Polyphonic Hybrids

Tourism & Music
When the revolution is exoticised and commercialised, it begs the question: What the fuck are we fighting for?

When the revolution is exoticised and commercialised, it begs the question: What the fuck are we fighting for? Capoeira was used as a lethal weapon during the slave revolts, and it remains a very important spiritual doctrine that many people embrace. Nonetheless, it has been commercialised. Where is the Brazilian patois to be found?

Calunga was a cryptolect, a coded secret language that originated in the Minas Gerais region. Calunga’s lexicon has elements of Kimbundu, Umbundu and Kikongo. Slaves from Angola and the greater Congo region were transported inland to work in the Minas Gerais gold mines. Calunga, along with Caipira Portuguese was outlawed by Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the Marquise of Pombal in the 18th century.

I only saw and heard one Berimbau in Luanda. Here in creolized Salvador, I’ve seen hundreds of Berimbaus along with quicas, and reko rekos – all those Angolan instruments in all their various sizes – hanging in stores, nicely arranged, all up for sale.

It seems to me that solidly in place here in Salvador is an all out aversion to feeling the pain: what pain? The smart of the rope-burn pain. I heard that pain/sound yesterday on the boat ride back to Salvador from the island of Itaparica. I recorded it on my Zoom, but it had already been recorded in my memory bank centuries ago. It’s the pain of one’s/a people’s core integral identity being wrenched away, the depths of ones’ being. Where is the rage and how has that rage been smothered? Has it really been smothered? Whenever I witness the feel-good factor at such high decibels, my mixed-race trauma-soaked self shifts into interrogation mode. It’s like folk here are wrapped up in a blanket acceptance of the way things are – that to dis ere Jamaican chip on your shoulder Londoner is unbelievable – coz everywhere that I’ve been I see enclaves of shanty-towns on hills squeezed between office buildings and, what I would describe as normal-living-condition neighborhoods. The race and class disparity machine is revved up to full throttle.

Phenotypically, I’m surrounded by every type of black mix I have ever known, from the lightest beige to the deepest darker-than-blue: the sea of unfixed floating identities is kaleidoscopic (Vera Cruz, Itaparica).

Turning on the TV, let me rephrase – seeing TVs on everywhere – who do you see representing the country? A Telenovela reality which stars next to no dark-skinned, and very few brown-skinned, black folk. Picture all of this against a backdrop of 16th century imperialist Portuguese architecture and the ever-present lingua franca of the colonial master. In fact, the invisibility of the guilty master is so present, it’s like he never left; he is the primordial ghost haunting a people. It’s just another strain of the Lusaphone expansionist doctrine that’s firmly in place here in Salvador, Bahia. Even if you removed all of those buildings and introduced a patois to the black community, the haunting would continue. In tandem with all of that, there is a certain melancholic sonicity, uncannily akin to the blues that I have detected in certain strains of Brazilian music. It’s the melodies that float on, in and through the minor chord progressions; it broaches on an out-of-tune-ness. It’s a careful choice of clashing notes. Yeah, it’s subtle, but it’s there; and those notes – they grate, they grind; and, perhaps it’s that same melancholy that was diverted into evangelistic embrace yesterday. It’s crescendo reached a fervor pitch on the boat ride back from Itaparica, where a bible-clutching brother suddenly started preaching; but no one reacted, either positively or negatively: no ‘Hallelujahs’, no ushers, no hecklers, no speaking in tongues. So with all the smiley and not-so-smiley stuff, that at times broaches on a tropical minstrelsy trope, I’m detecting pangs of painful denial.

‘…the crescendo reached a fervor pitch on the boat ride back from Itaparica, where a bible-clutching brother suddenly started preaching; but no one reacted, either positively or negatively: no “Hallelujahs”, no ushers, no hecklers, no speaking in tongues…’

Phenotypically, I’m surrounded by every type of black mix I have ever known: from the lightest beige to the deepest darker-than-blue. This amazing sea of unfixed, floating identities is kaleidoscopic, and it came about through the white man’s love of sugar. From deep mars-black molasses to refined translucent titanium-white granules, that refining and redefining of the race from the sugar plantation plantocracy to today is what has been in play for centuries. In fact, miscegenation was well underway before the first slave ship ploughed through the Black Atlantic arriving on Brazil’s Amerindian shores to encounter yet another phenotype in the racial mix mash-up. Nina Simone’s song Peaches rings in my ears – mix that with Aretha’s version of Young, Gifted and Black and segue to Billie’s Blood on the Leaf. I see, and deeply relate to, the burden etched into the faces I encounter; a post-traumatic slave trauma that time has failed to ameliorate. It’s a complex situation that berths in all ports of the Transnational African Diaspora. It’s where the pain resides; it’s where the DuBoisian double consciousness, now ratcheted up to quadruple, floats on the ebb and flow of unpredictable xenophobic seas.

Painting by Alina Dos Santos (2010) describing idealized and de-racialised Creolizations of Brazilian society. This naive genre of painting is seen everywhere in Salvador.

I was informed, by a new Bahian friend who just spent five years in the USA, that Salvadorians just want to forget the painful chapters of the past. This state of agnosia is a comfort zone for some; a place where people attempt to opiate and dilute their burdens. Due to the centuries of race stratification, many Salvadorians feel no need to affirm their Blackness – they de-compose their sonorities of identity and relegate them to states of blurred flux. I find myself dissecting Black Brazilian pain, attempting to unpick the knotted threads in the tightly woven tapestry of colonial and post-colonial slave narratives. No doubt I’m trawling my own tragic mulatto complexities, but when I was told that Carnival was a segregated spectacle until the 1980’s, a few pennies dropped; and when I was told that the top three stars of the Salvador Carnival are white women, a few more dropped.

Detail images from a painting by Alina Dos Santos (2010). The painting describes idealized and de-racialised Creolizations of Brazilian society – a naive genre of painting that is seen everywhere in Salvador.

Yesterday afternoon I spent four hours with the legendary Salvadorian visual artist and costume and set designer Alberto Pitta. Alberto is the president of Cortejo Afro, which, I have been informed, is in fact the most important Salvador Black Bloco (Carnival camp). The costumes and concepts he has created since 1998 are totally Afro-futurist, though he created them without having any awareness of the Afro-futurist movement that we know. Alberto works with both Gilberto Gil and Caetano Veloso. When the Black Bloco created a contest for the most African woman, the white participants accused the black community of using Carnival as a political platform. In a nutshell, Carnival is a political platform – whether here in Bahia, Trinidad or London. As a youth participating in early Notting Hill Gate Carnivals, I remember the police would be holed up in a schoolyard close to the Portobello flyover and would bum-rush attack the participants and the Black general public. The London Caribbean community fought to install Carnival, and now it’s one of the biggest summer events in Europe. Whether you choose to trace the roots of Carnival to the Congo or Venezia, the socio-political implications are manifold.

Alberto Pitta explaining his practice during a studio visit.

In the 1980’s, the import of non-Brazilian black influences helped create a transnational identity rooted in early forms of Pan-Africanism. In these current times of heightened right-wing political tendencies, the overlapping containment/boundary lines of ethnic, racial, national and cultural identity are amplified. Withn a polyphonic hybrid landscape, lies layered under-pain. The sonic interrogations of that encrusted, fossilized under-pain, helps me further understand the material malaise that binds us to entanglement of both the skin-trope condition and varied strains of self-loathing.

The Alberto Pitta studio complex also houses a Terrerio (a place of Candomble worship. Candomble is a Black Atlantic, Brazilian religion that I will talk more about in a future post).


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