Saturday, March 14, 2009

Bahia's Blocos Afro & Afoxés: Changes in Salvador's Carnaval

Gilberto Gil with the Filhos de Ghandi afoxé during Carnaval in 2009.

Every year, an estimated two million celebrants crowd Salvador’s narrow streets to dance, sing, and party to the music of the blocos afro, afoxés, and trios elétricos. For research for the revised, third edition of The Brazilian Sound, I asked two experts in the area for their opinions about the contemporary Carnaval scene in Bahia. Linda Yudin is a dance ethnologist, co-director of the Viver Brasil dance company in Los Angeles, and a teacher of Brazilian dance at Santa Monica College. I also interviewed her for the first edition of the book. Kirk Brundage is an L.A.-based percussionist and music teacher who has played with Olodum during Carnaval. He directs the Music of Brazil Ensemble in the department of ethnomusicology at UCLA.
--Chris McGowan

Chris: What is the current scene like in Bahia regarding participation in, and interest in, the blocos afro and afoxés?
Linda: There are only a handful of blocos afro and afoxé groups participating. Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, Muzenza, Malê de Balê, Filhos de Gandhi, Cortejo Afro. And although they are the remaining groups that have survived since the early 1980s, with the exception of Cortejo Afro which was founded in 1997, their participation is strong and [they] continue to have large community participation. The communities are greatly interested in their bloco afros and afoxés. I am not so sure that there is such a great interest from the general public and that is unfortunate. The challenge that each group faces is financial. These groups just don't get the financial backing from corporations and or from the municipal tourist organization, Emtursa, or the state run tourist organization, Bahiatursa, that they deserve. The trio elétricos continue to have strong financial support.

Olodum performing in Salvador's Pelourinho historic square.

Kirk: I would tend to agree with Linda. The number of major blocos has not changed in recent years. The 'flagship' organizations still have the same status. Additionally however, during Carnaval there are a number of lesser known organizations that do participate, in some cases, as neighborhood spin-offs of the major ones. There are also other organizations that serve kids, just like the mirim [children’s] groups of Ilê and Olodum. Finances are a serious issue. For this reason, this year Olodum cut its size in half (4,000 to 2,000 foliao [participants] and, 200 drummers to 100 - I was extremely fortunate to have made the cut!. Also, I heard a rumor that next year some groups might go down to 60 drummers equipped with wireless mics. The function of both the blocos and afoxés remains the same as before: to continually assert the cultural presence, relevance and vitality of the Afro-descendants (their local audience). While the afoxés are not political, the blocos are, due to their concerns with resistência cultural [cultural resistance] issues such racism, education, employment, etc. Yet at the same time, the blocos wish to reach an international audience that may or may not share, understand, or be interested in their fight. And it is this international consumer that the government is also interested in.

Chris: What has changed over the last ten years?
Kirk: I think the biggest change has been with size and the commercialization of Carnaval. 2005 saw Bahian Carnaval enter into the Guinness book as the largest street party in the world. The number of participating groups and tourists has increased greatly; more restoration work is being done in the historical district; more restaurants are opening; more hotels have internet. Bahiatursa is even considering adding a third location in Cidade Baixa to address the issue with space.

Chris: How has the music changed?
Kirk: Musically speaking the blocos themselves have evolved tremendously from the early days. Each has developed its own unique sound and style in terms of beats, breaks, instrumentation and influences. One can easily identify the major groups based on these characteristics. Many new beats have been created, or adapted, along with a dizzying number of 'drum breaks'. Experimentation, creativity and innovation are hallmarks of the genre. Players of all groups are always devising new beats and breaks and instruments. However on the other hand, the blocos have become like the new generation of quilombos or early terreiros in that they are today’s purveyors of (their) tradition. There is now a certain level of 'standardization'; Ilê still does not use electric instruments, nor have the other groups radically altered their overall orchestration/sound. There exists now, a huge vocabulary of rhythms and instruments that any self-respecting professional percussionist must know. Of late, the most movement has been in Axé Music, as it has absorbed the complete lexicon of the blocos, mixed it with Caribbean and North American influences and distilled it down into a sophisticated blend - minus the political component.

Chris: Has there been a permanent alteration in Salvador's culture because of the original rise of the blocos afro & return of the afoxés?
Linda: I think that the the blocos afro and afoxés permanently marked Salvador's culture with a contemporary music and dance form that has been recognized world wide and that honors its African roots, yet fluidly blends the influences of other music forms from around the world. Bahian musicians and dancers too have much more access and chances to interface with other styles of great music that have come to Bahia because of international summer music festivals, tourists coming to Bahia to study Afro-Brazilian culture (and they too bring their own cultural traditions to share), and of course the internet has allowed for complete access to the world.
Kirk: Yes, because what was once shunned, or even illegal, is now mainstream. Originally, [Filhos de] Gandhi members were afraid to parade those first years because of police repression, but today they are celebrated for their message. Before Ilê, no one presented African-oriented themes in the street, now it is commonplace. Their Beleza Negra [Black Beauty] festival celebrates this question of black aesthetics, and its value/contribution to society. The 'samba reggae' movement has therefore been much more than a mere beat. Its repercussions (pun intended) have impacted fashion, food, dance, language, and political consciousness locally and internationally.

Chris: Any other comments?
Linda: The blocos afro, the afoxés and [independent percussion] groups like Timbalada were responsible for putting contemporary Bahia on the cultural world map in my opinion. Axé!

This discussion took place in May, 2007. The revised, 3rd edition of The Brazilian Sound is available on and worldwide.

© Chris McGowan 2009.


Inha said...

Uma das melhores passagens do carnaval da Bahia, muinta saudade para uma brasileira que mora sozinha no fim do mundo americano.

Inha said...

deixa eu ver a minha Bahia, minha raiz, meus blocos, minha cultura.Me manda foto do Araketu e do olodum, Ile aye, muzenza e todos que fazem a musica mais bonita do Brasil....