Long weekend in Salvador

Pablo and I just spent a long weekend in Salvador, Bahia! I have wanted to visit this city ever since I was first introduced to Brazilian culture through capoeira in 2008. This was more of a trip for leisure and less for research, although of course I learned a lot that informs my research in Recife.

The first thing we did was visit the famous area of Pelourinho, which was filled with beautiful architecture, artisan shops, ice cream (!), and just an overall great vibe. I felt immediately that the energy in Salvador is unique.

Chair with the famous lembranças do Senhor do Bonfim ribbons at the Igreja do São Francisco

I got a fitinha (ribbon) tied to my wrist within 10 seconds of stopping in Pelourinho; I made three wishes that will supposedly come true with the ribbon finally falls off. We also visited the Igreja do Senhor do Bonfim, which is in the neighborhood of Bonfim, and people tie the fitinhas to the gates and say a prayer.

View from Igreja do Senhor do Bomfim

We walked through the streets of Pelourinho on Friday night, and I could hear capoeira music coming from many windows and doorways. Hearing the berimbau and atabaque was incredible—there is nothing like capoeira music and all that it evokes. We stopped by the original academy of Mestre Bimba, who created what is today known as capoeira regional. It was very cool to see the tiny space and imagine all the history that happened there.

Centro de Cultura Física Regional da Bahia – Associação de Capoeira Mestre Bimba

I was also excited to see a short performance of the Balé Folclórico da Bahia at the Teatro Miguel Santana. They performed a variety of styles, from orixá dances to capoeira and maculelê to samba de roda. They had some incredible percussionists (I was especially impressed by the guy who played “Asa Branca” on the berimbau) and two beautiful singers. This video by AFP gives a sense of their work:

We visited the brand new Museu da Casa do Carnaval, which just opened its doors this February. The museum gives a video interactive tour of the history of Bahian carnival, and the displays were filled with incredible costumes, instruments, and decorations. I could have spent the entire day there! It was very interesting for me to learn how different carnival in Bahia is from carnival in Pernambuco—and it is no less rich than Pernambuco. The creativity is awe-inspiring. We also had a fun dance lesson at the end of the visit—we entered a dark room and we were instructed to put on some of the carnival masks and hats that they had available. Then they played a dance lesson video on the big screen and we learned a bunch of the popular carnival dances from over the years! #bootyshaking

It was also interesting to visit the Casa do Rio Vermelho, which was the house of famous Brazilian author Jorge Amado. The house was filled with collectible art pieces from around the world, had a toad pond in the back yard, and had a beautiful garden. My favorite part was a little gazebo/grotto in the garden that was filled with silver ornaments symbolizing the orixás (from candomblé), which twinkled in the breezy sunlight.

Of course I had to try the food in Salvador! Here is Pablo’s acarajé and my abará (which might be considered the “lite” version of the fried acarajé). Everyone was right—it was delicious!

I also had a real Bahian moqueca which was made with fresh local fish and was, again, muito gostoso.

Even though it’s April, I even got to experience a bit of Salvador carnival while I was there! Ivete Sangalo is a famous singer/performer who has performed at every carnival in Salvador for the past 26 years. This year, she had to miss it because she gave birth to twins. Now that she is working again, they decided to have a special show just for her! We went out to Avenida Oceânico to await for the much-anticipated trio eletrico—it was quite a show!

The trip was short but we packed a lot in. I would definitely like to return to Salvador in the future and spend more time exploring the city and some of the natural sights surrounding the city.

Post-carnival reflection

Carnival has ended, which means that the first “phase” of my Fulbright research plan is over. I’ve been in Recife for about a month and a half, and I’ve experienced some of the lead-up to carnival and carnival itself. I say “some of” the lead-up to carnival because it is clear that the prévias and ensaios of the various blocos have been going on for months, and I only caught the tail-end of it. By the end of carnival, men and women covered in glitter and wearing masks and costumes were commonplace, and I hardly even reacted when a man dressed as “The Mask,” in a bright yellow suit and green mask, cross the street in front of me. (Okay, I totally pointed and exclaimed, “The Mask!”)

I feel like we just plopped down into the middle of a huge vortex and I’m still trying to make sense of it all. I am still struggling with Portuguese, although I am starting to understand better as I learn more vocabulary, and maybe more importantly, what to expect. For example, after ordering water, I can now anticipate the question, “Quer gelo?” and confirm, “Não, sem gelo [ice], por favor.” (That simple question took me by surprise for at least three weeks and I just kind of stammered and mumbled something incomprehensible in return; I need to be more confident, calm down, breathe, and realize that I know more than I think I do!). I am thankful that my partner Pablo is here with me, because without his total fluency between Portuguese and English, I think I would be crying a lot due to frustration and feelings of isolation. In our first couple weeks, we had to navigate a lot of bureaucracy that I think I would not have been able to do on my own.

Over the past month, there have been so many events to choose from! I came here to study frevo, which is central to carnival here, but is also not, of course, the only thing. There are also the caboclinhos, two distinct types of maracatu (baque solto and baque virado), papangus, tons of official concerts (frevo, samba, reggae, etc.), even more impromptu musical gatherings in bars, and just the millions of different costumes and creative personas that people put on for each day of carnival. And did I mention that there are three different types of frevo? Frevo de bloco, frevo de rua, and frevo canção. I only sort of knew this before I got here, but I certainly didn’t know how different they really are—not only in terms of style, but also the context in which they are experienced. But then again, they are also clearly linked, especially in the joy and alegria that they inspire as people jump, shout, and sing along.

I have met many people from many different areas of expertise and perspectives, who are opening my eyes to what carnival and frevo and other popular dances mean. I am interested to learn where they agree on meanings and, more intriguingly, where they disagree. The nice thing about this Fulbright research trip is that, although I have a primary focus on frevo, I am free to explore different paths and see where it leads me. I am coming from a very fast-paced working environment where I never had time to fully read, reflect, or think; and even with my dissertation work before that, I felt pressure to stay on track with my original proposal. Here, I have my central questions about “dances of resistance” that I’m working with, and those questions are getting honed each day, but I have the freedom to look for answers in more than just my originally planned focus. Frevo itself is not just one thing—as I hear over and over again, frevo “is everyone,” frevo “mixes with everything,” and frevo is “of the streets, of the people.” I’ve fallen in love with the genres of cavalo marinho and coco as well, which are stylistically so different from frevo, but which inform me of what frevo is and what it isn’t (and vice versa). Being able to dance down these various paths (pun intended) opens up new modes of understanding and, of course, introduces me to more people and more cultures.

I have been able to participate in a number of dance classes, which is by far my favorite way to spend my time (here, or anywhere else). I like to move, “try on” new steps and styles, explore different shifts of weight, try to train new “ways of being” into my body. I like feeling really uncomfortable and then seeing how I can adjust myself until, aha! everything snaps into place. (That aha! moment takes a long time and is just the beginning—there is still much more work to go.) I have taken classes with the Guerreiros do Passo, whose pedaogy is dedicated to the late frevo master, Nascimento do Passo. I have also been to the Paço do Frevo a number of times to see their demonstrations, participate in mini-workshops, view their exhibitions, and also take a couple of frevo and cavalo marinho classes. After everyone recovers from carnival, I plan to take many more classes with these groups and elsewhere, and also dig into the research—both in the archives and also talking more with people involved in popular culture about what they do and why. It has been hard, so far, to ask questions and get answers because carnival time is always so loud and I can only just barely understand and formulate my thoughts in English, let alone Portuguese. (Sensory overload!)

Now that carnival is over, I am also planning to take some trips to see more of the region and the country. This is my first time in Brazil, and I’ve heard that Recife is quite different from other parts of the country, especially those that are most often visited by American tourists (such as Rio, São Paulo, Salvador, etc.). Did I mention how few foreign tourists there are here? I have only met one other American. I’d like to experience other cities for some perspective.

It was to be expected that I would end up having many more questions than I arrived with, but somehow the flood of questions is still always surprising and overwhelming. It’s exhilarating and scary—how will I ever wrap my head around all of this? I won’t, of course, in just six months. But I do hope that things will start to fall into place a bit. I’m just keeping my eyes open and my feet ready to dance.

Maracatu de Baque Solto – Piaba de Ouro

Yesterday we saw the incredible Maracatu de Baque Solto (or Maracatu Rural) group, Piaba de Ouro at the Pátio de São Pedro. The group is led by a mestre and there are many different characters, each with its own specific and very elaborate costume. The Caboclo de Lança is one of the more visually stunning in the group, in amazing colorful sequined capes and bright cellophane ribbon headdresses, and holding long lances with colorful fabrics tied to it. The music of the brass instruments is punctuated by the sound of the bells under the caboclos costumes, and the mestre leads a call-and-response chant.

Pátio de São Pedro, Recife. 13 de fevereiro de 2018.

Samba night at Marco Zero

Last night we enjoyed “samba night” at Marco Zero. Pablo plays cavaco and is a big fan of samba, and we go to a lot of samba events at home in DC, so this music felt more familiar to me than frevo. I felt at home, sort of! I knew the lyrics to more of the music and I knew better how to “respond” to the rhythm. We saw Gerlane Lops, Fundo de Quintal (incrível!), Casuarina, and Monobloco. Monobloco was especially exciting for us because we brought them to DC in 2016 for a concert at Creative Alliance in Baltimore and a percussion workshop at the Embassy of Brazil in DC. Really nice guys, really fun performers, great energy. They brought that same energy to Marco Zero—it was quite a party!

(Please excuse the poor photo quality; we were having too much fun to take good photos!)

Carnival in Olinda

Yesterday we went to the ladeiras de Olinda (the hills of Olinda) to enjoy carnival. The crowds were incredible! I saw some wonderful costumes and really enjoyed the bonecos gigantes and papangus, who are so funny, scary, intriguing, and revolting, all at the same time. What an experience!

Ladeiras de Olinda


Bonecos gigantes at rest

Escuta Levino

Last night we went to the Bloco Escuta Levino gathering, which was essentially a huge dancing parade through the streets of Recife, from the Praça Maciel Pinheiro to Recife Antigo. Maestro Lessa’s orchestra played and the Guerreiros do Passo performed. The Guerreiros created a roda at the beginning of the parade and gave a taste of what frevo might have looked like in the 1940s, in full costume and dancing in the style of the time.

This was the first bloco I’ve been to where, despite the crowds, people made space to dance full out. We would walk for a bit, and then, once the mood hit us, we would “cair no passo” again, finding a space to kick and jump and swing. Every so often, a roda would form amidst the crowds, and some amazing dancers showed off their tricks, maneuvering their sombrinhas and some full-sized guarda-chuvas (umbrellas) under their legs, between their legs, behind their backs, and up above their heads.

Indeed, the umbrellas came in handy. It poured down rain, which only made the frevo dancing more fervent! We didn’t have umbrellas, so we were soaked…and happy.

Roda de Frevo com Maestro Spok

Yesterday we saw some great frevo performances at the roda de frevo com Maestro Spok in front of the Paço do Frevo! We saw Otávio Bastos, of the great YouTube channel Mexe Com Tudo, Wilson Aguiar of Brincantes Das Ladeiras, dance master Ferreirinha do Passo, and Jae Shin, the champion of the 2017 European frevo competition, among many others. Check out the video to see their individual styles and nuanced interpretations of the music!

Paço do Frevo, Recife Antigo. 4 de fevereiro de 2018.

Concurso de Passistas

It was great to see the second day of the frevo passista competition! I saw the adult male competitors and the female competitors for the “frevo de rua folião” category (or “street frevo”). I saw a lot of really impressive and polished dancers, and I also saw a lot of creativity in the movement that I hadn’t seen before. It was quite a spectacle, with some very bright and glittery costumes. The Pátio de São Pedro was almost empty, however, much to the chagrin of some audience members who are concerned about how much longer the competition will continue.

Presentation by the winners of the second day of the passista competition / Apresentação dos vencedores do segundo dia do Concurso de Passistas:

Pátio de Santa Isabel, Recife. 27 de janeiro de 2018.

Concurso de Rei Momo e Rainha do Carnaval 2018 – Recife

It was quite an experience to witness the competition for Recife’s Rei Momo and Rainha (Queen) of Carnival 2018. The Pátio de São Pedro was completely packed and there was excitement in the air. It was very difficult to see the stage, but I was able to watch through some people’s cellphone cameras. The competition had a bit of a beauty pageant feel, starting with a short 1-minute demonstration of frevo by each candidate, one after another, and then an interview/presentation section afterwards. I was truly impressed by the costumes, especially by the rainha candidate who came out with her sombrinha lit on fire, or the rei candidate who had a full golden wig and lights on his costume!

Pátio de São Pedro, Recife. 25 de janeiro de 2018.