When I returned from Lençois, my sneakers were so dirty, I decided to just leave them in the plastic bag I transported them in. On a rainy morning, a few weeks after my return, I decided to wear my sneakers instead of the customary flip-flops. I pulled my sneakers out of the plastic bag only to discover little patches of white mold had grown over them. When I showed my host, he shook his head sadly. His eyes were saying, "You should have known better." And I should have. During my first trip to Brazil I left a beaded bracelet underneath a shelf. The humidity combined with the darkness below the shelf made the perfect breeding ground for mold. My Caribbean friend told me to just clean it, but the mold was growing on the leather lining of the bracelet, the part that would touch my skin. I was itching just contemplating putting that bracelet back on, so I gave it away. Weeks later, my sandals molded. Sandals, being a more expensive and practical item than a bracelet, are not something to mindlessly throw out. I grabbed a wet paper towel, wiped them down, and kept wearing them for the duration of the trip.
A few weeks into my current Brazil stay, I went to the AeroClube with my hosts. It's a huge mall, most of it outdoor, obviously styled after American consumption. There's a plethora of fast food restaurants, clothing stores, a concert hall, a movie theater, and a few jewelry and import stores. We were browsing the fast food places, looking for somewhere to eat, when we saw a Bahiana sitting behind her table with an array of acaraje, abara and toppings. My hosts were surprised to find acaraje at the mall. They said, years ago, acaraje was rejected as candomble food. The establishment didn't accept it. Now, that acaraje has proven itself, both in a culinary and an economic fashion, it is being co-opted by folks who wouldn't be caught dead eating or selling it in the past.
Acaraje and abara are quick, cheap, portable foods sold all over Salvador mostly by black women in full Bahiana dress. Some women do it to complete tasks they are given in their religious development on the candomble path. Some women do it to earn a living. I'm not certain exactly what goes into the acaraje/abara mix, I was told it had to do with black eye peas. But they mix up batch with a large wooden spoon in a metal bowl. The acaraje is fashioned into tiny little football shaped patties and deep fried. The abara is made with the same mix, but it's wrapped in banana leaves and boiled. To serve, both of them are cut open and filled with a salad (made of cilantro, onions, and green tomatoes), piron (piron is a thick puree that can be made of anything: cassava, fish stew, etc. I think the base is farina. The piron that goes on acaraje/abara is made with shrimp, caruru (I'm not certain about the spelling, I'm doing this from memory. Caruru is a thick okra dish) and pepper sauce if you want it.
I think the acaraje is fried in dende oil. Dende is HUGE in Bahia. It seems like they cook everything in it. The dende is a type of palm oil and it lends a yellowish hue to the food. The most popular dende dish is moqueca. Moqueca can be made with seafood or shrimp, but it's traditionally made with fish. The stew is also made with tomatoes and onions and other wholesome elements. A big element of Salvador cuisine is the accoutrements. There is often a tray offered with pepper, a green-tomato onion salad, and farina. Farina is a ground grain that people in Salvador sprinkle on their food, specifically on saucy food. I've seen it sprinkled on beans and rice, spaghetti, moqueca. People seem to enjoy the taste, but it seems to me, it's a filler, it adds more bulk to the meal, helps you fill up faster.
Brazil is a big meat country. Another big Salvador dish is feijoada. It is a beans dish with a plethora of pork and beef cooked in. One day when I was sitting in the kitchen I watched my host throw five types of meat into her beans—beef, pork, fatty bacon, sausage, and something else. "Are you making feijoada?" I asked. "No," she said, "these are regular beans." Of course they cook the beans with meat, but I've never seen anyone go to that extreme. Brazil is famous worldwide for their churrasco—meat grilled on huge skewers. You can buy a cheap plate of churrasco and you'll get three types of meat—beef, pork, and chicken—with rice, salad, and farina to accompany it. There's also a popular appetizer called arrumadinha, which is cut up beef, sauteed and mixed with farina and some other things. But because Salvador is coastal, non-meat eaters don't have to fear —seafood plays a big part in the cuisine. I'm basically a fish-eating vegetarian, but I won't die if I have to eat chicken. As many times as I've found myself on flights unable to eat, you would think I would make it a practice to call ahead and order a vegetarian meal, but I always forget and I'm sometimes scared of other people's interpretation of vegetarian food. So I often go on a flight banking on that chicken option. Not on a Brazilian airline. Meat pizza, meat omelettes and meat fritattas. Would you like beef or pasta with pork? Is that a choice? It was a hungry flight.
But once you get to Brazil there is a stunning array of fresh fruit and cheap food. Brazil has all the tropical fruits I became familiar with in the Caribbean—jackfruit, soursop, pineapple, mangoes, coconut, sugar apples, star fruit— as well as a number of fruit I had never heard of—acerola, umbu, caja, mangaba, siriguela. In Salvador I saw my first cashew fruit. I have since irritated all my friends by explaining to them exactly what a cashew fruit looks like, and how a cashew grows. The fruit is an orangey color, it almost looks like a small bell pepper, it hangs from the tree with ONE cashew nut crowning it. Each fruit has one nut. How crazy is that?
Fresh fruit juice is one of the pleasures of Salvador. All over the city are shops where they will juice any fruit they have in stock for you. They also make banana shakes, and fruit mixes that sometimes include beets. In Salvador, they also make a wide variety of sweets with fruit: cocadas—a grated coconut sweet; fudge from peanuts, milk, or coconut; guava sweets; caju sweets. On the huge ferry boat to Ilha Itaparica in the morning, vendors circulate selling corn or tapioca pudding—a hot breakfast meal; beiju—ground tapioca heated into a crepe-like shape and thinness, rolled with plantain or coconut inside; and coixinhas—tear shaped patties with meat or chicken inside. I guess it's sort of like sitting on the train in NYC and people come through selling candy, toys, and batteries. But in Bahia, these vendors are selling home-cooked food.
On the beach in Barra, the selection is even more dizzying. You can buy pastels—patties with meat inside; banana real—a long flat pasty with plantain in it; roasted cheese—vendors walk around with tiny tins full of live coals and a tupperware container of cheese blocks on a stick, they roast them when you order; shrimp on a stick; fruit salad; sandwiches; beer; soft drinks; peanuts; and popsicles. On the edges of the beach are women selling acaraje, coconut vendors, and fried fish vendors. In addition to food items, the beach vendors also circulate selling bandanas, portable mini-radios, beach wraps, dresses, and tanning lotion.
There are always opportunities to buy juices, sodas, and sweets. On our way to the market one day, we stopped at a man's little streetside sweet stand. We bought coconuts, a doughnut (called heaven) with homemade jelly inside, and a banana real. As we hung out talking, the man asked us if we were Americans or Americanized Brazilians. We said we were American. "All four of you?" he asked. We were four African Americans. He said we spoke well, but there was something different about our Portuguese. There is an interesting phenomenon of black people all over the world thinking that they are the only black people in the world. It seems easy to accept white people as foreigners, but somehow it's difficult to integrate the idea of black people living somewhere speaking another language, living a completely different life. It may be a commentary on diasporan black people's universal sense of isolation. I remember during my first trip out of the country, I stared and stared at the black people I saw speaking Spanish in the Dominican Republic. It was like my mind couldn't register the reality. "What are these black people doing speaking Spanish?" I asked myself. And certainly, the whole time I was there, they had difficulty identifying me as American. If I was speaking English with my friends, they accused us of putting on airs and acting American. I would say, but I am American and they wouldn't believe me. A few times, they would even turn to a white person (if I happened to be with one) and say, "Really, where is she from?" Similarly, when I arrived to Brazil, my friend and I would speak English in front of Brazilians, and one black man in particular sat there astounded. "You speak it so fast," he said amazed. "Well, of course," I said, "it's my language." But the amazement is reflexive. Just as Brazilians are amazed to see us speaking English, black Americans are amazed to see Brazilians speaking Portuguese. "I never seen so many black people speaking another language," said a Black American on his first visit to Brazil.
After assuring the man we were American, I added, "I hope no Brazilian would be as clueless as we are." He said "No, there are some Brazilians who go to the States and lose their culture. Some want to mimic the U.S. thinking it's better, but I think everyone has to be themselves. Everyone has something to bring to the table." As we chatted on, I crunched on my banana real and ran into the same problem I always run into. The banana real is a flat rectangular pastry. With the plantain, it's the perfect blend of crunchy and soft, a wonderful marriage of flavors. Without the plantain, it's just some dried-up bread. Since this vendor was so friendly I decided to take up my issue with him. Why, I asked him, is the banana real so wide, but there is only one strip of plantain in it, so that one side is tasty and the other side is dry? "Economy," he said, "trying to save money, but I don't think that's right. I'm going to talk to the woman who makes them." "Oh, no," I said, worried that I had gotten the woman in trouble, "She isn't the only one. Every single banana real I've had has been like this." "I don't care," the man said, "it isn't right. The plantain is supposed to be from one tip to the other. This is my barraca and I have to sell quality here. I'm going to talk to her firmly about changing that." He was smiling, using comic hand gestures. "But not in anger or anything," I said. "Oh, no," he said, "but very firmly, come back Monday, you'll see, it'll be a better banana real." It was a hilarious exchange. He was a funny man, extremely personable and he obviously cared about his business. He promised me I had done nothing wrong. He said, "How many people do you think come to my barraca and they think like you, but they just never say anything. They just never come back because my banana reals are dry. It's not every day that four Americans come to my barraca, you know. And if you're not satisfied, I'll never have the pleasure of your company again." He really made our trip to the market fun.
The market itself was a special treat. The entrance to the market looked like a grubby little side street. There were fruit vendors set up on either side selling bananas, watermelons, sugar apples, yellow melons, siriguela, umbu, and more. There was a crab vendor sprawled out, leaning back on his baskets, holding out one crab. As he drank, he periodically poured alcohol onto the poor thing, as if its captivity wasn't enough suffering. It waved its muddy legs helplessly while we wondered if a crab could get drunk.
Then we came upon the meat section. Meat vendors had cow legs hanging on hooks. The liver and other internal organs sat in neat stacks on the counter, the meat was stowed away somewhere. For people who are accustomed to seeing their meat cut, trimmed, shrink-wrapped, and tagged, it's a pretty shocking sight. The inside of the market was made up of about four narrow walkways, each one full of vendors. Walking by, we saw a plethora of vegetable, herb, and nut vendors. Huge stacks of dried cashews and mounds of dried shrimp rested in large flat baskets. Braided, coiled tobacco was displayed in huge rounds. Upon first glance it looked like some animal's dried intestines. There were religious shops mixed in with the food vendors, these shops were laden with ceremonial swords and crowns, statues, religious herbs and jewelry and other specialty items needed for candomble worship. Everywhere we looked we saw bunches of random leaves—herbs with medicinal properties that you needed to know how to identify to buy. We bought lettuce, greens, tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, green onions, and vegetables. We were forever coming upon items we couldn't identify. There was one vegetable that was a small, pale green sperm-shaped item, except the head was huge and the tail was tiny. The body of it was covered in spikes. When we asked the vendor what it was, we didn't recognize the name. He explained how to prepare it and cut one open for us. I was surprised to find it full of seeds and when we smelled it, it smelled like a cucumber! The market day was a special day. A venture not into public Bahia, but into the most regular of daily rituals that was filled with enough newness and fresh visual stimulation to provide us with a feast for the eyes and the nose.
My latest discovery in the hand-washing clothes saga is, despite Salvador's heat, anything I want to dry properly must be hung directly in the sunshine. During my second go-round with clothes washing, I hung all my clothing at one time. Since line space was limited, I hung half my clothes in the sun, and the rest on the lines under the shelter of the roof, but all of the clothes were in the open air. All the clothing in the sun dried fine, as well as the sheets in the shade. But the rest of my clothing—those items that were hanging in the shade of the shelter—had the sour smell of clothing left in the water too long. The small things I hung in my room downstairs (for lack of clothesline space) smelled even worse. My host says it's a fungus. Due to Salvador's ridiculous level of humidity, everything (except things of lighter material such as linens) must be hung in the sun. I decided to wear the sour clothes and just put up with the smell. I hope the fungus doesn't cause a skin rash or something.
There is a black woman photographer here who is a Fulbright fellow. Her funding is toward a photo-documentation of women involved in candomble rituals. A couple of nights ago, she was headed to an Oxum ceremony and invited me and a few friends along. The terriero (place of Candomble worship) was in Engenho Velho da Federação about 40 minutes away from Santo Antonio where I live. The neighborhood was noticeably black, different from my more mixed neighborhood. On the streets, people were hanging out, talking, enjoying the weather. I don't remember the name of the terriero that hosted the Oxum ceremony, but it seemed to be pretty small compared to Apo Funja, the only terriero I had previously been to.
A brief note: "candomble" has been taken as the name of the religion, but from what I understand, the world "candomble" actually refers to the ceremony. I have no idea what candomble practitioners themselves call the religion.
When we arrived, the candomble was already in process. The men were sitting on one side of the room, the women were on the other. The place was so packed, that it was standing room only. In the middle of the room were three thrones back to back. The Oxum initiates were in full traditional Bahiana costume—white pants below huge white hoop skirts, African print or batik cloth wrapped around their torsos and the tops of the skirts, and beautifully-crafted eyelet or lace short-sleeved tops. The predominant color was yellow for Oxum, but I also saw a few blue-green combinations which I had seen used in reference to Oxum once or twice before. Against the far wall in one corner was the bateria—the drum section. The bateria was made up of all men, beating on drums with either long flexible sticks or their hands. I noticed one drummer stopping for a moment and opening and closing his fingers. I assume to keep up the pace of the drumming you have to keep a tight grip on the sticks, and keeping a tight grip on the sticks probably causes quite a bit of hand cramping. There were various children scattered around. Some in the audience, some dressed similarly to the initiates hanging on the fringes of the spiritual circle. One child sat up front with the older leaders. I noticed one boy in particular, and kept my eye on him as he sang along with the adults. A few songs went by and soon, the drummer who had stopped to flex and stretch his fingers passed his sticks on to the little boy and the little boy took over the drumming. In this community, it seems, the children grow up learning important roles to the ceremonies and therefore to the religion.
On the other side of the far wall sat a few rows of older women who had already been initiated into Oxum. They wore Western-style yellow dresses, sang along with the music, and looked with interest as the ceremony progressed. In the front row sat an older couple who I assume were the mai and pai de santo—the man and woman with the most seniority, who run the terriero. Against the remaining three walls were three rows of simple wooden benches for interested folks to sit and watch. We all faced the center where the beautifully-dressed initiates were being led around the circle by a woman with a rainbow colored wrap over her baiana dress. She held a ceremonial gold bell similar to the one Oxum holds in the many paintings and sculptures the artists of the city dedicate to her. The point of the ceremony, it seems, is to commune with Oxum in particular. Not long after we arrived, two of the initiates were visited by Oxum. As the women's bodies jerked and yellow-dressed women came from their seats to stand close and follow them to make sure they didn't hurt themselves while in trance, the other initiates cheered and sat down on one side of the circle.
The women who were being ridden by Oxum began to dance around the circle. Their movements weren't grand or frenetic, there were slow, measured, paced. Orixa dance is made up of very specific motions celebrating each deity. Though they all participated in the dance, none of the initiates seemed to be consumed by the dance. Their movements were small, and you needed to know which motions belong to which dance to know which orixa was being celebrated at any given time. As the women made their way around the circle, the people in the audience—those who participated in or had a respect for the religion, would lower their heads and hold up their hands, palms outward, when the women neared them. I interpreted it as either a show of respect or a gesture of protection as the orixa passes. Some of the people, specifically men, even knelt on one knee as they lowered their heads to avoid looking directly at the women Oxum had possessed (for lack of a better word).
From time to time, the orixa or the initiate (however you want to look at it) stopped in front of someone to hug them. Brazilians commonly greet each other with a kiss on each cheek. Similarly, the candomble hug is double-sided—they might hug right cheek to right cheek, then switch to the left side. Often (well twice that night) the spirit is transferred from the possessed to the person she hugs. After dancing to a few songs one of the initiates who had the spirit opened her arms to the woman with the gold bell who had been previously leading them around. After they hugged, the older woman's body jerked and she stumbled. One of the watchers came near to help her, soon it was clear that the spirit had entered her body. All of the initiates gasped. Some of them even covered their mouths with their hands in surprised delight. I didn't understand what was so shocking about this woman in particular receiving Oxum. She seemed to be older and have a leadership position, so I don't know if it was more powerful that Oxum was riding her, or if it was just totally unexpected that she receive Oxum at this type of ceremony.
After the woman with the bell got the spirit, the other two women—who were initiates, and didn't seem to be as high up as she was—left the room. The watchers retied the woman with the bell's clothes and removed her head gear. She danced the next few songs, with her watchers shadowing her. Sometimes she charged at the bateria and didn't look as if she would stop. The watchers would touch her back gently and she would stop as if reminded of her surroundings. In between dances, she would stop in front of the bateria. When she stopped dancing, they stopped drumming. In the pause she would rock back and forth, and her watcher would cradle her head to make sure it didn't fall back too far. After someone called out a new song, the woman with the bell would start dancing again.
Certain dances really excited the initiates. Specifically when the woman threw her arms up and spun in a circle, the initiates cheered. After dancing a few more songs—the majority of the candomble ceremony seems to be dancing—the woman with the bell began greeting all the initiates with hugs. They genuflected, then climbed to their knees to hug her on one side, then the other. As they rested their cheek on her shoulder or chest, she rubbed the crown of their heads. After she had hugged each initiate, people from the audience came up to her, touching the hem of her skirt, then hugging her. On the men's side of the room, I could see that Joshua—a friend of ours who is a member of a Cuban Yoruba religion—had gotten to his knees in preparation to salute her. He too got his hug.
Finally after everyone had been hugged, the woman disappeared behind the yellow curtains into another room. When she returned, she was dressed all in white. The celebrant's costumes are changed according to the stage of possession or the number of saidas (entrances). I learned this by flipping through an art book featuring the work of Carybé. Before his death, Carybé—a Brazil-based sculptor, painter, drawer, and print maker—completed an extensive series of drawings of every element of candomble cermonies. One of his series of drawings focused on the saidas, showing the dress of the first, second, and third saidas of ceremony participants. Only by the third saida is the person fully dressed as the orixa or "the saint." Based on his drawings, Carybé also completed a stunning series of hand-carved wood panels of each orixa which is on permanent display at the Afro-Bahian museum at the Terriero de Jesus. The artistry is superb. He plays with the surfaces by carving out some parts and building other parts up. He embeds other objects (shells, beads, nails, metal) when necessary. The depictions are ripe with symbolism and grace. The museum also features African art, photos of African hairstyles and textiles and costumes from Yoruba orixa worship.
Before we left the terriero, people were given handfuls of rice. I asked what it was for. The woman next to me said we were to throw the rice on the woman with the bell when she comes out dressed as the saint. We left before that happened. On our way out I asked Joshua if he felt anything when he greeted the saint. In response, he let out a huge emotional outburst. Viewing the ceremony from the lens of his tradition—Palo Monte—he was completely disappointed. In comparison to a Cuban ceremony, he thought the dances were muddled, the drums were weak, and the orixa were indistinguishable. He was appalled that there was an audience and that people clapped and he was concerned that an official person didn't seem to be running the order of the songs. I think they lost the African connection, he said in a dejected voice. Later, after he had vented, he apologized for how he came off. He said he was wrong to be making such judgements about something he didn't know anything about. I told him I understood completely. I didn't get a sense that he was trying to be mean or disrespectful. He was just shocked at the difference between what he's come to view as a ceremony and what he saw at the candomble.
The difference was obvious to me too. In Joshua's words, a Cuban ceremony is about fire. As Joshua describes it, the orishas at a Cuban ceremony interact with anyone in the room, not just the initiates. There's no separation between audience and celebrant. The ceremony is more open and vibrant, so that even random visitors are a part of the ceremony. Everyone's involved. The next day, he want to visit a mai de santo at another ceremony and he backed even further away from his previous judgements. He still was confused about the way the candomble was run, but he no longer questioned candomble's connection to the African roots. He could feel the woman's realness and accepted his feeling of disconnectedness as a consequence of his own outsiderness. He was very apologetic about his reaction and continues to be quite respectful of candomble, but I feel blessed to have been there during his outburst. I told him later that his reaction added a whole new element to the ceremony for me. It was good for me to hear about the differences between a Cuban ceremony and a Brazilian ceremony. We talked about the possibility of the ceremony we saw as being something strictly for the public, and there being other private ceremonies which may be more similar to what he was accustomed to. He said he thought there was definitely something else going on under the surface and he'd definitely like to get to a closed ceremony and experience more of what the religion has to offer. I suggested that if Cuban Yoruba traditions are fire, then perhaps Candomble is water, explosion vs. trance. If the Cuban traditions are open, maybe Brazilian candomble has more hidden pockets, making it completely different to watch a ceremony than to participate in one. I told him about my experiences taking orixa dance classes and promised him that those traditions weren't lost. In classes the motions are explosive, vibrant, and very clear but it seems to me that the participants in a candomble don't bother to "perform" the dances. He listened to my ideas and said he was working on reminding himself that Brazilian worship evolved from different traditions.
Perhaps because Joshua had just shown us his film Cuba Amor (which, funnily enough, deals with sexual tourism and religious worship in Cuba), I was sensitive to other forms of orixa worship. As I watched one of the women bow and tremble her shoulders in a specific salutation, I thought about how differently people from different cultures represent the orixas. We, as humans bring so much to worship, such that even the style with which one receives an orixa can be a cultural trait. This difference extends to how individual humans receive artistic inspiration, philosophy, spiritual visions, ideas for social change—all of these things are filtered through our realities and our identities and are impacted too by the culture and language of the individual.
Joshua speculated that perhaps the synchronism of the pre-candomble African religion into Catholicism was more complete in Brazil than in Cuba. Africans all over the world pretended to take on the master's religion while worshiping their own by replacing their saints (on the surface) with Catholic saints. In Brazil, the synchronism was definitely profound. The other day, while climbing the hill into Pelourinho, my host saw a friend of his at a church. He called him over and asked him what was going on. The friend explained that an important member of their candomble terriero had died. They did a seven day ceremony and on the seventh day they had a mass for him in the church. I've seen photos of priests at a particular candomble street festival. It seems the two religions are still extremely intertwined in present-day Salvador.
During this trip, I saw the Brazilian film Pagador de Promesas (the payer of promises), which dealt with how candomble is rejected by the church. They stopped short of making it a race clash by having the main character and his wife be white [theories abound on how mainstream filmmakers make stories about people of color palatable (or profitable) by having a white main character, otherwise known as the Great White Hope]. The film dealt with a man who had dragged a wooden cross a long distance to deliver to St. Teresa's church as payment for a promise. At a candomble he promised Iansa (Oya in Santeria) he would complete a huge promise if she saved his mule. The priest of St Teresa's church welcomed him until he realized the man made the promise to Iansa, not to St. Teresa. The issue resulted in a citywide clash as the media escalated the issue and practitioners of candomble and capoeira got involved. span style="font-style:italic;">Pagador de Promesas won an award in Cannes and is an interesting look at the clash of African and white Catholic culture in Brazil even if it was irritating to see the black people be used as colorful film elements rather than actual characters.
Joshua's reaction to the candomble also reminded me of how different the expressions of the African diaspora are. I remember a Kikuya woman in an African dance class I had taken during college. I believe she was from Kenya. Someone in class commented that the dance moves should come naturally to her. She smiled and shook her head. "We don't jump around like that," she said. "Our dances are much more calm." She revealed her traditional dance to be a quiet type of foot shuffling, rather than wide armed leaping that we Americans have come to accept as African dance. The majority of the African dance we see in the U.S. is West African and so has particular stylistics. As an East African, her traditional moves differed from the West African styles.
I was reminded of continental differences again when a Ugandan dance troupe performed as part of Chuck Davis's Dance Africa last summer in Brooklyn. They also, did not do much leaping, they did a lot of marching and more cheerleader-ish arm motions, but their buts, hips and legs twisted in acrobatic gyrations. It was so refreshing and mind-blowing, I had never seen anything like that before. I think it's beautiful that the diaspora is just as varied as the continent is. Each of Africa's expressions can be potent in its own right.
At the Apo Funja ceremony, years ago, the ceremony was similar, but on a grander scale. There was one woman who I would never forget. It was a ceremony to pass initiates of Xango on to the next level. Before the ceremony began, I noticed this big, dark-skinned woman whose beautiful face had features as precise and planar as an African mask. She had an energy about her that kept drawing my eyes to her. When the ceremony began, I was surprised to find her as one of the initiates graduating to the next level. Somehow, all the initiates got the spirit together. I remember asking myself how it was possible for a spirit to universally visit the exact group of people being initiated. Even surrounded by ten or twelve entranced folk, this woman stood out. Where the others seemed to be doing the motions of Xango's dance, she seemed to be Xango. Between dances, she would walk around the circle with huge loose-limbed strides, almost like she was walking on stilts. Her grunts of possession were loud and male. Her already formidable presence was multiplied quadruple fold. She continued to be a dynamic force for the entire night. When we left the terriero after the ceremony, I was surprised to find all the initiates still in trance wandering around the terriero with their watches following after. I felt sorry for the watcher of the woman I had been drawn to. She was huffing and puffing her way around the yard in a powerful manner. It seemed there was nothing her watcher could do if she decided to hurt herself or somebody else while entranced. That's how powerful she seemed.
Before the Candomble, we had run into a pagode party on a tiny side street of Santo Antonio. The party looked very different from the tourist offerings in Pelourinho. It was obviously a Brazilian party. One look inside, revealed it to be a down-home, wine-down type of party. Regular people grooving with good vibes. We passed back after the candomble, but the party had closed down, perhaps because it was a Sunday night. The next day, after everyone had headed off to the beach, I went over some English lessons with my host, then headed over to the Solar do Unhão where the Bahian Museum of Modern Art is located. It had been three or four years since I had last been and I couldn't remember what bus would let me off closest. I ended up making the same mistake I made years ago. I got on a bus in Cidade Baixa thinking it would drive straight up the coast, instead it turned inland and I ended up having to pass up the Solar do Unhão before I could get off the bus.
As usual, the mistake turned out to be a blessing. It was a beautiful day, and as I walked to the coast I heard music and voices. Over the edge of the rotorno—the road on the edge of the coast—was a steep drop to the ocean, which people had claimed as a favela. In Salvador, favelas are built on steep stretches of land no one wants to purchase because it's difficult to build on them. People build a collection of randomly placed homes, accessed by steep stairways. This particular favela would seem to be hot property because it's right on the water. The sun was shining, I could see brown bodies in the water and in canoes, there was a bar on the favela side of the road packed with people celebrating the beauty of the day. I was caught up in a feeling of rapture and thankfulness. On this day it was clear that the water and the sun was seen as a blessing and was being celebrated as such.
I made it down to the Solar and was again taken by beauty. This time it was the beauty of the museum compound. The museum is housed in four separate buildings joined by a cobblestoned courtyard. The area is surrounded by trees. Behind the museum compound is a pier with tables and a restaurant. As I sat on the pier having a watermelon juice, I noticed the middle class folks coming through for a drink. On the other side of the museum is a park with a small waterfall, and further beyond is a tiny beach. Interesting how the museum neighbors the favela. And a boatload of folks from the favela took the luxury of rowing over from their property to the tiny beach to lounge. Among the museum's cobblestones, I found the abandoned yellow wing of a grounded butterfly. As I walked back to the bus from the museum, I kept seeing wings all over the ground. It made sense because the air that day was full of butterflies. I see them all over Bahia, at the beach, during carnival, while I'm standing on the balcony. I guess when they pass on, they leave behind the obvious evidence of their deserted bodies.
As it was the Museum of Modern Art, the art was modern. A lot of it conceptual, but some of it was straight ahead. It was great to spend an hour or two delving into another mindset. Salvador is a very artistic city, from the stone designs on the sidewalk which change from neighborhood to neighborhood, to the plethora of visual artists in the Pelourinho area. Besides the regimented similarity of the tourist art, there is a wonderful range of art found just strolling down the street. I found the place so inspiring that I actually started painting here. My delving into art was a mixture of a long-held desire to paint, experiencing Carybé's woodcarvings, and an artist friend who one day gave me an old canvas and a brush and said, "paint."
Painting is a means of survival, but is also another of Bahia's various artistic expressions. Of course Candomble and Bahian culture are popular references. Some of the most striking pieces I've seen are Gil Albelha's portraits of women who are part of the Irmanidade da Senhora da Boa Morte, a group of Candomble practitioners who are over the age of 50. In their advanced age, they've left behind their hoop skirts for black skirts and red shawls. I've seen Griot's orixa paintings all the way in Washington D.C. and Bida's stylized country scenes are included in many European collections. Yet their struggles are the struggles of artists everywhere: trying not to get pimped by art hustlers, needing to sell one more painting to pay the rent or keep the gallery open, trying to ignore political exclusion from arts events. Then there are the factory painters: painters—one family in particular I'm friendly with—who turn out tourist paintings to earn a living. Because there are so many painters, the gallery and shop owners can buy the paintings at a low price and sell them as high as they want. There's always another artist willing to sell. If you are able to tap directly into an international market, you can do pretty well. A friend who started with a stall now spends a few months traveling to the U.S. and Europe selling his work, but if you don't have a place to sell out of or your work isn't foreigner friendly, art is a hard road to travel. But what else is new?
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
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