When we think of Rio de Janeiro our minds quickly conjure up images of Carnival. While the festivities here are lavish productions held mostly in the special stadium built to house them, to get to the essence of the celebration you must travel, as I did, to Salvador Bahia in the north of Brazil.
Considered the most African location in the western hemisphere, Salvador is a 450-year-old city of many stories and contrasts. The place where 80% of the population can point to their African ancestors proudly celebrates its African heritage through food, art, music, dance and of course its drop-dead Carnival.
A taste of Carnival
I arrived in Bahia on Friday morning, so things were just beginning to simmer. First stop, a walk through the Pelorinho section in upper city with its winding streets, cafes, and enormous baroque churches. I was finding the rhythms. Stopped for lunch in a cafe to sample the traditional cooking style using “dend,” or palm oil, used to make a fabulous sauce that has its roots in West Africa.
The servers were some of the most beautiful black women I have ever seen. Dressed in starched, white-laced petticoats with colorful headdresses, these women made the experience complete. I would return again and again.
Took the elevator to the lower city to visit the market where hundreds of artisans and craftsman work. Also a great place to see Capoeira, a form of marital arts which was influenced by Candomi, the African worship of Ancestral deities. Stories have it that the slaves disguised the practice of this martial art as a dance to fool their slave owners.
With rest of the day in front of me, I hopped a bus to one of the many beaches I would visit to chill and get ready for the first night.
The party begins
As for the party, the AXE carnival form is the most popular. It lets everybody get involved with the celebrations at his or her own pace and taste. You can get deep into it or just lay back and watch it all go by. I did both.
Central to the party are the float-like trio electricos which are converted semis with bands on top. You can hear them coming from blocks away. Once you hear the rhythms you will never forget it. They form parades that last 6-8 hours.
If you want to participate, join an Afoxes or Bloco. They are the Brazilian version of the Crew in New Orleans. They all have strong African historic connections.
For the laid-back version you can be as fortunate as I was to get a room with a balcony facing the parade of trios. What a life.
Four days of this are as much as most can stand – touring, tasting, the beach by day, party all night to the morning light. You must do this.