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Exploring Afro-Brazilian Culture in Northeastern Brazil

Exploring Afro-Brazilian Culture in Northeastern Brazil - The Maracatu
Maracatu is a theatrical dance popular during carnival in Recife.

Northeastern Brazil prides itself on its unique cultural heritage, especially its Afro-Brazilian traditions. Brazil’s African heritage goes back to colonial times, when the Portuguese—who were the first Europeans to settle in Brazil—brought several million African slaves to Brazil to work on plantations. Despite repression and restrictions, Brazil’s slaves succeeded in preserving much of their African cultural traditions, many of which are still practiced today. Visiting Northeastern Brazil is a feast for the senses. Streets are filled with the smell of spicy dishes sold by women dressed in colorful costumes. You can hear fast percussion rhythms coming from rehearsal halls or performed by street musicians, and can you watch captivating street performances of the Brazilian martial arts.

Salvador's Pelorinho district in Brazil
Salvador's Pelorinho district is a popular gathering spot at night.

The Northeastern state of Bahia has the highest percentage of Brazilians of African descent. No matter where you go you will find lively expressions of cultural traditions of African origin. The state’s capital Salvador is Brazil’s center of Afro-Brazilian culture, and there are cultural events, parades, exhibits, concerts, and performances all year-round. Salvador is a great destination to get a taste of Brazil’s rich African heritage during a short visit, but because of its popularity with Brazilian and international tourists, Salvador’s display of Afro-Brazilian culture has lost some of its authenticity and has become widely commercialized. To go beyond the cultural events put on for tourists in the city’s historic Pelorinho district, it is a good idea to get away from Salvador and visit some of the smaller surrounding towns. If you have more time, you should also consider visiting other states in the Northeast with a strong Afro-Brazilian influence such as Pernambuco (with its capital Recife) and Sergipe.

A Potpourri of Cultural Traditions

African cultural influences infuse every aspect of public and private life in northeastern Brazil. From religious worship to music, dance, food, and language, Brazilians of African descent have left an indelible and lasting imprint on regional culture.

Candomblé

Candomblé is faith-based on the West African traditions of the Bantu and Yoruba people. Followers of Candomblé believe in the Supreme Being Olorum, the creator of the cosmos, and spirits known as orixás (pronounced: Oh-ri-SHAHS). Candomblé is widespread among the black population of Brazil’s Northeast, mainly in the states of Bahia, Sergipe, and Pernambuco. The Candomblé ceremony is a complex feast involving sacred dishes, dances, drumming, and sacrificial ceremonies. The objective of candomblé rituals is to establish contact with the orixás, who can help in case of illness and other needs. The spirits enter the bodies of the believers, who then fall into a trance. The ceremonies are held at terreiros, as the Candomblé places of worship are known. Many candomblé congregations admit visitors, but in Salvador many ceremonies are just put on for paying visitors. You will have a more authentic experience of Candomblé in smaller towns near Salvador around the large Bay of All Saints, a region known as the Recôncavo. The town of Cachoeira is a regional center of Candomblé with many popular festivals, but there is also a strong presence of Afro-Brazilian culture in the towns of Santo Amaro and São Félix.

Capoeira

Capoeira is a Brazilian martial art form that was developed by run-away slaves to defend themselves against the mercenaries sent out to capture them. Capoeira in its contemporary form is a stylized dance/fight performed by a group of fighters (capoeiristas), who form a large circle together with the audience. The musical element of Capoeira consists of instruments of African origin, such as the berimbau (a 1-stringed instrument made from a gourd) and several percussion instruments. The capoeiristas move to the rhythm of the music in a characteristic step and execute a series of complex acrobatic movements such as somersaults, cartwheels, and handstands. During the simulated fight the opponents never touch each other, but attempt to outdo each other by means of speed and acrobatic skills. After a few minutes of simulated fighting a new pair of dancers enters the circle and continues the skill demonstration. Capoeira is performed in public by capoeira schools all over Northeastern Brazil.

Capoeira in Brazil
Capoeira is a fight dance first developed by escaped slaves as a form of self-defense.

Carnival

Although Brazil’s carnival is a Catholic tradition, Afro-Brazilian carnival groups, known as Afro-blocos, play an important role all over Northeastern Brazil, especially in Salvador. Among the most traditional groups in Salvador are Ilê Aiyê , Ara Ketu, and Olodum, which are known for their colorful costumes and fast percussion beat. The parades of Afoxés (carnival groups associated with Candomblé) also form an integral part of the carnival in Salvador. They parade through the streets and sing in African languages to a fast percussion beat. Among the oldest and best known Afoxés is Filhos de Ghandy (The Sons of Ghandi), whose members wear blue and white costumes and white turbans.

Music and Dance

The fore-mentioned Afro-blocos such as Ilê Aiyê, Ara Ketu, and Olodum, and Afoxés such as Filhos de Ghandy, have played an important role in preserving and expanding Afro-Brazilian musical traditions. Olodum is best known for fusing Afro-Brazilian rhythms with musical styles from the Caribbean, a musical style known as “Samba Reggae.” Olodum has also gained international fame, ever since they participated in recordings by Paul Simon in 1990 and Michael Jackson in 1995. On the other hand, Afoxés such as Filhos de Ghandy remain largely faithful to “ijexá,” the traditional rhythm and music of Candomblé ceremonies. When visiting Northeastern Brazil you can expect to hear traditional Afro-Brazilian rhythms as well as new experimental music combining various musical traditions from Brazil and elsewhere.

Many of Brazil’s popular musicians and song writers, such as Dorival Caymmi, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Maria Bethânia, Daniela Mercury, and Carlinhos Brown, are from the Northeast, and their music often includes musical and rhythmic elements of the region’s rich African heritage. Many of Brazil’s most popular songs of the past century also pay tribute to Brazil’s African heritage. There are songs about popular dishes of African origin, colorfully dressed women from the state of Bahia, the struggle of black Brazilians for equality, influential personalities of Afro-Brazilian descent, as well as ballads and tributes to the many orixás (spirits), ceremonies, and festivals of the candomblé religion.

Dances are a very popular folkloric tradition in Northeastern Brazil, and there are dozens of different folk dances that are performed by cultural organizations during carnival and other festivals. Among the most popular dances are the coco, a fast-faced that imitates the movement of opening a coconut, and the lundu, a circle dance of African origin. The best way to watch a performance of these Northeastern folk dances is to attend a rehearsal or performance of the Balé Folclorico da Bahia, a professional folk dance group in Salvador.

The state of Pernambuco, especially the city of Recife, has its own unique dances of African origin, most notably the Frevo, a fast-paced dance derived from capoeira steps. Another popular tradition in Pernambuco is Maracatu, a theatrical dance performance especially popular during carnival. The dance is performed by organized groups called Nações de Maracatu, or Maracatu Nations, which mainly consist of Afro-Brazilian members. The performance centers on the character of the “King of Congo,” who parades through the streets in colorful costumes together with his queen and the court, while dancing to a fast percussion rhythm.

Afro-Brazilian cultural organization in Salvador performing

Olodum is a popular Afro-Brazilian cultural organization in Salvador that regularly performs in public.

Food

Northeastern Brazil has a rich culinary tradition of African origins. No matter where you travel you will find food stalls on the streets offering a variety of local favorites. Food safety can be a concern when eating on the street, and it’s best to eat at a food stall with a high turnover to make sure that the food is fresh. There are also many restaurants that serve typical regional dishes, and if you don’t feel like eating on the street, find a nice local restaurant that specializes in regional cuisine.

One of the main ingredients of local dishes of African origin is dendê oil, a strong orange-colored oil, made from the fruit of a palm tree brought to Brazil by African slaves. Among the best-known dishes is Vatapá, a purée made from dried shrimp, ground peanuts, cashews, coconut milk, and dendê oil. Moqueca is a seasoned stew with coconut milk and dendê oil. It is prepared with fish, shrimp, or other seafood. Ximxim de galinha is a casserole with chicken pieces cooked in a sauce of ground peanuts, cashew, ginger, dendê oil and dried shrimp. It is usually served with farofa (roasted manioc meal). Bobó de camarão is a purée of dried shrimp, coconut milk, manioc meal, dendê oil, and seasonings mixed with fresh shrimp. Acarajé  is a popular appetizer sold at food stalls all over the state of Bahia. It is a round ball of bean batter that is deep-fried in dendê oil and filled with Vatapá purée, hot sauce, and dried shrimp.

Handicrafts

No matter where you travel in Northeastern Brazil, there are markets, shops, and cultural centers selling traditional handicrafts. You will find woodcarvings of saints and Candomblé spirits, ceramics, basketry, hammocks, and a wide variety of amulets, adornments, and accessories used by followers of Candomblé. One of the most ubiquitous items is the figa, a good luck charm carved from wood in the shape of a clenched fist. If you’d like to find out about typical Afro-Brazilian handicrafts before going shopping, you should visit the Museu Afrobrasileiro—the Afro-Brazilian Museum in Salvador—which displays a wide variety of typical local handicrafts. Salvador’s historic Pelorinho district has a lot of shops that sell local handicrafts, and so do local markets such as the large two-story Mercado Modelo by the waterfront in the lower city. But if you would like to support local artisans as opposed to merchants, you should visit the Visconde de Mauá Handicraft Institute (Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Mauá), a government-funded organization that trains and promotes local artisans and also sells their work.

When to Go

December through March (the Brazilian summer) is the most popular time for Brazilians to travel, especially during the two weeks leading up to Carnival. During this period the largest and most lavish parades and festivals take place, while prices are high and hotels are booked. If you would like to experience carnival activities, parades, and concerts without the large crowds and high prices, you might want to consider traveling around the Northeast starting a month before carnival, when the “pre-carnival” celebration takes place. In Salvador you can experience Afro-Brazilian culture with lively street festivals and performances year-round. Starting around June, Afroblocos and Afoxés in Salvador begin their rehearsals for next year’s carnival celebration. Ask at the local tourist office to find out what rehearsals are open to the public.

Festivals

Many popular festivals in Brazil are associated with the deities of Candomblé. Among the most popular celebrations of Candomblé is the Festa de Iemanjá, or the “festival of Iemanjá,” dedicated to the goddess of the sea. The festival is celebrated in Salvador and elsewhere on February 2, accompanied by processions, such as music and dancing.

The Lavagem do Bonfim, or the “washing of Bonfim,”  is the most popular Candomblé festival in Salvador, and takes place on the second Thursday in January. It is a long procession through the city, accompanied by food, music, and dance. The celebration ends with the symbolical washing of the steps in front of the church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Our Lord of the Happy Ending).

Useful Addresses and Resources in Northeastern Brazil

Balé Folclórico da Bahia

Brazil’s only professional folk dance company focuses on folk dances—mostly of Afro-Brazilian origin. Their weekly rehearsals in Salvador’s Pelorinho district are open to the public.

Teatro Miguel Santana, Rua Gregório de Matos 49, Pelourinho, Salvador; www.balefolcloricodabahia.com.br.

Museu Afro-Brasileiro (Afro-Brazilian Museum) in Salvador presents exhibits of Afro-Brazilian artifacts, from pottery and woodcarvings to Candomblé costumes. Make sure you take a look at the carved wooden reliefs by Argentinean expatriate artist Carybé, which depict the orixás (spirits) of the Candomblé religion. Terreiro de Jesus, Pelourinho, Salvador; www.mafro.ceao.ufba.br

Instituto de Artesanato Visconde de Mauá is a government-funded organization that trains and promotes local artisans. Rua Gregorio de Matos 27, Pelourinho, Salvador.

To find out about musical performances by Afoxés and Afro-Blocos and other Afro-Brazilian cultural activities in Salvador and the state of Bahia, check out these websites:

Salvador Tourism Office, www.saltur.salvador.ba.gov.br

Bahia-Online, www.bahia-online.net       

Candomblé Temples (terreiros)

To find out where visitors are welcome, check out Bahia-Online’s directory of Salvador’s main terreiros at www.bahia-online.net/Candomble.htm. You can also contact the National Federation of Afro-Brazilian Cults (Federação Nacional de Culto Afro Brasileiro), Rua Alfredo de Brito 39, Pelourinho district, or ask at the Afro-Brazilian museum (see above).

If you visit a terreiro outside the city center, it is best to take a taxi. Many terreiros are located in poor neighborhoods and are often difficult to find. There are also guides who take tourists to Candomblé ceremonies for a fee, but many of these ceremonies are performed for tourists and lack authenticity. Visitors at authentic ceremonies are not charged a fee, but may be asked to make a donation. If you visit a Candomblé ceremony, make sure you wear decent clothing and do not wear black colors. You are not allowed to take pictures or film during the ceremony.


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