“PURE LOVE AND JOY”: OUR TRIP TO PELOURINHO, BRAZIL

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This is a first-hand account of Death Is A Business’ visit to the neighborhood of Pelourinho in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil in March 2022. You’ll get a taste of the music, food, architecture and culture that bring this city alive.

MARCH 18, 2022: Today we fully explored Salvador da Bahia. We got off the ferry and hiked along the waterfront, through a stinking fish market. Finally we climbed right up a very steep hill, straight through a favela. It felt familiar.

When we reached the hilltop, suddenly the dusty, humble favela transforms into the elegant colonial homes of Pelourinho–supposedly named for the big stick in the public square used to beat ‘disobedient’ African slaves.

It felt much like Cusco, Peru–small, winding roads with cobble-stones, old European homes crammed around steep hills, beckoning us with cafes and shops bearing heaps of arts and crafts.

The artesanatos (arts) here are heavily Afro-Brazilian-influenced–paintings and figurines of Africans, depicted in dream-like forms. Windows and door-frames ringed by crowns of tiny, colored laces.

And instruments abound–drums of all imaginable sizes, shapes, types and materials–hand drums, marching drums, congas, bongos, djembes…

Percussion instruments like shekeres in every size, tamborim, pandeiro, bibimbão, little bells, something that looks very similar to a chakcha, African thumb piano…

Then we get to a big hill with a wide open square. Up top is a four story, navy-blue house–the Jorge Amado museum, one of Brazil’s most famed writers.

This was the neighborhood’s center of action. Ladies sold acarajé from small stands, young men covered in white paint roamed around brushing fantastical designs on people’s bodies. Sonia and Stephanie were happy to be painted, but I avoided them.

A man with the biggest bibimbão I’ve ever seen hosted capoeira classes on a big mat. At the very top, just in front of the Jorge Amado house, a batucada group beat their drums while inviting tourists to join.

Walking around, you sense the glory and riches of the city–and also the bloodshed and misery disguised in its streets. You feel the power and resilience of African peoples, and their vulnerability too.

We walked into a small shop and met a girl named Iasmine. She was born in Ilheús, to a Spanish father and Baiana mother, but moved to Spain at age 5, lived there her whole life, and now moved to Salvador a few years ago.

She and her mother are deeply involved in Candomblé, the syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion combining Catholic and African folkloric elements. The girls asked Iasmine if her mom could “read their shells”, to determine their “orishas”, or gods.

So she took us to her mom’s home where we introduced ourselves. Stephanie ended up going first for her reading. The plan was for us all three to get a reading. But Iasmine told us it could take two to six hours per person!

In the end we left it at Stephanie. Sonia and I went to eat with Iasmine and her partner Diego. An unhoused man approached us, and immediately our two friends shouted at him to stop.

É só um refrescante!” he shouted. “Just a drink!”

Eles tem não!” they pleaded. “They don’t have anything. Please, for the love of god!”

They convinced him to leave, as fast as he appeared. Sonia and I were confused–we didn’t mind giving this man some money.

Iasmine explained that if she didn’t stop him, he wanted to lift up his shirt and show us his infected ulcer. She said he wanted to get a drink to resell and buy crack.

Lá tem puro craque,” she said, gesturing to the favelas down the hill we couldn’t see. “There it’s full of crack. It just takes one hit of crack for you to get hooked, ? Right?”

I tried to explain that things are more complicated–this unhoused man probably has a lot missing from his life that could help him be healthier and happier. I have no doubt crack helps fill those holes, but it’s not the solution to vilify and shame him.

This is the side of Salvador they don’t want you to see, its poverty, racism and inequality. But what gives me hope is the culture that lives on. Maybe I’m naive—but if music can’t unite us to fix our problems together, what else do we have?

That day in the city, we were drawn–like moths to flame–to a big batucada drum ensemble, playing right there in the street. The drums are so loud you can hear them from a mile away. When you get up close, it’s deafening.

A group of about ten or fifteen drummers, playing interlocking rhythms, on drums big and small, creating one massive, fluid wall of pure joy and love.

The sound bounces off the walls and city streets, enveloping you, entrancing–until your feet and body start to move. Video or sound recording don’t do it justice, it’s something you have to hear and see in the flesh.

I realized while watching them that all music boils down to a drum–something striking something else and vibrating, whether it’s skins, strings, sticks, air or a vocal cord.

If my trip to Brasil was worth anything, it was for this.

Follow the very talented samba school on Instagram! @swing_do_pelo 

A few quick facts about Salvador :

  • Salvador is located in the northeast region of Brazil, on the east side of the Bay of All Saints (Bahia do Todos os Santos).
  • Today it’s the capital and largest city of the state of Bahia, and the third-largest Brazilian city overall after São Paolo and Rio.
  • It was founded in 1549 and was the first capital of the Portuguese colony in Brazil.
  • It played a key role in Portugal’s empire, particularly because of the sugar trade. By 1600 colonial Brazil became the world’s leading exporter of sugar.
  • Portuguese colonizers first enslaved the local indigenous Tupi-Guarani population, then imported African slaves on a massive scale to work the sugar plantations. Until the abolition of slavery in 1888, Bahia alone saw the arrival of over 1.3 million enslaved Africans–predominantly from the Bight of Benin, Angola and the Congo.
  • Today Salvador has the world’s largest diasporic African population, with eight in ten residents claiming African ancestry.

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