Saturday, April 13, 2013

More Than Just Samba

Travelling through the northeast has helped shatter two preconceived, stereotypical images of Brazil, of landscape and culture. Brazil is often viewed as being synonymous with the Amazon rainforest and perhaps, for those who have a penchant for nature documentaries, like myself, with vast wetlands like the Pantanal.  But there is far more to it than that. The wetland theme started off well as I left Belem, almost all the way to São Luís, but as soon as my road turned inland, into the heart of the northeast that soon gave way to the dry savannah of the cerrado and the scruby, caatinga forest of the sertão. This vast, dry hinterland is reminiscent of the American wild west, and the small, dusty towns towns that dot the rolling hills need only a couple of gunslingers to complete the picture. This is cattle country and last year's drought was tough, as evidenced by the verges populated by rotting carcases and their attendant flocks of vultures. Lonely escarpments and odd rock formations dot this forgotten landscape, until you finally approach the coast again and sugar cane plantations take over.

Brazil isn't just the Amazon and Pantanal. There are some incredible landscapes, such as the multitude of crystal-clear pools amongst the white coastal sand dunes of Lençóis Maranhenses national park.

I decided to set aside the paranoid warnings of robbery and theft prevalent in all the guidebooks about Brazil, give the locals the benefit of the doubt, and decided to hitch through the backlands of the northeast, and am very glad to have done so. Not only did I save a chunk of change but my various rides, from truckers to scientists in the field, also began to educate me on Brazil's varied musical patchwork. Music is ever-present in Brazil and unifies people across social strata and racial background. And there's far more to it than just samba - each region has its own style and preferences that are jealously defended. São Luís is the Brazilian home of reggae, Recife has frevo, Salvador is passionate about percussion (the Salvadorean band Olodum played on Michael Jackson's "They don't care about us" hit) and the entire northeast, and Pernambuco especially, is addicted to forro. Although, to be honest, I still can't tell the difference between all these different musical styles - they all seem to sound "Latin" to me. (Samba, for those who are interested, is more the music of Rio and the south.)

Rastafarian iconography and reggae music is everywhere in Sao Luis, yet far rarer everywhere else in the country. A good example of the regionality of musical preferences in Brazil.

Brazil's northeastern region, stretching all the way along the coast from Belem to Salvador, plays second fiddle to the more dynamic and wealthy south of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. But it wasn't always so. Being the closest point of the new continent to Europe it was naturally here that the first Portuguese settlements were founded. São Luís, Belem, Olinda, Recife and Salvador all predate Rio. Not that Portugal was in much of a hurry to settle its new possessions. Trading posts along the African coast, in the Persian Gulf, in Goa, Malacca and Macau were far more lucrative for the Portuguese crown. All Brazil had to offer was brazilwood (after which the country is named), a tree traded by indigenous tribes that produced a sought-after red dye. It wasn't until some bright spark decided to take some sugar cane from India and plant it in the New World that Brazil's fortunes finally took off.

The colourful colonial facades of Salvador's colonial quarter, the Pelourinho.

Sugar became a fantastically important commodity in Europe (so that the Europeans could make their new addiction, tea, more palatable) and laid the foundations for Brazil and Portugal's wealth. The main cane-growing region was Pernambuco, with its capital at Olinda. These coastal towns are the oldest in Brazil and display the early colonial past where Brazil was seen as fair game for numerous European powers. São Luís was founded by the French and the Dutch captured swathes of the northeast for 25 years in the 17th century in a period that may not have many physical remains but shaped the region. The Dutch, in their highly organised, liberal, Lutheran way, built the first bridge in the Americas there and as well as the first synagogue in Recife and Olinda, something the locals are still proud of. The latter is now a bohemian artists' hangout crammed with ateliers, galleries, funky bars and acres of fun street-art along its quaint, cobbled streets.

Frivolous, fantastical street art is everywhere in Olinda, but also very common throughout Brazil.

But it was another group of immigrants (not entirely voluntary ones at that) that have had the most profound contribution to colonial Brazil: African slaves. Forcibly shipped across the Atlantic from Portuguese colonies to work on sugar plantations. And so began the Atlantic slave trade. What many don't realise is that Brazil was the destination for more black slaves than any other region in the New World, absorbing about 40% of the 10 million or so slaves that were brought over during the 300-year duration of the trade. Due to greater integration than in other American countries, African culture and genes have marked Brazil more than anywhere else (outside the Caribbean) and form an integral part of today's Brazilian identity. In fact there are few Brazilians who can, with any certitude, claim to have no African ancestry, irrespective of how white/European they might appear. Outside of music capoeira is probably the best known manifestation of African influence in Brazilian culture. Though just as interesting is Candomblé, a syncretic religion combining aspects of traditional African beliefs with Catholic saints. It's most prevalent around Salvador, which has the greatest black population in Brazil, but can be found throughout the country, especially in poorer neighbourhoods. Unfortunately it's hard to witness authentic Candomblé in action as much of it in Salvador is geared towards tourists.

Black women in Salvador dressed up in traditional candomblé costumes. Although here it's for the tourists, these types of dresses are still worn for candomblé ceremonies.

The northeast of Brazil may not see as many visitors as other, more popular parts, but visiting it was essential for me to learn about the history and diversity of this vast country that is far more fascinating than its young age might suggest.

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