Vibing to the Sounds of Brazil’s Past and Future

Welcome to Salvador.

Sugary little trills, snatches of percussion. As I stood on a bluff above the dark, placid Bahia de Todos os Santos, the music floated up to my ears from out of the still night.

All riffs, tunes and jams in Salvador, the unquestioned music capital of one of the world’s most musical countries, are worth pursuing, so sure, I wanted to find the source of this beguiling sound. But I could see nothing between me and the water.

Then I discovered a path snaking downhill to my left, and drove my aching, braking calves – this is the steepest of cities – down into the evening toward the sound. Near what looked like a derelict warehouse, I spied a lady inside a little cabin selling tickets for eight reals (three dollars), forged farther downward (the music was picking up), turned a corner and plunged into five hundred people clutching beers and caipirinhas, swaying to a big jazz band crooning and tooting on a stage 10 metres from the sea.

July 31, 2019
A woman of Bahia watches the sunset from Rio Vermelho beach
A Baiana, or woman of Bahia, watches the sunset from Rio Vermelho beach.

Live music doesn’t get much better than this: a small golden bowl of music, warmth, light and boisterous spirits on a windy night, with the black sea and sky all around. And in the starkness of its contrasts – even the half-notes of foreboding and sadness within the melody of joy and celebration – the episode was pure Salvador.

Salvador is sensual, but rarely smooth. The billowing clouds that hang almost perennially above its large bay could be the clouds of history, brooding over a city that has seen all the shades of human life. The colonial economic complex on which the city’s architecture is based wrenched hundreds of thousands of free people away from West Africa to work as slaves on the sugar plantations of the Recôncavo, the vast backlands of Brazil. The forebears of a substantial part of Salvador’s present-day population arrived here in chains and lived out the rest of their lives as commodities. To this day, the Afro-Brazilian inheritance is what is most distinctive about Salvador’s art, food and social life. More than 80 percent of the population of 3 million is black or mixed-race, making Salvador the city with the most people of African descent outside Africa.

A window view of Bahia de Todos os Santos
You can spot the Bahia de Todos os Santos from almost anywhere.
A group of batucada drummers perform on a Pelourinho street
You can spot the Bahia de Todos os Santos from almost anywhere.
A group of batucada drummers practice in a hilly Pelourinho street.

One of the oldest cities in the Americas, Salvador was founded in 1549 on two deliberate levels, reflecting the two classes of people who lived here: the bustling lower city, or Cidade Baixa, as a harbour and commercial centre and slave market; the grander upper city, or Cidade Alta, for fortifications, opulent residences and churches. With its breathtaking views of the large, placid bay, its ornate colonial-era churches packed on Sunday mornings and holy days, its cobblestoned streets and its vividly dressed citizens, Cidade Alta is a feast for the senses. To the north and south, the city expands sinuously with mile upon mile of gorgeous seafront. Some of it is decrepit, but punctuated by old fishing villages and sudden islands of gentrified prosperity and hipsterish social life, all bordered by a vast hinterland where most of its working-class citizens live in tightly packed neighbourhoods.

The historic centre of the city, overlooking the bay that gives the place its full name of Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos, is called Pelourinho, a reference to the whipping post set up in early Salvador’s main square to make a cautionary example of disobedient slaves. (The innocuous spoonful of sugar you stir into your coffee in a café in Pelourinho tastes less sweet than anywhere else.) Love, pleasure, laughter and freedom – all these things are also bittersweet here, because they have been so dearly bought. But perhaps for this reason, Salvador, whose very name implies transcendence, is also more alive than any other place to the redemptive possibilities of communion and celebration, especially through music – one of the few things that slaves brought with them, and one that could not be taken away from them.

A group of people are seated in front of the outdoor stage at Museu de Arte Moderna
The open-air stage at Salvador's Museu de Arte Moderna.

The air reverberates with sound: not the rumble of everyday urban life, but deliberate, expressive sound. Over a week, I grew to love the twang of the ubiquitous one-stringed berimbau; walking around the steep cobblestoned streets of Pelourinho (home to the famous drum school Olodum), my ears and legs were drawn to the skittering hailstone beats and echoing booms of muscular drummers drifting around the streets like shoals of fish, sending the blood of all bystanders pounding, and dropping little riffs that reverberate into the day. (I met few men in Salvador who could not play the drums with some skill.) Then there are the strident boom boxes in squares and restaurants – sometimes even on the backs of bicycles gently teetering on the steep streets – all playing axé, the frenetic and festive pop music native to the city.

“In Bahia we have a saying,” local poet Alex Simões told me. “Salvador is a part of Brazil, and Salvador is bigger than Brazil.” This delightful paradox is a good way to encapsulate the city’s special, transcendent place in Brazilian history. Any visitor can get a more interesting view of the country by beginning an expedition up in Salvador rather than in Rio de Janeiro or São Paulo in the south.

The women at Acaraje da Dinha serve black- eyed pea and shrimp fritters to the public
Acaraje da Dinha is famous throughout Brazil for its black-eyed pea and shrimp fritters, a regional specialty.

Take Salvador’s come-one, come-all approach to get-togethers: The no-formalities, remember-that-life’s-a-party air of Bahian hospitality soothes the visitor uncertain about the social codes of an unfamiliar world. I found a fine example of it in the Bahian restaurant Cadê Q’Chama?, in the Santo Antônio neighbourhood, which began as a one-table joint on the ground floor of the house where owner Alex Carmo lives with his mother, Dona Norbelia. Guests flock here to taste Dona Norbelia’s homestyle cooking under the long, white beams of an old Salvador house: fish moqueca, vatapá (a paste of ground shrimp, coconut milk, peanuts and palm oil), the pork-and-bean stew called feijoada. The very name Cadê Q’Chama? – which translates to something like “Hey, why wasn’t I invited?,” with its implied answer, “So, come on in!” – radiates Bahian sociability and laughter. “So many people in Salvador arrived in the city a few decades ago from other parts of Bahia, and yearn for the food that connects them back to the countryside,” says Carmo. “That’s the experience we try to give them here.”

A person picking a Bahian cocoa
Bahian cocoa sets the bar high for Brazilian chocolatiers.
A man crosses a street of colourful buildings in Pelourinho at midday
Bahian cocoa sets the bar high for Brazilian chocolatiers.
Pelourinho at midday.

In the arts, Salvador has found a way to create beauty, freedom and synthesis that belies the unequal power relations of social and economic life. Many of the greatest artists of modern Brazil – the singers and songwriters Caetano Veloso, Dorival Caymmi, Gilberto Gil and Tom Zé, the percussionist Carlinhos Brown and drum ensembles Ilê Aiyê and Olodum, and the novelist Jorge Amado, the painter and sculptor Carybé, the photographer Pierre Verger – have either belonged to, or settled down in, Salvador. Samba, the most characteristic musical form of Brazil, has its origins here in the northeast, as does tropicalismo, the mid-sixties musical movement that brought Brazil to the attention of the world.

Even today, Salvador continues to offer an evolving potpourri of styles that provoke and delight the ear. On weekend nights, the bars and cafés in the chic new neighbourhood of Rio Vermelho, south of the old city, offer live music on a continuum that ranges all the way from fado to funk and bossa nova to rap. Elsewhere, down by the bay on the grounds of the Museu de Arte Moderna – a 17th-century building that was once a manor and is today a musical hothouse – the Salvador percussionist Ivan Huol has been hosting Brazilian jazz nights titled JAM no MAM (Jam at the MAM) twice a month for more than a decade.

The colourful skyline of buildings in Largo do Pelourinho
Soaring skies over the Largo do Pelourinho, centre of the old town.

The concert I had stumbled onto was, in fact, one of Huol’s famed evenings. Afro-Brazilian jazz, Huol explained after his set, is characterized by its languorous bossa nova-influenced mood (which “sways” rather than “swings”) and emphasis on percussive virtuosity and mind-bending syncopation. “The lead musicians of JAM no MAM vary from session to session, but common to all the performances is our house band, Geleia Solar,” he said. “What defines our style is a non-subservient form of jazz, based in our Afro-Brazilian way of playing and the strength of our percussion. It makes our music strong, sometimes loud and always expansive.”

From this crucible of avant-garde sound by the water, Salvador’s music ascends and ramifies. Every February, thousands flock to Salvador from all over Brazil and around the world for the most raucous and joyous of Brazilian street parties, which spans Pelourinho: Carnaval. But more impressive than this crescendo (which is the city’s biggest tourist draw) is the mood of daily life. Even though the city is poor by Brazilian standards, there is something carnivalesque about human gait, thought and gesture in Salvador. Many situations erupt spontaneously into music: My abiding memory of a protest march I encountered at the old lighthouse, Farol da Barra, was of an elderly coconut vendor, lanky as a lamppost, gyrating to music from a boom box in the midst of the milling crowd, after the formal part of the evening was over, his hat pulled down over his head. “Bahia is always celebrating,” writes Amado, the great literary voice of the city and an exemplar of this warm, festive, bantering spirit. “The festivals have a very particular meaning: People are stronger than oppression and misery.”

A group of young drummers march down the street
Drummers from Olodum set the tempo.

As Brazil itself changes – now three decades a democracy, looking to its history in a new spirit of resistance, recollection and reconciliation – Salvador is returning to the mainstream Brazilian imagination not as a curiosity high up on the coast but as a necessary rite of passage, a gateway for every Brazilian and, indeed, every visitor. From the music dancing up out of a shoreline amphitheatre to the drummers suddenly swarming city streets, with all the buskers and boom boxes in between, the city’s ecstatic soundscape is an invitation to grand leaps of thought, to the breaking down of walls that inhibit human communion.

Salvador was where Brazil was born. It is where Brazil is being reborn.

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