my convertible backpack and brace for the hotel hunt. I sneak a peak across the bay before being set upon by an army of beggars and others who offer to fulfill every sexual fantasy a deviant mind could dream up, plus a few that send my imagination into “tilt” mode!
No wonder the bay was once known as Baia de Todos os Santos e de Quase Todos os Pecados – Bay of all Saints and nearly all sinners! – Phew!
The cobbled central square is packed. Traditionally garbed Baianas, local ladies, in rich colourful hooped dresses are preparing acaraje – shrimp-filled dumplings fried in tasty Dende oil extracted from West African palms. (Both are available on the streets of Nigeria). Hawkers push entire stores: Coffee? Cell phones? Scissors? on wheels the size of skateboards.
Hair is a big deal here. How about multi-coloured extenders? Better still; thread your dreadlocks through a carpet of beads. Tight topknots are the easiest care of all. A young man shoos away my seedy entourage only to announce he has aids and needs money. I flee to a small hotel in one of the narrow cobbled alleys near the action.
The streets all feed into Largo do Pelourinho (meaning pillory), a steep square where slaves were once publicly flogged, tortured and auctioned. Today a white model, clad only in a skimpy bikini, is posing for cameras in front of the periwinkle blue church built by, and for, slaves in 1704. What a difference three centuries make!
Music thumps from open windows above the art galleries; the drum shops; the hairdressers. This, after all is the heartbeat of Afro-Brazilian sound. People come from around the country, and the world, to study dance, percussion and Capoeira.
I am in luck. It is Tuesday. “Blessing Tuesday” began as a cunning ruse to get mid-week celebrants into The Church of Sao Francisco, (one of 300 churches so the competition is fierce), for a special service.
In true Bahian spirit, the locals decided it should be a party night. What better way to really bless Tuesdays? Stages are being erected in the two main squares. Banks of speakers are unloaded and tested.
By nightfall both stages are hopping. There is no cover charge. Just come and whirl your partner and wiggle your hips. You may be rocking to tomorrow’s superstars. Large Baianas tend tiny smoking BBQ’s filled to the grips with skewered chunks of beef. Cold beer? Ice cream? “Hey meester here’s a free present” says the umpteenth purveyor of fitas - ribbon wristbands. But don’t ever take it off. Your mother might die of cancer or Goiter..or..or… augmentation failure!
A group of lithe lads in white sweatpants and singlets face off in a corner of the square. Capoeira was a martial arts technique developed in slave quarters to combat cruel masters and their enforcers. It was instantly banned. A tweak on the single stringed “berimbau” signalled danger. It has since evolved into a skillful blurring of two athletic bodies, taunting without touching, and is taught by Capoeira masters around the world.
I fight my way out of the pulsing heart of the action, determined to call it a night. There’s always tomorrow right? A 100 meters up the hill I catch the rhythm ricocheting off tall buildings. Surely to god it’s not a busload of Orangemen from Northern Ireland determined to show off their skills? I’ve always been a sucker for a parade.
No - Twenty young women are “hammering” twenty drums. Sticks are twirled, drums are hurled – and retrieved with perfect precision. Noone misses a beat. The noise is deafening. The changing rhythm electrifying. Soon, five drum corps from five schools merge to become a hundred players. “Blessing Tuesday” brings the classroom to the street, now jammed with swaying sweating bodies.
Slavery in Brazil was abolished in 1888; 23 years after the US; 80 years after Britain. African culture has endured and enriched Brazilian society like no other. Candomble – known as Santeria in Cuba and Voodoo in Haiti, arrived with “slave-priests.” It was immediately banned by The Catholic Church. Practitioners now come from all walks of life.
Coconut and Dende oil in Brazilian cuisine is African in origin. But it is the Afro-Brazilian beat that packs the nightclubs of Rio and Sao Paulo – and the streets of Salvador, where the “Black heart of Brazil” truly belongs. In Salvador the rhythm never dies.
IF YOU GO:
VISAS: Canadians need visas. (Part of the trade war between the two countries) – Go to www.consbrastoronto.org to download application.
Cost is C$72+$18 mailing fee. Takes 10 business days + mailing time.
WHEN TO GO: The official rainy season in Amazonas is January to May. I went in May. High season in Brazil is December to March with Carnaval in late Feb so take your pick.
SAFETY: In 5 weeks I travelled far and wide on public transport without problem. There is a heavy police presence in tourist areas. Don’t flaunt jewellery/watches/cash etc in big cities where abject poverty still exists.
GETTING AROUND: Brazil is a huge, fascinating and culturally diverse country. Without months to spare, you will need to fly. There are four main airlines including GOL – Brazil’s answer to European Easy-jet. If you want to book online locally and save mega dollars you need an Amex card as other foreign issued cards are not acceptable. Air passes may be an option. Ask your Travel Agent.
GUIDEBOOKS AND GUIDE INFO: Sandro can be found at email@example.com or through Green Planet Tours: www.planettours.com.br I used Lonely Planet as a one-stop guide.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: As a writer and traveller Brazil is my new favourite destination.