Filhos de Gandhy
Filhos de Gandhy is an entity devoted to peace, the creation of which was inspired by an act of violence on the Indian subcontinent and the manifestations of which, although rooted deeply in Africa, were born in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil.
And in common with one of the subcontinent's great religions, Filhos de Gandhy was born beneath a tree -- not a Banyan tree but a mango tree rather, growing on a steeply inclined street (Rua do Julião, now sometimes called Rua Campos Sales) running through one of Salvador's poorest neighborhoods. The men who were gathered there -- stevedores, dockworkers -- had no idea they were making history; they were simply honoring it while trying to have some fun. Carnival was about to begin and they were forming a bloco (carnival group) of their own. One of the men beneath the mango tree...Durval Marques da Silva -- Vavá Madeira...suggested a name. It was suitable to all, and the theme followed naturally.
A little more than a year earlier -- on the 30th of January, 1948 -- the great Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi had been assassinated. Vavá suggested that they honor this man who had fought so profoundly and achieved so much in a nation which -- like their own -- was racked by poverty and rife with social injustice, a man who wielded peace as a mighty instrument of change. The others liked the idea, and thus the Filhos de Gandhy -- Sons of Gandhy -- were born. Peace would be their instrument as well, played out in the rhythms of ijexá on atabaques and agogôs.
A Carnival bloco needs fantasias -- costumes -- and several of the men there under the tree had recently seen a film which made it to sleepy Salvador ten years after its 1939 release: Gunga Din, starring Cary Grant and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It was an easy choice; the fantasias would emulate the clothing of Rudyard Kipling's redoubtably intrepid waterboy...
Tho' I've belted you an' flayed you
By the livin' Gawd that made you
You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din!
But there was a problem. Shipping in the Port of Salvador had fallen off since the war and work was intermittent. On top of that the Federal Government -- a dicatatorship -- had announced post-war cost cuts and the stevedores' income had taken a hit; money was tight. To the rescue came the working girls of the area -- the ladies of Julião. Not only did they include (some, not all of) these men among their patrons, but they also included them as their friends. A number of the sheets utilized in the abadás (a name given to the flowing fantasias, based on the robes worn by the uprising slaves of Bahia's 1835 Malê Rebellion) worn that first year were provided on loan by these women, and when the men paraded, the women followed, food and refreshments in hand. Like Dostoevsky's Sonya Marmeladova, benevolence and generosity were not precluded by their profession.
Why did the women follow the men, and not march together with them? Nothing to do with social strictures. The concern was for the most part with the inevitable fellow-travellers who would join in from the sidelines and march along uninvited. The thought was that restricting the ranks of marchers to men -- men who weren't partaking of alcohol while parading -- would help to ensure the reign of peace in that small part of the world over which the Filhos de Gandhy had some personal control. These were, of course, stevedores out for Carnival -- not saints playing harps in Heaven -- and drinking did happen on the sly. But the governing spirit of the rule was observed, maintained, and preserved, and the passing of the Filhos de Gandhy during Carnival in Bahia has since become an iconic emblem of dignity and brotherhood.
The Filhos de Ghandy started out as a bloco. They became an afoxé. What's the difference? A Carnival bloco is any group which marches together during Carnival. An afoxé is a group which utilizes religious percussion and dancing in secular settings, the religion in this case being West African candomblé. Carnival blocos of the time included wind instruments and the Filhos de Gandhi played percussion instruments exclusively. Beyond this they sang to Ogum, Ologum-edé, Oxalá, Oxum, and Exu. The government body having to do with Carnival said they were an afoxé. The Filhos didn't argue the matter; they voted on it. An afoxé in spirit, they became one on paper as well.
Years passed and the organization faltered. There were financial problems and the group moved from one headquarters to another. For all the axé (life force) they carried with them, no preordained upward trajectory seemed to leaven their path. Things got so bad at one point that it looked like the organization would have to fold. That it didn't was in no small measure due to the efforts of two amazing men.
The first was force-of-nature Camafeu de Oxossi, musical collaborator of the great Baden Powell, obá (minister) de Xangô (god of thunder and war), capoeirista-cum-restauranteur who wandered -- berimbau in hand -- the aisles of the Mercado Modelo playing the cantigas of capoeira.
When Camafeu de Oxossi died and was being interred to the accompaniment of Catholic prayer, a song in Yoruban was lifted to the skies by Luís da Muriçoca, and all present joined in.
Sunday at the Filhos de Gandhy headquarters in Pelourinho