E a coisa mais linda de se ver: É o Ilê Aiyê! O mais belo dos belos: Sou eu! Sou eu! Bata no peito mais forte e diga: Eu sou Ilê!
And the prettiest thing to see: It's Ilê Ayiê! The prettiest of the pretty: It's me! It's me! Beat more strongly on your chest and say: I am Ilê!
(Ilê Aiyê. "O Mais Belo dos Belos" from Ilê Aiyê: 25 Anos.)
After the initial euphoric shock that came with the realization of being in the midst of a street party of over two million people, I found myself somewhat disappointed with the first two days of Carnaval 2000 in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Absolutely amazed by its immensity, yes. Artistically impressed by the music and dance, no. Given how little I understood regarding Bahian Carnaval before arriving, I was not even sure what I had seen. I had naturally expected waves of percussion and drumso samba: the musical explosion that has defined many parts of Brazil's national (and international) identity. But (outside of a trimmed down version of Olodum's drum section) during my first two days of the festival the drums were conspicuously absent. Instead, replaced by dozens of pop bands cranking out something closer to techno music than samba.
I traveled to Bahia to learn about the history and evolution of Carnaval, and to participate in and observe first-hand what went on in the streets of Salvador every year. However, underlying all of this was an interest in seeing behind the craziness associated with the festival and into the heart of Bahian Carnaval. I hoped and expected to discover a voice underneath the festa, a voice expressed through its music. I have found that people traditionally silenced by mainstream society are often forced to express themselves through alternative methods, particularly music. It is no coincidence that Afro-Americans have consistently led the way in popular music expressions throughout our hemisphere. The influence of the African roots of popular music in the Americas is a recurrent theme in my studies. The vast majority of American popular music originated in Afro communities all over our continents: rock n' roll, blues, jazz, salsa, son, mambo, cumbia, merengue, reggae, ska, funk, soul, hip-hop, rumba, samba, etc.
In my studies I have also been fascinated by the manner in which popular music developed in different parts of the Americas. Despite its underlying wickedness, the legacy of slavery in South America and the Caribbean versus North America contrasts sharply in one important characteristic: the relative "acceptance" of African drums. Combined with other factors, the intense counter-rhythmic musical tradition established in the Caribbean and Brazil is rooted in this legacy"The prohibition of drums, ignored to a great extent on the islands and in South America, was more strictly enforced on the North American mainland " (Epstein, D. J. Sinful Tunes and Spirituals. p.52-53. (Italics mine.) In Brazil, there is obviously no shortage of African based percussion, therefore I had also expected and greatly desired to witness a twenty-four hour display of this poly-rhythmic tradition.
Yet there I was after the first two days of Carnaval 2000, waiting to be bombarded by drums, hearing precious little samba and even fewer percussion ensembles. For two days I had listened to band after band crashing through the streets of Salvador. But I found little inspiring in the pop music blaring much too loud from the speakers imbedded in the enormous semi-trailers carrying these groups slowly around the city. These groups' percussion consisted of a couple of drowned out congas or atabaques. Still, the majority of locals and tourists flooding the streets didn't seem to notice or care about the absence of the drums. No matter what the music, the povo (people) constantly seemed to teeter on the brink of pandemonium in the streets; never quite crossing over! Given the masses of people mixed with the masses of alcohol, the relative absence of major problems in the streets was impressive, to say the least.
Despite my frustration with some of the music, I would not dare suggest that Carnaval is in any, way, shape or form lacking intensity. But I began to feel like I had missed something. Add enough cerveja (beer) Brahma and anything can sound good for a while, but soon enough the musician in me rebelled. Then, half by chance, I meandered down to Campo Grande in the center of Salvador on Saturday night, day three, and finally saw what I had envisioned for months: Malê Debalê, one of the most well known and most traditional blocos afros in Bahia. And suddenly the whole experience started to make sense.
All in all, Carnaval in Bahia was the most awe-inspiring spectacle of music, dance and sensuality that I have ever witnessed. Seeing the people of Bahia revolve their entire lives around this week of celebration (added to several weeks of pre- and post-celebrations) is one of the most impressive displays of collective emotion imaginable. The most lasting impression that I carry with me was the sheer amount of energy that the povo put into dancing. It is, quite literally, an every day, all day festa na rua. The people in Bahia never seem to tire of jumping behind the bands. When I asked Bahians about this amazing level of musical energy that engulfs Salvador their answers were invariably the same, "it's in the blood." Witnessing this complete absorption in joy left my senses overloaded. I could not truly balance it until I saw another side of the loucura (craziness), a far different side that radiated the same energy and joy but tempered with an intense seriousness. Having the opportunity to see that side first hand convinced me that there was more going on than just a big street party. Of course, the excesses of which more than a minority partakes may suggest otherwise. But one has to dig a little deeper to truly glance at what lies underneath the chaos that engulfs the streets of Salvador every year.
I will examine the history of Bahian Carnaval and how it has evolved into the absolutely immense form that it currently takes. For the sake of simplicity, I separated the music of Carnaval into three main groups that I will examine individually: the trios elétricos, the afoxés, and the blocos Afros. Participating in and observing Carnaval provided me with a wealth of material from which I will draw liberally throughout my report. It is precisely from this first-hand approach that I organized this project. I also set up several interviews with leading officials of the main blocos afros and afoxés, finding within these groups the side of the festival for which I was searching. Added to numerous discussions with residents of Bahia as well as my immersion within the event, I feel like I was able to increase my own understanding of Carnaval exponentially.
Carnaval 2000 in Bahia was a celebration of fifty years of the trio elétrico, fifteen years of axé music, five hundred years since the European arrival in Brazil, and four hundred and fifty years since the founding of Salvador. Individually, many blocos also celebrated important anniversaries, such as Olodum: 20 years and Ilê Aiyê: 25 years. One also saw the slogan "Bahia: Brazil Was Born Here" nearly everywhere. The city ran dozens of commercials with people from all over Brazil praising Bahia. It was clearly a moment of great pride for Bahians, and one saw the results of this promotional campaign as Salvador was absolutely flooded with tourists during the week of Carnaval. These themes set the tone for all the activities of Carnaval 2000 and created an even more impressive display outside of the already immense street party.
In early Brazilian history, nothing even similar to Carnaval (or entrudo as it was previously called) existed. Only during gala events of the king or his court would there be anything even resembling an "official" celebration. The original inspiration for the "street party" came from Greco-Roman pagan festivals honoring gods such as Dionysus (based around harvests in mid-December and mid-February), where slaves were freed, people hid behind masks and costumes, and alcohol was consumed in mass quantities. These festivals spread throughout Europe and in Portugal it was reportedly characterized by much dancing. The influence of Christianity obviously placed old established pagan festivals around Christian holidays, and thus "Carnaval" came to become a pre-Lent celebration. Precisely how it was introduced to Brazil is unclear, but in the seventeenth century a tradition began where slaves would race through the streets soaking each other with substances of various kinds, while most whites stayed indoors. There existed no sort of organization to this event, much less any sort of festival music. Not until the mid-nineteenth century were there any sorts of organized balls held during the week before Ash Wednesday. This tradition began with white Brazilians imitating European costume balls and dancing to the latest polkas or waltzes. In slave and ex-slave neighborhoods the scene was developing quite differently, however. The "official" festival continued in this tame form until a popular rhythm came along that was capable of sustaining the energy of the povo, both black and white.
The detailed history of samba is for another report entirely, but it clearly needs mention here. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, thousands of ex-slaves migrated to Rio de Janeiro searching for employment. Many of these people congregated around the now famous Estácio and Praça Onze districts (now home to the Sambódromo.) It was here that samba as we know it was born. Mixing elements of the European influenced lundu, maxixe, marcha and choro with the percussive Afro-Brazilian batuques developed in Bahia and elsewhere, artists such as the famous Pixinguinha, Sinhô, Donga, and Ismael Silva truly started a musical revolution in the early twentieth century. The first song "officially" labeled samba was Donga's famous "Pelo Telefone", a smash hit during the Carnaval of 1917.
Coming from the Afro neighborhoods in Rio and the surrounding morros (hills), samba was, of course, originally rejected by the mainstream. But with the help of middle class, white/mulatto composers such as Noel Rosa and Ary Barroso, samba soon became the music of Rio's Carnaval, as well as all of Brazil. Rio's Carnaval began to be slowly de-segregated as the 1930s wore on, thanks in part to the work of escolas de samba such as the famous Deixa Falar, as well as the policies of Getúlio Vargas. By the 1950s, the sounds of Afro-Brazilian percussion were an invaluable part of every celebration and public event in Brazil. The absolute importance of samba in the development of Carnaval as a popular festival cannot be understated. The development of samba as Brazil's national music directly correlates to the development of Carnaval.
Before taking the form it has today, the early twentieth century saw Carnaval in Bahia as an almost completely segregated and relatively tame event. For the rich, mostly white, upper class, Carnaval came to exist as an elite costume party in exclusive clubs of Salvador. Clubes such as the Fantoches de Euterpa, Cruzeiro de Vitória, and Os Inocentes do Progresso held balls that only the light skinned upper class could attend. These clubs were owned or sponsored by local millionaires. Their events, opera music and European costumes included, contrasted dramatically with the chaotic entrudo evolving in the streets of the poor, black neighborhoods of Salvador. In this entrudo, samba and African dances reigned. People bombarded one another with limões de cheiro, urine bowls, and other liquids of questionable origin. It was here that the concept of the street Carnaval developed. Evidently the events got so out of hand and/or so offended the upper classes that the police started repressing the Afro-Bahian entrudo and started a process of organizing and "cleaning-up" these festivities. Some of the city's elite loudly decried the "uncivilized" nature of these festivals and actually proposed the prohibition of African music and dance during Carnaval.
However, similar to the manner in which samba came out of the morros in Rio de Janeiro and took over the mainstream Carnaval, the street festival (albeit a "cleaned up" version) in Bahia soon imposed itself on the elite club festival. An important concept in this evolution of Carnaval is the definition of "rua" in this era. The streets were considered, by some of the upper class, to be the center of chaos and a place to avoid when at all possible. Many upper class people stayed somewhat isolated in the homes rather than venturing out into the danger that they felt the "street" represented. Yet, in a powerful statement regarding the influence of Afro-Brazilian music and dance, the emerging popular festival soon drew the elite into the very streets they had looked down upon.
From around 1930 to 1950, parallel to increased repression of the Afro-Brazilian festival, these exclusive clubs began marching through the streets wearing elaborate European costumes and fantasias, listening to military bands play marchinhas, polkas, and even opera pieces. While in Salvador, I saw a TV special about this era of "mainstream" Carnaval in the 1940s and the pictures spoke for themselves: very few people in the streets, a handful of cars with elegantly dressed, light skinned Bahians riding atop, and almost no music.
Modern Bahian Carnaval really begins with the advent of the famous trio elétrico in 1950. From this point on the elite parades started to be replaced by a more popular street festivala Carnaval of the povo. As the trios evolved into the massive entities they are today, the caretas of the upper class slowly disappeared. Although there still exists some of these upper class Carnaval clubs, today they are virtually ignored by the media and the people of Salvador. The street festival, obviously, has earned top slot on the Carnaval bill. Some people view this "victory" of the street festival over the elite club festival as an affirmation of the "Africanization" of Carnaval. While the origins of Carnaval are clearly not African per se, it is evident that modern Bahian Carnaval as we know it takes much of its form from the Afro-Brazilian concept of party in the street.
Following the revolutionizing of Carnaval that the trios provided, the festival grew larger every year and began to take on a life of its own. Constantly adding new elements, different ideas for the trios, bigger crowds, larger vehicles, and mass publicity. By the 1980s it was competing with Rio for the largest Carnaval in Brazil. Today it is rightfully billed as the largest popular festival in the world. This year the press reported over two million people (including 800,000 tourists) in the streets of Salvador and business equaling over $300,000,000. Yet underneath the immensity of the event, remains a sobering reality about the social situation in Bahia.
Although the concept of the street festival quickly came to dominate Bahian Carnaval, centuries of discrimination left a legacy that, even today, can be seen during the week of "official" Carnaval. Until the 1970s one was hard pressed to find much Afro-Brazilian participation in mainstream Bahian Carnaval. Due to the work of certain parts of Bahian society, over the past thirty years the state has definitely developed a degree of racial inter-mixing and tolerance that, on some levels, is quite inspiring to witness. If one does not dig very deep into Carnaval or only has the chance to spent a few days in Bahia, he or she would probably leave with a very optimistic view of race relations and the level of equality that seems to exist. The first week or so that I was there, this was precisely my impression. I was amazed at the seeming complete mixing of race and class, especially in the Pelourinho. However, as Risério points out in his excellent review of Bahian Carnaval, Carnaval Ijexá, this view becomes easily distorted with a closer and more critical look.
After getting over the immensity of the event and the craziness in the streets, I began to notice subtle and not so subtle segregation. Particularly after seeing Malê Debalê on Saturday, these observations became more and more clear as the festival continued.
The history of Bahian Carnaval is one of dramatic events that rapidly altered its course. Today, it is simply impossible to imagine festival without the trios, without samba, without hundreds of thousands of people in the streets, without the heart and soul of Bahia that are the blocos afros, without the calm that the afoxés bring to the storm.
Yet very recently in her history, each one of these elements simply did not exist. Despite the continued segregation and discrimination, people of all classes and races do come together to dance and celebrate. It is indeed an impressive display. Carnaval in Bahia remains an ever-evolving street party, constantly adding new elements, constantly growing even larger and more outrageous. The only constant is that every twenty years or so it is sure to be completely rearranged.
Modern Bahian Carnaval is for the most part made up of dozens of the so-called "trio elétrico" groups. Nowadays they are far from trios, but actually originated as a duo. In 1951 the famed amplified pair of Dodô and Osmar cruised Bahian Carnaval for the first time in an old 1929 Chrysler Fargo (later adding another musician, Temístocles Aragão, thus the "trio".) Since that moment, the trios have evolved into an impressive, immense musical display for national and international audiences alike. The trios consist of enormous semi-trucks plodding through the streets of Salvador with a band of anywhere from ten to twenty musicians atop cranking out the latest Carnaval songs, various Carnaval classics, as well as an extensive repertoire of pop hits. Today, at least seventy-five per cent of all the musical ensembles parading around the three official circuitos can be labeled blocos trios. Realistically speaking, for the majority of Carnaval-goers, local and foreign, the experience of Bahian Carnaval consists of dancing in the streets to the trios' selection of axé, pagode, and pop songs.
The fifty years since the invention of the trio elétrico have come to define many aspects of Bahian Carnaval, as well as other northern cities like Recife and Olinda in Pernambuco. Almost every "official" Carnaval group now uses the concept of the trio elétrico for their parade. They use the trucks to carry their entire band or, in the case of the blocos afros and afoxés, just the singers ride on top of the trucks with the drummers and dancers in the streets below. However, the actual name, a "bloco de trio," refers only to a Carnaval group comprised of a more mainstream performer who generally plays axé, pagode, and pop music. This invention is very rightfully celebrated as the most influential event in the history of modern Bahian Carnaval.
The story of the trio elétrico begins in Bahia in the 1930s. Osmar Macedo and Adolfo "Dodô" Nascimento were musicians who had grown up together in Salvador. In the 1930s Dodô helped to form a group with the legendary Dorival Caymmi called O Três e Meio. By the late 1930s Caymmi and the others had left, leaving Dodô to reform the group. He called upon his old friend Osmar and, soon leaving the group behind, they set out as a "dupla elétrica." Osmar had learned how to construct his own guitars and Dodô, who was a radio technician, was inspired to insert a microphone inside the guitar after seeing Carioca violinist Benedito Chaves mic his violin during a concert in Salvador in 1941.
Throughout the early 40s Dodô and Osmar worked on new paus elétricos (electric guitars) and caixas (amps) and developed dozens of them during this time. The duo soon developed an entirely new sound in Bahia, one that emphasized volume and guitar, setting the stage for their revolutionary appearance in Carnaval `50. There is even some debate as to whether or not they were ahead of the American guitar makers, who only officially patented the electric guitar in 1947.
The introduction of Pernambucan frevo music into Bahian Carnaval was the second half of the rapid evolution of the festival. In 1950 the famous Clube Carnavalesco Vassourinhas do Recife appeared in Salvador for the first time with an orchestra of over 150 musicians. Frevo was and is the popular music and dance of Pernambuco. It is characterized by an extremely aggressive horn-driven rhythm, originating from military marchas in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When the music was modified from its original military band form and entered the street it adopted its "working class music" popular identity. This música do povo identity would have a huge effect in Bahia.
In 1950, Dodô and Osmar witnessed that presentation of the Vassourinhas and immediately set about learning some of the songs, adapting them to guitar as opposed to the horn-laden Pernambucan frevo. This concert took place on the Wednesday before Carnaval `50 was to commence. The dupla elétrica decided that it was the time to present their idea to the people of Bahia. They rehearsed for several days, decked out their 1929 Chrysler to hold amps and people and made their fateful voyage into the streets. The crowds in Bahia had never seen anything like it. Dodô and Osmar were the hit of Carnaval that year and it was clear from the onset that their idea was going to explode and completely re-define Bahian Carnaval.
As Carnaval crowds increased each year so did the violence behind the trios and their frevo da Bahia. The frevo dance became even more animated, with people flailing their arms in a sped up attempt to perhaps mimic a Candomblé dance that had the arms moving up and down like wings. Hundreds of people in unison would crash through the streets following the trios, arms swinging in a sort of "shadow boxing." It
is easy to understand how this might have provoked a fair amount of violence in the streets. Beginning in 1952, sponsors made their presence felt in the trios, namely one Miguel Vita, who gave Dodô and Osmar the financial backing they needed to develop their idea. Politicians and advertisers also immediately saw the advantage of having a vehicle with their name on it cruise the streets of Salvador as the main Carnaval attraction. From that point forward, the size of the actual trios and their use as political and commercial advertisements grew quickly and extensively. By the 1960s, the enormous trios elétricos were the essence of Bahian Carnaval.
Os Trios Modernos
From the early 1950s onward the trios elétricos clearly started to define Bahian Carnaval, with dozens of groups sprouting from the inspiration of Dodô and Osmar. By the mid-1960s the festa na rua had come to completely dominate Bahian Carnaval, as increasingly larger crowds of people took the streets every year. Leading the way were the trio elétricos. In the 1970s emerging Bahian pop stars such as Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, and the Novos Baianos added their influence to the trios in a successful effort to add yet another facet to Carnaval: rock n' roll. Caetano had a very influential album in the 1970s entitled MuitosCarnavais that is now considered a Carnaval classic. In 1975 Moraes Moreira first added vocals to the trios, now an inseparable part of their sound. During this revolutionary phase of the evolution of Bahian Carnaval, Osmar's son Armandinho also began his reign as the master of the mini guitarra baiana. During Carnaval 2000, all of these adored rock stars were very visible in various trios. Today, in place of the old frevo tunes, almost all the trios perform axé, pagode or pop music and have increased the tempo of the songs into almost a techno or merengue rhythm.
One of the themes of Carnaval 2000 was 15 Years of Axé Music. While in Salvador, I had a very informational discussion with Dr. Piers Armstrong of Universidade Federal de Santana de Feira regarding the history of axé music. Axé music does not really have an "official" birthday. However, it was fifteen years ago that a journalist decided to name the style of music that was rapidly evolving throughout Bahia and Pernambuco as axé. A precursor to axé was fricote made popular by the performer Luis Caldas in the early 1980s (Caldas had his own trio elétrico in this year's Carnaval.) The hugely influential frevo music from Pernambuco gave fricote/axé music its fast tempo and beat. This influence can clearly be seen today as bands continue to increase the tempo and the music gets wilder and wilder. Before axé music took over Bahian Carnaval, frevo was the music of choice for most blocos. Dodô and Osmar made their mark playing frevo tunes from Recife.
Every year new songs emerge from the trios as new festival favorites. Carnaval 2000's hits included "Ana Júlia", "O Seu Amor É Canibal", "Amor", "Tsheik Demais", "A Engraçadinha", among others. The mainstream bands are almost obligated to perform the same repertoire of songs as many blocos pay a lot of money to hire the trios of various pop stars such as Netinho, É O Tchan, Chiclete Com Banana, Daniela Mercury, and Ivete Sangalo to lead their parades. I heard each one of these trios perform the above Carnaval hits at least a dozen times.
The frenetic energy of the trio elétricos has its roots in Pernambucan frevo but has developed its own characteristics that continue to evolve. Every year more and more trios join the festival and the major ones receive massive corporate sponsorship as they continue the commercial tradition started in the 1950s. Huge advertising balloons and corporate names are pasted on every trio as the massive crowds surge around them day and night. This side of Bahian Carnaval contrasts greatly with the other elements that I will now discuss.
Afoxés have a long and inconsistent history in Bahia. Some of the first groups resembling today's afoxés were the Embaixada Africana in 1895, following shortly after by the Pândegos da África. They performed traditional candomblé songs and dances in the streets of Salvador. This cultural expression was viewed as such a threat by the city that they were banned from the festival for nearly fifteen years. The afoxés slowly fought their way back into Carnaval, but well into the 1940s there existed an overt repression of Afro-Brazilian expressions in the mainstream Carnaval. As a result, the police and members from Afro neighborhoods in Bahia clashed regularly during Carnaval time. It was not until the creation of a revolutionary group in 1949 that the afoxés were finally able to permanently establish themselves in Carnaval.
The original inspiration for these blocos arose directly from Afro-Brazilian religious music in Bahia and one can clearly see this religious element in today's afoxés, as well as many of the blocos afros. In one form or another, they all developed from original candomblé or ijexá rhythms. Early in the history of the afoxés they would always perform ceremonies in the streets and evidently, many of their members would march in a trance. This religious legacya seriousness about what they were doingwas clearly visible as I viewed several different afoxés during Carnaval 2000. It was a stark contrast to the frenzy of the trio elétricos. According to Gilberto Gil, "This is the spiritual side of Carnaval, its balance." McGowan & Pessanha. The Brazilian Sound. p.122.
The original afoxés went through a series of ups and downs in the 1920s and 30s and the police repression continued. Various groups would emerge and then disappear within a decade or two. It took years of protest for Afro-Bahians to merely march in the city's Carnaval, but by the post-war period, the stage was set for the rise of an afoxé that would forever change Bahia Negra and how it was viewed by the city and the nation.
The Filhos de Ghandy were founded on February 18, 1949 by a group of dockworkers in a poor neighborhood called Porto do Salvador. The date happened to be the Thursday of Carnaval 1949. A few dozen of them quickly organized, rehearsed and marched on the last day of Carnaval that year. The immediate inspiration for the founding of the group came from a discussion they had lamenting the situation that the country was in, as well as seeking a way to lessen the repression of Afro-Bahians during Carnaval. One of the men, Durval Marques da Silva, "Vavá Madeira", had recently seen a film on the life and death of Mahatma Ghandi, and proposed that they name themselves after his legacy, having been recently felled by an assassin's bullet in India. They also wanted a symbol that would counter the prejudiced view of the city's elite that blacks could only be violent. Some city officials worried that their anti-colonial name would be viewed as a threat to the British Empire (and therefore a threat to all the English ships that docked at their ports) and pressured them to drop it. However, the name stuck. From there the rest of the story gets clouded. All the original founders relay contradicting stories on where and when they first marched, what the original intention was and so on and so forth. Realistically however, those details matter little. What has lasted is their legacy: what they did for Afro-Bahians and the culture of Bahia.
What is clear in their story is that Ghandy underwent a steady decline in the 1960s and by the early 1970s their entire existence was in serious jeopardy. Enter the rising pop-star Gilberto Gil, recently returned from political exile in London. From that point forward, the Filhos grew steadily and by the late 1970s had established themselves as the most well-known and most well loved afoxé in Bahia.
With Gil as their Vice President, the Filhos solidified their place forever in the history of Bahian Carnaval. Today their membership numbers over 10,000. The Filhos represent an ideal of peace and racial unity to Bahians and to the world, often receiving international dignitaries when they visit Bahia.
Filhos de Ghandy
While in Salvador I had the opportunity to spend several hours over two days discussing the history and message of the Filhos de Ghandy with one of their spokesmen and self-titled conselheiro, Valdemar José de Souza, referred to as Tio Souza. I also had the pleasure of meeting Senhor Raimundo, the group's "Ghandi". Raimundo, quite literally, looks and attempts to live as Mohandas Ghandi did. It is an amazing spectacle to witness "Ghandi" atop their truck parading through the streets during Carnaval. Tio Souza gave me a brief history of the group and discussed what they do before, during and after Carnaval. Throughout the discussions he constantly emphasized the somewhat romanticized message of peace that the group promotes through all of their activities.
I asked Tio Souza about the role that Ghandy plays in Bahia and what they have come to represent in the community. He cited the example of when a local school official called upon Ghandy to parade and present themselves in one of the rougher schools in Salvador. Tio Souza commented on all the cases of violence that constantly occurred in this particular school. Ghandy went to the neighborhood and put on a grand parade in full regalia, with all the children watching and listening. He said that within a few days the same school official called them to thank them for the dramatic reduction in violence that had occurred almost overnight in this school. He added that today it remains a relatively safe area in Salvador.
During Carnaval, I also observed the influence that Ghandy wields in Bahia. I was in between the Pelourinho and Campo Grande on Avenida 7 de Setembro when I saw a huge fight break out during the parade. The circle widened as the people started brawling, when suddenly in stepped a filho de Ghandy. He broke up the combatants, kept them apart, said something, and then quietly left. The fight ended there.
Tio Souza expressed much concern over the violence still present in Carnaval and emphasized the need for a "re-educação do povo." However, he was quite clearly very proud of the strides that the Filhos had made in creating a more peaceful atmosphere in Bahia. One can see the responsibility they have taken upon themselves in the manner with which many members of the Filhos carry themselves during Carnaval. There is a definite degree of seriousness and dignity. The Filhos and other afoxés such as Badauê and the Filhas de Oxum were indeed a calm amidst the storm of Carnaval. It was amazing to see the way the crowds reacted when they passed _ the calmness, the lack of violence, etc. The Filhos de Ghandy have become an institution in Bahia and it is quite difficult to imagine Carnaval without them. The one hope for the future that Tio Souza wished for was simply a higher degree of organization and professionalism within the group so that their message of peace could be transmitted to still more people in Brazil and, their ultimate goal, all over the world.
OS BLOCOS AFROS
A bloco Afro-Brasileiro, or bloco afro for short, is a Carnaval group created in one of the dozens of Afro-Brazilian bairros that make up Salvador. Generally, they are defined by an enormous emphasis on all things "Afro" in Bahia _ music, dance, religion, fashion, and language. Most of the well known blocos Afros were born in the 1970s from an overt and deliberate political statement regarding the absence of Afro-Brazilian influence in a city over 75% Afro-Mestizo. These blocos activities extend far beyond Carnaval into political and social arenas. The social and economic opportunities they create in their neighborhoods cannot be underestimated in a nation with as much poverty as Brazil. From The Brazilian Sound, "What is so profound about the blocos afros is that they have allowed the young black population in Salvador to identify themselves through the expression of dance, song and drumming as opposed to outsiders telling them who they are and what their culture is about."
In the 1970s, the Black Pride and Soul movements in the United States had a huge impact in Bahia. Combined with various independence movements in colonial Africa (notably the Portuguese speaking Guiné-Bissau), Afro-Bahians had very visible symbols of African pride. Recognizing that Brazil has the most African descendants of any country outside of Africa, Afro-Brazilians, even more vocally than previously, demanded equal representation, and more importantly organized to insure that they received it. It was precisely in the 1970s that Bahians en masse began to hear the voices of the blocos afros. These groups experienced a peak number in the 1980s, but have recently seen a decline in number as the economic factors associated with Carnaval catch up with the groups primarily from the poorer parts of Salvador. What I experienced in Carnaval 2000 was the continuation of a thirty-year movement whose primary goal is simply to express itself in its own voice.
Basic to many blocos afros is an association with candomblé, the Afro-Brazilian religion in Bahia, as well as capoeira, the martial art/dance brought from Angola, West Africa. Many blocos' members are active in candomblé houses and some, such as Ilê Aiyê, begin each Carnaval with a huge ceremony. Candomblé is derived from the religious traditions of various West African groups that were brought to Bahia as slaves, most notably the Yorubas (or Nagôs) from Nigeria and the Ewe (or Gegês) from Benin. This culture is often referred to as the Gege-Nagô tradition. The Yorubas are traditionally linked with the Ketu and Ijexá regions of the ancient Yoruba kingdom. Obviously, this is a direct link to the use of the word Ijexá as well as hundreds of other African words used in common speech today in Bahia.
Before the blocos afros rose to prominence in the late-1970s and early 1980s, most Afro-Brazilian participation in Carnaval was limited to an afoxé or bloco índio. Blocos índios such as the Apaches de Tororó took their inspiration from stereotypified images of North American Native Americans and, much like the distorted stereotype, these mostly black groups developed a very violent reputation. With few other forms of expression available to them, some blocos índios would intentionally disrupt the processions of the trios. How much the prejudicial views of the mainstream media sensationalized their level of violence we can only speculate. On Olodum's website there is a lengthy history that suggests that this violence was perhaps exaggerated due to the discrimination of the day ( www.olodum.com.br/falando2.html). They cite the well-documented examples of police repression of the blocos índios, including one incident where over 3,000 members of a bloco were jailed. Nonetheless, it is evident that there was a lot of violence associated with them and when the blocos indios took to the streets in the 1960s and 70s, it made more than a few Bahians uncomfortable.
Only after the blocos afros and afoxés established themselves did Afro-Brazilians find other methods of self-expression during Carnaval. These blocos índios still exist today but their numbers have been greatly reduced, as has their aggressiveness, concordant with the "re-Africanization" of Carnaval in Bahia.
One of the very first blocos afros and the one whose musical style (all drum and percussion arrangements) paved the way for future groups is the famous Ilê Aiyê. Coming from the almost entirely black neighborhood of Liberdade, the group's two founders, Antônio Carlos dos Santos (Vovô) and Apolônio de Jesus, immediately made clear their intention to preserve, promote and expand Afro-Brazilian culture: they did not (and do not) permit light skinned persons to participate in the bloco. This exclusion was a direct and intentional response to the discriminatory practices, both overt and covert, in place by the city of Salvador as well as other blocos before, during, and after Carnaval.
Before Ilê Aiyê was established, members of Liberdade also used to form teams of musicians and dancers called A Zorra. They used to spontaneously gather in the streets and pick random beaches in Salvador to "invade," dance, play samba and socializeshowing off the culture of their bairro to the startled upper class beach-goers. From these gatherings came the idea to unite in a more formal setting. Finally, after a night spent discussing the situation, on November 1st, 1974, under the leadership of Vovô and Apolônia, the bloco Ilê Aiyê was officially born. Vovô and Apolônia's initiative set in motion the transformation of "soul" to "ijexá" and American "Black Power" to Brazilian "conciência negra", on their own terms and in their own language.
Emphasizing all things negro, Ilê Aiyê made an immediate impact on Bahian Carnaval. An aggressive, all black bloco with a policy of excluding whites made it "dangerous" and many residents of Liberdade expressed serious concern over whether or not they would be thrown in jail, beaten, or worse if they marched through the streets of Salvador. One must also keep in mind that this was the era of the military dictatorship in Brazil and a statement such as the one Ilê Aiyê was making did not lend itself to friendly relations with the authorities.
In 1975, as the new bloco marched through the streets, people began picking up on what they were doing and, according to Vovô, one could see the crowd's attitude change. Even people from Liberdade who had doubted the whole project instantly realized the energy that this group had just added to Carnaval.
My interview with the president of Ilê Aiyê was shorter than I would have liked, but they are an extremely busy organization. Vovô has been invited all over Brazil as well as internationally to represent the group and is constantly occupied with numerous projects in Bahia. The one aspect that really stood out when I went to the Casa do Ilê in Liberdade was the non-stop activity. I was barely able to complete a rushed twenty-minute interview after waiting over an hour to speak with o presidente. What I took away from the discussion was a theme that I would find common to most of my interviews and my general view of Bahian Carnaval after the craziness had subsided: the continuing difficulty that Afro-Brazilians have being represented and appropriately respected. In Vovô I sensed a very serious man, very intent on completing the work he began in 1974. He expressed very succinctly what Carnaval means to Ilê Aiyê: "It's the biggest moment for the black people." I asked him about any changes that he had seen in the way that Afro-Brazilian were viewed in Bahia since the inception of the group.
While clearly proud of the strides Ilê Aiyê has made, Vovô seemed very cautious about being too optimistic or naïve, perhaps. He sees very clearly the obstacles that stand in the way of true equality in Bahia and is not shy about bringing them up. The lack of corporate sponsors for blocos afros, the reluctance on the part of the city to further assist many of them, the refusal of many blocos to alter their sound and style to fit what the city "wants" its Carnaval to be, being just a few examples. Although Vovô was given the position of Carnaval Director in 1996, it was evident that he still felt they were excluded from much of the process. To end the interview I asked him what he saw in the future of the group. Given that Ilê Aiyê is one of the most well established of all the blocos afros, his response was startling: "We have to fight to not shut down. We blacks are more than 80 percent of the population, but the afro blocos are rare and very weak. It's very hard."
In their illustrious twenty-five year history, Ilê Aiyê has created dozens of projects that directly and continuously help their community in Liberdade. While constantly emphasizing the theme of preserving and expanding black culture wherever it is found, Vovô told me about their youth band, Mirim, their beauty parlors, the schools they have set up in Liberdade that teach history, music, and dance; the festivals that they sponsor, such as the night of the black beauty, and the National Day of Black Conscience (November 20.) He also gave me several of the educational notebooks they publish about once a year on various themes relating to Africa and Bahia. The Cadernos Educativos that the group publishes are impressive. They usually elaborate on their Carnaval themes or the histories of the leaders of the group such as Vovô or Mãe Hilda (mãe de santo and Vovô's mother), publishing the books around Carnaval time. The titles of several recent editions speak for themselves: Zumbi: 300 Anos, (Zumbi: 300 Years) Ilê Aiyê: 25 Anos de Resistência (Ilê Aiyê: 25 Years of Resistence), A Força das Raizes (The Force of the Roots), Organizações de Resistência Negra(Organizations of Black Resistance). Their 2000 Carnaval theme followed this tradition: Terra do Quilombo.
Ilê Aiyê was and is, of course, heavily criticized by whites in Bahia for this practice of only admitting blacks into their bloco. However, the group uses this policy to point out the absurd hypocrisy of a city whose population is approximately 80% negro-mestizo, yet whose representation in political and social terms would lead one to believe exactly the reverse. Ilê's policy is their commentary on the continuing denial of racism in Brazil, similar to many circles in the U.S.A. where the problem of racism is simply not addressed. What is clear in Bahia is that a definite process of "re-Africanizing" Carnaval was well underway in the 1970s and 80s, and it threatened many people in the city.
While in Bahia, I observed the difficulty that many blocos afros have in obtaining the necessary backing, financial and otherwise, for a successful Carnaval. It was clear in simply viewing the skin color of the various blocos and at what times they were scheduled to desfilar that the festival is indeed a long ways from true egalitarianism. A newspaper article published in A Tarde shortly before Carnaval pointed out the difficulties that even established blocos afros have in securing good representation in Carnaval. If a bloco does not have a "pop" element (such as most of the blocos afros and afoxés) they cannot secure city finances and/or sponsorship for their endeavors, much less obtain parade times before 2 or 3 am. The A Tarde published following Carnaval, perhaps unconsciously gave light to the manner in which the blocos afros have been kept from equal representation in Carnaval. The article reported how one popular bloco, Muzenza, could not even march due to how late they had to wait. Despite all the work that these groups have completed, many people (even Brazilians!) still only know about them due to a cover of one of their songs that someone like Daniela Mercury performs. Meanwhile, dozens of no name, mostly light skinned, blocos trios continue their frantic axé parades through the streets.
Malê Debalê is another one of the oldest and most traditional of the blocos afros in Bahia. They were formed in 1979 in the beachfront bairro of Itapuã. Along with Ilê Aiyê, they remain one of the very few traditional blocos afros with the resources and organization to fully present themselves during Carnaval. Malê's festival theme this year was "Simply Malê" and they were quite simply one the most impressive blocos in the streets. Seeing them for the first time was an experience impossible to forget. The energy and grace with which they presented themselves gave me my first glimpse into the soul of Bahian Carnaval: the intensely percussive driven sound backed by aggressive lyrics based on the Afro-Brazilian experience in Bahia.
While in Salvador, I had the opportunity to interview Cícero Antônio, the musical director of Malê. He was incredibly helpful in explaining to me the history and mission of the group, of which I knew absolutely nothing before arriving in Salvador. Like all my other interviewees, Antônio expressed the continued difficulty that blocos afros have maintaining and expanding their work. Given their awesome display during Carnaval, I hoped for a good look inside their organization. I was not disappointed. All of the following information was taken directly from our interview.
Malê Debalê was formed in 1979 and was based in the candomblé tradition. Their home is the beachfront Itapuã neighborhood. Given their proximity to the ocean, they consistently use water images (such as the goddess Yemanjá) in their songs and dances. The name comes from the African revolt of the Males in Mali, West Africa. Malê means "happiness" in Yoruba, and Debalê carries no significance other than the similarity with balé or baileballet or dance in Portuguese.
Antônio expressed concern over the way the large camarotes and sponsors have started taking up space that used to be reserved for the people in the streets. He also emphasized the difficulty in financing Carnaval that most blocos afros have because it has become so commercialized. Without the aid of large sponsors, the costs of the festival have become nearly unobtainable for many blocos. He commented that, due to their commercial success, Olodum is just about the only bloco afro guaranteed a good spot in Carnaval.
Olodum has become by far the most internationally recognized bloco afro from Bahia. Their groundbreaking work with Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, Herbie Hancock, and Michael Jackson, among others, set the tone for the exportation of the percussion driven Bahian sound so respected in music circles around the globe. The manner in which they almost single-handedly redefined the perception of Afro-Bahians is impressive, to say the least. Due to an immensely successful promotional campaign and non-stop performances in Bahia and around the world, Olodum has become the single most recognizable representative of Salvador to the world. What traveler in Bahia has not seen one of their weekly Tuesday night performances at The African Bar in the Pelourinho? Or their open-to-the-public Sunday evening rehearsals? By combining their own explosion of Afro-Brazilian percussion with the internationally adored reggae of Jamaica, they created the musical genre now called "samba-reggae." Aided by the major restoration of the Pelourinho in the 1980s and 90s (to which they contributed) that brought in thousands of travelers and tourists, this banda do Pelô quickly came to dominate many aspects of Bahia's musical identity.
While in Salvador I had the opportunity to meet with Nelson Mendes, the culture coordinator of the Bloco Afro Olodum. He organizes local, national, and international events and projects for the group. We had a fascinating one-hour discussion on the history and goals of Olodum, as well as the continued difficulty that many blocos afros have in obtaining equal representation in Bahian Carnaval. I left the interview feeling like I had just taken an intensive course in Bahian politics. All of the following information is taken directly from the interview with Mendes. The comments he made speak for themselves, and therefore much of this section will be direct quotes from our lengthy interview.
Olodum, short for Olodumaré in Yoruba (God of Gods,) was founded on April 25, 1979 in the Pelourinho of Salvador. Originally, members were solely from the historic center of Salvador, but today they have participants from all over the city. The first Carnaval they marched in was in 1980, and from that point forward they have grown extensively and rapidly. Olodum are currently one of the largest blocos in Salvador, Afro or otherwise. From the start, the group has been directly and aggressively involved in Bahian politics and the struggle against racism. Their lengthy list of achievements and awards can be found on their incredibly informative webpage (http://www.olodum.com.br).
Originally consisting of only a bloco carnavalesco, Olodum soon created a regular band to perform outside of Carnaval as a way to raise funds for the group's cultural and political activities. When Paul Simon came to Bahia in the late 1980s to record his song "The Obvious Child" for his 1990 multi-platinum selling CD The Rhythm of the Saints, the band Olodum instantly achieved international recognition. They later played a concert with Simon in New York City's Central Park. From that point forward they embarked on tours of the United States, Europe, and Asia making them international pop stars less than a decade after their founding. The late 1980s and early 90s saw Olodum grow into one of the most powerful symbols of Bahia Negra, as well as a legitimate business.
Olodum's Carnaval theme for this year was "From Egypt to Bahia: The Way to Eternity". This was expressed with three separate mini-themes during Carnaval. The first night was the past: Egypt and Africa. Mendes explained their emphasis on the fact that the great inventions of Egypt are African inventions. The second night was the present: Bahia and Brazil. He continued, "For us, Brazil is an African invention." The third night was the future: an unknown that remains to be seen. Mendes used the example of how the entire globe feared a huge computer crash on New Year's Eve, yet nothing occurred. Even in all our modern technology, we cannot predict the future.
The immensity of Olodum's reggae driven, pro-Africa influence can also be seen by simply walking through Salvador observing the people in the streets. Everywhere you visit you will see dreadlocks and African imagery, clearly a result of the Rasta influence brought by reggae music. Performers such as Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Jimmy Cliff are adored as African saints, with Olodum as the visible representative of this tradition.
By uniting the explosive percussion of Brazil with the powerful sound of Bob Marley's Jamaica, the soul of Africa, and a pragmatic business ethic, Olodum has created a cultural force that will not soon fade away.
Carnaval 2000 in Bahia, Brazil was the single most amazing festival of music and dance I have ever witnessed in my life. There simply exists no other event that has its size, intensity, sensuality, and energy. The manner in which the people of Bahia carry their joy tirelessly through the streets for over a week in awe-inspiring. Carnaval is merely the climax of a year round atmosphere that revels in the idea of celebration. I have never seen a people so committed to music, dance, and celebration. I remember vividly hanging out in the Pelourinho the week before Carnaval actually started, walking from live music bar to live music bar during the every night party that occurs there. A young Baiano was in the midst of a frantic samba dance, arms outstretched, screaming, "Carnaval arrives. Carnaval arrives." This energy is truly and absolutely a necessary part of Bahian life. To describe it otherwise is to be unobservant. The festival is nearly impossible to conceptualize until you are in the midst of it. The sight of so many people dancing in the streets for so long is simply absent in our culture. I can never forget the first sight I had of tens of thousands of people flooding the streets following Olodum out of the Pelourinho. It was simply stunning. Only a country so dedicated to the idea of celebration could create such an awesome display annually, while spending the rest of the year in preparation.
Yet behind the loucura there definitely exists, as well, the sobering reality of a five hundred legacy of slavery and racism. It is evident in the degree of segregation still present in Carnaval blocos, in the unbalanced numbers of black and white participants in the blocos, and in the time slots assigned varying blocos. It is evident in the complete lack of equal representation in the government of Bahia and her institutions. It is evident in the "tokenism" still displayed to various well-established and long-standing blocos afros and afoxés. Watching and reading discussions about the Afro-Brazilian blocos in the mainstream media, I sometimes sensed a similarity with the way in which Native American culture is sometimes discussed here in New Mexico _ something viewed from a distance. Clearly Bahia has evolved as a multi-racial society where, at times, degrees of harmony and equality are quite visible and quite impressive. I often got the impression that skin color was the last thing on people minds. Countries such as the USA so divided and isolated by a neurotic concept of race could do well to learn from this degree of racial mixing. But these moments of unity are, unfortunately, overshadowed by persistent discrimination and fear displayed by segments of the Bahian upper class. By all accounts that I received and from what I observed, Bahia is far ahead of many parts of the world but still has a lot of work left in realizing the goal of democracia racial that many persons, Brazilian and foreign, so loudly proclaim.
Yet what remains clear is that Carnaval is the greatest moment of individual and group expressions of joy that exist in Bahia. The week proceeding the forty days of Lent is unlike any other popular festival in the world in terms of size and energy. I found it exceedingly difficult to capture this energy using the medium of pen and paper. There is an exhilaration in the air and in the faces of the people that can only be understood by direct contact. The city brims with an electricity that is next to impossible to adequately describe. Persistent separation and inequality aside, Carnaval provides perhaps the most unifying force that the povo of Bahia have at their disposal. Everything, but everything is dropped for a week when the foliões hit the streets. Pragmatically speaking, the employment and income provided by Carnaval sustain the city. Emotionally speaking, Carnaval provides the people of Bahia with something perhaps greater: self-confidence, self-identity, self-expressionthe irreplaceable value of which can be easily understood by more than just artists and travelers such as the author.
Jeff Duneman is finishing his Masters in Latin American Studies at the University of New Mexico. He is a musician (drummer) and full-time music fanatic. 28 years old, hailing from the Midwest, temporarily transplanted to New Mexico, he has lived and traveled extensively in Mexico as well as visiting other parts of Spanish Latin America. Currently beginning what is sure to be a long-term romance with Brazil. You can reach the author at email@example.com
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One month spent listening to music in Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. February, 2000 - March, 2000.
"This was made possible in part by a University of New Mexico Research, Projects, and Travel (RPT) grant."