Drums, Dreads and Orishas

Sunday at church
Last Sunday, I attended morning mass at Nossa Senhora do Rossario dos Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People), a catholic church built by slaves for slaves. The mass I witnessed was accompanied by drums, ago-go bells, and other percussion instruments. I must say, this experience was the closest I have come to Congo sonics. In fact, the music was very reminiscent of Missa Luba – a 1960’s recording of a catholic mass in a cathedral in Brazzaville. I own the recording on vinyl.

On arrival the first evening, we offered libations – poured rum on the floor for the spirits, for the Orishas, for the ancestors. The Congo connection was summoned, imagined and was sincerely sought.

Here, thus far in Salvador, Bahia the digitalised wax cylinder sonic Kongo I, carried back to Angola and collaboratively built upon in Luanda, has not yet been heard – that is not witnessed by my ears. I have heard drum patterns to summon Yorùbá Orishas; I’ve also heard the rustle of skirts from the Candomble women devotees dressed in white giving popcorn benedictions. Domingo (that’s Sunday), I attended morning mass at Nossa Senhora do Rossario dos Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People). It’s a catholic church built for slaves by slaves who formed a brotherhood in 1704. Membership to the brotherhood was strictly limited by an agreement with the Archbishop (D. Sebastião Monteiro) to Africans born south of the Equator from Congo and Mozambique, as well as their descendants. Restriction to membership of the brotherhood became obsolete with the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888 and was extended to all Brazilians of African decent in 1896.

The mass I witnessed was accompanied by drums, agogo bells and other percussion instruments. I must say, this experience was the closest I have come to Congo sonics; in fact, the music was very reminiscent of Missa Luba – a 1960’s recording of a catholic mass recorded in a cathedral in Brazzaville. I own the recording on vinyl.

The lively procession after the service carried a deity of a saint through the streets, accompanied by an ensemble. It was very reminiscent of the Sunday 2nd line parades I experienced last year in New Orleans.

From my balcony I constantly hear bells and triangles of all description, which accompany chants to buy eggs, water, cakes and other products here on the streets of the Santo Antonio Barrio (neighbourhood) where I live. It is here that the Revolta dos Males slave revolt occurred, inspired by the 1791 Toussaint l’Ouverture led Haitian revolution. It consisted of six hundred plus Hausa Muslim slaves who rebelled against the Portuguese authorities. The well-documented uprising occurred in January 1835 during the last ten days of Ramadan. The revolt was fought by both slaves and freedmen, which begs the question: can we call it solely a slave revolt? The history of revolts in Bahia, and the new world in general, is long. In order to even begin to comprehend the sonics embedded in the complex race and class structures of Bahia it has been absolutely necessary to do extensive socio-historical research.

“If African slaves are treacherous Creoles and Mulattoes are even more so, and if not for the rivalry between the former and latter, all political power and social order would crumble before a servile revolt.” – Luis dos arcos, Governor of Bahia,
1814.

Noteworthy here is that Brazil won independence from the Portuguese in 1822.

There was a strong division amongst Afro-Brazilian born and African-born slaves. The master class used Creoles and Mulattoes to control slaves; in fact, Africans could not acquire freedom as easily as Creoles and Mulattoes. By using Capoeira, an Afro-Brazilian martial art, many slaves escaped and created rebellion groups. These runaway groups formed communities known as Quilombos and Macombos.

Screen Shot 2018-08-27 at 09.26.45
I experienced ÀRÀKÁ – a black Queer collective that hails from a local Comunidades. I attended Quaseilhas, their somewhat abstract Afro-futurist performance sung and acted in Yorùbá at the Forte Do Barbalho.

In the built-up urban environment of the busy seaport of Salvador, earning money was extremely important for individual slaves, as it could mean a way to buy oneself out of captivity. Slaves and free people of colour expanded their creativity in devising strategies of survival, resistance, solidarity and struggle. The most organized of these groups was the Muslim community, comprising mainly the Hausa people from Nigeria. The Ewe and the Yorùbá people were also very active as leaders in organized rebellions and revolts. It should be noted that there was considerable conversion to Islam during this period, but no churches were torched in any of the revolts; In fact, we read that a strain of Jihadisim existed, but the goal was physical and political liberation coupled with religious autonomy.

Shadism, as we now call it, was in full operation by the Portuguese Colonial Project. In 1884, a group of frightened slave-owners estimated that four hundred plantations in the Bahia area housed only six whites and Mulattoes for every one hundred slaves.

The house slave who poisoned her master’s family, had first to become the family cook: the runaway slaves who created viable communities needed to learn the techniques of cultivation in an alien environment: the slaves who plotted armed revolts in the marketplace, had first to produce for the market and to gain permission to carry their product there.

Mestiçagem (miscegenation) was later interpreted as a mark of national singularity and as a possible solution for the race problem. The de-politicization of race in Brazil and its supposed racial democracy is a fallacy. The mythic melting pot is cracked; it holds no water. There is a major absence of black representation in the government. The voice of racial politics has been stymied. Blacks have been granted the role of ‘specialists of expressive culture’ – what I might term the long parade – which, in a nutshell, has led to the fetishisation of the black subject as entertainer, minstrel, musician.

ÀRÀKÁ performance
Quaseilhas – performance by black Queer collective ÀRÀKÁ.

I only saw and heard one berimbau (a single-string percussion instrument, a musical bow) in Luanda. It was the one that Kabuenha performed with, whilst singing in his native Kimbundu, after depicting the Tchokwe Sansas with dried red earth, transformed to dust, poured on the theater stage. Here, in creolised Salvador, I’ve seen hundreds of Angolan instruments, berimbau’s, cuica’s and reco-recos in all of their various sizes hanging in stores, nicely arranged and all up for sale, but I didn’t find a single one in Luanda. I was informed that, if I was lucky, I might find traditional musical instruments in the rural areas. My dream of buying a Sanza (Kalimba Thumb Piano) was thwarted; but hey, ironically, I often find them on my Belgian flea market trips.

The construction of invented ancestral traditions rooted in genuine African cosmologies, mythologies, and other belief systems, ably accompanied by the necessary paraphernalia needed to perform the rituals, is to be found in many locations in the transnational African Diaspora: the Trinidadian Carnival and the New Orleans Mardi Gras being two examples. Here in Salvador, Bahia, the marketing and merchandising of a re-imagined Africa have long been exploited. The commodification of Bahia African-ness is in full flow; tourists flock to experience and take home a little diluted souvenir.

Festival flyer
Flyer from the festival Arte Como Luta – an excellent subversive performance festival, which ran from August 21 thru 26, hosted by the Goethe Institute of Salvador (Bahia).

Hard-edged inner-city urban music tropes – those with the vertebrae-wobbling bass lines – have not as yet been experienced in this torso of mine. Though I hasten to add, thus far, I have only trod the asphalt pavements, not the dusty paths of the Comunidades (slums). But I have experienced ÀRÀKÁ – a black Queer collective that hails from a local Comunidades. I attended Quaseilhas, their somewhat abstract Afro-futurist performance, sung and acted in Yorùbá, and presented at the Forte Do Barbalho as part of the festival Arte Como Luta. It was an excellent subversive performance festival, which ran from August 21st thru 26th, hosted by the Goethe Institute of Salvador, Bahia. Another performance, held last Friday at their gallery, consisted of throwing a mixture of menstruation blood and urine onto the Brazialian flag, followed by painting the word censorship on the four walls of the gallery space. The radical position that the Goethe Institute have adopted in supporting the local queer and Black community in Bahia is exemplary and highly commendable. Apparently, an engaged radical stance at the Goethe Institute in Salvador is coming from a long tradition. During the 1970s, there was a very engaged director who offered a platform for progressive, radical expressions of protest contra to a stringent dictatorship that was then in place. It has been reported internationally that people have been murdered for being queer in Brazil, but the traits of inclusion are often witnessed in public spaces.

Everywhere I go I see dreadlocked sistrin and bredrin; reggae, dance hall and dub have been wholeheartedly embraced in Bahia and are to be heard in both pure form and a fusion with the various Brazilian genres of music such as Bossa and Samba.

I’ve heard that tropical exotica type (Tropicália Esotérico) – you know, the type that’s almost whispered, barely sung. It’s muzak, piped through holiday resorts and hotel foyers, principally to create a gentle, numbing distraction, aimed to make you think that you’ve arrived at some utopian melting pot – an oasis where everyone sips cocktails and wears cute selfie smiles. Class and racial stratification are ever present in the syncretised Lusophone tapestry on which we gaze; and let me add, it is very much intertwined in the diverse sonic thumbprint of Brazil. On this, my second Lusophone stop, the coloniser’s culture is present everywhere. Here the locals make a point to inform you that they speak Portuguese.

It’s like I’m following a sonic winding cortege; with the few contacts and clues I’ve been given, I’m attempting to find my way through a complex labyrinthine of chapters of Bahian narratives, past, present, and future. Please wish me well.

At the closing party last Saturday, an improv face-off was staged. The radical position that the Goethe has adopted in supporting the local queer and Black community in Bahia is exemplary and highly commendable. Apparently, an engaged radical stance at the Goethe in Salvador comes from a long tradition. During the 1970s, there was a very engaged director who offered a platform for progressive radical expressions of protest contra a stringent dictatorship that was then in place.

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