It’s been more than twenty years since I stumbled into my first encounter with Brazilian dance. It was 1992 or 1993 in Santa Cruz, California and spontaneously I attended a performance of Brazilian dance at Louden Nelson Center. Immediately I knew it was something I was interested in. I still remember seeing Conceição Damaseco dance samba beautifully in a white outfit that evening. A native of Rio de Janeiro now based in the Bay Area, she still maintains a Brazilian Cultural Center, called BrasArte–a place for dance and Capoeira studies in Berkeley, California. J’ann also performed that night, who would also become my one of my dance teachers for the next several years.
I finally got to see the dance I studied during those days in California (and later with Vamola, a dance troupe in Seattle, WA) performed in its native land in Salvador, Bahia for the first time at Carnival this past month.
It was like it all made sense.
Carnival in Salvador is many things–and in fact it is on the dangerous side. How Carnival works and how to be safe in Salvador deserves a whole other post so this one is really about my relationship with the music and dance. It’s about getting to see Samba Reggae played in the streets of the Pelerinho, the historical center of Salvador and home of dance and Capoeira classes, important Afoxé groups like Filhos de Ghandy, and famous blocos (carnival group) like Olodum whom have done much for the black people of Salvador and the representation of Afro-Brazilian culture.
Afoxé comes from Candomble, the Afro-Brazilian religion of Brazil. To my visitor eyes, being part of a Afoxé bloco seemed very much about a sense of pride and of belonging. Particularly with Ilê Aye, a well established Afro-bloco from Salvador, I noticed such a beautiful joy in their movement during the parades on the streets of the Salvador. You can get an idea from this short clip here.
One of my favorite moments of Carnival was seeing Filhos de Ghandy come down the hill from the Pelerinho towards the conflux of two major Carnival streets (Video of that here).
Flihos de Ghandy is a brotherhood of men who gather and parade for Carnival. Flihos means boys in Portuguese and were inspired by the peace efforts of Ghandi when they formed in 1948. They adorn themselves with colors dedicated to the Orixa: white and blue, head wraps and beads. You look to the hill and all you see is a maze of those colors, several large trucks (trio electricos) holding the band on top of the truck and other members making blessings to the crowd with corn, fresh fruit and beads. This is not Mardi Gras and women need not reveal themselves for beads, it is sweet should you be blessed by Filhos de Ghandy. They also carry spray bottles of scented water to spritz you, this is Candomble and act of spirit.
It was still Carnival however and beer was everywhere. Vendors line every inch of parade routes and come through the crowds to keep everyone set with a beer at every moment. While all this blessing was happening–many of Filhos de Ghandy were getting drunk.
When I was studying Brazilian dance in the 90’s, we did a student recital/show and a section of it was Afoxé. As I watched Filhos de Ghandy and heard the Agogô (percussion instrument)–the performance came back to me–how we dressed in white like Baianas, (women in Bahia who wear colonial outfits, long white skirts and practice Candomble) how we carried flashlights inside of milk gallons since candles weren’t allowed in the theater and the choreography learned. Arms up and crossing over head and then all-the-way extended while we simultaneously moved across the floor, crossing in front of the other dancers. The next steps were the movements of Iemanjá, the Orixá of ocean who then represented by a dancer, came on stage and moved over our kneeling bodies.
A friend of my Airbnb host in Salvador was a member of Flihos de Gandy and was getting ready for the parade at the home I was staying in. I couldn’t explain to them depth of which I was familiar with Afoxé. For one I couldn’t speak the language. Even though I studied Portuguese before I left, while I was in Brazil I was continually at a loss for words. In retrospect I may have held back. I could have busted out my moves, as dance has no language barrier. I am deeply respectful of other people’s culture and religion and I felt funny saying I know Afoxé–having never been to Brazil before or not being of Afro-Brazilian descent.
With all the countless hours of Samba dance classes and performing with Vamola, never have I heard Samba Reggae played so strong as I did in the Pelerinho. It wasn’t the most famous or largest Samba Reggae group like Olodum, but every beat was on point.
Other drumming blocos combed the streets of Pelerinho throughout the weekend and preceding days. You could follow them for a time, stop for a beer, food and then pick them up again. The mood in the Pelerinho was busy but calm compared to the madness of following bands in the parades. Stages were set up to enjoy different performances and I saw a number of great ones including a waltzy Samba where I kept thinking the drummer looked like one of Salvador’s most famous rocker Carlinhos Brown ( but it wasn’t) and an incredible stage show where the music reminded me of Fado, music from the Cape Verde islands (probably the Portuguese Africa connection).
Walking around the Pelerinho I was delighted by the colors of dancers and drummers playing a rather fast samba. I tried to keep up but it was an effort to dance on a cobblestone hill street that was uneven. I realized it was likely Frevo–a fast dance that comes from places further North in Brazil then Salvador but not too far away that it might be enjoyed at Carnival there.
When I was in the Santa Cruz Brazilian dance show, Frevo was performed by a young, petite blonde who could dance fast and jump high. I saw her take some guarana, a Brazilian seed that contains caffeine before the show to help her dance. Since at the time I was working at a herb store that sold guarana capsules it didn’t seem that strange to me and just added to my knowledge. I tried several guarana beverages while I was in Brazil. They make guarana soda but it is unlikely that the soda contains very much real guarana. A Brazilian tour guide told me if they want energy from it, they take the powder which is what the Frevo dancer was taking that night.
You don’t need guarana to enjoy Carnival in Salvador but you do need to be safe and be ready for lots and lots of people, which more details are forthcoming. If you love Brazilian music then you should go and if you are acquainted with it like I am, then definitely!