In 1501 Amerigo Vespucci boldly came to where no westerner had come before when he landed at a vast bay perfectly suited for fortification purposes, and where in 1549 the Portuguese crown began the construction of the empire's most important city in the New World, Salvador da Bahia, a safe sheltered harbour, the largest tropical bay in the world.
It was here in Salvador da Bahia (as in bay) that the nation was born, and where its soul resides to this day. Salvador, as it more commonly known, was to remain Brazil's capital and seat of political, administrative and economic power until 1763 when the capital moved to Rio de Janeiro, a thousand miles to the south.
Bahia was the source of the initial wealth of the colony as Portuguese settlers planted the first of the massive sugar cane and later tobacco plantations to supply the expanding markets of Europe. The golden era was the 18th century, with the discovery of this precious metal, a wealth that is evidenced in the famous Pelourinho district, which houses the largest complex of colonial architecture in the Americas. The iconic Sao Francisco church's ornately decorated interior, leafed in gold, is testament to this period of prosperity.
The Visual Arts have always been important in Salvador and Bahia. The region is famous for its naive style where painters use strong, bold colors and an apparent simplicity which belies the often intricate, densely detailed works. But there is much more to the thriving local arts scene.
Internationally renowned artists such as the late Carybé, surely the undisputed visual chronicler of Bahia in all of its manifestations, also Mario Cravo and his monumental sculptures, Mester Didi and his reverence for the candomblé, Manuel Araujo's geometric brightly colored sculptures, Maria Adair with her flair for urban cool, Bel Borba's lively irreverent ceramic murals scattered throughout the city, the exquisite orixas of Tati Moreno at the Tororo lake.
These and burgeoning newcomers reflect just a glimpse of the wealth of Bahian contemporary art. The photos of Pierre Verger are testament to an age gone by and a constant reminder of the city's links to Africa, in the same way as Adenor Gondim´s emblematic photographs of the Boa Morte Sisterhood in Cachoeira.
Bahian music Bahia enjoys a huge audience worldwide through the works of João Gilberto, the godfather of Bossa Nova, brother and sister Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethania, who with Gal Costa and Gilberto Gil were fundamental in the Tropcalia movement in the 60’s, drawing on Northeastern Brazilian traditional musical genres such as samba, baião, as well as African influences. The samba comes from Bahia, steeped in Candomblé traditions.
Carnival brings in its tow another wave of Bahian musical talent in the complex percussive storm of Afro groups like Ile Aiyê, Olodum, Muzenza and Timbalada, this latter the brainchild of Carlinhos Brown, a multi-talented musician, percussionist and composer. Banda Didá is an all–woman drumming troupe of grace and power. Carnival owes much to the unique Guitarra Baiana, or Bahian Guitar, a short fretted electric guitar, an integral instrument in the original carnival soundtruck known as a Trio Electico. This instrument is still used by innovative bands like Baiana System and draw huge crowds during Carnival
The phenomenal, charismatic talent of Ivete Sangalo has to seen to be understood. She and Daniela Mercury, reign over carnival. Overlooked by the popular media but of essential importance is the seminal Geronimo and his Banda Montserrat. His song "É d´Oxum" is hymn to the city, his "Eu Sou Negão" an affirmation of Black pride.
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Africa is the key that underlies dance traditions in Salvador, inspired by the sacred dances of the Candomblé, a belief system brought to Brazil by enslaved Africans. The national dance, Samba has its origins on the western shore of the All Saints Bay.
Every Bahian is safe in the knowledge that the Samba originated here and not in another more famous city to the south.
Capoeira, a martial art of African origins, once describes as the fight of ballerinas and the dance of warriors, has its home in Salvador, a mixture of grace, power and subtlety. The world renowned Bahia Ballet Folklore Dance Company provides a wonderful opportunity to appreciate the world of Bahian dance.
No other regional cuisine in Brazil is as distinctive as that of Bahia where Mediterranean, African, indigenous and Asian influences form the basis of this truly unique cuisine. Seasoning for Bahian cuisine is a blend fresh coriander leaf (cilantro), garlic, limes, black pepper, all with their origins in either Mediterranean countries or further east in Asia.
Coconut and seasonings from the Mediterranean and Asia (via Portugal)
Dende palm oil from Africa
Manioc in all of its variants from Brazil
The signature dish is the moqueca, a seafood dish prepared in an earthenware wok-like dish and brought to the table directly from the stove, a delight for the eyes, nostril and palate.
Bahian street food is best represented in the acarajé, a black eye pea dumpling deep-fried and sold by local women, known as Baianas de Acarajé in traditional dress, late afternoons on street corners and public squares. An acarajé and chilled beer is one of the city´s great traditions.
The state of Bahia and its capital, Salvador, form a cornerstone of the immense African Diaspora to the New World. For over 350 years the negreiros (slave ships) brought their human cargo from Africa to work in the plantations and mines of Brazil. They came from Guinea, Angola, the Congo and finally from Yorubá speaking West Africa.
The main port of departure for this latter cycle was Ouidah in the People's Republic of Benin (ex-Dahomey). The ships left laden for the treacherous Atlantic crossing to Bahia, and for those who survived, the grueling work of the mines and plantations that stoked the Portuguese economy. A bi-lateral trading in slaves arose due to the very high value placed on a third grade tobacco, prohibited for sale in Europe, but much sought after by those dealing in slaves in West Africa. Slaves from West Africa were traded for tobacco and aguardente (sugar-cane rum) from Bahia. It is mainly for this reason that such a strong Yorubá influence is so evident in Bahia. In no other part of Brazil is this influence so strongly felt. Although other influences are found, (Bantu's from Angola, Gêges from Benin, and so on), the over-riding influence is that of the Nagô's from Nigeria.
In Bahia, Africa abounds. Salvador is the most African of the Brazilian cities with up to 80% of its population of over 2 million people having African origins. The local cuisine, music and dance forms and its extremely vibrant visual arts traditions are all testament to this permeating African influence.
A stroll though the historical Pelourinho section of Salvador bears this out. Baiana's, local women dressed in traditional costumes sell a wide variety of food on street corners from their tray full of Bahia's delicacies. The acarajé or bean dumpling fried in the dendê (palm oil) is also to be found on the West Africa by the name acará. On the sidewalks and in the ateliers artists can be seen working on their canvases in bright bold colors similar to Haitian art. Somebody plays the berimbau, a bowed instrument that forms the rhythm for the mesmerizing capoeira dance/martial art, somebody else is practicing intricate percussion exercises. The omnipresent radio plays the latest in Bahian music fused with African polyrhythms. The buildings may be European but the rest is Africa.
The most deeply felt African influence in Salvador is Candomblé, the worshiping of the ancestral spirits or orixá's (or deities, for want of a more appropriate word) in ceremonies that take place in over 1600 terreiros (or places of worship) through the city of Salvador. the most African of Brazilian cities, indeed the most African in the western Hemisphere.
A Candomblé terreiro is often known as a roça, a small farmstead. At the time of the repression of the practicing of the religion, the babalorixá's and ialorixá's (priests and priestesses) moved to outlying areas to establish their terreiros away from the eyes of the authorities. Most of these terreiros have now been engulfed by the expansion of the city and continue their activities in urban surroundings instead of what would have originally been a rural setting
Candomblé worships and honours the orixá 's of the religion´s extensive pantheon. An orixá is a deified ancestor who, when alive, established links which guaranteed him or her control over certain natural forces, e.g. thunder, the winds, or the sea; or which allowed him or her the possibility to exercise certain activities such as hunting, working with metals or powers over the elements, or somebody who learnt the properties of plants and their powers. This force or power (or axé, pronounced ah-shay) of the ancestral orixá would have, after death, the power to incarnate itself in one of his or her descendants through the sacred rhythms, dances and songs of the Candomblé used to invoke the deified spirits.
A popular greeting in Bahia is Axé!, a kind of "may the force be with you!" and this Axé is the driving force of Salvador and Bahia.
Originally the practice of the Candomblé was permitted by the slave masters. The masters thought that the dances and songs of the Candomblé were nothing more than entertainment, nostalgia almost, as the slaves remembered their ancestors. They were allowed to gather in batuques playing the drums and the sacred songs of the orixá's. When the slave masters began to distrust these gatherings as possible means of organizing revolts they decided to prohibit these meetings. The slaves, who often accompanied the masters to church, began to choose different Catholic saints to represent the deities from Africa. It was at this point that the phenomenon of syncretism, the blending of Catholicism and Candomblé appeared in Brazil.
Syncretism There were always tangible connections between the Catholic saints chosen and the orixá represented. In Bahia, Saint George, who slew the dragon, was adopted to represent Oxossi, the orixá of the forest and the hunt. Saint Anthony, who was given an honorary rank in the Portuguese army, was chosen to represent Ogum, the orixá of iron and anybody who used this metal as part of their work. Saint Barbara, a rebellious saint, was chosen to represent Yansã, the orixá of winds, storms and fires and these connections continue on through the pantheon.
There are two forms of capoeira widely found in Bahia. Capoeira originated in Angola and was brought to Brazilian shores by slaves down through the centuries. Today two distinct forms of this mesmerizing martial art/ dance are widely seen in Bahia.
Angolan Capoeira The more traditional Capoeira Angolan is a slower and much subtler form of the martial art where the hands are often used to support the body as the blows are given by the feet. One is considered a good capoeirista for the manner in which one gets one's opponent into a position where he or she is of guard, a great accent being on disguising the possible eventual blow. If points were to be gained in this martial art form they would be gained for the craft and skill used in delivering the blows rather than the blow itself. The word "ginga", meaning the sleight of hand, foot and body to deliver and avoid blows, is the key here.
Like all great martial arts there is a very vital philosophy and way of life associated with being a capoeirista and to become a master demands years of dedication to the finer details of the art.
Music plays a very important role in Capoeira and a Roda de Capoeira Angola, the circle inside of which the capoeirista perform, cannot take place without the full complement of 4 berimbaus, (a bowed one-stringed instrument and the backbone of the capoeira), one conga, tambourines and an assortment of other percussion instruments.
Regional Capoeira There was a movement in the 1930's, under the famous Brazilian dictator Getúlio Vargas, to create a unique Brazilian sport. A Bahian capoeira master, Mestre Bimba, was given the task of adapting the Angolan capoeira to a new distinctly Brazilian form of capoeira. The other form, Capoeira Regional, was born. This form is faster, indeed flashier, than the original Capoeira Angola, where the blows are directed to the head in a spectacular display of strength, technique and control.
The musical form for the Capoeira Regional is similar to the Angolan form, a faster, stronger rhythm but using only the berimbau, tambourine and conga. Both form have their intrinsic qualities, the Angolan form is certainly subtler then the more "gung-ho" Regional form.
Carnival is living and dancing proof of Bahian's love of life and a good party. Salvador's carnival is the largest carnival in the world. Unlike Rio de Janeiro (very much a spectator event), Salvador encourages active participation. It is estimated that there are 1 1/2 million people dancing on the streets at any one time. The event officially starts on Thursday night at 20:00 when the keys of the city are given to the Carnaval King "Rei Momo". The marathon affair winds down sometime Wednesday morning, to the despair of many. There are two distinct musical formats to be seen and heard during carnival.
The Afro Blocos are large drum based troupes (some with up to 200 drummers) who play on the streets accompanied by singers performing sweet melodies from atop of mobile sound trucks. The first of these groups was the Filhos de Gandhi (founded in 1949), and whose participation is one of the highlights of Carnaval. Their 6000 or so members dance through the streets on the Sunday and Tuesday of Carnaval dressed in their traditional costumes of white and blue, a river of white and blue in an ocean of multicoured carnaval revellers. The best known of the recent drum based Afro blocos are Ilê Aiye, Olodum, Muzenza, Malê Debalê and Cortejo Afro.
All of these are groups which operate throughout the year in cultural, social and political areas. Not all of them are receptive to having foreigners amongst their numbers for Carnaval. The roots of the so-called axé music comes from these groups who have looked to their African and Brazilian origins, creating exiting new rhythms. The basis of the rhythm is the enormous surdo (deaf) drum with it's bumbum bumbum bum anchor-beat while the smaller repique played with light twigs provides a crack-like overlay. Ilê Aiye take to the streets on Saturday night and their departure from their headquarters at Ladeira do Curuzu in the Liberdade district is not to be missed.
The other format to be heard during the festivities are enormous trio eléctricos, 40 foot sound trucks with powerful sound systems that defy most decibel counters. These trucks, each with its own band of up to ten musicians, play songs influenced by the afro bloco's and move at a snail's pace through the streets drawing huge crowds of revelers.
Each of the Afro Blocos and blocos de trio have their own distinct costume. Each has its own security personnel who cordon off the area around the sound truck thereby permitting bloco members to dance in comfort and safety. Entrance to this area is only permitted to those wearing the relevant costume. Carnaval becomes more de-centralized as years go by. The traditional route is from Campo Grande square (by the Tropical Hotel da Bahia) to Praça Castro Alves near the old town. The bloco's go along Avenida 7 de Setembro and return to Campo Grande via the parallel Rua Carlos Gomes. Many of the trio's no longer go through the Praça Castro Alves, once the epicenter of Carnaval...
The other major center for Carnaval is Barra to Ondina. This area has become very popular in recent years. The bloco's alternativos ply this route. These are nearly always trio electrico's connected with the more traditional bloco's who have expanded to this now very popular distict.
There are many raised viewing areas (called camarotes) where the parade can be watched in comfort and safety. All have bar services as well as the all important bathroom facilities. Most also provide taped music between lulls in the proceedings. Security personnel are on hand at all times to ensure that there are no intruders. Identification to these areas is by wristbands or customized tee shirts. Best days here are Friday - Tuesday.
Not to be missed is Timbalada, the drumming group formed by the internationally renowned percussionist Carlinhos Brown. Margareth Menezes, Daniela Mercury, Yvete Sangalo, are other major attractions.Carnival officially ends with the famous "Encontro dos trios" (Meeting of the Trio's) where trios jostle for position in the square at the Farol da Barra and play in rotation until the dawn (or later!) on Ash Wednesday. It is not uncommon for major stars from the Bahian (and Brazilian) music world to make surprise appearances here.