In the dank heat the drumming starts, beating life into the dark night air. Three alabés (drummers) in brilliant red shirts and stark white pants are perched at the head of the room and belt out a rhythm on their tall, conga-style drums. They’re calling the orixás (gods). In front of the alabés stands the babalorixá, the priest who leads the night. He begins chanting. He is answered by a chorus of women.
Barefoot ladies in bulging hooped skirts float in – their long colourful necklaces swaying against white lace blouses, keeping time with graceful, swinging hips; their hair bundled in white turbans against black skin. Repeating the lines of the priest, and in step with the sonorous beat of the sacred drums, they weave into a growing circle in front of the babalorixá, dancing counter clockwise around a tall centerpiece of axes. Arms gesture in unison indicating to which orixá they are currently singing: hands float over imaginary waves for Iemanjá, the goddess of the sea; they cover one ear for Oiá, the goddess of the river who cut off her ear to make her husband love her more than his other wives; or they fan themselves like conceited Oxum, the goddess of beauty, fertility and sweet waters.
This night, the second to last of the Candomblé year — the ancient religion transported to Brazil from Africa centuries ago — is the night for the iabás (female gods) to gather together and celebrate. They do this by possessing the bodies of the “children” (the dancing ladies) who have just begun the interminable ritual.
They chant and prance to the booming percussion as the air ripens, hot and thick. Finally, when each of the orixás have been honoured with psalms, the babalorixá leads the hymn calling for the possessions to take place. All at once the ladies fold in half, eyes closed, derrieres extended, ululating in unearthly voices, pixilated, entranced. Helpers rush to their aid, removing their waist bands and retying them around their chests to hold in the spirits. The possessed begin dancing disorderly, fervently. Each is led out of the chapel and returns in the Candomblé costume of the particular god that is possessing her. On and on the spirits dance.
There are several terreiros (Candomblé temple grounds) where one can watch such a ritual. They used to be hidden away in the forest surrounding Salvador where the slaves from Nigeria would practice their religion out of the watchful eyes of the masters. Attempts to force African arrivals into Catholicism brought to light certain similarities between the Catholic saints and Candomblé orixás, providing a way for the slaves to honour both sets of saints/gods and not give up their own. Today the city has engulfed the terreiros, reducing some of the mystique but allowing for easy access through favelas (ghettos).
Throughout the year, most of the ceremonies are for specific purposes rather than celebrations. Candomblistas, for good intentions and for bad, address their personal orixás for assistance through a terreiro’s priest or priestess. Many of Brazil’s modern-day politicians still look to their orixás for advice and help.
Capoeira also developed secretly in Bahia. Originally an African form of martial arts, slaves either feinted dancing in order to practice it or, where banned by slave owners, stealthily exercised it in the woods. Today, it’s an impressive athletic type of game accompanied by the music of the berimbau, a wooden bow with a single string and a hollow bowl fastened at the bottom end. Two participants at a time perform in the center of a human circle, spinning and kicking at each other, faster and faster, somehow managing never to make contact. Berimbau, percussion and song keep time.
Groups spontaneously launch into Capoeira presentations on Salvador’s promenades, street corners and in the downtown area that is surrounded by colourful, colonial building facades. There also stands pelourinho – the whipping post where slaves were publicly flogged, tortured, bought and sold. Nearby is Igreja Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos, the slaves’ church. Verily, an abundance of museums, churches, architecture, exhibits, shows and artisan shops display local history and African-Brazilian themes.
Saturated in African influences, few Brazilians would dispute that the strongest element in their national cuisine is also African in origin. Africans not only introduced several of their own herbs and spices into the pot, but they substituted ingredients into Portuguese and aboriginal dishes and created new concoctions from scatch. Feijoada, the mixed meat stew that slaves made with discarded leftovers, is Brazil’s national dish.
At various street corners in Salvador, hungry pedestrians find another favourite. Black ladies with warm smiles, white turbans and lacy petticoats serve up acarajé. Made from a batter of dried shrimp, skinless dried beans, onion and seasoning, spoonfuls of the mixture are dropped into hot dendê oil (African palm oil) and deep fried until they puff up like elongated dumplings. Removed from the oil, they are drained, slit down the center and filled with acarajé sauce (malagueta peppers, shrimp, onion, ginger, palm oil). It’s also commonly garnished with fried shrimp and a most popular Afro-Brazilian dish, vatapá, a kind of creamy shrimp pudding.
And let’s not forget Bahian moqueca. Originally wrapped in banana leaves and roasted in coals, nowadays moqueca is a shrimp, fish or seafood ragout with dendê oil, coconut milk, peppers and onions, cooked in a covered clay pot and served with rice cooked in coconut milk.
Culture and tradition, rhythm and dance, religion and ritual, as alive today as ever it was — the flavours of Africa in Salvador.
If you go:
Remember that Brazil is in the southern hemisphere, so the warmest months are December through February.
Many nationalities require a visa to visit Brazil. Don’t forget to check if yours is one of them.