Existiu um El Dorado Negro no Brasil
Existiu como clarão que o sol da liberdade produziu
Refletiu a luz da divinidade do fogo santo de Olorum
Revivieu a utopia um por todos, e todos por um.
Once there was a Black El Dorado in Brazil
There it was like a shaft of sunlight that liberty released
It was there, reflecting the divine light from the holy fire of Olorum
And there it revived, the utopia of one for all and all for one.
Lyrics from“Quilombo, O El Dorado Negro” by Gilberto Gil/Waly Salomão
The Candomlé ceremony has just begun and aleady the worshippers are twitching and moaning, channelling their West African gods, the orixás. Barefoot, dressed head-to-toe in white, they shuffle through a deep carpet of broad green leaves toward the mãe de santo, a white-turbaned Candomblé priestess seated on a plastic chair at the back of the whitewashed room, where she watches as, one by one, the dancers fall into a trance. A stocky man with a close-cropped beard clutches his waist as if gored by a spear and hollers, “Arrrgghh!”
When the drumming stops, he growls and snores, feigning sleep. A slender woman with pale eyes flaps her elbows, eyes closed, eyebrows twitching. Another whimpers as she crumples to the floor in a faint.
Tonight, on the outskirts of Salvador da Bahia in northeastern Brazil, we are witnessing a Candomblé ceremony. Similar to the syncretic religions of Santería and Vodoun brought by African slaves to Cuba and Haiti, Candomblé is the oldest Afro-Brazilian religion, a mixture of traditional Yoruban, Bantu and Fon beliefs. The practice was outlawed in the 16th century under Portuguese rule, but sur-vived underground until its persecution by church and state officially ended in 1976. And on this July evening, we are again honouring Xangô, lord of justice, lightning and thunder, and Ogum, god of war. Notably absent are my personal favourites: Oxum, the siren of fresh water and goddess of wealth and love, and Iemanjá, Yoruban goddess of the sea.
Until now, I’ve had little exposure to Candomblé, though over the years one might say I’ve nurtured a mild voodoo fetish. I married an Afro-Cuban, so I know about Santería first-hand. And world-renowned ethnobotanist Wade Davis opened my eyes to Haitian Vodoun – far more hauntingly com-plex than Hollywood would have us believe – with his 1985 non-fiction adventure The Serpent and the Rainbow. But my journey to Bahia and the African heart of Brazil really began a decade ago, when I discovered Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, a novel by Brazilian Jorge Amado, at a used-book store. Inside, a personal note to a past owner was penned: “This book is one of the most famous Bra-zilian romances. It’s set in the 1920s, but many habits remain the same in the state of Bahia, Brazil. The book shows a little of Brazilian northeastern culture, which is, in my view, the strongest regional culture in my country because of its African roots.” Intrigued, I read Amado’s popular love story and then Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands, both set in or close to Bahia’s capital, captivated by the lan-guid sensuality of the tropics and Bahia’s rich Afro-Brazilian heritage. Still, it would be another 10 years before I finally flew over Brazil’s jungle canopy and into Salvador – this place of Yoruban chants, Candomblé, carnival and capoeira, where traditions brought by African slaves are preserved in amber.
“I thought you would be black,” my Brazilian host Bárbara Nascimento de Oliveira – an award-winning writer and friend of a friend – said upon welcoming me into the home she shares with her mother, Zélia. The assumption about my race was understandable, for why was I so keen to explore Bahia’s Afro-Brazilian culture? My English ancestors could be considered colonizers. Perhaps I was here to make amends, to take my Eurocentric view of the world and turn it on its head. But then, that’s what I was here to explore, as, from that first day, she and Zélia escorted me around their town and guided me in my quest: to witness a Candomblé ceremony, just as Wade Davis had done with Haitian Vodoun in the ’80s.
One thing I did know: the majority of Bahians are descendants of West African slaves. In fact, the state of Bahia has the highest concentration of blacks in Brazil – which, in turn, has the world’s sec-ond-largest black population behind Nigeria. But as Bárbara and I strolled the streets, I drew my own comparisons – to Cuba mostly, though Salvador seemed somehow closer to Cameroon than the Car-ibbean. “Salvador is like Angola,” Bárbara declared one morning as we passed rows of shops signs in Yoruba. And it appeared to be true – from the impromptu capoeira performances in front of the Afro-Brazilian Museum to the Bahian street vendors dressed in white lace, hoop skirts and turbans, selling African-inspired finger food. The aroma of moqueca, a rich seafood stew made with coconut milk, and acarajés, deep-fried bean fritters stuffed with shrimp, were hard to resist. Still, we opted instead for tropical ice cream: cashew and passionfruit.
Geographically, as well, Salvador is closer to Africa than North America. Draw a line across the At-lantic and you find Angola, while the same chart that traces the transatlantic slave routes between West Africa and Brazil illustrates how snugly the South American and African continents once fit together: the coastline of northeastern Brazil tucked beneath the former African “Slave Coast” that comprises modern-day Ghana, Togo, Benin and Nigeria.
Almost 2,000 km northwest of Rio de Janeiro, on Bahia de Todo os Santos (All Saints Bay), Salva-dor was established as the country’s capital in 1549, after the region’s discovery by the Portuguese in 1501. The city soon served as an important slave port, its abundance of churches (one for each day of the year) earning it the nickname “Black Rome.” The first Africans were transported here in 1550, and an estimated 4.5 million slaves – from Senegambia to the Kingdom of Congo, from Angola to Mozambique – soon followed, more than were enslaved in any other colony or country in the Americas, to cultivate Brazil’s coffee, cotton, cacao and sugar. It would be three centuries later, in 1888, before Brazil abolished slavery, the last country to do so – 81 years after slaves were freed by Britain, 40 years after their emancipation in France and 23 years after the end of the U.S. Civil War.
In Salvador’s old quarter, Pelourinho, the cries of slaves were once heard as men, women and chil-dren were publicly whipped and tortured on the steep, wedge-shaped Largo do Pelourinho, or “Pil-lory Square.” Today the pedestrian-only colonial district has been transformed into a hive of black pride. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1985, it is now a popular tourist attraction, with cobblestone streets bordered by storefronts and restaurants – neatly painted façades of turquoise, ochre and lime green. References to Africa are everywhere: beauty salons specialize in beaded braids; shops hawk ebony sculptures and T-shirts in gold, red, green and black, the colours of the Af-rican diaspora; the percussion group Olodum (which performed on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints album) is headquartered here; and martial arts studios offer workshops in Angolan capoeira.
For seven sultry days of Brazilian “winter,” further warmed by the Bahians’ gentle, lilting accent and forró and samba tunes, I explored, from the bookstores of the upscale residential district of Barra to the whitewashed seaside churches and forts across town. One entire morning was whittled away at the Mercado Modelo, beneath the art deco Lacerda Elevator that connects Salvador’s upper town with its seaside harbour, where Bárbara took me shopping for souvenirs – African-inspired clay figu-rines and musical instruments like the one-stringed berimbau and high-pitched cuíca, the “laughing” sound of samba. Some days, we ate our biggest meal at midday, vegetarian buffets on leafy patios where monkeys climbed the jungle-like plants. But mostly, I skipped lunch and made the 20-minute pilgrimage by bus to Pelourinho in the upper town, away from the surf, sand and salty breeze of the palm-fringed beaches, yet with occasional views of the Atlantic and the freighters in the bay that re-minded me of Vancouver.
One lazy afternoon, down a cobblestone side street decorated with azure, orange and jade-coloured flags, an impromptu performance by Escola Olodum: boys in red T-shirts beating carnivalesque rhythms on brightly painted oil drums; teenage girls in canary-yellow tops, many with African tresses, tilting their faces skyward, swinging their arms and sidestepping to the layered beat – a rapid barrage of percussion. The troupe leader blew his whistle and the crowd squeezed onto narrow Rua das Laranjeiras, where a boy, barely nine years old, pounded a drum with a force that belied his size. As the swaying throng pulsated down the street, the beats reverberated off buildings and resonated like a communal heartbeat in my ribcage. Carnival was still six months away, but, closing my eyes, I could already feel the energy of Salvador’s pre-Lenten party that is said to eclipse Rio’s.
Only the day before, I met with Denilson José, black activist, choreographer and English teacher, in-side his classroom overlooking Praça da Sé. “Salvador is the blackest city outside Africa,” he told me as we discussed the country’s contemporary black movement and the importance of its cultural links with the African continent. “Brazil’s long military dictatorship ended 20 years ago and, since then, we have been trying to make new ties with Africa – especially while [Afro-Brazilian singer] Gilberto Gil was cultural minister.” Under Gil’s tenure, Salvador hosted the second world conference of Afri-can intellectuals and the African diaspora, where world leaders convened to discuss an African ren-aissance, a new world order and enhanced cultural and economic ties between black populations on both sides of the Atlantic. During the 1970s and ’80s, the black consciousness movement of Brazil may have taken its cues from the American civil rights movement, the Black Panthers, funk and James Brown. But today, José stressed, Afro-Brazilians look increasingly toward Africa for affirma-tion.
“Black Brazilians are still struggling to find their place in Brazilian society,” agreed Dr. Jocélio Teles dos Santos, anthropology professor and director of the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies at Salvador’s Federal University of Bahia, when we met that same afternoon over sweet black coffee in his colonial office. To further complicate matters, dos Santos explained, race is not defined by the American-style “one-drop rule,” whereby “one drop of black blood makes you black.” In fact, in Brazil, the defini-tion of black is much more complex and depends mostly on skin colour and facial features, rather than racial heritage. For example, in a country where interracial relationships are the norm, there are also many terms to designate skin colour: from black, black/brown, dark brown and light brown to the dark-skinned cafuzo and “copper-coloured” caboclo.
And, still, history repeats itself in Bahia, even in Black Rome. Not far from the Centre for Afro-Oriental Studies is the former senzala, or slave’s quarters, which despite its sad history has been con-verted into an upscale waterfront restaurant. Here, one afternoon, I found only middle-class white Brazilians dining on pricey lobster moqueca and shrimps in coconut; yet the kitchen and wait staff were black. Outside, two shirtless boys rowed past in a painted wooden boat, heading for their cliff-side slum. Asked if the ghosts of tortured slaves still haunted the place, the waiter smiled broadly. Não, he said, there are no ghosts. “These days, this is a happy place.”
On a muggy afternoon in the heart of Pelourinho, I climbed a narrow staircase to the Federação Baiana do Culto Afro-Brasileiro, the association that connects outsiders with the secret world of Candomblé. A woman offered the single wooden chair in the sparsely decorated space. The only light: shafts of equatorial sunlight filtering through the shuttered windows. Moments later, a man emerged from the shadows and led the way across Pillory Square to the sky-blue slave church, Our Lady of the Black Rosary. The baroque edifice, which was built in the 18th century by slaves, for slaves, and took almost 100 years to complete, was decorated with yellow and white gerbera daisies. A breeze ruffled the curtains and the scent of candle wax mingled with the aroma of peanuts and palm oil. The street’s din of voices, canned bossa nova music and the occasional car horn turned dis-tant, otherworldly.
In a back room, an older gentleman swept the uneven tiled floor. He was black, but so were the faces of the saints whose portraits hung from the walls around him. In the far corner, a display cabinet of wooden figurines: black patron saints, slave martyrs and guardian angels, a long-haired Rastafarian Bom Jesus, a black baby Jesus, and a Brazilian rendition of Saint Francis of Assisi in a brown tunic, his hand on the shoulder of a shoeless boy whose yellow-and-green clothes are the colours of the Brazilian national soccer team. In the cloister, I paid the young Candomblé guide, Elaine Batista San-tos, 50 reais (Cdn.$25) to attend that evening’s Candomblé ceremony on the outskirts of town.
The church’s Yoruban-language mass starts at 6 p.m., leaving just enough time to sample local dishes at the nearby Senac cooking school and return for a recitation of chants, which now competed with the samba-reggae rhythms from the music shops on Pillory Square. Fittingly, the mass seemed to re-flect a new social order: most of the whites were standing; the blacks seated in the pews. Only late-comers are forced to stand among the tourists. Elaine then ushered six of us – an Italian couple, two Spaniards, a Mexican man and me – down a side street and into a passenger van. And we negotiated traffic-clogged roads – five lanes of traffic flowing each way in a chaotic blinking river of red-and-white lights – through the already dark suburbs of Salvador, then descended a steep flight of steps through a terraced garden laced with offerings to the gods. In this place of worship, mulheres (women) are seated on one side of the room, homens (men) on the other. Visitors wear white out of respect for the orixás. We were not to speak or take photos, as the dancers circled the room and, one by one, fell into a trance – channelling their gods.
Given my Anglo-Saxon, Roman Catholic upbringing, I find the dancers’ possession by African spir-its difficult to comprehend. But, like Wade Davis, I try to understand, recalling something Denilson José told me a few days earlier, about the importance of Candomblé: that “our people came to this country completely defeated, yet they could imagine a god of war. It is the most important thing for us that Candomblé resisted persecution. Candomblé brought people together and gave them hope. Try to imagine fighting against the Catholic Church in slavery conditions. Our ancestors only perse-vered because they were very strong.”
After a short break, the now-costumed dancers return, kissing the floor as they enter the room. The mãe de santo puffs on her cigarette. There is a warrior, a prince, a king and a woman in straw chan-nelling Omolú. A statuesque young man in pale aqua wears a crown and carries a sword; he is Xangô. Another crowned, ebony-skinned worshipper holds two swords, a white sheet tied around his midriff; he evokes Ogum, god of war. The two men dance faster and faster, legs flailing, arms slicing the air, their bare feet clearing a pathway in the leaves scattered on the floor. The pale-eyed woman lunges like a wild animal. A matron convulses and a young man trembles like a rumba dancer. And in the midst of this crescendo, I at last feel a connection to the shores of Africa and these people whose ancestors crossed the Atlantic in slave ships centuries ago. I feel strangely elated. After this night, I realize, I will leave Brazil with more than a few drops of Africa in my blood.