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Brazil: Dance to the beat of Bahia

Diverse and dynamic, Salvador reflects Brazil’s African heritage more strongly than any other city. The capital of the northeastern state of Bahia is now the country’s third largest metropolis and its cuisine, music and religion offer a spellbinding insight into the nation’s past

Brazil: Dance to the beat of Bahia
Capoeiristas in action at FICA. Image: Sameena Jarosz

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The congregation is on its feet as it shifts through a combination of singing, swaying and clapping. The music changes but the rhythm is relentless. The dancers become steadily more intense, eyes bulging and arms flaying, one by one entering an unmistakable trance. I can’t take my eyes off the stage, but this is no folklore show — I’m a guest at a religious ceremony in the Brazilian city of Salvador that traces its roots back to West Africa in the years before colonisation and slavery.

It was the capital of Brazil when the Portuguese first settled here in 1549 and kept this status until 1785. The trade in sugar and slaves drove Salvador’s growth and brought almost four million African people to Brazil. Today around 80% of Salvador’s population is black and the African influence is present in many aspects of Bahian life.

Sitting at the mouth of the world’s largest tropical bay, Baia dos Todos Santos, Salvador is a rapidly-expanding sprawl of 2.7 million people. Around a third of the population live in the ramshackle favelas spreading across its steep coastal contours. At the same time, glitzy malls are springing up in the new high-rise suburbs being constructed for the city’s growing middle-class.

The main attractions of Salvador are centred on the streets of the Pelourinho, the historic area where the Portuguese first built their capital. Named after the whipping post where slaves were once publicly punished, the Pelourinho was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1985 and as I wander along the steep cobbled streets lined with brightly-coloured colonial buildings, it’s clear the area has recently had a facelift. The 17th-century Jesuit church, now the Cathedral of Salvador, marks the northern end of the quarter and facing it is the opulent Church of San Francisco, dripping in an estimated 2,000lb of gold.

Colourful buildings in the Pelourinho. Image: Sameena Jarosz

Passing tourists — mainly Brazilian — attract the beckoning calls of handicraft and T-shirt sellers. The smell of acarajé, a typical Bahian dish made from black-eyed peas fried in dendê oil and served with dried shrimps and hot sauce, drifts from pots belonging to ladies dressed in traditional white Bahian dresses. A samba group strikes up in front of the cathedral and beer and caipirinha sellers dish out refreshments to the crowds. While Salvador is undeniably Brazilian, there is more than a hint of Africa in its sights, sounds and smells.


At the heart of Salvador’s African heritage is Candomblé, a religion formed by the slaves brought to Brazil between the 16th and 19th centuries. Worshippers believe in one supreme god, and a number of orishas, or minor deities, to whom they pray for blessings and protection; each believer has their own guiding orisha.

For a long time the open practice of Candomblé was prohibited and worshippers hid their faith within the Catholic religion that was forced upon them. Many of the Catholic saints were syncretised with the orishas of Candomblé, allowing people to attend mass and practise both religions simultaneously. In recent years the practice of Candomblé has gained wider acceptance and there are now over 1,000 terreiros (temples) in Salvador alone.

Although the syncretism of orishas and saints is increasingly being rejected now believers are free to practice their faith, signs of it are still here, barely hidden below the surface. I visit the Church of Nosso Senhor do Bonfim (Our Lord of the Good End), which Pope John Paul II visited on two occasions. The church is closely linked to the worship of Oxalá, the creator of humankind according to the Candomblé faith. The railings outside the church are covered in a rainbow of ribbons, each colour representing one of the orishas. The church is the scene of one of the city’s major festivals every January, the Festa do Bomfim, when people from all over the city bring jars of lavender water to wash the steps of the church. While the festival is nominally a Catholic one, in dress, dance and song its roots are unmistakably those of Candomblé.

I’m given the opportunity to visit the Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá terreiro on the outskirts of Salvador to see a Candomblé ceremony. My guide Conor O’Sullivan, an Irish ex-pat and long-term Salvador resident, explains proceedings as we enter the simple building through the men’s entrance and take a seat. There are around 200 people and I’m immediately struck by their diversity — while Candomblé has African roots, the people here represent the rich ethnic mix of the Brazilian population. Overseeing the ceremony is Mae Stella, the elderly high priestess of the terreiro and one of the most influential and widely respected figures within the Candomblé faith.

Below a sea of white paper streamers I watch as a clutch of people, from young girls to older men, dance and whirl in the centre of the room. These are the initiates who will be possessed by the orishas during the ceremony. Occasionally they prostrate themselves before one of the elders sitting at the edge of the room, bouncing back on their feet with impossible agility and exchanging a hug with the others before continuing to dance.

All the while drums at the far end of the terreiro beat a constant rhythm, invoking the deities to take possession of the dancers. As the drum beat quickens the dancers spin faster and shout out spontaneously. When they’ve achieved a trance-like state they’re led from the room one by one, to be dressed in the costumes of the orishas that have taken temporary possession of their bodies. It’s a mesmerising spectacle, yet the intensity and the total contrast from anything I’ve previously encountered in a place of worship leaves me with a sense of discomfort that’s difficult to place.

After a short break the initiates return. The dances are just as flamboyant and the mood one of celebration as the orishas follow the beat of the constant drums. Exhausted merely by observing the ceremony and with a long way to go until the end of the ritual, we slip away quietly and I spend several hours that night trying to absorb what I’ve witnessed.

Dancing gladiators

Salvador is the spiritual home of the famous part-dance, part-fight that is capoeira. At FICA, a traditional Angolan capoeira school in a busy, unglamorous part of town, I witness the agility of the capoeiristas for myself. Capoeira has its roots in West Africa and like Candomblé it was banned during the colonial era — and for many years afterwards — as it was seen as a means of spreading rebellion and subversion. Capoeira is now considered one of the great disseminators of both Brazilian culture and the Portuguese language. In the session I attend there are students from Mexico, Taiwan and New Zealand who have come to spend an extended period in the city to learn capoeira and, by necessity, Portuguese.

Angolan capoeira is distinctive in that it involves little physical contact but emphasises strategic prowess. Combatants make moves that demonstrate their ability to outwit an opponent and find their weak spots. I watch as each capoeirista takes their turn to step into the roda (circle) and spar with an opponent. The room is rich with the sweaty scent of a tropical gym and the action is played out to the relentless, hypnotic chanting of a line of eight musicians who beat drums and play the traditional African berimbau and tambourine in a time-honoured fashion.

Conor whispers to me, “Someone told me that capoeiristas dance like a gladiator and fight like a ballerina.” It’s a description that fits what we’re watching perfectly. There is a clear ritual to proceedings, yet within the order and discipline of the roda there are constant smiles and spontaneous laughter.

It’s a bearded man in his fifties who is clearly the master of the roda, snaring his young pretenders with his lightning quick movement and cheeky grin. Afterwards I speak to the smiling Cobra Mansa (Gentle Snake) and he shows me the family tree of Angolan capoeira in Salvador and his place within that tree, one part of an unbroken line that has stretched for five generations.

I’m keen to learn more about the African influence on the music of Salvador, so Conor takes me to visit Gabi Guedes and Giba Conceição. Gabi and Giba have been friends for 30 years and have played together almost as long — both are regarded as among the leading percussionists in Salvador and are busy working on a project to translate traditional Candomblé rhythms to different instruments.

Gabi’s studio is in the basement of a modest house in the city. It’s a small room filled with percussion instruments. Taking a break from their drums to greet us, Gabi explains to me that for a long time the African musical influences and rhythms were restricted to the Candomblé temple: “They were considered sacred and many people didn’t want them to be popularised.” He agrees with responsible use of the rhythms, but is against their use for commercial gain or for profane purposes. “When used correctly they are a positive force,” he says. “It is essential that we maintain the original melodies and the original rhythms.”

The men laugh together as only two old friends can and Giba picks up his cuica, a friction-drum that’s an essential component of Brazilian music. “The Cuban influence here in Brazil is very strong. Modern percussionists are more familiar with Cuban influences than local ones,” he says. “There was a time when a Bahian percussionist didn’t admit to any connection with Candomblé rhythms, as it had such a bad connotation.”

Musicians Gabi Guedes and Giba Conceição. Image: Sameena Jarosz

Giba tells us that his music has improved as he has become more religious. “I absolutely believe that music and spirituality go hand in hand.” While learning to play drums at the Candomblé terreiro requires an element of technical skill, an appreciation of the religious connection with the music is at least as important.

Traditional African rhythms were passed through generations purely by oral methods; it’s only now that scores are being transcribed. Giba recalls his trip to Angola, where he took his cuica to the place from which it originated. The tradition of making and playing the cuica had largely been lost due to the civil war and he found himself returning an element of African culture to its birthplace. So infectious is their love of music that I’m sorely tempted to pick up an instrument and play. Seeing this, Giba passes me the cuica and it takes no more than a painful second to appreciate that creating a pleasing sound is not as easy as it looks. While visitors can take percussion workshops in Gabi’s studio, I would rather listen to the two charming musicians exhibiting their talents any day.

Bahian blends

When I enter the Feira de Sao Joaquim market I’m soon distracted by a shop selling Candomblé paraphernalia. There are herbs used for potions, figures of orishas and even spells in ready-made bottles. I wonder about the purpose of the ‘Leave Me’ spell and am told it’s used to banish bad spirits. The bottle marked ‘Bring Me Customers’ is less ambiguous.

This is the largest market in Salvador and the maze of passageways linking its many stalls are filled with activity. Everything from fresh meat and fish to shoes, statues and children’s toys are for sale. In between the stalls men sleep on benches or play cards and dominos in the shade. One man is selling nothing but manioc (cassava) flour — he has at least 50 large sacks squeezed into a tiny stall. Manioc is a mainstay of Brazilian cuisine and you’ll be hard pushed to encounter a meal that doesn’t feature it in one of its many forms.

I go for dinner at Casa de Tereza, a restaurant run by well-known Bahian chef Tereza Paim, who learned her craft while working with chefs in Spain, Portugal and France. I taste Tereza’s moqueca, a rich stew of fish and prawns in a coconut milk base; this is Bahia’s best-known dish.

After the meal I ask Tereza about her approach to Bahian cuisine and she tells me she loves to mix old ingredients and use them in a modern way, employing contemporary techniques to create new twists on traditional dishes. She explains how Bahian cooking is a blend of three main influences: indigenous ingredients, those from Europe introduced by the Portuguese, and those from Africa.

Even at the end of a long day Tereza is wearing a constant smile as she discusses her work. “Food is a language to communicate with the gods,” she says. “It’s a liturgy.” I ask if her mother was a good cook and she shakes her head vigorously. “No! My grandmother was!” Her passion for producing quality food is evident as she describes the emphasis she places on responsible sourcing of ingredients, buying fish locally and working with her own exclusive supplier for the all-important manioc flour.

A Brazilian from the south of the country told me about his countrymen from Bahia: “They think life is very easy to live — and I think they’re right.” Certainly I was struck by the warmth and the beaming smiles of the people I met during my stay. Salvador may not attract as many visitors as the beaches of Rio de Janeiro or the natural wonders of the Amazon, but what it does offer is a fascinating insight into how a 16th-century colonial outpost became the birthplace of what has developed into one of the world’s most diverse and dynamic nations.


Getting there
TAP Portugal flies to Salvador via Lisbon, with seven UK departure points. British Airways flies to Rio de Janeiro from Heathrow, with frequent connections from Rio to Salvador. flytap.com   ba.com
Average flight time: 13h. 


Getting around
Taxis are cheap and plentiful around Salvador. Be sure to use only official taxis and ensure the meter is switched on before setting off.


When to go
Salvador is hot throughout the year, with daytime temperatures consistently in the high 20s and night temperatures in the low 20s. The rainiest months are April and May. The city is busiest for Carnival (Feb or March depending on year) and for the feast of Bomfim in January.


Need to know
Currency: Real (BRL). £1 = BRL3.94.
International dial code: 00 55.
Time difference: GMT -3.


Places mentioned
Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá and FICA Capoeira can be visited by prior arrangement via Sunvil Traveller. sunvil.co.uk
Casa de Tereza. terezapaim.com.br


More info
Lonely Planet Brazil 2013. RRP: £18.99.
The Viceroy of Ouidah by Bruce Chatwin. RRP: £6.99. (Vintage Classics)


How to do it
Sunvil Traveller offers a seven-night tailor-made itinerary of Brazil including three nights in Salvador from £1,975 per person (based on two sharing) including return international flights, internal flight, accommodation and guided excursions. sunvil.co.uk

Explore offers a comprehensive two-week escorted tour of Brazil taking in Salvador as well as Rio, the Amazon and the Pantanal, from £4,490 per person, including return flights, B&B and some meals. explore.co.uk/tailormade

Published in the March 2014 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)