Friday, August 29, 2008
If you've heard of Brazil, you've heard of samba. Most people have glimpsed photos or scenes from Brazilian Carnaval, with sexy revelers festooned with a feather or two, writhing to samba rhythms. But what exactly, is samba? I always thought it was a music genre but I discovered that it's music, dance, and so much more, at Santo Amaro's House of Samba.
Stepping into the terraced building that also holds a studio and performance space, before you can even get to the samba exhibits, the altars of seven saints loom. Like all African art forms, samba does not separate the spiritual from the mundane. The heavy percussion of samba beats derive from candomble music used for sacred ceremonies. Statues of Saints Lazarus, Joan, Barbara, Bonfim, Anthony, Roue, and the Portuguese twin Saints(! ) Cosme and Daniel, line the first wall of the Samba House. The corresponding colors for the candomble orishas or deities, adorn the background of each altar. The beads representing the orisha connected with the saint hang dramatically over each statue. I stood in front of the altars, a little overwhelmed. I was raised Catholic so most of the figures were familiar but I couldn't figure out all the symbolism and how the orishas connected specifically. The candomble religion is embedded in Brazilian culture but it's a very complex system. I'll be discussing it in detail in a later post.
An exhibit highlighting samba instruments was next. Besides the all important drum, (pandeiro)there were tambourines and guitars (cavaco) and plates and knives, over a floor filled with sand. The floors of poor houses were typically made of sand and samba music and dance is traditionally performed in the sand. Bahia is known for its rural, folk versions of samba, which is very different from the contemporary samba you see in Rio. Samba De Roda, or circle dance, is the most famous. It features women dancing in and out of a circle and men playing guitar, tambourine and plate and knife. a defining move of the samba de roda is the umbigada, where the women bounce gently off of each others bellies. The music and dance can be traced to African Bantu culture and the exhibits spotlight this point, displaying all the clearly African characteristics of samba.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
Poetry Santo Amaro Style
The name Santo Amaro da Purificacao sounds like the title of a poem or novel and in a lot of ways, this quaint rural town on the Northern coast of Brazil reflects the very essence of poetry. Starting from the sun-baked streets and ice cream-colored buildings, this place screams with charm. The cobblestone roads are narrow and seem to be overflowing with people, animals and products for sale. The marketplace, which features an array of tropical fruits and vegetables as well as homemade hootch, is famous for its Bembe do Mercado Festival, which is the only candomble ceremony that takes place in an open setting. The sunflower yellow courthouse, with its cannons still aimed at intruders, is a national monument that commemorates Brazil's independence from Portugal in 1822.
Perhaps Santo Amaro's ultimate claim to fame rests plainly in the middle of town. That's where you'll find the childhood home of the poet of Salvador, Brazilian musical icon Caetano Veloso. Caetano's 100-year-old mother remains the village matriarch and I was taken by the white-washed house to meet her. Tired out from meeting officials for the independence ceremonies, she was napping but I enjoyed hearing about the family's lasting influence on Santo Amaro from my guides. A lyrical genius and political artist on the level of Bob Marley, Caetano has even been compared to Leonardo da Vinci because of his renaissance-man ability to write poetry, paint, sing and direct movies. Caetano founded the Tropicalismo movement with Gilberto Gil in the 60s, blending rock, jazz and Brazilian folk genres with densely political lyrics. That music forced Caetano and Gilberto into exile by Brazil's military dictatorship until 1972.
Although he's now retirement-aged, Caetano continues to pump out innovative tunes laced with his breezy, sinuous vocals. Considering standouts from his ginormous catalog of albums, one of my favorites is 2000's "A Bossa de Caetano." He re-interprets bossa nova classics and throws in an extra twist with a stunning cover of Michael Jackson's "Billie Jean." This was the soundtrack that flowed through my mind as I explored the poetry of Santo Amaro.
Friday, August 22, 2008
Flaunting flawless skin, a vibrant spirit and colorful fashion sense, Brazilian women are famous for their beauty. On my recent trip to Northern and Southern regions of Brazil, I wasn't shocked to discover that Brazilian women mostly rock 3-4 inch stilettos in sand, over cobblestones and through airports. Nor was I amazed that most wear very little make-up and exude a natural beauty that's eternally kissed by the sun. What grabbed my attention was the realization that it wasn't the glammed up cariocas that strut down Copacabana and Ipanema who captured my memory. It was the baianas, the striking women from Bahia that wear traditional white dresses, fly headwraps and ritual beads, who really rule.
Baianas represent the cultural symbol of the state of Bahia. Located in the Northern region of this huge country, Bahia is considered the cradle of Brazilian culture and Baianas personify it. Brazil claims the largest population of African descendents outside of Africa and Bahia is where the culture and the people are centered. Like all African art forms, there is more to Baiana fashion than just the superficial. The Baiana tradition of fabric and design was brought from West African Fon and Yoruba cultures. The weave, embroidery and placement of the fabric reflects social position and family background. The beads that all Baianas wear represent orixas or deities from the prevalent candomble religion, which mixes traditional African rituals with Catholicism. The way a baiana wraps her head, sashays down Salvador streets and smiles graciously, all reveal innate style that can't be duplicated.
Hangin' With Jorge
Whenever I asked about Brazilian culture and customs, my guides kept telling me to read Jorge Amado. So I was excited to visit the Jorge Amado Foundation in Pelourinho. It's a museum dedicated to his 32 novels, memoirs and guidebooks. Jorge's books have been translated into 49 languages in 55 countries and all those translated books adorn the walls of the museum. His stories have also been made into plays, films and Brazilian soap operas. Judging from countless recommendations, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon is probably the most popular. The exchange rate for American dollars in Brazil is about as thrilling as Paris Hilton's thought process so I declined to buy a $32 translation at the museum.
Wednesday, August 20, 2008
How To Avoid Creepy Experiences During Your Travels
I love adventure. I don't love creepy situations. Generally speaking, it pays to be open to new experiences except when you're freaked out. I learned the hard way that when your inner voice is telling you to beware, it's best to listen and forget about that great travel experience that you're passing up.
On my last night in Brazil I stayed in a 400-year-old convent. Yes, it has been converted into a hotel but there's very little evidence of this. A huge crucifix carved from what looks like petrified wood looms in the lobby. Christ hangs from it with suffering and pain carefully etched into his face. The hallways and rooms are painted a stark, institution ,white. All of the floors creek. The key chain I was handed for my room looked like it was at least 100 years old. It was heavy brass and displayed the Carmelite symbol. No decorations mar the minimalistic and dark atmosphere except an oil painting of the last supper in the lobby. Compared to the rest of the place, that painting qualifies as a cheery little design detail.
A former Carmelite convent, it's now called Posada do Convento and sits in the center of Cachoeira, a city famous for it's colonial architecture and huge number of candomble terreiros or temples. Candomble mixes Catholicism with African rituals and the religion plays a significant role in Brazilian culture. I was scheduled to visit the oldest terreiro in the morning and I anticipated this. What I didn't anticipate was spending the night in a former convent that bears an uncomfortable resemblance to an insane asylum.
"Oh, I would stay here with you but I see spirits every time I stay here and can't sleep," said Claudia, my lovely and genial host. That was really what I wanted to hear. "Why can't I just stay with you?" I asked, trying to sound nonchalant but panicking inside. "We're staying in a simple guest house, it's not for visitors," she explained. "I don't mind," I countered. She waved away any other talk of leaving, assuring me that this was the best hotel in Cachoeira. This was where I should have insisted but I didn't. I climbed the ancient stairs and walked down an endless, unlit hallway to my room. I manically locked the door, checking it twice. Besides a bed covered with a worn white bedspread, a small nightstand and chair, the only thing in the room was a massive wooden bureau, large enough to stash several bodies.
I was exhausted after touring four cities in two days so I checked my door's lock one more time and went to sleep. Days before, I had been given a candomble necklace by a priestess as a gift. She told me to wear them for protection and prosperity. It's a great honor for a priestess to give someone her beads so I was extremely careful with them. I took them off and laid them on the chair before I went to sleep.
I slept fairly well, considering the circumstances. I don't remember seeing or hearing anything. But when I got up, my door was not locked. Maybe I hadn't locked it correctly but it was eerie to see it slightly open. I turned to put on my necklace and it fell apart in my hands. The coral beads and cowrie shells scattered smoothly on the floor. The sturdy rope that they were strung on, which had been fine when I took the necklace off, was broken. I scooped the beads up, packed my bags and rushed out of that room. When I told Claudia she gave me a guarded look. "What do you feel this means?" she gently asked. It means that I'll never allow myself to stay in a situation where I don't feel comfortable. It's a common lesson but one that I obviously needed to remember.
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