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AFRICAN HERITAGE IN BAHIA

The state of Bahia and its capital, Salvador, are very important centers of study of the immense African Diaspora to the New World. For over 350 years the negreiros (slave ships) brought their human cargo from Africa to work in the plantations and mines of Brazil. They came from Guinea, Angola, the Congo and finally from Yorubá speaking West Africa.
          
The main port of departure for this latter cycle was Ouidah in the People's Republic of Benin (ex-Dahomey). The ships left laden for the treacherous Atlantic crossing to Bahia, and for those who survived, the grueling work of the mines and plantations that stoked the Portuguese economy. A bi-lateral trading in slaves arose due to the very high value placed on a third grade tobacco, prohibited for sale in Europe, but much sought after by those dealing in slaves in West Africa. Slaves from West Africa were traded for tobacco and aguardente (sugar-cane rum) from Bahia. It is mainly for this reason that such a strong Yorubá influence is so evident in Bahia. In no other part of Brazil is this influence so strongly felt. Although other influences are found, (Bantu's from Angola, Gêges from Benin, and so on), the over-riding influence is that of the Nagô's from Nigeria.
         
In Bahia, Africa abounds. Salvador is the most African of the Brazilian cities with up to 80% of its population of over 2 million people having African origins. The local cuisine, music and dance forms and its extremely vibrant visual arts traditions are all testament to this permeating African influence.
          
A stroll though the historical Pelourinho section of Salvador bears this out. Baiana's, local women dressed in traditional costumes sell a wide variety of food on street corners from their tray full of Bahia's delicacies. The acarajé or bean dumpling fried in the dendê (palm oil) is also to be found on the West Africa by the name acará. On the sidewalks and in the ateliers artists can be seen working on their canvases in bright bold colors similar to Haitian art. Somebody plays the berimbau, a bowed instrument that forms the rhythm for the mesmerizing capoeira dance/martial art, somebody else is practicing intricate percussion exercises. The omnipresent radio plays the latest in Bahian music fused with African polyrhythms. The buildings may be European but the rest is Africa.
          
Once the center of the slave trade, today the Pelourinho is the nucleus of the Black Movement in Bahia with different organizations working in cultural and social areas. 
         
The most deeply felt African influence is the Candomblé, the worshipping of the ancestral spirits or orixá's. The orixá's can be thought of as an enlarged family with a common background that encapsulates the living and the dead. The orixá is a deified ancestor who, when alive, established links which guaranteed him or her control over certain natural forces, e.g. thunder, the winds or the sea; or which allowed him or her the possibility to exercise certain activities such as hunting or working with metals; or somebody who learnt the properties of plants and how to use these properties. This power (or AXÉ, pronounced ah-shay) of the ancestral orixá would have, after death, the power to incarnate itself in one of his or her descendants through the sacred rhythms, dances and songs of the Candomblé.
          
A popular greeting in Bahia is Axé!, a kind of "may the force be with you!" and this Axé is the driving force of Salvador and Bahia. Originally the slave masters permitted the practice of the Candomblé. The masters thought that the dances and songs of the Candomblé were nothing more than entertainment, nostalgia almost, as the slaves remembered their ancestors. They were allowed to gather in batuques playing the drums and the sacred songs of the orixá's. When the slave masters began to distrust these gatherings as possible means of organizing revolts they began to prohibit these meetings. The slaves, who often accompanied the masters to church, would choose different Catholic saints to represent the deities from Africa. It was at this point that the phenomenon of syncretism appeared in Brazil.
         
There were always tangible connections between the saints chosen and the orixá represented. In Bahia, Saint George, who slew the dragon, was adopted to represent Oxossi, the orixá of the forest and the hunt. Saint Anthony, who was given an honorary rank in the Portuguese army, was chosen to represent Ogum, the orixá of iron and anybody who used this metal as part of their work, and so on through the pantheon.
         
One of the oldest examples of this phenomenon of syncretism is the Sisterhood of the Boa Morte (Good Death) in Cachoeira, 120 km's. from Salvador. This is a society of women which had it's beginnings in the senzalas (slaves quarters) where slaves would gather to discuss the news about abolition and pray for the slaves killed in the liberation movement. Once freed, ex-slaves would often form religious associations, sisterhoods and brotherhoods, often using the Catholic church as a vehicle but these associations were really cultural centers whose aims were to free other slaves from captivity and to preserve the traditions handed down verbally from generation to generation. This was the case of the Sisterhood of the Boa Morte. Their aim was to help newly freed slaves to survive in a world where there was no longer a master with his whips and chains.
         
Reminiscent of secret female societies in Africa, the Sisterhood of the Boa Morte worship the iyá's, the female spirits of the dead. A "good death" (or Boa Morte ) was seen as being a proper passage from the material to the spiritual world, no longer a slave. The Boa Morte festival takes place in Cachoeira every August and is deeply syncretised with the Feast of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. It is perhaps the most important festival in the African Heritage calendar in Bahia and is a living document of African culture and Diaspora to the New World.
         
Carnival in Bahia is a joyous explosion of African music, rhythm and dance. Being a port, Salvador was always a great melting pot of musical traditions receiving influences from Africa and the Caribbean and this blend of musical influences is most clearly heard at Carnival time, the great showcase of Bahian music. For many years the Blocos Afros (drum based carnival groups) were seen as the poor cousins of the more powerful trios elétricos (sophisticated, mobile sound trucks on top of which live bands play using the latest in sound equipment). These trios elétricos originally played a frantic electric frevo rhythm on special short fretted guitars but in recent years the trios have been drawing more and more on the African influenced rhythms of the bloco afros which has lead to a new musical term called "Axé Music".
         
The first of the Afro blocos were "Os Filhos de Ghandy (the Sons of Ghandi) who first participated in the carnival of 1949. These were dock workers were on strike during the carnival of that year who decided to join in the festivities, choosing Mahatma Ghandi as their inspiration. From humble beginnings, "Os Filhos de Ghandi" are nowadays the highlight of carnival processions as they parade in their distinctive white and blue costumes with as many as 5500 members passing through the streets of Salvador to the shuffling sound of the infectious ijexá rhythm, a river of blue, white and black in the ocean of brightly dressed carnival revelers.
         
Ilê Aiyê, (the House of Life), from the Liberdade/Curuzu district, is one of the most traditional Afro Blocos in Salvador and was one of the first of the modern drumming troupes. Their parade is another highlight of carnival as they dance through the city streets in their flowing costumes of African patterns in red, white, yellow and black singing songs with a strong political and social content.
         
The most famous internationally is "Olodum" (an abbreviation of Olodumaré, the orixá who controls the sky and the earth). Olodum are based in the Pelourinho, the heart of Salvador, and have traveled extensively in Europe and the US. The term given to their style of music is samba reggae, and their famous rehearsals on Tuesday evenings in the Pelourinho area draw large crowds.
         
All of these groups are much more than just carnival groups. They work in their respective communities promoting work on African heritage, discussion groups on social issues and promote other cultural activities celebrating their African origins.

Candomble - A Religious Syncretism In Brazil

In Bahia, the former capital of Brazil, the descendants of the inhabitants of South-West Nigeria have continued to worship their ancestral gods or Orixa to this very day, in spite of...

Capoeira - Dance or Fight?

Capoeira is a dance of rare physical beauty. It is also violent and very fast, a delicate and astute fight - the highest choreographic expression of a suffering race.

Cuisine - Food For The Body And For The Spirit

Hardly, if ever, you can find a kind of people who enjoys cooking and eating as much as people from Bahia. Eating, in Bahia, is not merely a matter...

Parties in Bahia

It is affectionately said that "when Bahians are not actually participating in a festival they are rehearsing for one." And in a way it's true. The people of Bahia, a fusion of...

AFRICAN HERITAGE IN BAHIA

The state of Bahia and its capital, Salvador, are very important centers of study of the immense African Diaspora to the New World. For over 350 years the negreiros (slave ships) brought their human...

The Axé Project

One of the most successful child welfare and education programmes for street children, the Axé Project, constantly visited by international authorities and persons carrying out studies,...

HANDICRAFT: BAHIAN FOLK ART

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Itapuã Golf Club

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This interestingly built...