Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Rhythm of Bahia, the Beat of Its African Soul ; Reinventing a Carnaval with Much Fanfare and a Focus on Brazil's History

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

The Rhythm of Bahia, the Beat of Its African Soul ; Reinventing a Carnaval with Much Fanfare and a Focus on Brazil's History

Article excerpt

Reinventing a carnaval with much fanfare and a refocus on Brazil's history.

On Sunday at noon, about 15,000 people were mustered for a parade at Campo Grande, Salvador's enormous park -- part of the annual six- day carnaval here that ended Tuesday. The parade was a show of solidarity: the first massed public performance of the city's blocos afro, the Afro-Brazilian drum groups that are also neighborhood associations and self-help initiatives in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods.

At the core were 450 percussionists, pounding out the marching, swinging beat of Bahian samba reggae, and Carlinhos Brown, a hit- making Brazilian songwriter and a bloco leader who organized and financed the parade. Around them were squadrons of costumed bloco members: Baianas in white hoop skirts, African-style dancers with straw fringes at shoulders and hips, crowned kings and queens, helmeted female warriors, hunters with glittering bows and arrows, twirling and kicking capoeira martial artists.

Thousands of other bloco members strutted along in groups wearing matching abadas -- carnival jerseys -- representing more than a dozen other blocos afro. Only one of Salvador's major blocos refused to join: Olodum, the group heard on Paul Simon's song "The Obvious Child" and seen in the video for Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care About Us."

The parade was a public affirmation -- and media magnet -- for an idea Mr. Brown has been promoting. He wants Salvador to create Afrodromo, a parade ground for the blocos afro, with 20,000 bleacher seats and skyboxes. He envisions a more high-tech version of the Sambodromo, where Rio de Janeiro's top carnaval events take place. The project is estimated by an executive producer, Raissa Martins, to cost $5 million.

Afrodromo would be a new carnaval circuit. Salvador already has two primary ones: the long-established circuit along the downtown streets of Campo Grande, and a newer and now more prestigious route along the beachfront boulevard, from Barra to Ondina beaches. Mr. Brown hopes that with an established parade ground of their own, the blocos afro could gain prime-time media attention and also work together on merchandising and other programs. Afrodromo's advocates say it would help Salvador's carnaval reclaim its soul.

Salvador, with a welcoming Atlantic harbor, was the first capital of Brazil. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, until Brazil ended slavery in 1888, it was the largest port in the New World for the slave trade, and 80 percent of the city's population today is Afro- Brazilian. "Bahia has been a profound cauldron for the world's memories," Mr. Brown said.

African-rooted rhythms propel much of Brazilian popular music. Yet the prime-time face of carnaval is almost entirely white. "It is a model that goes against cultural diversity," said Albino Rubim, secretary of culture for the state of Bahia, who was attending the Afrodromo parade. "It's all related to business, to marketing, to sponsorship." He added: "A carnaval without the blacks is a carnaval that loses its soul. And carnaval in Bahia today has lost a lot."

Salvador's main carnaval parades, which bring an estimated two million people to the streets, feature pop hitmakers rolling along above the crowd on a trio eletrico, which is enormous: a tractor- trailer truck re-outfitted with video screens and a blasting sound system, with bands of frenetic percussionists and peppy lead singers performing on top.

Thousands of revelers surround each truck, singing along and dancing as only Brazilians dance, while the vehicle crawls along the route or stops to perform a few songs for television.

The size of the trios eletricos has caused a backlash of scaling down. Last Wednesday, the night before carnaval, the Barra-Ondina route was taken over by the Habeas Corpos parade: a procession of local brass bands and surrounding dancers, proudly unamplified. During carnaval, the four-man MicroTrio played psychedelic-tinged tropicalia songs from a pickup truck hung with a few amplifiers. …

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