The Capital of Happiness

By Prof. Dennis Laumann.

This past August I visited Salvador, Brazil’s “Capital of Happiness,” a beautiful, cosmopolitan, dynamic, and historic city along the Atlantic coast. Founded in 1549, Salvador was Brazil’s first capital until 1763 and today it is the country’s third largest city as well as the capital of the state of Bahia. Most importantly for me, Salvador is the center of Afro-Brazilian history and culture and the destination of a study abroad program I will lead in the spring 2012 semester.

As a specialist in African history, I certainly felt at “home” in this Brazilian city, where the sights, sounds, and smells reminded me of Ghana, the West African country that is the focus of my scholarship. And though I have traveled to many other parts of the African Diaspora, such as Cuba and other island nations in the Caribbean, I was struck by the predominance of African influences in Salvador. Indeed, when Brazilian colleagues asked me how Salvador differed from Ghana, I only half-jokingly replied that Salvador was more African than Africa!

To students of Atlantic world history, the reasons for the prevalence of African culture in Salvador are obvious. Brazil was the recipient of the largest number of slaves from Africa, at least three million, during the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade. Most of these enslaved Africans originated from present-day Nigeria in West Africa and Angola in central Africa. Northeastern Brazil, which includes Bahia, had the highest concentration of Africans within Brazil, many of whom worked on sugarcane and tobacco plantations. In contrast to the United States, manumission from slavery was relatively easier, so a significant population of “free” Africans resided in Salvador and other urban centers during the slavery era. Additionally, many Africans liberated themselves through rebellion and recreated African communities in the hinterlands known in Brazilian history as quilombos. All these factors — the large slave population, substantial numbers of free Africans, and the existence of autonomous African communities — explain the perseverance and strength of African culture in Salvador today.

Despite these deep connections with Africa, the Brazilian economic and political elite historically sought to suppress Afro-Brazilian culture and instead emphasize the country’s Portuguese and Catholic heritage. This Eurocentrism was not unique to Brazil, of course, as African cultural beliefs and practices were outlawed elsewhere in the African Diaspora. Afro-Brazilians nonetheless kept their traditions alive, even when they were forced to practice their religions, play their music, and perform their dances underground. Fortunately, in the past two decades or so, especially as a result of the policies of immensely popular former Brazilian president Inácio Lula da Silva, state-sanctioned discrimination against Afro-Brazilian culture has disappeared. In fact, the city of Salvador and the state of Bahia today highlight their African connections and promote local Afro-Brazilian culture in their tourism campaigns.

For this reason, in addition to its popular beaches, historic churches, and colonial architecture, Salvador is Brazil’s second most popular tourist destination after Rio de Janeiro. I encountered tourists everywhere in Salvador, but particularly in Pelourinho, the historic center famous for its colorful, well-preserved homes dating back to the 17th century, which earned it a World Heritage Site declaration by UNESCO in 1985. Besides numerous Brazilian and European tourists, I came across several African American tour groups, visiting Salvador to learn more about Afro-Brazilian history and culture. Like them, I traveled there because of Salvador’s reputation as one of the great cities of the African Diaspora.

The primary purpose of my visit was to make arrangements for next semester’s study abroad program. Next year, a select group of honors students will travel with me to Salvador through our study abroad program entitled “Afro-Brazilian History and Culture in the Capital of Happiness.” The many topics we will explore in the related course include African origins; the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; the development of the Atlantic World; slavery, resistance, and emancipation in Brazil; Afro-Brazilian religion and culture; and politics and identity in present-day Brazil. After seven weeks of readings, classroom discussions, and some lessons in basic Portuguese, we will travel to Salvador for one week of intensive, varied, and first-hand learning experiences.

Most of my August visit was devoted to setting up the Spring Break trip — meeting with faculty at the Federal University of Bahia, martial arts and dance instructors, religious figures, and tour guides. But, besides all these official duties, I had many wonderful, unexpected, and profoundly rewarding experiences. One evening, for example, when I was attending an Afro-Brazilian religious ceremony, during which the orixás (or deities) of the Candomblé religion make an appearance, I met Ayanwale Ayo Olayanju who serves as Nigeria’s Cultural Ambassador to Salvador. What a pleasant surprise it was to learn that the Nigerian government not only recognizes its historic and cultural connections across the Atlantic, but considers it so important that it maintains a Casa de Nigeria (or Nigeria House) in the heart of Salvador. During my busy days, walking around the city to various appointments, I encountered the ambassador several times, and we spoke at length about his efforts to deepen the relationship between Nigeria and Brazil. Amongst the many programs organized by the Casa de Nigeria, Brazilian students take classes in Yoruba, one of Nigeria’s main languages and the basis for the singing and chanting in Candomblé ceremonies.

One of the biggest revelations for me in Salvador was the fact that Candomblé symbols are visible throughout the city. Although ceremonies are mostly held behind closed doors, in Candomblé houses called terreiros, the sight of large statues of the Orixás in a lake in the middle of a large park was startling to me, since public displays of African religions generally are rare in West Africa and the African Diaspora. To learn more about Candomblé, I spent a morning visiting Cecilia Soares, the head of a Candomblé house called Ilê Axé Maruketu and a professor at the Federal University of Bahia. She explained to me that in the past Brazilians could not openly practice Candomblé or other Afro-Brazilian religions, particularly someone like her in the academic profession. While Catholicism is the dominant religion and evangelical Christianity is spreading in Salvador, the relatively recent, official acceptance of Afro-Brazilian religions means followers are no longer forced to hide their faith. What may be especially instructive to American visitors is the fact that many residents of Salvador easily mix beliefs and practices, not just Christianity and Candomblé, but also Hinduism and other religions, a refreshing change from fundamentalism of whatever sort.

One of the most well-known manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture is the martial arts form called Capoeira. Central African in origin, it was developed in Brazil by Africans to defend themselves from slave masters. Capoeira is a graceful mix of unarmed combat techniques, dance, and music. The official center of Capoeira is the historic Santo Antonio fortress, a former prison which now houses the workshops of leading mestres (or masters). I visited Jaime Martins dos Santos, also known as Mestre Curió, an elderly man who leads one of the most famous Capoeira schools. Although visitors can see groups performing Capoeira throughout Salvador, especially in tourist areas, only the elite of Capoeira masters are provided space in the Santo Antonio fortress. Mestre Curió’s path there from humble roots is documented in his autobiography which he inscribed to me with the words “Where there is water, there are flowers and happiness.”

Indeed, Salvador is surrounded by water, courtesy of the Atlantic Ocean, and one of its beaches, Porto da Barra, is recognized as one of the very best in the world. I spent some time in the lively neighborhood bordering that beach to visit my friend Marcio de Abreu. Besides being a well-regarded Capoeira instructor who has led workshops in the United States and Europe and recently co-produced a documentary on Capoeira, Marcio started a clothing line called Bassula Capoeira Originals to raise awareness of the martial art. When the Memphis students visit Salvador next March, Marcio will teach them basic Capoeira moves while our mutual friend Sandra Lima will offer a workshop in Afro-Brazilian dance. These types of first-hand experiences will clearly help students better understand the history and culture they will be studying in the classroom before our trip.

African influences are not just evident in religion, dance, and music, but everywhere on the streets of Salvador. On a Saturday morning, my friend Pedro Almeida and I took a bus trip to the seaside neighborhood called Ribeira. The main reason for our trip was to visit the famous hilltop church called Basílica do Nosso Senhor Bom Jesus do Bonfim. People from near and far visit it to make wishes, symbolized by the colorful ribbon they tie along the church gates or on their wrist. Exploring Ribeira, I saw many sights that reminded me of West Africa. Small market stalls lined the main street where yams, okra, and other West African foods were for sale. Girls carefully balancing heavy loads of fruits and vegetables on their heads, another scene reminiscent of West Africa, passed us as we walked to the beach. There, we stopped at an informal roadside restaurant, where an Afro-Brazilian woman was cooking fried balls of black-eyed peas with ginger, called Acarajé in Brazil and Kose in Ghana. The continuities of African culture — despite slavery and discrimination and the centuries and distance, in artistic forms as well as everyday culture — are remarkable and inspirational.

On my last day in Salvador, as I was enjoying one of my favorite indulgences, an espresso, I suddenly heard the vibrant pounding of drums known as Odolum which some readers may recall in Paul Simon’s hit song “The Obvious Child” from an album he partly recorded in Salvador in the early 1990s. I excused myself from the table and quickly headed down the street where I came upon a group of young boys playing a variety of colorful drums with enthusiasm and obvious joy. As tourists snapped their photos, I reflected on the beauty of the site before me: a new generation, diverse in their appearance and origins, playing African drums in the Capital of Happiness. I have no doubt our honors students will return to Memphis with many such beautiful experiences and wonderful stories to share with their families and friends.

Brazil continues to attract more world attention, not only because of its growing and stable economy and progressive social policies, but also since it will be hosting the next World Cup in 2014 and Summer Olympics in 2016. Hopefully these international events, which will be closely followed by humanity around the globe, will provide opportunities for more of us to learn about the remarkable and inspirational history and culture of Afro-Brazilians. Thanks to support from the Department of History, the Helen Hardin Honors Program, and the Center for International Studies and Programs, I will have the chance to teach students at The University of Memphis about this subject dear to me.

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