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Brazil’s Untamed Heart

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Photo: Ben Watts

I have seen Salvador’s smiling face, calloused fingers, and quivering bunda, but now I want to understand her heart. One of my last evenings in the city could pass for a clandestine operation. A young man shows up at my hotel. I am put into a small Renault with my fellow traveler, a quiet Colombian doctor with a voodoo fetish, and soon we’re speeding through the decrepit suburbs of Salvador heading for a house of candomblé. In the simple whitewashed terreiro, I meet Luis, our guide, who is a thoughtful acolyte of the African religion. The Colombian and I are slotted amid a row of locals, incense clouds my eyes, and soon men and women of all ages clad in Bahian white (they are all black-skinned, except for one fat white Brazilian, wearing what looks like a toque) start a slow, ponderous procession around the room to the beat of drums and an undulating Yoruba chant. They welcome the 16 orixás, spirit guides who connect each worshipper to the high god, Olorun. Each orixá has his or her own dance, liturgy, and colors. Tonight we are celebrating Xangô, the orixá of justice, the guardian of lawyers, judges, and government workers. Personally, I like the pregnant Oxum, mistress of rivers, who stares vainly in her own mirror and protects those toiling in the arts and crafts.

As the drumbeats crescendo, people occasionally fall to kiss the ground or stretch out their arms in veneration of a particular orixá. White dresses swirl around me; sweat erupts in geysers. The bodies are round and strong. It may seem profane, but I am taken back to the samba I saw at Fundo do Cravinho on my first night in Salvador. A huge pai de santo, or resident holy man, emerges in a bright orange robe. He dances gently with a small child. Suddenly it is 1538, and we have returned to the time when the first unfortunate African feet touched the ground these modern-day Bahians are now kissing. Women come out with the offerings. They are dancing with huge plates of acarajé, carurú (an okra dish), and yellow and white corn. Then I notice a pretty young woman convulsing, possessed by the spirit of her orixá, her very body speaking in tongues. The pai de santo quickly intervenes; she is wrapped in white cloth and carried off. I nervously finger the round Ativan pill in my shirt pocket. But the dancing continues. Women walk around with towels, wiping sweat from the congregants. We are welcomed to eat the sweet and salty foods with our hands.

Candomblé was banned by the Portuguese masters, but as far as anyone can remember drums have echoed through the night in Salvador’s African quarters. In this religious worldview, I am told, there is no guilt. There is no hell and no paradise. Respectful and communal, terreira is one of the last redoubts of purely oral tradition in a world speeding along with flashes of image and garbles of sound. Like everything else in Salvador, I leave it reluctantly, worried that tomorrow I will not find anything to take its place.


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