Brazil: Carnival of the oppressed
It is carnival in Brazil. I am in Salvador, capital city of the state of Bahia in the North-East. I am dancing intensely and sweating like Hell. My feet are moving like drumsticks and my hips and shoulders are shaking and vibrating, as they never have done before. Smile, smile, smile. All faces around me are shining; I shine. Dance, dance, dance. I am totally exhausted, but do not notice. Carnival is intoxicating, it gives unknown powers just to go on dancing, floating, bubbling, without thoughts, without concerns, only joy. I am my dancing body, and I am it together with hundreds of thousands of others.
Salvador’s party of exultation
During the last decades, Salvador has gone into battle with the spectacular carnival of Rio de Janeiro, more and more people prefer Salvador’s inclusive party of exultation to the fantastic parades of the world famous samba schools of Rio de Janeiro. In Salvador it is not the spangles and feathers, naked bodies and neck breaking samba that impress, here what prevail are jogging shoes and shorts, comfort rather than aesthetics, joy of life instead of artistry. You can dance as you wish to ijexá, samba, reggae, afro, samba-reggae or hip-hop. Here it is the enormous street party that attracts up to 200.000 tourists during one single week each year.
But this carnival has also changed the Brazilian view of the world. Because in all of its exultation, carnival is a celebration that turns the ordinary social order in society upside down. It is a political arena for smiling; bantering and subtle frontal attacks on an incredibly unfair class society with the greatest social differences in the world. Here, a sophisticated racism is elegantly covered up by a national multi cultural self-image, which believes itself manifested in the "mulatto".
The political explosive in carnival is easily ignored by visitors who are rather overwhelmed by the happy and hospitable Brazilians – blacks as whites as browns. But when I dance samba-reggae in a parade spearheaded by the afro bloc Olodum, I am giving a clear message about what I think of oppression, social injustice and racism; that there is another way to organise the world which is not necessarily built upon European ideas. And I express it without uttering a single word.
Carnival of the slaves
Brazil was the last country in the world to officially abolish slavery in 1888. During more than 300 years of slave trade at least 4 million Africans were brought to Brazil as slaves. The majority landed in Salvador, which was the Portuguese colony’s capital until 1763. Today some 80 percent of Salvador’s 2.5 million inhabitants are of African descent, and the city claims to be the biggest "black" city outside Africa. And that has left its unmistakable mark on the city: Food, religion, culture, music, dance, party, social behaviour – all have roots in West Africa.
But that must not lead anyone to believe that Salvador is racism free. The Brazilian state is built upon a racist principle, slavery made it clear who belonged to the superior "race" from the very first moment. And that division did not disappear as slavery ended. The same racist ideas are still very much alive in Brazil, as much as they are in the US, Europe, in Norway and in the rest of the world.
Contrary to popular belief, carnival in fact is a European invention brought to Brazil by the Portuguese colonizers. At that time it was not called carnival, but Shrovetide and the celebration consisted of throwing dirty water on people passing by. In Brazil, the celebration of Shrovetide changed dramatically. It was "Africanised" by the slaves who from the very beginning were allowed to participate in the celebrations of their masters. The slaves brought their drums to the streets, danced in large groups, smiled and laughed and parodied the masters. They played rhythms that invoked their African ancestors and religious spirits, the Orishas – and all this could happen in the middle of a Catholic procession.
Whilst the masters thought the African celebration was uncivilised and disastrous for their advanced European culture, they could not help but being attracted to the playfulness of the Africans. And by the end of the 20th Century, the African character of carnival had taken over, though controlled by strict norms for what was perceived as decent. Because "Africanisation" should by no means be allowed. Especially frowned upon were the afoshes, a kind of street manifestation of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé.
From 1905 for about 10 years, the carnival groups and other cultural forms of the Afro-Brazilians were banned. But later the Afro-Brazilian folklore was applauded and exposed to present Brazil as a "racial democracy", a country without racism and where blacks and whites and indigenous peoples lived together in harmony. However, the "harmony" was due to that fact that everyone knew very well where he or she belonged and would not challenge the social "apartheid".
Ilê Aiyê – black beauty
Boom-boom-boom. Docky-docky-dong. Chicke-chicke-dong. Tocky-tocky-tocky-tocky-tocky-tocky-tocky… 100 Afro drums are booming, the ground is shivering; the crowd and I are rocking back and forth. "Ooooh let me come aloooooong!" Thousands of people are shouting with joy and singing. We are standing in a steep uphill in Curuzú. It is Saturday night and Ilê Aiyê is about to leave its neighbourhood bound for the main avenue of the Salvador carnival. The whole neighbourhood is decorated with its greatest adornments. Black women have spent days making their fantastic African hair sculptures; others have enormous turbans. All of those who are going to partake in the main parade are dressed up in huge coats with African patterns. It is red, yellow, white and black, unmistakably Ilê Aiyê, "the most beautiful of the beautiful", each and every one with their own personal style.
"Don’t leave me heeeeeeeere!" The crowd squeezes, smiling bodies shoves back and forth. A dozen of doves are set free and Mother Hilda, Candomblé priestess and the great guardian of Ilê Aiyê, throws popcorn around. She blesses the party the African way and wishes a pleasant carnival journey. More exultation and applause.
"Climbing the hill of Curuzúúúú!"- The drum battery is moving slowly and rocking uphill; so does the crowd. The drums are booming, it’s an earthquake – and it starts to poor down with rain. I squeeze myself as close to the drums I can get, my eardrums almost burst. "Ilê, I want to come aloooong!" Everybody is welcome in Curuzú, but in the main parade I have no access. Blacks only, that’s Ilê.
Ilê Aiyê is not only the great pride of Curuzú, today the entire Salvador is proud of the Afro bloc which to such an extent exposes the city’s distinguished African roots and Afro-Brazilian identity. But it has not always been that way.
When Ilê Aiyê appeared for the first time during the military dictatorship in the mid-1970s, it caused outrage. The Afro bloc grossly questioned the alleged racial democracy, protested against carnival’s celebration of the "racial harmony" and mocked at the white ideal of the Brazilians: "White guy if you knew the value blacks have got, you would take a bath in tar and become black too!"
"Reverse racism!" the white elite of the city exclaimed. Such ethno-political manifestation was not proper to the unconcerned, patriotic and democratic celebration of carnival. This gang of uncivilised Rastafarians and black-black Afro-Brazilians from the ghetto Curuzú represented an anti-national project that only could serve to split the people. Because racism, well, that did not exist in Brazil - and definitely not in Salvador with its overwhelming Afro-Brazilian population - did it?
But soon enough it came clear that more Afro-Brazilians in Salvador thought it was about time to mark resistance to Brazilian racism. All over the city Afro blocs emerged, emphasising their African roots and denounced the myth of the Brazilian racial democracy.
Filhos de Gandhy – for peace
Simultaneously, the afoxés lived through a renaissance. The oldest of them, Filhos de Gandhy – sons of Gandhi – was on the brink of dissolving, but gained new vitality. Thanks not least to the efforts of the black composer and present Brazilian Minister of Culture Gilberto Gil, who just had come back from exile. Filhos de Gandhy started in 1949 with the peace philosophy of Mahatma Gandhi as its ideal. At the mid-1970s there were only some 10-15 gandhies left, today they are 5-6000 men or more. And Gilberto Gil is always among them.
"Ajari-ô ê ê ê, Odara-Gandhy-Ajari-ô." The white peace carpet, the carnival parade of Filhos de Gandhy, is passing by slowly and rhythmically. Thousands of men of all ages dressed in white terry cloth turbans, white coats and overloaded with white and blue pearl necklaces in homage to the African orixá of peace Oxalá. Amongst them, Mahatma Gandhi’s double.
"Ayyy!" A splash of perfume hits me straight in my face. The gandhy laughs. "A kiss for a white and blue necklace?" He smiles as he rocks on. All the gandhies carry flacons of perfume and splashes on token passers-by, usually women. Only men are accepted in Gandhy. I am firmly stopped when I try to go inside the parade to have a better picture taken of the peace carpet. This is the domain of the Gandhy guys. "With women inside there will be no peace you know."
Agogô-pling-plong-pling, checky-checky-reeee, atta-atta-backe. Gandhy plays other instruments, the rhythm is called ijexá and asks for peace. Peace in Africa, in the Middle East, in Iraq, and in Brazil’s slums where the police’s war on crime costs the lives of hundreds of Afro-Brazilians each year.
Olodum – the black Pharaohs
Among those who suffered the most under police violence, social exclusion and extreme poverty during the 1970s and 1980s in Salvador, were the inhabitants of the ramshackled historical centre, Pelourinho. And it was in Pelourinho – which in fact means the whipping post and has gained its name from the place were the slaves were punished – that one of the most rebellious and politically challenging Afro blocs emerged.
"Our heads are filled with freedom, the black community demands equality, end all separatioooooon!" With the most popular rhythm of carnival, the samba-reggae, and the carnival hit of all times, Olodum put the Salvador carnival on the national and international map of music in 1987. And they awakened the black grassroots to self-reflection. "Eeeee Pharaoh," sang Olodum. "Tut-ank Amon, Akhenaten", the entire city replied.
"The Pharaohs of Ancient Egypt were black, we are the descendants of the founders of the cradle of the Western civilisation" Olodum claimed. And presented controversial theories of African researchers. "Bullshit!" the media wrote. "Hurray, I have a history to be proud of!" the grassroots replied, all over a sudden they could see themselves as kings and queens. They had more history than slavery and oppression to look back on; they could raise their heads. The combination of samba and reggae and challenging interpretations of African history made Olodum into one of Salvador’s fieriest and most important advocates for recognition of Afro-Brazilian culture, for social integration and the realisation of a dream; a real racial democracy. That is why Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela chose them as their host when they visited the city. And why Paul Simon, Jimmy Cliff, Spike Lee and Michael Jackson all chose Olodum as their partners in music.
"Just let it rain, just let me be all wet, I’ll stay in this craze until Olodum has left!" I wave and jump; I touch my belly sensually and shake my shoulders, hips and thighs. It is crowded and I copy the choreography of the dancers in front of me as well as I can.
"Clapp your hands, clap your hands, my dream is carrying me!" I clap and jump, jump and clap, in jumble, in chaos – together with thousands of others, white, black, brown, purple, locals, tourists, young, old, women, men… "I love Olodum!" an Argentinean tourist proclaims. "Olodum’s philosophy is my ideology!" declares Olodum’s Senegalese friend from Paris, participating in the carnival of Salvador for the tenth year in row.
Carnival changes the world
For almost 30 years the Afro-Brazilian carnival blocs have demanded justice and equality. Today most Brazilians know that the "racial democracy" is a myth, an ideal worth fighting for. But it still has a very long way to go. Brazil still is a hierarchical class society where a handful of whites own the lion’s share of the country’s wealth and hold almost all political and economic power. Blacks and the indigenous peoples constitute the overwhelming majority of those living below the poverty line. The mayor of Salvador is white, as is the governor, and the city achieved its first black university principal as late as in 1998. The new president Lula is also white, but has always been the spokesperson of the poor and the excluded. And he knows by his own experience what he is talking about. That gives reason for optimism.
Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, Filhos de Gandhy and many more have since the 1970s taken up a number of tools to promote and achieve a more just Brazil. Alternative primary schools, dance classes, children’s orchestras, health campaigns, political debate, international cultural exchange, concerts, conferences, the internet, business and more parties – it is full activity the whole year through. Carnival has been, and continues to be a very important arena. Not least in order to mobilise the grassroots and to raise consciousness amongst the poor and make them recognise who they are, what they are and which rights that have been taken away from them.
In 1975 it was outrageous even to suggest that racism was a problem in Brazil. In 1987 it was horrendous to emphasise the blacks’ historical importance for the western civilisation. Today Afro-Brazilian culture and history is the greatest pride Salvador has to offer. But even that is not unproblematic. Because it happens on the premises of the tourist and entertainment industry, and that still is dominated by the white elite. They sell black culture to those who bid highest, and without the vast majority of blacks getting notably richer. But many more of them are able to articulate their demands, from the speaker’s platform, in the media, in the corridors of the powerful, on the internet or – in the carnival.
And I go on dancing my protest through the streets of Salvador, in delirium together with thousands of others: "Strength and honour, freedom to the people from Pelourinho, and here I goooooooooo!"
- Do you want information about human rights in Brazil? Send an email to Ellen
- Read Amnesty International's documents on Brazil
- Read more about Ilê Aiyê: http://www.ileaiye.com.br
- Read more about Filhos de Gandhy: http://www.filhosdegandhy.com.br
- Read more about Olodum: http://www.olodum.com.br