The Embodiment of Sound

Baga A-tschol. A-tschol shrine figures from Guinea, Niger River region are displayed at celebrations for a successful harvest, worn as horizontal headpieces at dances associated with male initiation and appear at funerals. When not in use, a-Tschol are kept in shrines, sometimes located in the houses of elder members of the lineages. As guardians of the lineage, a-Tschol assume a protective role. (Provenance: Satch Hoyt collection)

The entrenched connectivity of sound to objects—and to forms that create sound—is imperative in attempting to map early African music, which has hitherto been relatively undocumented. Take, for example, the abstract planes employed in classical African sculpture—those that so enamored the modernists to the point of plagiarism. Those sculptures, resplendent with their bold planes, can be read as unfixed musical scores—coded slabs of rhythmic syncopations. Exposed to these forms, the eye literally bounces off one plane and glides to the next. Sound is complicit/integrated in this proposed viewing experience. What is rendered in this hearing of a form is, in fact, multiple imagined, unfixed sound scores. In the performative act of creating the sculpture, the sounds of the metal tools, complicit in the rhythms employed by the carver who sculpted the wood, were very much part and parcel to that. The sonic reverberations are therefore still imbued in the form, somewhat akin to a portal. So, in both of these conscious states of aesthetic viewing and improvised listening, multiple fluctuating sounds can be experienced from the said integrated form. Music, whether composed or improvised, is the trace or record of a series of listenings and of acts of forming that are informed by these listenings. Without opening up the question of form itself, we can say that the cumulative density of listenings, and their inscription in sound, traces out an emerging and developing subjectivity. We sense that the sonic presence of an intelligence is not only there to be retrieved from the music as a kind of “content”, but to be actively engaged with by the listener. This is already suggestive of something that could be meant by the idea of active listening.1

‘Negro Prison Songs’: recorded by Alan Lomax at the Mississippi State Penitentiary in 1947. right: excerpt of text by Alan Lomax from the back sleeve liner notes.

Even in the various phonogram archives, the distorted imprints of the digitized wax cylinders are lacunae. Unfortunately, they therefore only partially convey the complete sonic tapestry that was being sewn at the moment of the performance. This begs the question: if the phonograph machine was the slave of the anthropological master, what was the role of the African performer and under which duress was the performance performed? Phonograph recordings were limited to a time span of two minutes. We know from various sources—one being Swedish anthropologist and missionary Karl Laman, who spent much time in the Congo region—that some of these performances lasted for several days and that most were ritualistic and of a supernatural nature. I therefore argue that the performances were mere sketches, and hasten to add that, in some cases, they were, in fact, part minstrelsy—sans black face. We witness the aforementioned duress in many of the fetishized photographs of the period, which can be read as colonial mug shots. The imposition of technology, i.e., miracle-making machines, hand in glove with zealous missionary-led Christian fundamentalism, plus the European epic grand entrée into Africa on ships with sophisticated sextants, telescopes and cannons, played a colossal role in the psychological convincing of Africans that Europeans were the supreme race. Furthermore, these late 19th century stolen performances remain authorless in exactly the same manner as the collected artifacts exhibited in museums throughout the world. Many of the wax cylinders in European sound archives have as yet not been translated or digitized.

Music is not produced in a vacuum; it responds to the conditions in which the composer/performer finds themselves. Hence, a pragmatic understanding of music’s societal impact plays a pivotal role in understanding the evolution, sophistication and spiritual matrix embodied throughout the various transformations and migrations of Black music. Sound in and of itself is the firmament on which all creativity is built.

The Embodiment of Sound-IMG_0024
African-American churches are, in fact, organological structures, resounding amalgamated music mash-ups that hail from the African and European continents, and include First Nation influences from many different regions. Denominational structures such as the African Methodist Episcopal Church and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church became significant arenas for spiritual support, educational opportunity, economic development and political activism. Serving as school sites in the early years after the Civil War, taking up social welfare functions, such as providing for the indigent, and going on to establish schools, orphanages and prison ministries. As a result, black churches have fostered strong community organizations and provided spiritual and political leadership, especially during the Civil Rights Movement.

1 Tim Hodgkinson, Music and the Myth of Wholeness: Toward a New Aesthetic Paradigm (MIT Press: 2016).

Guents Dy Rincon – the Cape Verde Band

Lusotropicalism is a word one could aptly use to describe Portugal’s flawed ideology of hybridisation. Miscegenation continues to be a central topic in their conversations on colonialism and post-coloniality. The Cape Verde community is the largest African community in Portugal and their musics, such as Morna and Funana, gained popularity long before the music from their other African colonies did. I was blessed to discover Guents dy Rincon busking one afternoon on this Lisbon plaza near Barrio Alto.


Grandes Viagens Maritimas Dos Portugueses 1482 - 1660 map
Grandes Viagens Maritimas Dos Portugueses 1482 – 1660 map at the Lisbon Geographic Society (Sociedade de Geografia de Lisboa).

Well, here I am on the third leg of this, my first Afro-Sonic Mapping journey. Currently, I find myself in a city that I am familiar with, but am now forced to view from a completely different prism. This is the result of having recently spent time in Luanda, Angola and Salvador, Bahia, Brazil – two of the eight countries once held captive in the net of Portugal’s colonial empire. Lisbon, the city of seven hills, is indeed a beautiful city. Though I’ve already got a long relationship with the city, visiting many times since 1996, I fell in love with it all over again last week. Lisbon, adorned with all its heraldry, is strewn with bronze statues singing praises to doers of despicable deeds. The ghosts of its colonial past float over the buried debris of the 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which erased most of the architecture from its Age of Discovery. The ensuing tsunami, still the largest to hit European shores to date, left a devastating death toll of 30-40,000 people and destroyed 85% of the city’s buildings. The history books inform us that Sebastião José de Carvalho e Melo, the first Marquês de Pombal – then prime minister and prime player in the country’s colonial expansionist pursuits – gave the order to bury the dead and heal the living. The city was rebuilt in the architectural style termed Pombaline after the Marquês.

Marquês de Pombal statue, at Marquês de Pombal square, Lisbon, Portugal.

A huge, towering statue of the Marquês, posed and resplendent with an African lion by his side, is situated at the centre of the city’s largest crossroads and is circumnavigated daily by thousands of cars. But alas, amongst all of the statues scattered around the city, there is not a single monument erected that acknowledges the outstanding deeds performed by Africans. Surely the 17th century Angolan Queen Nzinga (baptized Ana de Sousa Nzinga Mbande), a military tactician extraordinaire, deserves to be hoisted high on a plinth for all of her heroic deeds in one of Portugal’s provinces – yes, Portugal referred to their colonies as provinces. To date, there is not one memorial to the African victims of slavery. Why is that? Is it because the Portuguese insist on perpetrating the fallacy that theirs was a soft, benevolent colonial model? This is what comes up time and time again when one opens up conversations on the subject. But let’s face it – every form of colonialism is oppressive. No one volunteered for a slave ship cruise in order to work on a plantation for nothing.

An illustration of Queen Nzinga. François Villain (lithographer). Image: Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library. (1800 – 1899). Ann Zingha, queen of Matamba. Retrieved from

Deep within the Portuguese psyche there is something quite melancholic, slightly broken – call it Saudade, if you will. Even the Portuguese dialect is somewhat whiny and depressed, very unlike the sing-song, melodic Brazilian version. Unconsciously, there is a weight imbued in every syllable delivered, which by the way, is extremely prevalent in Fado music (more on that subject later). All of those centuries of trade, conflict and flag-planting abuse do reap national karma/trauma. When I lived in Paris conversations about the Portuguese categorized them as the one-time great discoverers relegated to the concierge and chauffeur level. This is a country that was colonized by the Moors from 711 to 1249 and in turn colonized no less than six African countries – namely Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, Guinea Bissau, Sao Tome and Principe. Portugal’s colonial African empire was the world’s longest, from 1483 to the mid 1970s, subjugating an estimated 5.8 million Africans to slavery. So how do they justify such a small handful of token black people on TV and in ads on billboards? The absence of black people in power positions is mind-boggling; in case you didn’t know, Helder Amaral is the sole black member of the 230-seat parliament. I would argue that the lack of black people in business managerial positions and elsewhere speaks volumes to the so-called benevolent coloniser fallacy. The greater percentage of the Portuguese black community is disenfranchised and lives in social housing projects. The constant barrage of racial profiling and police brutality is at long last receiving media coverage due to a brutal assault in Cova da Moura, a black suburban neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. In February 2015, Rap artist and sociologist LBC Soljah and three associates were forced to endure six hours of what has been described as torture in a police station. The case is still pending a verdict.

Wall mural by Carla Soussa at Cova do Vapor
This wall mural is at Cova do Vapor, a black neighbourhood on the outskirts of Lisbon. Photo by Carla Soussa.

At the risk of chronological confusion, please note that in 1555, ten percent of Lisbon’s residents were black – some slaves, some free. They were enterprising, working as market vendors in many different sectors, and some held positions of great trust in the royal courts. Paintings from the renaissance period depict black nobility cutting a figure on horseback (For current images of the genre, see Kehinde Wiley paintings). Fast-forward to today, race relations in Portugal are sorely lagging behind its European neighbours, especially those that contain large ex-colonial black communities. But let me interject: unfortunately, many countries that participated in the slave trade throughout the European continent and elsewhere have been slow to offer apologies for their colonial pursuits. Notable is the UK’s recent Windrush scandal, which scores very high in shame points.

Lisboa Arte Pintura Rua Nova dos Mercadores aut desc sec xvi 00 ed
Praça do Pelourinho Velho and part of Rua Nova dos Mercadores. Flemish painting of 1582 (?). Image: Society of Antiquaries of London. Paintings from the renaissance period depict black nobility in all sorts of poses. Here we see them cutting a figure on horseback. For contemporary images of the genre, see Kehinde Wiley paintings.

More on Saints in Afro-Brazilian Religion

Candomblé is a syncretic religion, many of the Orixás (Orishas, or deities) are also represented by Catholic saints. The Virgin of the Rosary and Saint Antony of Catagerona are situated in the main church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People in Largo Pelourinho, Salvador, Bahia.
Depiction of Escravia Anastasia
Depiction of Escravia Anastácia in a vitrine in a chamber in the Pelourinho Salvador Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People. Escrava Anastácia is a popular saint worshipped in Brazil. A slave woman of African descent, she is venerated in the Umbanda religion.
Escrava_Anastacia (1)
Escrava Anastácia by Jacques Étienne Victor Arago – Souvenirs d’ un aveugle : voyage autour du monde / par M. J. Arago 1839 from Wikipedia. Read more about Escrava Anastácia in The Vintage News.

Axe Axe Axeeeeee*

‘Salvador has about 150 Terreiros benefited with tax exemption’. From article by Mathias Jaimes on

Roughly a quarter of all Brazilians identify as Protestant. Christian Nationalism is on the rise, globally, and Pentecostal religions have fast-growing political power. In fact, Evangelists hold 85 of 513 seats in Brazil’s lower house of Congress. People of African descent make up more than half of Brazil’s national population, yet they account for only eight percent of the lower house of Congress and only two out of 81 senators are black.

The increase in religious hate crimes appears to coincide with the spread of Evangelical Protestantism in Brazil. Today, of the 100 faith-based organizations subcontracted to run social programs in prisons, 81 are Evangelical churches. This has led to a swell in Evangelical gang leaders who, in Favelas, wield tremendous power of conversion and demonize Afro-Brazilian religions. A hotline dedicated to tracking religious intolerance reported that more than 30 Terreiros (Candomblé places of worship) were destroyed in fewer than 20 days during September 2017. This latter-day crusade by the Evangelists has openly demonized Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda, citing them as devil worship. In the past, Candomblé practitioners would say they were Catholic in order to avoid persecution.

As promised in a previous post, I will attempt to give a brief overview of Candomblé – as this, to me, is where the Afro-Sonic Signifier is most exquisitely located. After three weeks in Salvador, my mapping of Afro Sonics has brought me to the firm conclusion that Candomblé, amongst other African-rooted religions, has acted as the incubator and preserver of the sonics that I am tracing. I am arguing that African religion is instrumental in the promotion of interethnic alliances, which have led to innumerable cultural exchanges. This is the case in Brazil, as well as other slave-migration regions of the Americas and the Caribbean Basin. Due to slavery, Brazil has the largest Black population outside of Africa: more than half of Brazil’s national population identifies as Preto (Black), Pardo (mixed race) or Negro (Black and mixed race). Another group consists of both Preto and Pardo.

Oxum, Xango, Oxossi and Oxala Orixás. Statues of Candomblé traditional African saints in Dique do Tororo – Salvador, Bahia, Brazil.

Candomblé, like its sister Santería, which is practiced in Cuba, is a syncretic religion; many of the Orixás (Orishas, or deities) are also represented by Catholic saints. Each Orisha has a colour: red signifies fire and fury; white, peacefulness and tranquility; yellow, wealth and prosperity. The roots of Candomblé are clearly Yoruba, although it contains Congolese, Angolan and indigenous Amerindian elements, as well. These elements differ according to the type and location of the Terreiro in the country; there is Angola-Congo Ketu, Gege-Nagô, and Ketu–Nagô. Ketu, which traditionally uses Ifá – a sacred oral text – is the most prominent in Bahia. The core of the religion arrived in the 15th century with the Oba Babalawo priests on the Portuguese slave ships from Nigeria. The Nganga priests, meanwhile, came from Congo and Angola. The predominant African language used in ceremonies is Yoruba, though at times, depending on the branch, Mbundu and Kikongo words are also employed. The Yoruba believe that all life is sanctified by proximity and sacrifice to the essential emblems of the major deities: the clay pillar of Eshu-Elegba; the thunderstones of Shango; the bow and arrow of Oshosi; the irons of Ogun; the river stones of the goddesses Yemoja, Oshún and Oya; and the cowrie crown of Dada Bayonni appear on altars in Nigeria and elsewhere. Yemoja is the great mother of all the Orishas. Sometimes portrayed as a mermaid, she is responsible for fertility and procreation and is the Orisha of the sea. Candomblé seeks harmony with nature; it is a religion that has no Bible and teaches tolerance of all sexual persuasions. I met quite a few gay and queer practitioners whilst in Salvador, some very high on the initiation ladder, who had their own Terreiros. It should also be noted that there is an equal number of priestesses and priests.

Umbanda Branca is another Afro-Brazilian religion, which was created in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s by Zélio de Moraes. Like Candomblé, it also adopts the worship of Orishas. Umbanda ceremonies are accompanied by practitioners dressed in white, chanting to Atabaque drums. Likewise, Candomblé ceremonies are also accompanied by many types of drums – played both with the palms of the hand and sticks – and instruments such as bells and claves are part of the percussion ensemble. The priest’s assistants continuously ring bells for the Orishas – some of which have four tones.

Oblations are poured and sometimes animals are used in a sacrificial ritual called Orò. The species and their mode of sacrifice are supported by beliefs and myths associated with the religion, and depend upon the preferences of the Orisha. The colour of the animal also corresponds to the colour preference of the Orisha to whom it is offered. As the myths and practices associated with Candomblé originated in Africa, some of the animal species used in sacrificial rituals either occur in parts of Africa, or are substitutes for African species. The principal reason for sacrifice is to please the Orishas in order to keep life in harmony. This is accomplished by feeding them, in a spiritual sense, through sacrifice – thereby maintaining a perfect link between mankind and the gods, and a connection between the material world (called Aiyê) and the supernatural world (called Orun). The participants, predominantly dressed in white, wear many necklaces made from materials such as glass beads, shells, mini calabashes and feathers, which correspond to the colour of their particular Orisha. The congregation continuously chants in Yoruba, escalating to otherworldly crescendos, during which the participants enter into states of ecstatic possession; in fact, possessed by their own Orisha, with whom they become one. They are then led out of the main room of the Terreiro, dressed in the garb and bedecked with paraphernalia befitting of the Orisha. At some point, Ogun’s bread, contained in a large basket, is distributed to the congregation.

Terreiros of Candomblé: ‘Ilê Iyá Omi Axé Yamassê, also known as Terreiro do Gantois, was founded in 1849. It has become a reference for the spiritual advice that Yalorixá Mãe Menininha (1894-1986) offered to artists, officials, intellectuals and anonymous people, which helped to disclose the Gantois to the entire country and also internationally.’ As featured on

*Axe is pronounced Asche. This Yoruba word meaning Soul, Light, Spirit is used in Candomblé. It is also used as a greeting, meaning Peace Be With You.

They Don’t Really Care About Us

Michael Jackson - They Don't Really Care About Us (Still)
Still from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

After enduring nearly three weeks walking past the Michael Jackson casa, situated just a stone’s throw away from Igreja de Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Church of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Black People) in Pelourinho – which can be seen 23 seconds into Jackson’s video for They Don’t Really Care About Us – I finally got over all the tourists taking selfies and group shots with drummers, all the trinkets, souvenirs and the out-and-out commodification of the house as enterprise, and started to analyse, in this present moment of social and political unrest in Brazil, just how loaded Jackson’s act of shooting the video for They Don’t Really Care About Us for his 1996 album, HIStory: Past, Present, Future, was at that time – and still is now. Jackson embraced and empathized with Brazilian Blackness at the height of his lightness. His brief sonic migration to Brazil to make a socio-political statement of that magnitude remains extremely relevant today. Jackson’s gift of giving global visibility to Brazil’s racially stratified, class-based society that continues to lock black people in Favela poverty where social injustice remains in the hearts of those impoverished Brazilians, is deserving of big accolades.

Stills from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

Musically and visually, Jackson also entered into a Transnational African Diasporian dialogue with the activist bloco-afro drum collective, Olodum. It gave them massive exposure, not only garnering worldwide success, but also facilitating their educational and social programs in Salvador. To drive home the point and give the project more political weight, he hired activist filmmaker Spike Lee to direct two videos for the song, which was the fourth single on the album (the second video was shot in a US state prison and featured inmates, as well as archival images of historic police brutality towards African Americans).

Fifteen hundred police officers and fifty locals were hired to cordon off the filming location in the Santa Marta Favela in Rio de Janeiro. The Brazilian government was strongly opposed to Jackson shooting the video there, as it exposes Brazil’s slum conditions to the world. State authorities tried, unsuccessfully, to ban the production of the music video. In fact, Ronaldo Cezar Coelho, then state secretary for industry, commerce and tourism, demanded editing rights. A judge had even banned filming entirely; however, the ruling was overturned.

Michael Jackson - They Don't Really Care About Us (Still)
Still from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

To summarise the video, we first hear a woman’s voice softly state, “Michael, Eles não ligam pra gente”, which is the title of the song in Portuguese. In the juxtaposition in the opening shot of the famous open-armed Jesus monument above Rio de Janeiro, Cristo Redentor (Christ the Redeemer), and Jackson’s outstretched arms at the window of the Salvador house, I clearly read an activist plea, delivered with angry, provocative desperation. Thirty to forty seconds into the video, a muffled, near-inaudible voice is heard, which sounds to me as though it’s coming from a police intercom. Jackson first exits through a doorway; raising his arms, he gives the finger to the military police, and continues to make that statement throughout the video. This is, no doubt, the most politically engaged song in Jackson’s entire oeuvre, which, twenty-two years after its release, in today’s Black Lives Matter epoch, remains a timeless anti-racist anthem. The lyrics and imagery percolate into an audacious, subversive, abrasive amalgamation of all the genres of music that Jackson was embracing at the time, seamlessly adding quasi-militaristic Olodum samba drum patterns to the mix. Jackson was relentlessly defiant and jumped hurdles to enable the world to see Favela disenfranchisement – which could be lightly compared to parts of his pre- Jackson 5, Gary, Indiana upbringing. Michael Jackson flaunted his world-star position to tell the continuing narrative of race and class disparity and police brutality, which is still prevalent in contemporary Brazil and the Transnational African Diaspora at large. At the last dinner I attended in Salvador, I was informed that 37 black males were shot in one week by the Salvador police force: RIP Marielle Franco; RIP King of Pop.

Michael Jackson - They Don't Really Care About Us (Still)
Still from Official Michael Jackson video for “They Don’t Really Care About Us” (Brazil Version) as seen on YouTube. (C) 1996 MJJ Productions Inc.

They Don’t Really Care About Us [Verse 3]

Skin head, dead head
Everybody’s gone bad
Trepidation, speculation
Everybody, allegation
In the suit, on the news
Everybody, dog food
Black male, blackmail
Throw your brother in jail

Session at Dande Recording Studio

Cello Dut in the Recording Studio
Celo Dut delivering his original vocal lines on an Afro-Sonic Mapping track at Dande Recording Studio in Salvador, Bahia. It was a mellow process; Celo and I discussed the concept of the project at his home and in his home studio. I explained my vision for the direction of his collaboration to the composition and we were both very happy with the results. Thank you, Celo – I hope there will be more collaborations in the future.
Cello Dut in the Recording Studio
Celo’s music was introduced to me by Cassio Bomfim, a visual artist and fashion designer. Celo is a 22-year-old Salvadorian vocalist/guitarist who has a unique style of rapping and singing.
Listening back to the vocal tracks and making decisions. Throughout the Afro-Sonic Mapping album process I have disciplined myself to make fast edits so as not to end up with loads of tracks. This is the third recording studio, folks, which means at least another three to go.
Suya Nascimento in the Recording Studio
Suya Nascimento fine-tuning the direction of the noise and drones.
In Dande Recording Studio
Suya Nascimento’s music was introduced to me by visual artist and fashion designer Cassio Bomfim. Thank you, Cassio. Suya and I share a love of experimentation. Suya studied music and spent five years in Oakland, California. To my relief, she speaks perfect English with a soft Cali accent, which made communication between us so smooth – it’s rare to find people who speak English in Salvador. Suya played some very beautiful, haunting, layered guitar parts and recited my poem on “The Black Madonnas Bled” track. She is currently in the German language course at the Goethe Institute, Salvador, Bahia and will soon be spending time in Berlin; so watch out for her there.


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).


Cortejo Afro

Cortejo Afro in rehearsal on a rainy Monday evening in the Pelourinho district. This highly respected local Salvador Bloco (collective) has been together since 1998, with its prime focus being the Salvador Carnival. As can be attested by their magnificent Afro-futuristic costumes, one could mistake them as being the Salvador branch of Sun Ra’s Arkestra; but, from what I heard on Monday, they do not dwell in the regions of experimental avant-garde music.

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,

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.

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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.