Let's talk Latin America

The changing sounds of Salvador carnival

Written by
Posted on

Bristolatino joint editor-in-chief Phoebe Hopson looks at the two sides to Salvador Carnival, and discusses what they say about modern Brazilian culture.

Salvador, situated in the northern state of Bahia, is the birthplace of Afro-Brazilian culture. Built on a triangular peninsular, the city’s cultural identity has been shaped by the Slave Trade. Despite its murky past, Salvador is now nicknamed “the capital of joy” owing to its vibrant Carnival. Officially lasting six days, it takes place all over the city, yet the heart of the celebrations are found in two main areas: Pelourinho, the historic centre, and Barra, the newer part of town lining the sea front. Both places, in their own right, powerfully display the two sides of the city’s cultural and musical identity.

Through the narrow cobbled streets and brightly painted squares of Pelourinho pound the sounds of local drumming troupes such as the famous Olodum. The rhythms fuse traditional African beats and more widely known samba and reggae. Due in part to amplified music being banned, this part of Salvador’s Carnival has maintained its historic identity. Young people and families dress up in homage to their African heritage, while street venders sell the traditional shrimp based dish Acarajé, which has its origins in Nigerian cuisine.

The sound of Carnival changes upon descending into Barra, which mirrors the change in the city’s architecture. The narrow cobbled streets become brightly lit tarmacked roads and the aged colonial churches which give Carnival its historic presence disappear as they are replaced by imposing modern bars. Barra is where the big names of Brazilian popular music- otherwise known as MPB- come to perform to the two million-strong crowds who lean over balconies and dance along with the blocos, essentially lorries laden with speakers. Although MPB still incorporates the familiar infectious rhythms of bossa-nova and samba, artists such as Ivete Sangalo add a more current sound by drawing on European influences of rock and electronic music. For the most part, the crowd sports trainers allowing them to dance through the night and their t-shirts indicate which of the many blocos they have been allocated to.

The two faces of Salvador’s Carnival not only enhance the spirit of the party, but they also demonstrate the diversity of Brazilian culture as a whole. Carnival in Pelourinho shows how the city’s colonial past has shaped Afro-Brazilian music and culture by focusing on local traditions, while Carnival in Barra indicates Brazil’s presence on the world stage, notably through European influences in MPB and through its now hosting of world-wide superstars such as Fat Boy Slim and David Guetta.

Header photo: Salvador carnival 2010, credit Roberto Viana Creative Commons 2.0.