Friday, August 29, 2008

Understanding Samba

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.

Samba rhythms and dances include hundreds of different varieties, not just what you see at carnaval. That thundering, call-and-response, samba heard during Carnaval is called samba de enredo. The slowed down, melodic samba that focuses on a lead singer is samba-cancao or song samba, which is what you hear in Rio clubs and what the House of Samba explores.

Of course, there are boatloads of samba hybrids in contemporary Brazilian music. Bossa Nova, Samba Reggae, Samba Rap and Musica Popular Brasilera (Brazilian pop) all get their flavor from samba. Personally, I love it all-- the booty-shaking, straight samba, the chilled out bossa nova, the soulful samba reggae, I listen to all of these. My favorites include Gilberto Gil (now Brazil's minister of culture) Daniela Mercury, Seu Jorge, Virginia Rodrigues, Ana Carolina and the angelic voice that has been constantly drifting through my house for a solid year, CeU. It's no coincidence that her name translates to sky or heaven. This girl has the range and nuance of all the great goddesses of song-Billie, Ella and Nina with a little early Marcia Griffiths for good measure. If you don't know any of these names, you're missing the important links between popular musical history and world music influences. Although CeU is young and still developing, her self-titled debut CD earns serious props, it was nominated for a Latin Grammy and captured fans globally. She expertly blends samba and bossa nova with reggae, jazz and soul. All the tunes are in Portuguese except a sublime cover of Bob Marley "Concrete Jungle" but it doesn't matter. Her voice translates every songs emotion. I believe that's the mark of every great samba singer.

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

Bahia Style

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.

Outside of Brazil, Carmen Miranda's appropriation of baiana style with fruit laden hats and exaggerated hip-swaying is the most familar image of a Bahian woman. But the true image can be found in the Baianas de acaraje, the women who sell the famed black-eyed pea fritters on Salvador streets. They work hard to earn a living, frying the fritters in sizzling palm oil, ladling peppers and onions over them in the hot sun and jostling for visibilty among Salvador's hundreds of peddlers. And yet, I never saw a splash of palm oil on any white dress. Never caught a headwrap skewed out of place or face that didn't beam invitingly. To me, that's the true essence of style; maintaining who you are whatever the situation.

Hangin' With Jorge

Brazil is a country that brims with culture. Everything from the food (spicy and heavy), the lifestyles,(laid-back) the music (high- spirited) and fashion (full of sexy flair), reflects a uniquely Brazilian perspective. As a writer, one of the rituals I have before traveling to a new country is to read some of its classic literature. Well, me and Portuguese don't get along so I didn't get a chance to find any good Brazilian books before I left. But when I arrived in Salvador, I discovered that Brazil loves the writer Jorge Amado like they love soccer. And that's a whole lot of love.

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.

Instead, I immediately bought a copy online when I got home. I have been hangin' out with Jorge (george jay) ever since. His sensual , vivid, writing reminds me a lot of my favorite, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, though not quite as lyrical. The story takes place on the cacao plantations and growing towns of 50s era Bahia. The characters are lively and funny, especially the fly and sly Tonico Bastos. He manages to sleep with every woman in town right under the nose of the plus-sized wife that he's terrified of insulting. Gabriela is a free-spirited Bahian beauty who winds up stifled by marriage. She breaks free in the end; the feminist undertones are intriguing considering the era and Brazilian machismo. Various aspects of Bahian culture--local dishes, samba, candomble, capoeira, all play significant roles in this entertaining tale. I can see why Jorge's stories translate so easily to TV and film. He writes with a cinematographer's eye for detail and drama. I now feel like a have a much better grasp on Brazilian culture, thanks to Jorge. My next stop with Jorge is Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands.

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.