An Introduction to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

  • in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil

    Have you, dear traveller, ever noticed how different places scattered across the face of the globe seem almost to exist in different universes? As if they were permeated throughout with something akin to 19th century luminiferous aether, unique, determined by that place's history? It's a trick of the mind's light (I suppose), but looking out across the Baía de Todos os Santos to the great Recôncavo, and mindful of the fact that more slaves entered this bay than did slaves enter any port anywhere else in the world...if nothing else one is easily brought to the conclusion that one is in fact in a place quite unlike any other...

     

    Modern Salvador da Bahia (often incorrectly written as "Salvador de Bahia", "da" being a fusion of the preposition "de" and the definite article "a") is many things, these depending to some degree upon who is doing the conceiving and considering. It's the third largest city in the world's sixth economy, with innumerous modern apartment buildings looking like gleaming upended harmonicas, these filled with occupants of the professional classes who shop in New York and take their kids to Disney World. Ships fill the bay, carrying away industrial plugs for blast furnaces, resins, chemicals...the stuff of large-scale manufacturing by multinational corporations.

    Yet of Salvador's 2,500,000 inhabitants, the vast majority are descendents of those who worked for the owners of the "big houses" on the plantations on the other side of the bay, and the big houses located in old Salvador, in what is now a neighborhood rather than the entire city, the area called Pelourinho (for the pillory which stood in various of its principal squares).

    It's possible to live an almost European existence in Salvador if one moves within carefully circumscribed limits. From tower to imported car, along expressways to modern office buildings and clinics...but even a glance from the balconies of those well-stocked towers belies first-world fantasies; red-clay barracos -- simple houses, a step up (maybe) from shacks, crawl up hillsides and dip into valleys. The destination signs fronting Salvador city buses are emblazoned with destinations like Mussurunga, Massaranduba, Periperi, Alto do Cabrito...by way of areas called Ogunjá and Bonocó. Private schools for the more fortunate economic classes offer capoeira, alongside football (soccer), volleyball and such. Baianas de acarajé (women dressed in flowing white, sitting before their tables selling the foodstuff called-- more properly in Yorubá -- akara, the addition of "jé" rendering "to eat akara"), may be found evenings selling to lawyers and businessmen on their way home, cans of beer washing down the African comestibles.


    Salvador and the Recôncavo from on high

    There are thousands of houses of candomblé in Salvador, these vastly outnumbering the numerous Catholic churches and even the evangelical churches which have sprung up in the suburbs like toadstools, these latter attracting customers...worshippers that is...drawn to the harangues telling them that God desires their economic success too...

    And the radio. There is Globo, owned by the family of now-departed Roberto Marinho, who parleyed his insider's connections with Brazil's dictatorship into the country's largest media empire -- playing its depressing mix of mostly American hits of the '70s and '80s. But across the dial, on both AM and FM, the clave and rhythms are most definitely of African derivation (although for the most part cheapened and debased). Publicly-owned Rádio Educadora however continues to demonstrate that not all is (to repeat) cheapened and debased in government here, with the occasional program of top-flight Brazilian music, including choro on Sunday mornings.

    And of course there are the people themselves, their melanin content ranging from darkest African through dusky indigenous Indian to lightest European, the preponderance weighted toward the darker end of the spectrum. Although there are exceptions, the prevailing wisdom is, as expressed by sambista Ederaldo Gentil, "Todo branco tem negro na família" (Every white person has a black person in the family). In contrast to the United States, where "one drop" defines who is considered "black", the distinction between persons of European-heritage ethnicity and those of African-heritage ethnicity is conceived differently here. Part of this is due to the fact that, unlike in the United States, where the children of slave-owners and slave-women were themselves consigned to slavery, in Bahia this was often not the case, creating a class of mixed-race people ("black" in the United States) who were here called "moreno" and who had property, rights, and freedom. And with churning intermarriage and a mathematician's nightmare of racial combinations in people's backgrounds, particularly amongst the "common" people, and the consequent commonality of cultural background, the feeling of I'm the black or white dude and he or she is white or black is rare here except amongst the top-most, old landed economic class, or would-be snobs who ascribe to that benighted class's pretensions and prejudices (and there are more than a few of the latter around). Salvador is not home to a racism-free society as is often touted...but day-to-day personal relations between most people are thankfully free of the back-of-the-mind fencing so common between people of different continental heritage in the United States.

    Salvador, Brazil's First Colonial Capital...

    Salvador (the city was generally referred to as "Bahia" until well into the twentieth century*) sits on a spit of land sticking south south-west into the Atlantic Ocean. And although it sits well within the tropics at a southern latitude of thirteen degrees, it receives a refreshing sea-breeze which seldom falters until the wee hours of the morning when things have generally cooled off anyway. The city sits on a huge bay, a Baía de Todos os Santos (the Bay of All Saints), and the topography is predominently hill and valley.

    * See an interesting article from the New York Times dated July 14, 1874, in which "our own correspondent" (the Times', that is) refers to the "town" as "Bahia"...

    It's for this reason that people speak of a cidade alta (upper city) and cidade baixa (lower city). Both are connected on the bay side by the famous Elevador Lacerda, a "marvel" hailed mightily in most guide books. Forget the marvel (you'll see what I mean when you're on it), but the elevator does beat walking up down the steeply inclining streets which serve the same function of connection. There is a fifteen centavo charge for the ride. That's less than nine cents as I write, so who's complaining. There's also the nearby Plano Inclinado, same price.


    The Elevador Lacerda (transportation between Salvador's high and low ground),
    with the Forte São Marcelo (Bahia's belly button) off to the right

    (Since writing the above the elevator building has been refurbished and it's actually quite nice now -- lots of polished Brazilian granite. It's also air-conditioned, something of a blessing during peak periods (now since that was written the air-conditioning is long no longer functioning!). The best part of all however is still what was always there: the magnificent view from the upper level.)


    From the Cidade Baixa (Lower City)


    The old elevator at Taboão, several blocks away, ran from 1865 to 1961

    And it's this rugged geography which is so disorienting to people new to the city. Neighborhoods (bairros) tend to be built on the heights, with thoroughfares twisting around and between. Streets zigzag and change names, and a lot of them are one-way, necessitating roundabout ways of arriving at any given destination. It can take a long time to catch on, but by the same token it can add even more of an element of mystery to the place.

    One of the principal characteristics of the city is the outgoingness of the people. People talk to strangers here, are friendly to them. People are not divided by that initial suspicion of strangers that marks so many other places, at least as far as where sociability is concerned. It's easy to meet people.

    But there's another characteristic which often takes first-time visitors to Salvador by surprise: I'm referring to the city's urbanscape, its architecture, building and home styles. Colonial Pelourinho was built while Bahia was the economic powerhouse of South America, and many of the buildings are splendid. Most of the rest of Salvador was built on a shoestring, and the results range from the unpainted claybrick shacks of the poor to the reinforced concrete buildings one sees everywhere (usually in need of a painting), to the more expensive modern and generally undistinguished apartment towers found in the middle and upper-middle class neighborhoods. People expecting leafy tropical bungalows may be disappointed. This is an urban, third-world city, with plenty of crowds and traffic jams. It does, however, retain its renowned Bahian soul, and tropical serenity (along with those leafy tropical bungalows) is very close at hand.

    Schubert's Ave Maria is traditional in Salvador at 6 p.m. Here is a streaming excerpt of a lovely, unusual, and uniquely Brazilian version of it played in Cantinho da Mara ("Mara's Little Corner") in one of Salvador's older neighborhoods on Saturday evening, September 11th, 2004

    Lastly, perhaps the quality most fundamental, most elemental to Salvador and Bahia, most striking in the sense of setting this place apart and making it its own -- is its zeitgeist. Bahia's timeframe runs independently of the (developed) world's decade-defined stages of development. Music here, for example, isn't 70s, 80s, or 90s. It is, rather, measured in its distance from -- or more precisely by its proximity to -- the senzalas (slave compounds) of centuries past, to the quilombos (communities formed by runaway slaves) of both past and present. Likewise for Bahia's lovely and deadly Afro-Brazilian martial art of capoeira, continuing to grow and develop without abandoning the ethos of struggle that spurred its creation in the first place. Oxalá, Oxóssi, Xangô -- Yemanjá and Iansã -- all virtually forgotten on their native ground across the Atlantic -- are known to everybody here, determining to a large degree the makeup and timing of Salvador's yearly social calendar. The zeitgiest of Bahia is that its time is its own, a time in many ways above and independent of the carryings on of the rest of the world.

    Moreover these manifestations of popular culture are current, now, modern. They hearken back to the past but aren't stuck in it. They are not continually re-enacted museum pieces but rather a part of a continuing flowering and evolution. Put simply, they are a part of life here.

    Salvador & Environs, Statistically Speaking

    According to the IBGE (Instituto Brasileiro de Geografia e Estatística), the official government measuring arm, the population of Salvador (per the 2010 census) is 2,480,790. In one way it doesn't feel like there are two-and-a-half million pessoas here, and in another it does. Salvador has a town-like ambience, its tallest buildings are apartment buildings, not commercial, the downtown area (Centro) consisting of a motley scrum of colonial-era and colonial-era-like buildings (many quite beautiful, if in need of repair) and '60s era aluminum-and-glass (the stuff that seemed so modern at the time but which, like bell-bottoms on civilians, didn't take long to become outdated). The view from the plano inclinado will show you what I mean...

    But the streets are crowded, with people and cars. Easy credit has heated up the economy and enabled a lot of people who couldn't afford their own transportation before have it now. Gridlock is a fact of life here, something to plan for, try to avoid, and for a lot of people, to live with on a daily basis. Motorcycles are everywhere too, whizzing and whipping between and across lanes as if their riders were immortal. When one of the errant falls, eventually to be picked or scraped up and hauled off to hospital, heaven, or hell, traffic backs up even further in a chain-reactions snaking throughout the city.

    Principal Towns of the Recôncavo

    Santo Amaro (at the north end of the bay, hometown to Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethânia as well as to a number of less famous but nevertheless wonderful musicians; an hour away from Salvador by car), had a population of 56,971 at the time of the census.


    Igreja da Purificação in Santo Amaro

    Cachoeira, one-time capital of Bahia and a beautiful old town retaining its colonial "charm" (located another twenty minutes or so beyond Santo Amaro), weighs in at 31,630. Cachoeira and environs are a vast redoubt of candomblé.


    Capela d'Ajuda, the first church built in Cachoeira; construction began in 1595

    Capela d'Ajuda is the inspiration for and title of a song by a musical group from Cachoeira called Os Tincoãs (a tincoã is a bird native to the region, reputed to warn humans of impending danger). Os Tincoãs sang music based in candomblé, in a vocal style influenced by black American spirituals. Mateus Aleluia is the group's last living member. "Capela d'Ajuda" may be heard on his Chainlicity page:

    Mateus Aleluia in Chainlicity

    These are the two principal towns in the Recôncavo, the great, concave-shaped area around the Baía de Todos Santos, Brazil's richest sugarcane-growing region (due to the quality of the massapé, soil as black and rich as that beneath Indiana cornfields). I've been neglecting my Bahia-Online duties, but I promise to gather myself up, pull myself away from conversation over cachaça with the fishermen and subsistence farmers in the small villages scattered throughout the Recôncavo (many of which villages began life as quilombos, villages-of-refuge founded by runaway slaves) and do my small part in imparting what I can of their lives, and art (chula and samba-de-roda).

    Above is the group Samba Chula João do Boi, built around brothers João do Boi and Alumínio Saturno.
    São Braz is a small fishing village located at the north end of the Baía de Todos os Santos, founded as a quilombo, a village of runaway slaves.

    What they're playing is samba chula, primordial samba, analogous in Brazil to the delta blues in the United States.

    João do Boi in Chainlicity

    What is Salvador's Relationship With the Recôncavo?

    For a lot of people -- both those who live here and those who come here -- it doesn't matter. But to the point is an anecdote related to me by Mateus Aleluia, of Os Tincoãs, a now-legendary vocal group from Cachoeira: "A Bahian slave once said to his master, 'You have conquered us, but our culture will conquer yours.'" Whether this is true or not hinges upon what one calls culture, but in that the pervading art of Bahia -- as in most all Brazil -- is music, and given that the greatest root of this musical culture is buried deep within Recôncavo massapé, a strong argument may be made for its validity.

    The peninsula upon which Salvador is situated is like the thumb of an open and grasping hand, what is normally thought of as the Recôncavo then being defined by the curved index finger. This way of definition developed when agricultural products were brought to Salvador by boat, sometimes making their way first down the Paraguaçu river after having been carried overland from the sertão (backlands) to Cachoeira, the river debouching into the bay at Maragogipe. The city of Bahia (as it was usually called then) was crouched on the bay, comprised of a commercial district much smaller in area than today (landfill has increased it greatly), the area around the upper section of the elevator, and what is now called Pelourinho.


    The Igreja de São Francisco do Paraguaçu presides on the Baía do (bay of) Iguape, across the water from Maragojipe.

    Much of the remainder of the peninsula was given to sugarcane plantations, and dotted within the Atlantic rainforest were countless quilombos; both are attested to today in commonly used city names. The neighborhood of Garcia was once Fazenda Garcia (fazenda being a farm or plantation), and this denomination is still used today to distinguish one end of Garcia (fim-de-linha) from the other (the Campo Grande end). Neighborhoods Engenho Velho de Federação and Engenho Velho de Brotas are so called for the old mills (engenhos velhos) which pressed the caldo (juice, so to speak) from the cane so laboriously hacked out of the fields. The neighborhood of Cabula is named for an nkisi (deity) of candomblé angola (the first candomblé to arrive in Bahia)...whose rhythms comprise the basis for samba, meaning that the rhythms to which so many in the world inexpertly swayed as Stan Getz's saxophone soared and João and Astrud Gilberto sensuously intoned -- this paragon of suave Brazilian sophistication -- was born in the rough senzalas of Bahia. Ironically enough, the barefoot senzala version was/is far more sophisticated than the sophisticated version.

    But times have changed, and Cabula is now a crowded, non-descript middle-to-working class Salvador city neighborhood (plenty of candomblé around though), and Engenhos Velhos de Federação and Brotas are swarming working class neighborhoods (ditto the candomblé); the senzala samba, the samba chula and samba-de-roda have disappeared. A vastly simplified and deeply moronified version -- Bahian pagode -- is heard everywhere in Salvador, but the real-deal stuff has died out here in the big city. It remains, however, a potent force on the remainder of its native ground, the Recôncavo proper, where it is danced to on pounded earth, under moonlight broken by banana, palm and mango leaves, lifting the souls of its participants almost like something religious, which it was, and gods aside, is.