The Beat of Bahia

By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 2, 2000

The first time I heard the patter of bongos in the streets of Salvador da Bahia, I followed it down crowded Avenida Carlos Gomes. It took me up five flights of rickety stairs to a display of acrobatics so bold and poetic it made my heart jump. Two caramel-colored men were demonstrating the martial art of capoeira, facing off in a muscular show of power kicks, head-stands and cartwheels, while a pair of drummers coolly tapped in the background.

I took that serendipitous foray to be a sign: For the rest of my stay, the drummers of Salvador would be my pied pipers. Whenever I heard the rhythmic bang of bongos or other drums, I would try to trace it to the source, using my ear as a compass.

One Sunday morning, it led me to a Catholic church where prayers were sung in a kind of Portuguese rap to the syncopated beat of a bongo. A couple of nights later, the drums drew me to a tiny neighborhood restaurant for lunch. The dreadlocked chef served shredded beef with manioc root and played an impromptu drum concert on the side. Another evening, I followed the beat down an oceanside trail to a jagged cliff. There a lone musician tapped out an homage to the blood-orange ball sinking into the horizon.

I had come to Salvador, on Brazil's northeast coast, to explore its Afro-Brazilian heritage. About 70 percent of its approximately 2.5 million residents have African roots. On your first swing through the city, you can sense their presence: in the skin tones of the locals, which range in hue from dark chocolate to milky coffee; in the white can-can skirts and flamboyant headdresses sported by matrons on street corners; in many local recipes, from the fish stew called moqueca, to acaraje, a bean fritter dish from Nigeria that Bahians gobble down quicker than Americans eat hog dogs.

But I wanted to dig deeper. Tracking the drum beat to the source might help. After all, it was slaves from Africa, transported here by Portuguese settlers between the 16th and 19th centuries, who brought bongos and other drums to these parts. And their descendants continue to weave drum music into the songs, religious worship and other aspects of Bahian life.

Even without background tunes, Salvador, the capital city of the Brazilian state of Bahia, is one of the world's grandest destinations. The stunning vistas and elegant buildings make an indelible impression on a visitor, like a ballad you hear once and remember by heart. On my first stroll through Cidade Alta, the historic district, I saw some of the most unforgettable architecture in South America: Catholic cathedrals splashed with gold leaf and covered with blue-and-white Portuguese tiles, baroque mansions of fallen sugar barons, towering statues of poets and lawmakers--all remnants of the city's 214-year reign (from 1549 to 1763) as Portugal's colonial capital.

From my room on the 10th floor of the Othon Palace hotel, I looked out over a sandy shoreline that continued as far as I could see along the edge of the city, encompassing at least two dozen beaches that go on for 40 miles--all apparently packed with Brazilian beauties. And then there were the Bahians, whose natural good looks and coquettish charm have been serenaded in song by Carmen Miranda and in prose by Brazilian novelist Jorge Amado, also a Bahian. Perched on cafe stools or standing on street corners, they seemed always ready to engage a stranger, even an American with only a scant knowledge of Portuguese.

Bahia, the center of the slave trade until the country abolished forced servitude in 1888, was Brazil's answer to antebellum South Carolina. The Portuguese brought up to 3 million captives to its ports. That bitter legacy transformed Salvador into the only major city in South America with a majority black population.

Although the style of Salvador has been heavily infused with Portuguese and native Indian customs, the mark left by the Africans struck me as most prominent. Among the handful of strongholds of the African diaspora spread across the New World--places where African-rooted people have put down the deepest stakes--Salvador seems to cling most faithfully to the traditions of the mother continent. Just as in Cuba, the Bahian music and dance customs are punctuated with the syncopated drums and rhythms born along Africa's Gold Coast. And like the people of the Gullah region in South Carolina, Bahians faithfully carry on African religious customs.

But one aspect of Salvador that distinguishes it from any other city I know is the extent to which the general population, including whites, has embraced African cultural traditions. Regardless of race, almost all Bahians eat acaraje and know by heart lyrics to the tunes of Olodum, a local Afrocentric musical group. A year and a half ago, the city fathers erected towering replicas of a half-dozen orixas, the gods worshiped by Bahians of African descent, in the middle of a pond in the Dique de Tororo, the most popular park in the city.

Back, if I may, to the drums. Early one evening, as I wandered the old city looking for a place to eat supper, I heard a patter from an open window above the cobblestoned Rua Joao de Deus. I followed it into the Casa do Gamboa, a restaurant much loved by upscale locals that specializes in a blend of Bahian and African recipes. I dined on vatapa, a seafood stew made with manioc paste, coconut and dende oil--probably the best known of many Brazilian dishes that originated in Africa.

As soon as I stepped onto the street, I heard a drum overture coming from the nearby Casa Olodum, the headquarters of the music group Olodum. Known for its thunderous chorus of drums, the group is waging a campaign to combat racism and boost the image of African people in Brazil. The shop sells musical instruments and Afrocentric memorabilia, stages informal drum jam sessions and acts as a center of information for readings and artistic performances by locals of African descent. After a chat, a clerk recommended I pay a visit to Mestre Mele.

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