Vol. 20, In Brazil: Ilê Aiyê and Tourist-Native Relationships
Salvador, Bahia Brazil
I'm not a person who "keeps house," but here, as in many warm places, the necessities for cleaning are multiplied. With so many openings to the homes—balconies, wall openings for ventilation, windows without screens—dirt easily comes in and settles on the floor. Floors need to be swept almost daily. With the presence of insects, foremost among them, ants, you can't afford to leave trash for too long or leave dishes sitting too long after a meal. Sugar, cookies, crackers, bread, any food item has to be stored in airtight containers or the ants will find a way in. And of course, most people on this side of Salvador (the richer areas are another story) don't have washing machines and so, have to wash their clothes by hand. This is something you learn to do by trail and error.
Hand-washing your clothes can be an hours long affair: washing, scrubbing, rinsing three times, and finally hanging the clothes on the line. Before you even wash your clothes, they have to soak. I soaked all my whites together and all my colors together, but when I went to wash them, I noticed two pairs of underwear—one red and one green—had leaked dye all over my yellow Ile Aiye tank top. It's ruined. I was upset, but felt lucky that that was the only piece of clothing I had messed up in my ignorance. Then I hung my clothes. When they were dry, I pulled my white skirt down to discover dark marks on the skirt. I was upset all over again, but I couldn't figure out the mystery of the stain. I sat on my bed, looking at the stain, mumbling to myself, I know this stain wasn't here when I washed the clothes, where did it come from? It must have happened while the skirt was hanging on the line. Then I realized, I hung my white skirt right next to my dark blue tennis shoes. The freshly washed tennis shoes must have slid down the line and come in contact with my wet white skirt. Boom, a stain is born. Needless to say, I'm not in a rush to wash my clothes again.
The tennis shoe thing was especially irritating because after washing them, I wore them in the dirty streets of Salvador during Carnaval and then used them daily during a trip to Lençois, a city seven hours away from the coast of Salvador (five hours if you're driving directly in your own car). Lençois is a tiny cobblestoned city with two squares and a few streets, but it is close to a large number of rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. A few hours away is Fumaza, the largest cachoiera (waterfall) in Brazil. In Lençois, you take tours up mountains, through forests, and on boats down rivers to commune with nature. After two days there, nature was all over my sneakers, the ones I sacrificed my white skirt to clean. What a waste.
Lençois was beautiful, but we had to work to see the beauty. Besides paying for the tours, you pay with your sweat and blisters by climbing and climbing and climbing. The first day, we went to a waterfall that's near the top of a mountain. The first third of the trip was pleasant, I translated everything the guide said for my friends, we chatted away about the environment, expressed appreciation for certain sections of the climb. Then suddenly we fell silent. Before we knew it, we had begun climbing over boulders that were our height, stepping down to shorter rocks over chasms, taking off our shoes to wade through water while ducking under a large overhanging rock. We climbed for hours, our guide walking confidently ahead, refusing to baby us.
I found it absolutely unbelievable that we'd climb for almost two hours to get to a waterfall. We laughed about it, of course. Through our fear, through our tiredness, through our exhaustion, through our irritation, we laughed. When we finally got there, the guide led us even higher up a steep climb until we were standing on a ledge above the waterfall. We could see people below, relaxing in their bathing suits, talking, swimming, snacking. "What are we doing up here?" I asked the guide "For the view and to take photographs," he said. Fuck the photographs, I grumbled to myself, get me to the water.
We swam in the river, climbed the rocks behind the waterfall, let the roaring water whip past our faces until we couldn't see. We sat on the edge of the waterfall and enjoyed our own private rainbows created by the sunlight's dance with the falling water. While we were at the waterfall, word came to us that a tourist couple had been robbed on the hills on the way up to the waterfall. There are a few groups or couples who decide to navigate the climb themselves. Watching them, it was clear to see the confusion and distress on some of their faces. The mountain path isn't clearly marked, so there were a few moments where they had to figure out which rocks would lead them out. The old man who told us about the muggings said the tourists were without a guide. That would never happen with a local guide, he said, because everyone knows each other and they would certainly be recognized and, I think, probably fussed at for stepping on someone else's hustle.
The next day, our bodies were aching. As our second guide took us walking through a stream to get to a hydromassage waterfall, I told him I'm not an eco-tourist. I fully support it, but I'm just not the one. I began to look at even the smallest rocks with skepticism. My muscles just didn't want to work anymore. But the walking through the stream prepared us for the after-lunch adventure, when we had to walk barefoot through muddy waters to get to the boats that would take us down a swamp river. We left one day early with mosquito and spider bites all over our bodies.
Two days in Lençois were enough for me. Most people stay for a week, but those are athletic folks who come on their vacation to physically challenge themselves. We had great meals every night. It's funny that such a tiny mountain town draws so many international visitors. It's like the residents can have the best of both worlds. They can live their quiet country lives and, through the constant stream of tourists, have contact with the bustle that exists beyond the boundaries of their city. The standard of living seemed higher in that tiny little city. The street animals were cleaner, the people looked healthier and more content. It's funny how some cities have everything, and yet are unable to provide you with the basics you need to live a simple healthy life.
Back in Salvador, we decided to stroll by the Fort of Santo Antonio one day on a whim. When we neared the square where the fort sits, we realized a few people in capoeira outfits were entering the square. When I first came to Salvador in 1997, the Fort of Santo Antonio was where Ilê Aiyê held weekly rehearsals, Jão Pequeñho (an energetic and charismatic 85 year old capoeira mestre) had his Capoeira Angola School and there were a few other community organizations housed there. I thought the Fort had been deserted, but apparently I was wrong.
When we entered the fort, I got a shiver in my belly. My cousin asked if I thought slaves were housed here. I said I didn't know, but I told her I was feeling something. There's some ill energy housed in those old stones. It reminded me of an art gallery down in Pelourinho that contains a small room where slaves were held. It's freaky to be back there, it's dark and smells like piss, and it's where the owner stores his African art. Back in the fort, we heard the sound of various berimbaus (the stick and gourd instrument that accompanies capoeira) and percussive instruments (drums, cowbells, and handheld wooden instruments) and knew immediately that a capoeira roda was in full swing. There were four benches set up for spectators and signs everywhere that said "no filming allowed." We took our place amongst the mixed spectators (some capoeiristas from other schools, some interested Brazilians, some Brazilian tourists, some foreign tourists) and watched the games. It was like visitor's day at church (and it was indeed, a Sunday). There were at least five, if not more, different schools represented. And a few mestres came along as well to play or to accompany the playing with music and/or song.
It was wonderful to step into the fullness of the roda—full of people, music, and song—and feel the energy of the room. The capoeira Angola roda is, of course, different from the Regional (another style of capoeira) roda. I won't pretend to be an expert on the styles, but my friend, who plays both, but is trained in Regional told me once he was longing to go to an Angola roda because of the fullness of the music. It's like being surrounded by sound. The rodas you see on the streets of Salvador are almost exclusively regional. Regional is a flashier style—they use more leaps, kicks, and explosive flips. Angola is closer to the ground and the players are closer to each other. To me, it's like chess played with the body. You don't actually strike your opponent, but you like to get your foot right next to their nose or softly brushing against their ankle to let them know, you could have kicked them in the face or knocked them off balance if you wanted to. Angola, especially, can be confusing to watch when you don't understand the game. It's all about strategy. Sometimes I have to lean over and ask a more knowledgeable person, "Who's winning?" "She is," they might say, "She's playing smarter." While another player may have wider kicks and high jumps, the winner of an Angola game has the most possible strikes and when they're all twisted up on the floor, it can be hard for the untrained eye to discern who's getting what in.
The Regional street rodas are definitely more involved with tourism. Whereas foreigners who have studied capoeira Angola in their own countries might seek out a particular Angola school to train with while they are in the city, any foreigner can happen upon a Regional street roda and stop to check it out. Some groups are more aggressive than others. One is so famously aggressive that it was written up in the Lonely Planet. If you're walking by Mercado Modelo (the group has since moved to Pelourinho), the guide book says, don't stop to watch the capoeira roda unless you're prepared to pay. These particular capoeiristas—large, muscular men—are in the habit of intimidating people into giving them money. Despite the fact that they're outside playing capoeira in the open air, they believe you should pay them if you become part of their audience. I have a friend who used to play with them, he was an impish player who often played with a huge smile on his face in stark contrast to the grunting, angry-faced men who were his group members. He used the few reis (Brazilian monetary unit) he got from playing to eat a large lunch. He spoke a little English and rather than intimidate people into paying, he charmed them. He'd say "Hello, my name is ______. I work all day in the hot sun (while he's saying this, he said he wipes sweat from his body and flicks it on the tourists), I hope you will offer me a collaboration," and he hands them a hat or whatever container they're accepting money in.
This same friend shocked me by revealing that the rodas are where foreign women—Australian, German, Italian, and I suppose, American—go to pick up Brazilian men. When he was 14, foreign women began propositioning him. He was young, horny and hungry. Older women were offering him money and sex, he thought it was the best deal he ever could have gotten. He said one woman came to a roda and sat nearby having a beer. When it was over, she called him over to her. She put down three piles of money—"this is for the beer," she said, "this is for clothes for you, and this is for the hotel later." "You went with her?" I asked. "Hell, yeah," he said. He's had menage a trois with foreign women and has all kinds of stories from his own and his friend's experiences. After sex was no longer a novelty to him, he stopped having such direct money-sex relationships and began dating foreign women. When I met him, he had recently seen a news special on sexual tourism. As he told me about it, I said, "Oh, like you." "Me?" he said, "I'm not a prostitute." "But women paid you to sleep with them," I said. He had never seen it that way. He thought he was the one getting the deal. A horny teenage boy, getting paid for something he desperately wants. I suppose prostitution, in and of itself, can be a simple relationship that does not have to be fraught with negativity. The problems come in when the prostitute is doing it out of necessity, not out of curiosity or personal interest.
Most of the tourists who come to Salvador can be broken down into two groups: the cultural tourists and the sexual tourists. The cultural tourists come to study capoeira, percussion, dance, or some other Bahian cultural expression, the sexual tourists come to have sex. The last time I was here, a white man came to stay in this house (not that white men are the only sexual tourists. A friend who traveled up to Rio told of all the black American men down there taking advantage of Brazil's poverty-driven prostitution). He kept bringing prostitutes in to spend the night despite the fact that the owners of the house told him they didn't want that to happen. Eventually, while he was taking a shower, one of the prostitutes came into my room and stole a favorite dress of mine and some money. That didn't upset me so much (although I missed the dress dearly), the hustle is about survival and I'm sure it's routine for her to see what else she can pick up when she does a job. But days later, she came back claiming that she lived in my room, saying she needed to check to see if she left anything behind. That's when I got angry. Weeks later this man found a regular Brazilian woman and they planned to get married. At their engagement party, he was bragging about how when she came home from work, she would iron his clothes and insist on cooking his meals. She wouldn't even let him do the dishes, he said, despite the fact that he didn't work at all. The party was full of these type of couples white men—both American and European—with their Brazilian (and sometimes Angolan) wives and/or girlfriends. It was a very weird scene.
The type of tourist-native relationship I'm more familiar with are the friendships/relationships based on mutual interest, but the environment of sexual tourism can inject paranoia into even the healthiest of these types of relationships. I have friends who've had different levels of relationships. One woman fell in love with a man who lived in a hippie village. She went home to take care of some business and came back to find he had been completely celibate during the months of her absence, not because she asked him to, but because he wasn't interested in anyone else. They decided to have a child. Their baby was born in Brazil and for a few months they lived in a favela so they could move away from the hippie village, yet be close to the sea. She taught English, he took care of the baby. Now they live in Oregon or California, a happy family
Another friend extended a school-related stay to be with her Brazilian boyfriend. She had run out of money and was afraid to ask her parents for more. So she was sleeping on the floor of his thrift shop at night, bathing in a very disgusting public bathroom, and eating at his mom's house for months, until she finally went home. Their relationship survived a lot, but it ended when—despite the fact that her wealthy father wrote a letter stating he would be financially responsible for her boyfriend—he was not granted a visa to go to the U.S. They still talk on the phone, and every time I come back he seems to be with women who look like her.
I didn't understand why women would proposition boys 14 and 15 years old until I heard stories of women who tried to befriend men, and the men pressured them into relationships they weren't interested in. I thought every foreign woman-Brazilian man couple I saw was out of a mutual exchange of romance and financial support. She buys the groceries, he provides the love. Brazilian men (at least the ones in this tourist area) seem to be eternally ready to fall in love. Rather than bitterly trying to avoid it, like so many of the men I know at home, they seem to be ready to dive headfirst. This can be quite a dizzying experience, add it to the magic of the city, and you get a relationship of astounding emotional proportions. Though there won't be any money exchanged, it's understood that the foreigner will pay for meals and drinks. That's the most basic exchange of personal resources between a Brazilian and foreigner. It's one that can be based on mutual respect and mutual fun. Yet somehow, some women (I guess women without much backbone) find themselves with men they're not so interested in, yet the man pressures her to buy him drinks or groceries or purchase his art. This type of pressure happens because the male-female dynamic is still in place. Just like how a group of female strippers are completely at the service of the men at a bachelor party, yet a male stripper can come into a woman's bachelorette party and dominate the space. He's still a man in a world where men dominate women. But if a woman chooses to buy a boy, rather than a man, she remains in control. This is the conclusion I came to when I was on a beach in Jamaica and I watched a skinny boy oiling the back of this white woman. "What does she want with a boy?" I wondered aloud. Then I thought about the character of Jamaican men, and I immediately understood. The man would take your money and then act like it was his from the get go.
A brief word about Ilê Aiyê: Ilê Aiyê was founded in 1974 to bring the presence of black people to the Bahian carnival. Before 1974, the afoxé group Filhos de Ghandy had been guaranteeing a presence for black men in Bahia's carnival since 1949. The exclusively male group wears all white with accents of blue. With the name Ghandy, they intend to be a peaceful, but powerful presence. When they spill out into the streets it's like a huge white river flowing down the avenue. The men attempt to break up fights (some say they start a few by jumping in before they know what's happening) and they carry perfume to spray beautiful women with (they spend a lot of carnival flirting). Since I've been coming to Brazil, Gilberto Gil has been a part of the group. Their music, like all the music of the afoxé groups, is clearly African—based on percussion and remembered rhythms.
Since Ilê Aiyê's founding they've fought to celebrate the beauty of black Bahia. Based in Liberdade (one of the working poor neighborhoods in Salvador), Ilê Aiyê starts off their carnival season by parading through Liberdade before joining other blocos in the more central areas of Salvador. Today, Ilê Aiyê is also a huge cultural organization committed to the development of black Bahians. They run a school, offer professional courses, run the band, as well as many other social projects. Their presence—and the presence of other afoxé groups since inspired by Ilê—makes a huge difference in what the Salvador carnival looks like.
Their costumes are always regal, the lyrics to the music (as well as the music of all the afoxé bands) are more invested in social and cultural realities, advancement and equality for the poor, and the celebration of blackness. Most of the young people interested in afoxé music show up for Ilê Aiyê's Liberdade parade, but they actually costume with other afoxé bands. Ilê Aiyê is peopled with older mature folks, late 20s and up. They use creativity to add a few beads here, an eyelet or lace edge there, to augment the beauty of the costumes. All the women have high head wraps, the men have kufis and everyone's costumes billow about them in an expanse of African print. One proud member said that they no longer compete at carnival for best band status because they won so often in the past (I don't know if that's true or not).
My favorite memory of being with Ilê Aiyê was one day a few years ago when I was participating in the band. The predominant color of the costumes that year was red. We rolled up to a corner, and came face to face with a pagode truck. There were bleached blond women on top of the truck, shaking their exposed bellies, butts, and legs with fury and abandon. As we got closer, the pagode truck's sound system drowned out our music. Eventually the drummers of Ilê Aiyê stopped playing. The woman on top of the Ilê Aiyê truck—dark skinned, fully robed, head wrapped—spoke into her microphone. "Oh swingy (that's what they call the bands), oh swingy, deixa o mais belos dos belos passar." ["Oh swingy, let the most beautiful of the beautifuls pass."] (Ilê Aiyê was dubbed "o mais belos dos belos" by a local singer Daniela Mercury in one of many songs singing the praises of the band.) The other band, turned off their sound system, the women stopped gyrating and stood quietly, like disciplined children in the presence of elders, and waited for us to pass by. Ilê Aiyê's drums rose again and we danced past, tracing stiff-armed shapes in the air in the style of Bahia's African dance.
Specific installments of the KIS.list are being included in both online and print publications. I don't include it in the below list, because it is not a reflection of the submission process. So far, the KIS.list is being posted on two websites, one list-serv, and just yesterday I was asked for permission to reprint the carnival post in a new African publication. The scope and reach of the Internet continues to present fresh opportunities.
[The doorbell just rang. Went to the balcony and a woman was below with her child. She asked about the woman—the rasta, as she calls her—who used to live here. The rasta used to give her food for her and her family. I told her she wasn't here, she asked me for some sugar. I put some in a plastic bag and threw it down to her. There is one day of the month (or is it year)—the day of some saint—when it is accepted (and expected) for poor families to ask for bread and other food. They begin to know which houses give and which don't. Before the rasta left, our house was one that gave.]
The energy in Salvador is electric, but at the same time extremely laid back. Having fun is easy, but it may take some effort to get where you're going. Yesterday, we decided to go to the beach on the island of Itaparica—Ilha Itaparica. We walked from our neighborhood (Santo Antonio—a collection of old, crumbling pastel colored houses occupied by families and elderly) down the hill (Ladeira do Carmo) through Pelourinho (the old, bustling, cobblestoned tourist center) down the Lacerda Elevator (an elevator that takes you from the upper city to the lower city—Cidade Baixa) through Mercardo Modelo (a huge market selling arts and crafts of all types) to the port where we finally took a 40-minute ferry ride to the island.
By the time we got there it was noon and we were hungry. Right off the port, there is a row of restaurants sharing the same sheltered area. At first we didn't realize how many different restaurants there were, until we drifted to the edge of one and two people came at us with two different menus. At first we took the menus, then it dawned on us we were being drawn away from the restaurant we had selected, into places with different tables and different colored chairs. We thanked them and went back to the restaurant we selected.
My favorite thing to eat in Bahia is the fried fish. It's beach food. Like the fried fish in Jamaica. But in Bahia, instead of coming with Jamaica's bammy (yucca) or fried festival (cornbread?) it comes with beans, rice, and a tomato-green pepper-onion salad. The conversation went something like this.
Me: Ten peixe frito? (Do you have fried fish?) Him: Temos de tudo. (We have everything) He added a little wink. Me: Que tipo de peixe é? (What type of fish is it?) Him: [I can't remember the fishes he mentioned, but the one I wanted wasn't in the list] Me: Voce não ten vermelho? (You don't have red fish?) Him: Não. (No) Me: Queriamos um peixe enteiro. (We wanted a whole fish.) Him: Espere ai. (Hold on a sec.)
He disappears to the back, and returns.
Him: Temos peixe enteiro. (We have whole fish) Me: Que tipe é. (What kind is it?) Him: Vermelho. (Red fish.)
The fish was tasty and was worth the wrangling. My cousin who I was with recalled a talk Nikki Giovanni gave in irritation about people who speak with authority about things they know nothing about. I could have, hypothetically, accepted that there was no redfish, then we'd have had a whole nother lunch.
When my cousin first arrived to visit me, she wanted to save money. So, we decided to take the bus from the airport. We took one bus to the bus center of Lapa. Then at Lapa we needed a bus to Aquidaba. Someone sent us downstairs. I read all the signs advertising the bus routes on all four platforms and chose platform D. On platform D, I couldn't find a bus going there. A family there advised us to go upstairs and take the Barbalho bus. We go upstairs. The woman we ask says let me check with someone else. The some else seems pretty knowledgeable and he says, there's no Barbalho bus, but there's a bus that will leave you at Aquidaba. Back downstairs, this time to platform B. He gave us names of specific buses, but when they came, the drivers said no, they weren't going to Aquidaba. It didn't look like they wanted to provide me with any information, but I just stood there. Finally a bus driver told me what bus to catch. When it rolled up, my cousin didn't bother to follow me. She just assumed when I asked the conductor, he'd say, I'm not going to Aquidaba, but as luck would have it, he said yes, and then proceeded to drive away. A group of women ran up screaming, he stopped for them. I yelled at Rashida (my cousin) to hurry up. She put her suitcase on the front of the bus, then ran around to the back to board. As she was stepping onto the bus, the driver started to drive away.
The reason she couldn't get on the front of the bus with her luggage is there is a turnstile in the back of the bus that counts passengers. The turnstile count needs to match with the cobrador's till (the cobrador is the person who takes the money on the bus). When I first came to Brazil, street kids and other really young kids would slide under the turnstile (young children's parents still carry them over it), and if you wanted to save money, you and a friend squeezed in together. I saw a man do that with his friend and the cobrador started fussing at him, he pointed to the back, there was a video camera recording everything. They're beginning to regulate everything here. And many things are shinier and newer than when I first arrived. The airport has had an amazing facelift—marble, glass, air conditioning, fast food, clothes stores, two floors. It looks more like the airports I'm accustomed to in the U.S. and less like an open air building that you just walk through to board your plane. No more walking on the runway to get into the airport, now we exited straight into the terminal. Many painters who had a stall or who were just selling on the street, now have their own studios and shops. Things are in development everywhere.
A black woman who was visiting here, staying at the same house I am, brought an Ebony magazine with her. The woman of the house has been studying English and she welcomes any opportunity for exposure to the language. After skimming the magazine, she came to me and said, "Kiini, why do the black women in the U.S. straighten their hair?" It's a good question of course. Looking at the hair ads in Ebony magazine, the shiny bone-straight hair does stand out. But I thought it was a strange question. Strange because the women in Brazil are no strangers to hair chemicals. The difference is, here, everyone goes for the curly hair that the stereotypical Brazilian is expected to have. The women with African/Black hair generally opt for jherri curls or braided extensions. The women with hair that can be persuaded have some type of curly perm. Short hair is generally not done on women. During this trip though, I have seen more women with twists and braids done with just their natural hair.
In response to her question, I said, "It's the same as here, the standard of beauty is not African. The worldwide standard of beauty is European, and while I'm sure most black women wouldn't trade in their blackness for anything, our natural hair just isn't considered feminine or beautiful." We talked about images in the media. In Brazil especially, if you watch television, you would think there were barely any black people here. But there are as many African looking Bahians as there are mulato looking Bahians. I told her if I didn't have locks my hair would probably go up and out, rather than hang down, and there are very few environments in which that type of hairstyle is considered feminine. She told me she perms her hair, if she didn't, hers would go up and out too. But she said she has too, because her job wouldn't accept her without it.
On the surface, it looks like all the Brazilian women have long curly hair, but this trip, I've noticed three weaves (that's three more than I ever noticed before). The standard of beauty here is extremely rigid, but it can also be freeing in a strange way. Besides the hair thing, all the young women have tight bodies. Smallish on top, curved on bottom. They all wear sexy tanks exposing stomachs, and tight jeans or short skirts. Everyone is expected to be sexy sexy. But then, the skinny people aren't the only ones doing it. If you're big, you'll still rock your skintight minidress. Pregnant women wear cut off tops and short shorts showing off their bellies. EVERYONE WEARS BIKINIS. A few older women or extremely large women wore tanks. But everyone else—pregnant women, little girls, tight-body teenagers, big belly middle aged women, fat mothers—wears bikinis. I feel encouraged every time I come here. In the U.S., you are expected to cover up if you have any rolls of fat or cellulite. It's as if a body larger than the media-mandated size is a crime or a failure to be hidden from the public eye. Here, I'm reminded that my body deserves air and sunshine too. In Bahia, whatever size the woman, celebration of the body is what it's about.
Salvador has three carnival circuits. The Pelourinho circuit, the Campo Grande-Castro Alves Circuit, and the Barra/Ondina circuit. I live in the neighborhood right next to Pelourinho, so it's easy for me to slip down the hill and hang out there. The Pelourinho carnival is the most traditional. It's small bands on foot—drumming groups, pagode groups, samba groups—individual costumes, huge body puppets. Because the streets are so small and the carnival bands are so small, it has a very intimate feel. You get caipirinhas (the national Brazilian drink: cachaza [sugar cane rum], limes, sugar) or caipiroskas, beer or some other beverage and dance behind the bands that are playing tunes you vibe with.
Both the Campo Grande circuit and the Barra/Ondina circuit are for the big trucks. It seems to me (though I could be wrong) Campo Grande is more working class people, whereas the Barra circuit are for middle class (and often more white) Brazilians. Similar to Trinidad's carnival, people pay money to dance behind the trucks. The groups are called blocos and the costumes are usually a silk-screened t-shirt with designs and the band's name, and some type of shorts or short skirt. Most of those trucks play pagode or Axé music (the popular music) and most of those songs have dances that go along with them. So it's thousands of people, wearing the same costume, jumping up and down, often doing the same dance.
You don't just pay for the costumes and the music when you pay to play with a bloco, you also pay for the safety of being inside the bloco. You are surrounded by ropes and the only people allowed in the ropes are those with costumes. You can go through boisterous crowds and dance for hours within the safety of your crowd. Last night we could have used that safety. We went down to Castro Alves Square (the end of the Campo Grande circuit), in attempt to see Ile Aiye. But when we arrived, they had already passed. By the time we got down to the square, all I could see was the yellow of the Ile Aiye costumes disappearing up the hill.
We danced through the crowd at the Praça Castro Alves relatively easily, but by the time we reached Avenida Carlos Gomes another truck turned the corner and started climbing the hill behind Ile Aiye. Despite this obstacle, we decided we were going for it. We wanted to rush past the new bloco and catch up with Ile. We plunged into the crowd. Brazilian crowds aren't the politest. [I should correct that to say the crowds I have been in during Carnival and other street festivals (and while waiting to get on or off a boat or a bus) in the city of Salvador haven't been the politest.] They don't like to wait to let people past, they shove you if they want to get by rather than saying excuse me. Their lack of crowd finesse is exacerbated by alcohol and the excitement of carnival. As we climbed the hill, we were jostled around a bit, but none of the pushing seemed excessive or unmanageable.
We passed the costumed people in the bloco with no problem, but when we got right next to the truck things changed. The shoving became more intense on the side of the truck. Probably because the music is loudest, the singers are visible, and because of the width of the truck, there is less space on the sides of the street. While we were working studiously to pass the truck, the musicians started a new song with an aggressively hyper beat. The young boys around us started slam-dancing with open arms and jabbing elbows. People went down, we were jerked around, and my cousin lost her shoe. We went through three of those flare ups before we realized we weren't getting past that truck. As long as we were next to the truck, people were going to be dancing wild and shoving. Their dancing reminded me of a recent post that came across Kalamu's e-Drum listserv written by D.J. Spooky/Paul Miller. He talked about the strange new dance craze in Rio (I think, not Sao Paulo), where gangs get together for violence and dancing. It is an almost choreographed fight/dance and if you fall out of step you could get hurt or die. It seemed that here, these kids were just interested in having some wild fun and if people got hurt, that would be a bonus for them. Some people were deliberately shoved. I've heard stories of people being deliberately punched. My host, Cesar, says he stopped going into the crowds years ago, because he tired of seeing streams of people with bruised eyes and cut lips or jaws. I've heard stories of Brazilians girls pinching and punching a friend's girlfriend, just getting their frustrations out on her white body, lashing out at what she represents. A white tourist told us the story of him deciding to jump in with the crowd who had gathered at a free Olodum concert and he somehow found himself on the ground. Instead of getting helpful hands, people started kicking and punching him. He crawled out of the crowd to safety.
In this case, a guy who had been helping us navigate the crowd saw us floundering during the worst flare up and put out his hand to me, I grabbed it and he pulled us out of the madness. We went to a side street to rest. It turns out he is a drummer for Olodum, and he didn't recognize me even though his face was extremely familiar to me. He just wanted to help us out of the rough spot. He asked why we weren't in a bloco, saying it was too dangerous out on the street for us. We chatted about the wild aggression of the crowd and I asked him if he thought they'd be dancing like that to an afoxé band like Ilê Aiyê, where the rhythms are African and more deep, grounding beats, rather than high-energy bouncy beats. He agreed they probably wouldn't. He said we wouldn't be able to pass the band and suggested that we wait until it passes and try to go up a street that's more calm. We decided that we'd better just turn back and catch Ile Aiye tomorrow. I believe the violence of the crowd has everything to do with the poverty of the city and the lack of options of the citizens. As Bob Marley says "a hungry mob is an angry mob."
The tourist-native tension in Salvador is high. It's interesting to me to see two entities that would never interact on their own home turf come together out of necessity. Pelourinho is a pretty grimy place—it stinks like the New Orleans French Quarter. There are a ton of beautiful people, artisans, crafts, museums, cultural performances and art exhibitions in Pelourinho. There are also numerous hustles and exchanges of flesh and currency happening in Pelourinho at any given time. The people of Pelourinho are the working poor or working class (those who work in shops or those who rent the shops would I guess be more middle class, but they are of the artist class which is always hard to identify because they aren't culturally middle class). The street children come to Pelourinho to beg a few meals, young women with their baby strollers or carrying sleeping children in their arms beg for the leftover coins of tourists. They are quite insistent beggars, unafraid to place an intimate hand on your knee or lean an elbow on your shoulder. Other poor folks come with their bags to pick up beer and soft drink cans for recycling dollars. As I'm writing this, I'm just realizing I'm seeing less street children in Pelourinho this year, I wonder where they've gone. Was it the result of the campaign to clean the homeless off the streets of Salvador?
Sexy women and men come to Pelourinho to be picked up by tourists for money or comforts. They usually end up being the tourist's partner and guide for the duration of the tourist's trip. Some of the relationships are clearly on the level of prostitution, others are murkier relationships. There are those Brazilians who honestly seek friendships and relationships with tourists, but it's odd because they only date tourists. I'm not sure if it's something like fetishism or exoticism for them or what. Last night, my cousin and I were just imagining one man's life, because of his profound relationships with tourists. Does he enjoy the transciency of these relationships? Is it heartbreaking every time a girlfriend or a group of friends leave him? What is fed in him by being intimate with tourists? Or is he hanging on, hoping one of them will be his ticket out?
Many of the prostitutes and professional friends of tourists are really looking for a way to travel. They want out of Salvador and they don't have personal means to do so. Many Americans (black Americans included) are surprised to discover the basics of their privilege. One huge privilege that many of us take for granted is the privilege of travel. The U.S. is one of the few countries that the majority, if not the entire, world is open to. In countries all over the world, you would need to be born into a rich family or have special circumstances to travel. You'd have to stand on long lines to prove your worth to some embassy or visa-granting office. You'd have to pay, you'd have to have a certain amount of money in the bank, you need sponsors, or you need to be traveling with a pre-approved group. In the U.S., anyone who can afford a ticket can go. In other countries, here in Salvador, you must get permission. I know quite a few Bahians who have left the country through marriage. There was just an article in the newspaper about the rise of prostitution during these tourist-heavy summer months. The Brazilian government knows that sex and the desirability of its citizens is a major draw, and so most promotional materials feature beautiful, young, brown-skinned, fuckable Bahians. I have tons of stories to tell about relationships between tourists and Bahians, and I also wanted to get back to Ilê Aiyê, but I've gone on too long already. Today is Carnival day and my quest to see Ilê at least once this carnival continues. I'll report more next week.
Pitching is a skill in and of itself. To be able to look at a magazine and create story ideas that fit with their thrust is a talent I haven't mastered. Admittedly I haven't tried very hard to master the technique. For me, the act of pitching steals away valuable writing time therefore it represents another of the uncomfortable and difficult elements of being an artist. It is a different hat from the creativity hat—it's a publicity hat, a marketing hat. As artists we are required to bring our work to the attention of people who can bring it to the public. Visual artists have to get slides made and get meetings with gallery owners. Filmmakers have to make reels and circulate them to festivals. We all have to find producers and/or managers, or more often than not, we have to be that for ourselves. Pitching is something like that.
What frustrates me about pitching is that it requires me to reach outside of myself for the fulfillment of my creativity. Rather than nurturing an idea inside of me—i.e. thinking about it, discussing it with people, crafting an essay around it—I'm forced to figure out what thing would be of interest to others (and will simultaneously be interesting to me to write).
I've not pitched a successful article yet, so pitching the KIS.list could be considered a bold move. I haven't done a LOT of work in magazines, I'm no expert and I'm not famous. Usually columnists are experts in their fields—a psychiatrist, an astrologer, a pet doctor. Past responses to my attempts to pitch have been vague at best, more often they've been non existent. Yet every time I speak to certain editors, they continue to encourage me to pitch something to them. Out of the few pitches that were received favorably by editors, one idea was already in progress at the magazine. And three ideas—which the editor said she really liked—seemed to fade into the sunset. When I asked her how it went when she pitched my article ideas at the editorial meeting, she said. "Oh yeah, I brought them up in the meeting, but we started talking about something else."
So all that to say: I don't put to much energy or attention into pitching. A magazine article is like icing on the cake in relationship to my central interest of publishing in anthologies. The motivating factor behind pitching to magazines, though, is the money. A good pitcher can make a career out of magazine writing because the pay is pretty good.
I guess the most valuable responses to pitching I'd received before the KIS.list batch of pitches was the response to a set of book proposals I sent out to a few agents. After there was so much hoopla about the "Navigating to No" article, I decided to propose a nonfiction book on the topic. A few agents didn't respond. The two that did respond both thought the topic was too limited. One editor thanked me for my brief proposal ["Brief!?" I thought, "Dang, what do they want an encyclopedia?"] and invited me to expand the book's theme to various aspects of male/female relationships (rather than just the question of sexual consent). I got extremely excited about the idea, but when I sat down to write the proposal I was overwhelmed. The topic was so broad, I didn't know how to reference the millions of other books in the field and how to gather statistics and other support material to prove the topic worthy of a book.
The second editor (who also thought the topic was limited) called me one morning to say she wasn't interested in the proposal, but she really liked my writing. She had noticed the amount of fiction I had published and asked if I had a novel in progress. I told her I did, but explained that it wasn't in great shape. She said she didn't care, and asked if I could send it to her. After she read it she was even more excited about my writing, but she understood why I was saying it wasn't ready. It was more a series of short stories strung together rather than a novel. She said it was like being picked up and dropped, there was no throughline to make it whole.
Then through a series of coincidences [The agent was commuting while reading my manuscript. She let out a gasp when she realized what was holding all the stories together. An editor happened to be sitting next to her and asked immediately why the agent was gasping. The agent explained what she was reading and the editor went to work and told her boss about me. Her boss called the agent insisting on reading it although it wasn't ready. We sent it, but the editor decided she couldn't use it. However she returned the manuscript with a detailed letter that let me know she gave the manuscript serious consideration. Contained in that letter was enough encouragement to make me feel good about the novel and enough criticism to help me understand that this novel was going nowhere structured the way it was.], I got some valuable feedback that helped me feel validated in my work.
So the KIS.list pitches went out. The first response was from an editor who seemed almost offended by the pitch. Her first criticism was the mass nature of the column. She didn't see anything specific about her publication in the pitch to the extent that she thought it was almost sent blindly without consideration for the content of her publication. To further that thought, she took issue with the fact that I included a photograph of myself event though her publication doesn't run author photos. As an older writer, she went on to suggest that I not use the line "writer, painter, human being extraordinaire" to identify myself. [It's a little phrase I playfully put on my answering machine one day and so many people liked it, I put it on my business cards.] She felt I would alienate my audience by presenting myself as superior to them. Ultimately, she said, her publication is about news and they don't have space for writers to "write whatever they want to write about." But she ended her lovely rejection with, of course, an invitation to pitch.
[They say invitations to pitch are a concession that your writing is good, but the editor doesn't like what you're proposing, so if you can come to them with a better idea, they may be interested in publishing.]
Obviously, this rejection made me feel uncomfortable and misunderstood. It was almost as if she were giving me a spanking. In my response, I thanked her for her interpretation of "writer, painter, human being extraordinaire." I told her I had never considered the phrase would be taken that way, but I would definitely take her fresh perspective on it in consideration for the future. Then I explained exactly how I intended it.
[As an aside, it's interesting to me how rarely we are allowed to compliment ourselves. Why is it possible for me to call myself a writer without someone assuming I think I'm the only writer on this earth, but I can't call myself an extraordinary person without someone thinking I think I'm better than someone else or that I think I'm the most extraordinary person in the world? But I think her response was good because up until now I've only had feedback from people who know me and I guess to a stranger that type of statement comes off as arrogance or superiority.]
I told her I was well aware that her publication didn't use author photos, but I didn't think it would hurt my package. Then I began explaining to her exactly why I sent the pitch to her publication. I noted the particular column that inspired me to start writing a column and I described all the elements of her publication that weren't news and that were quite author-centric, down to the gossip column. I ended by commenting if there's space for a gossip column, certainly there's space for a column about art and self-development.
I spent the rest of the day considering the criticisms of the rejection letter and feeling ill-at-ease. The criticism about the proposal being a mass pitch without specific references was right on point. Although I know pitches are supposed to be personalized to the publication it is being sent to, my pitch did not at any time specifically refer to elements of her publication. I didn't really know how to include the publication-specific references; but as I was writing my response to her rejection, I realized the specific references I should include in a pitch would argue exactly where and how I see my piece fitting in the publication. I could have included a statement like "though your publication has excellent news stories, there is also a quiet core of interesting columns on housing, astrology, advice, and gossip. I see the KIS.list as augmenting this core by focusing on art, one of the central themes of your publication" to illustrate that I had considered the publication and I had a specific reason for sending my proposal to them.
Part of my difficulty with pitching is I don't have a lot of patience for rigmarole. I feel like publications know exactly what they want. Essentially, either what I'm pitching fits in with their program or it doesn't. I don't think it's necessarily the "best" attitude, but it helps me simplify the task. I can complete the pitch without dedicating too much time to tailoring myself or my idea to the publication (so far, it hasn't earned me much specific success, but I have had fringe benefits-invitations to pitch, interest in my other work).
Of course my fantasy that if the work is on point for the publication, the editor will work out the rough edges with the writer is an self-centered perspective. Editors have egos, just as writers do. When I pitch, I feel like I'm saying, "Hey, publish my stuff the way I want to write it. Take me as I am." And I feel like the editor is saying, "You study my publication and find out my likes and dislikes, then pitch me something that fits in with my program. Be who I want you to be." I prefer to be published as a result of natural synchronicity between my literary approach and the editor's requirements, rather than pull and tuck and position myself as what they're looking for. Obviously, that's not going to work if I want to be a great journalist. Luckily, I don't want to be a great journalist. I just want to continue writing my personal essays and fiction.
I went to bed disgruntled with the rejection, but I woke up feeling like the editor's rejection was an opportunity. I suddenly remembered the big catcalling project that was being developed and thought how wonderful it would be to have a full-length article about catcalling appear in a large publication around the time of the project. Of course, the editor probably thought I was even less professional, because as I pitched the idea to her, I told her in the same breath that I couldn't write it. I know she must have a group of wonderful writers who can do the subject justice, but since I'm out of the country, it would be impossible for me to work on the article.
I never got a response from the catcalling pitch nor from my response to her rejection letter. But at least I now have someone at a major publication to pitch ideas to. Now that I've been disciplined by her, perhaps I'll come up with some fabulous idea and be edited by her in the future. As usual, it's in the universe's hands.
Because I won't be sending out too much work for consideration, I don't expect to be receiving many acceptances or rejections in the near future. The acceptance/rejection o'meter may stay as is for a few months, but it isn't forgotten.
KIINI IBURA SALAAM is a writer, painter, and traveler from New Orleans, Louisiana. Her book--"Ancient, Ancient," a collection of speculative tales that revolve around the dark, the sensual, and the magical--was named one of the Best Fantasy and Science Fiction Collections of 2012 by editor Jeff VanderMeer. http://www.amazon.com/Ancient-Fiction-Kiini-Ibura-Salaam/dp/1933500964
Kiini's work is rooted in in eroticism, speculative events, and women's perspectives. Her fiction has been anthologized in such collections as Dark Matter, Mojo: Conjure Stories, and Dark Eros. Her nonfiction has been published in Ms. magazine, Essence magazine, and Utne Reader. Her KIS.list e-report chronicles the ups and downs of the writing life and is currently being serialized in the e-book format. The first volume is titled On the Psychology of Writing: Notes from the Trenches. http://www.amazon.com/Psychology-Writing-Notes-Trenches-ebook/dp/B009NNHTOU/ref=la_B007YU4GWC_1_16?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1355940255&sr=1-16
Stay in touch with her activities by clicking "Like" on her Facebook author page at www.facebook.com/kiiniibura