Wednesday, July 15, 2009

African flavour of San Salvador da Bahia

I have never been to Africa, but San Salvador is as close to being purely African as it can be. The dominance of black faces is over helming. The presence of African culture is so strong that all other cultures fade away in a shade. Self indulgence in this culture is a total bliss.

First impressions are visual – and they instantly link Bahia to Africa. Even if a woman is not dressed as a “real Bahiana” the local “bahiana style” is still detectable: broad dresses, colourful bead necklaces and – of course – a broad sweet smile from ear to ear. If you see somewhere traditional (authentic) Bahianas – usually they are sellers of acaraju – they wear long and enormously full skirts and turban like head wear. It looks startlingly different and absolutely cute. In combination with the smiles and food they serve they are the most accommodating ingredient of a “Bahia life style”. It does not apply to “Bahianas” who sell their smiles to the tourists for a high price. They flock around the old city, block pedestrian part of the road while pestering foreigners from the cruise ships for money. I am not sure they represent a true Bahia spirit.

Another feature of San Salvador which is not to be missed is capoeira dancers. They practice on the streets and can be spotted from afar. Actually, if there is a group of capoeira boys somewhere around you would not be able to miss them. They definitely draw everybody’s attention. I am not sure if it is a dance, actually. There is music, of course: where in Brazil something happens without music? What about movements – they are so technical, so acrobatic and so fast that spectators sometimes cannot follow the speed of the dancers. Bodies just fly and twist and jump under the most unexpected angles, weapons clash, teeth grunt – and spectators are left breathless and flabbergasted. Only professional dancers and acrobats can imagine how much time and effort goes into the training. People like me – book mice – will never have a clue… Those boys train all day long – while performing – and getting paid for their efforts. Of course, there are capoeira shows in Salvador, quite a few of them. Such spectacular opportunity for a commercial enterprise was not overlooked. Shows can be managed by people unfamiliar with entertainment therefore shows can be very plain and basic, but capoeira itself will keep spectators deeply engaged and entertained.

They say that capoeira came from Africa. Back in the “Golden days” of cacao plantations black slaves practiced sport movements and fighting techniques in a hope that one day they will escape. Those who escaped practiced them because their survival depended on it. Being Africans, they could not do anything without music, and musical rhythms became embedded into an intricate framework of military exercises and eventually exercises transformed into a dance. The length and intensity of exercises are mindboggling and breathtaking. The skills cannot be faked. If one cannot perform up to a standard he will be killed during the show, probably, - or will drop off instantly.

Quite often exercising happens in public parks or on the beach. These capoeira boys become an attraction of the beaches and parks. Their muscular bodies (predominantly black or brown, but not necessarily) is a pleasure to an eye and many hours can be spent somewhere in a shade of a palm tree while watching those boys having fun.

Colourful ribbons is another visual feature of San Salvador. Those small silky ribbons of bright pretty colours are everywhere for sale, and in use by nearly every body: collections of ribbons can be seen tired up on rare view mirrors in the cars, on wrists of people, on handbags, on necklaces, colourful stripes are printed on dresses, sarongs and beach towels…The colourful ribbons stand for condoble, local religion.
This religion – just like capoeira - was invented by black slaves a few hundred of years ago. When they were brought from Africa and Christianity was imposed upon them by their Portuguese masters, the slaves hid their worship of pagan gods of the remote motherland behind the obedient worship of Christian idols: Jesus, Madonna and others. Jesus acquired a new name – a name of the African counterpart, as well as all other Christian deities… With African names those Christian images (or characters) acquired some peculiar non-Christian qualities, the stories from the Holy Bible got mixed up with the African legends and myths. A new religious mutant was born. It was named “condoble”.

Multiple gods of this religion have their unique names and functions. They are colour-coded. Any follower of condoble can select which gods are to worship more, which ones are of that person’s patrons, those colours will be chosen for a bunch of ribbons to decorate things. The ribbons indicate how popular this religion is in the area, how many devoted followers take sacred rituals seriously. A few brief conversations here and there proved our observations to be right. One of our guides told us that he came from a non-religious background but at the age of 14 he “had a call” and joined a capoeira group and a condoble church. I suspect that capoeira could play a leading role in this “call”, but it does not change the fact that a well educated and mature man is still a devotee of a pagan Parthenon… Read books by Amadu – and it is exactly what you will find in his heroes: condoble myths and gods are not separable from daily routine, they communicate with people frequently, condoble superstitions rule business and private life. It sounds similar to medieval Europe even if (I assume) modern Brazilians are educated (at least within a high school level) and should not be buying fairy tale as easily as our ancestors but it seems – they do.

The outcome is a colourful, unusual city with a unique culture of its own, with colours of its own and a very recognisable image… I loved these people, I loved this city.

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