THE BRAZILIAN BEAT
by Alexandra de Vries
In the heart of Salvador’s historic district, rounding the corner of the Largo do Pelourinho, I come face-to-face with a group of 40 young Afro-Brazilians pounding their drums. The sound — powerful and melodious — hits my body like a shock wave. I feel the beat resonating deep inside my chest.
As I look more closely, I am astonished by the sheer variety of percussion instruments: the large barrel-shaped surdu drum that provides the deep bass beat; smaller aluminum repenique drums that give the calls and lead the other drums into new patterns; the even smaller snare-drum caixas that play the intricate contra rhythms; and the tiny handheld tamborim with its high-pitched, staccato beat. While skillfully pounding their instruments, the drummers move in playfully choreographed patterns within the larger group, forming a blur of color on the steps of the Jorge Amado museum.
Mesmerized, I watch and listen to the music for over an hour. A Brazilian friend of mine once told me that drums are revered because they are the only instrument that mimics the beating of our hearts. For the first time I understand what she meant.
Capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, Salvador is one of the country’s most popular destinations. The city draws visitors because of its laid-back atmosphere, year-round sunshine, gorgeous beaches, exotic cuisine, and the vibrant music and cultural scene that culminates in Carnaval, the biggest street party of the year.
Founded by the Portuguese in 1549, Salvador served as Brazil’s capital for over 200 years. The city’s glory days came in the 17th and 18th centuries when the local merchants, made rich off the trade in sugar and tobacco, showed off their wealth by building pastel-painted mansions and baroque, gold-plastered churches. However, what makes Salvador unique is the infusion of African culture, flavors and traditions.
Over 80% of Salvador’s population is of African descent, a result of the slave trade during the 300-plus years of Portuguese colonization. In the 1600s, the Portuguese realized that the area around Salvador had the perfect climate for growing sugar cane. To make the harvesting of the labor-intensive crop economically viable, the Portuguese brought over large numbers of slaves from the west coast of Africa. As the slaves and their descendants started to make the new country their home, traditions and culture from the old continent began to form a part of day-to-day life.
The historic neighborhood of Pelourinho makes a great starting point for exploring Salvador’s Afro-Brazilian roots. Situated on a 200-foot-high bluff overlooking the harbor and lower city, Pelô — as the locals call it — offers some of the finest examples of Portuguese colonial architecture in Brazil. Now a Unesco World Heritage site, the district boasts over 800 colonial buildings and close to 20 churches that have been beautifully restored in the last two decades. The neighborhood showcases Afro-Brazilian culture in its art galleries, restaurants, theaters, music venues, museums, and vibrant street scene.
Walking through the 17th-century, Jesuit-built Catedral Basilica in the Terreiro de Jesus square, I spot two Baianas, local black women dressed in the traditional Baiana layered white-lace dresses, colorful beads draped around their necks. They have set up a small food stall and are frying up batches of acarajé, Salvador’s signature snack. The savory bun is made from mashed bean dough fried in red dendê palm oil and stuffed with a spicy shrimp mixture and sautéed okra, and then topped with chopped onions, tomatoes and hot sauce. They tell me that the acarajé is more than just a zesty treat; it is an offering to the gods — the Orixás — that so many Afro-Brazilian descendants still worship.
The women suggest that I visit the Afro-Brazilian museum to learn more about the Orixás and the Candomblé religion. Located inside the former University of Medicine building, the museum’s small collection tells a fascinating story through photos, maps and artifacts. In the first exhibit, a large map portrays the slave routes. Over 9 million slaves were taken to Brazil during the slave trade. Most who came to Salvador were taken from the Gulf of Benin, which includes modern Nigeria. They brought with them their own religious practices, including a belief in a pantheon of deities called Orixás, male and female, each with a distinct personality.
When the slaves arrived in Brazil, the Portuguese forced them to convert to Catholicism. However, as the Africans learned about the Holy Trinity and the Saints, they noticed similarities with their own gods. They continued to worship their gods under a catholic disguise. Sea goddess Yemanjá is often compared to the Virgin Mary, and Oxalá, one of the major deities, to Jesus. In the back of the museum I linger to take in the 27 larger-than-life wood-carvings of the Orixás by artist Caribé. An admirer of the Afro-Brazilian traditions, Caribé sculpted each of the 8-foot-tall panels out of a solid piece of cedar, carving realistic, almost human-like drawings of each Orixá of the Bahian Candomblé.
Oppressed and forbidden until as recently as the 1970s, the Candomblé religion survived and is now once again openly and widely practiced. Because the slaves were not allowed inside the Portuguese churches, they were forced to practice their religion outside. Even today, Candomblé ceremonies take place in an outdoor area called a terreiro.
Brazil Nuts organizes visits to authentic Candomblé ceremonies. Lead by a head priestess (mãe de san-to), the ceremony can take up to four hours. The terreiro is filled with food and music to please the Orixás and to evoke their spirits. The highlight of the evening comes when a worshipper goes into a trance to receive an Orixá and serves as a link between breasts, arms, legs and even heads — replicas left behind by devotees in thanks for a cure or blessing. Syncretism at its best, this Catholic church is dedicated to Jesus and Oxalá, the supreme ruler in the Candomblé tradition. In honor of Oxalá, every year in January Baianas perform ritual washings of the church steps.
After enjoying traditions and culture in historic Salvador, I decide to pursue more secular pleasures and join other sun worshippers on the beaches outside of the city. A three-hour catamaran ride takes me south of Salvador to Morro de São Paulo, located on Tinharé Island. Morro offers the perfect beach vacation with a variety of activities such as boat rides, snorkeling, scuba diving, horseback riding or hikes through the forest and the groves of palm trees.
My first glimpse of the town is the lighthouse at the top of the hill means hill in Portuguese) and just below that, the ruins of an 18th-century fort that once guarded the entrance to the channel.
I was told that Morro is a small laidback island community with no roads or cars. To my surprise, as I get off the ferry, I am almost mobbed by young teens offering me a taxi. Only when I reach the dock do I realize that their “taxis” are wheelbarrows. I close a deal with Pedro, who loads my luggage and takes off. Even though he’s barefoot and pushing my luggage, I find it hard to keep up with him on the sand-covered streets. Or maybe I am just dawdling as I check out the village’s main street with small outdoor restaurants and shops selling local crafts and summery beach fashion.
Luckily it’s all downhill to the beaches where most of the pousadas (bed and breakfasts) are located. Simplicity rules; the first beach is called Primeira Praia, which means “first beach” in Portuguese; “second beach” is Segunda Praia; and so forth. Segunda Praia rules as the party strand with bars, kiosks and nightly entertainment in discos and clubs. Though only a ten-minute walk, Terceira Praia remains quiet and peaceful; and from the fourth beach on, the island extends almost deserted, except for an occasional pousada and groves of palm trees.
Although Morro is calm and peaceful, locals kept telling me that if I wanted to experience a true idyllic island, I should head further south to Boipeba. It is possible to pay a short visit to Boipeba on a day tour from Morro, but the island is at its best when the day-trippers leave and you have the place to yourself.
A two-hour boat ride down the Inferno river, past small villages and mangroves, brings me to the narrow channel that separates the Tinharé island from Boipeba. Landing here at low tide is quite the feat because huge sandbanks block the entrance of the channel. Boipeba’s main village, Velha Boipeba, sits at the entrance of the channel where the river meets the sea. More rustic than Morro de São Paulo, the village holds no souvenir shops nor international restaurants; one of the social highlights is the Sunday soccer match. Most residents live off the sea and harvest coconuts and fruit.
The best places to stay are at Boca da Barra beach, only a few minutes from the village. Surprisingly high-end, the pousadas offer quality accommodations and wonderful food. An excellent destination for nature lovers, Boipeba offers a variety of ecosystems including beaches, dunes, mangroves, Atlantic rainforest, and coconut plantations, all of which allow for some interesting walks and bird-watching. However, I discovered that Boipeba is particularly suited for non-activities — a stroll along the beach, a fabulous seafood moqueca dinner, a swim in the river, or poking around in the tidepools.
After two days, Morro seemed big and busy in comparison. And Salvador? Salvador seemed even more distant as I watched the sun sink behind the palm trees, casting a red glow against the clear sky. But I knew it was only a heartbeat away.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Brazil Nuts (Tel: 800-553-9959; Website: www.brazilnuts.com) offers a variety of package tours to Salvador, Morro, Boipeba and the rest of Brazil. Leaders in African heritage tours, Brazil Nuts has put together several African Roots packages. Staff can customize itineraries and activities for individual travelers.
Salvador, Bahia — Travel Tips
• Since most of Brazil lies in the southern hemisphere, the seasons are reversed. High season coincides with summer and runs from mid-December until the week after Carnaval, which varies from mid-February to early March. This is a fun time to travel, as the weather is hot and sunny, and many events and festivities take place. The downside is that prices go up (for New Year’s and Carnaval they go way up) and advance reservations are required.
• A great time to visit Brazil is in the low season: March through June and September through November. The latter period is great for people interested in taking part in some of the Carnaval preparations such as rehearsals without paying Carnaval prices.
• Travelers should bring comfortable shoes. The uneven and hilly cobblestone streets of Pelourinho were not built for heels. Light and comfortable clothes are recommended.
• Travelers who want their visit to coincide with one of the festivals in the city should keep the following dates in mind: Carnaval 2006 (February 25–28); Washing of the Steps of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (third week of January); Dedication to Yemanjá, Goddess of the Sea (February 2).