To view this photo essay, click on "Image Gallery" at the bottom of this page. These photographs originally appeared in an exposition at the Museum of Cultural Diversity in Los Angeles, California. The essay shows scenes from the carnival of the city of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil. Below you will find short texts with explanations of the photos and brief discussions of related points of interest. Key Brazilian words are listed in the glossary that follows.
About Salvador’s Carnaval
Carnival was originally a Catholic festival, lasting for 3-5 days, just prior to the 40 days of Lent, which precedes Easter. There is no general word in English for the carnival festival (“carnival” usually refers to a temporary amusement park), so we use the French term used in New Orleans, mardi gras (“Fat Tuesday”, the last day before Lent – people would eat up all the meat and fat and then not eat meat during Lent). Since Lent was a time of penance and discipline, the preceding days became, in contrast, a time of liberation from the usual social and moral constraints, a public party. In medieval times, carnival was part of an organic cycle of discipline and liberation. Some people consider that the temporary liberation of carnival was politically useful as an escape valve for oppressed people and thus actually helped maintain the status quo. For a day the fool became king and the king a fool.
Lodging and Tours in Salvador with WHL Travel, a company that shares our concern for sustainable and responsible travel.
While carnival is still celebrated in Europe, it has lost its cultural importance in a world of prosperous consumption. In Latin America the old patterns last longer. Carnival is psychologically important particularly for poor people, who look forward to it for a whole year and see it as a magical time of release and pleasure. Another aspect to carnival, especially in Brazil, is the way its development has been influenced by black cultural practices. Afro-Brazilians (around 40% of the population) are not well represented in most professional activities, but in carnival they are very prominent, and have created or been the best exponents of many of the most characteristic activities and attitudes.
Bahia is the oldest state in Brazil and its culture is strongly Afro-Brazilian. Salvador, its capital, has been called the “Black Rome” of the Americas because of its strong Afro-Brazilian religious heritage. The carnival is the highpoint of a cycle of festivals through the summer, and carnival clubs known as blocos afro are the most visible and socially affirmative organs of racial identity. But the carnival involves the whole city and most of the carnival clubs are dominated by the Euro-Brazilian elite. Still, most tourist interest focuses on the consciously Afro-Brazilian expressions. Thus, carnival is a vehicle for a range of social expressions and differences. In Salvador cultural expression through carnival evolves considerably each year. The merits of the changes are debated and carnival is considered pivotal in how the city represents itself.
While the carnival of Rio with its huge floats, extravagant costumes and dancing, semi-naked women is more internationally famous, the carnival of Salvador is considered the most dynamic in the world in terms of popular participation. Hundreds of thousands of people from around the country and abroad descend on the city. The main feature of Salvador’s carnival is not as a spectacle but as an event to join in. In this sense, it maintains the traditional notion of carnival as a time when rules can be broken and social barriers crossed.
About the Photographs
The photos were taken during the 2000 carnival (in March). The theme of this carnaval was “500 anos” – the 500 years of Portuguese settlement since discovery of the Brazilian coast by Pedro Cabral in April of the year 1500, at a bay which was given the name Porto Seguro (Safe Haven) in the south of the state of Bahia. April 2000 saw major celebrations of the Portuguese settlement and of Brazilian statehood generally, centered in Porto Seguro. As with the 1992 celebrations across the Americas of the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery, there was much questioning by alternative groups as to the validity of the notion of discovery. More specifically, a range of organizations, including the Movimento Sem Terra (landless rural workers’ movement), indigenous groups and others, undertook protest marches to Porto Seguro, which were prevented, in many cases with violence, from reaching the town and embarrassing the government. While Brazil dispensed with its military regime and became a democracy in 1985, these events revealed again the contradictions of Brazilian contemporary society - on the one hand liberal, harmoniously cordial, exuberant and uniquely creative, and, on the other, intolerant, desperately unjust, and semi-feudal. The spirit of the carnaval of Bahia - in a state of constant evolution, balancing community ties which reach back in time and beyond Brazil to Africa and Portugal, and simultaneously a constantly expanding series of business franchises - captures many of these contradictions, though usually in the form of masquerade, intentional or not.
This photo essay focuses on social interaction outside the bounds of the large carnival clubs, on smaller or more innovative groups, and on individuals who take the opportunity to express themselves and be seen by others: children and adults in costumes, heterosexual men cross-dressed as women, small troupes of musicians and performers, poor people who occupy spaces on the periphery of the carnival to sell food or drink (and are pressured by local authorities to leave), and foreigners who come to learn about and engage in the unique expression and social ambience of Salvador. The intention is to show the carnival as it is lived and seen by locals and visitors, and not as it is shown on television or in tourist brochures. The title, “From the Inside Looking Out,” refers to the broad mix of local and global in carnival culture. But it is also about getting away from the official, commercialized spectacle and seeking a more subjective and traditional carnival psychology. It is about the individual more than the group, and the external projection of the inner self through a costume, or through more subtle forms of expression and social behavior. Carnival is a time for fun, but also a time when we show what we would like to be, and reveal our personal fantasies about what qualifies as beautiful – in ourselves and in others.
The camera was a Pentax ZX50, the film Fuji stock Black and White (ASA 100 SS-619; ASA 400 PR 253). Some have been printed on to color paper, producing a sepia effect (a brown, yellow or red hue).
Open Spaces and Icons
The most famous square in Salvador is called the Pelourinho (the pillory column to which slaves were chained as public punishment). The name now designates the whole central historical district. After gradual social decline through the twentieth century, this formerly patrician enclave of urban mansions had become a dangerous red-light district. As pointed out in the 1960s by the famous Bahian novelist, Jorge Amado, it was also the locus of cultural initiatives and a meeting place for various Afro-Brazilian practices. Many European tourists were more interested in this rich living culture than they were fearful, an attitude contrasting strongly with that of most of the local white elite, who avoided the area. This persistence eventually prompted the local government to restore the area and catalyze a spectacularly successful commercialization process. The area today has been reclaimed, both for conventional tourism and for social recreation for the local population, including both poor and rich.
Streetcar Named History (Bonde da história) - The trolley car in the foreground is festive, like a merry-go round, but may also be inspired in the saying “não perca o bonde da história” (don’t miss the street-car of history”). Behind it on the left we see restored mansions and on the right the Casa Jorge Amado. In front of it, the decorations (forest, Indians, parrots, rainbow) are in fact a set, depicting the arrival of the Portuguese in Brazil exactly 500 years earlier, in 1500. The set is not for a play – other than the carnival itself, a form of social theater.
500 Years of 500 Years (de 500 anos de) - Perhaps the most famous singers in Brazil over the last 30 years are a group of Bahians who emerged in the 1960s in Bahia’s first great cultural renaissance. Here we see Gilberto Gil (to the left), Gal Costa and Caetano Veloso. All are associated with the tropicalismo movement that simultaneously celebrated local ethnic and folkloric sources and mixed in eclectic electric sounds and psychedelia, while indirectly inferring the absurdity of the national pretensions of the military dictatorship. Gil and Caetano are fixtures of the Bahian carnival. For the “500 years” celebrations (500 years since the Portuguese “discovery”), they accepted invitations to this government sponsored float, which suggests Portuguese caravelas (ships) arriving in a tropical paradise, and a subsequent happy mixing of races (miscegenation). While carnival is about subverting a certain proprietary order, it is not a challenge to the political order. Here, Gil wears the costume of Filhos de Gandhy, a group he helped revive in the 1970s.
Reincarnation (bisavô do neto) - This citizen is the mascot of the largest carnival club, Filhos de Gandhy (Sons of Gandhi), with up to 5,000 members, whose costume of white robes, beads for the orixá (see glossary) Oxalá, and turban, is the same each year. It was founded by dockworkers in 1949, with a general mission of Afro-Brazilian representation and an ideology of social justice inspired by Mahatma Gandhi. It is an afoxé – it plays Candomblé (see glossrary) liturgical music in secularized festivities. The gent parades beneath a fake camel, with a little boy in costume on top. Despite the theatrical element of “impersonation”, there is also an aspect of genuine reverence to this figure. Where is the line between fantasy and sacred ritual, especially when a group is involved? In a society where animist beliefs are widespread, “incorporation” of a god or of an ideological force or message is not inherently absurd or suspicious because “fake.”
Carnival is a collective social ritual but it celebrates the individual’s impulse to pleasure as an assertion of identity. In Portuguese, the word for costume is fantasia. The projected identity can be an original, unprecedented figure of the imagination, or something prestigious and socially conventional (for example, Marie Antoinette outfits have been a constant favorite with poor, disenfranchised people). Beauty is not always the object, but visual seduction usually is.
Melancholy Orpheus (Orfeu) - In the Greek myth, the master musician Orpheus fell in love with Eurydice. When she suddenly died he followed her to the underworld, and led her out again with his enchanted flute, until, contrary to divine instructions, she turned around and was lost forever. Orpheus thus represents both sensual euphoria and a contrary tragic loss. Carnival traditionally suggests a human resistance through laughter against the harshness of winter, of present life against the future of death, of love and pleasure despite poverty. In 1959, a French crew created a famous film in Brazil, Black Orpheus, set in the Afro-Brazilian favelas of Rio. Note that the figure in this photo isn’t intended to be Orpheus – this is pure extrapolation on the part of one beholder!
Another year alive (Ainda) - The culture of Latin America is often characterized as baroque – fertile, effusive, expressive - in opposition to an inflexible Anglo rationalism. While in the USA color codes divide black and white, in Brazil there are many more intermediary and subjective classifications. Similarly, though nominally a machista culture, a wide repertoire of intermediary sexual personae find cultural expression – particularly in carnival. This man’s club (the Suviteiras) welcomes gays and sympathizers.
No but yes but no (Independentemente de) - Men with an effeminate side or sexual ambiguity are not to be confused with the strictly heterosexual men who cross-dress in carnival in drag. This practice is particularly popular with strong young men. Though they may play act in a genuinely feminine way, they usually also accentuate their own ineptness in the role, as if to clarify potential confusion.
Ilê Ayê: noite da beleza negra
Ilê Ayê, created in 1974, during the military dictatorship, was the first bloco afro (afro-centric carnival club) of the post-war era, and seminal in the subsequent aesthetic Africanization of Bahian carnival culture. Prior to carnival, Ilê has a special “Black is Beautiful” evening (Noite da Beleza Negra). The annual Queen is chosen from a set of 12-16 finalists. Each finalist wears a specially created outfit and dances. The name Ilê Ayê is from Yorubá (see glossary) and Candomblé (see glossary), and means something like “our house in this world.”
Deusa Mu-dança (mexeu) - The dance style is derived from African dance steps but is highly stylized. It is fluid, individualistic and regenerative (no clear beginning or ending) - sustainable for hours, as is necessary during the carnival parade. The camera follows the movement of the dance – a fraction behind! (The famous Afro-Brazilian singer Gilberto Gil has an album called “O Deus Mudança” – making a pun between two meanings: “The God, Mu, dances” and “the god of change.”)
Dance-Smile (Quem inventou o Brasil foi) - Apart from the grace of the dance steps, this picture tries to capture two qualities – the exhilaration of the spectacle of the dance, and the dancer’s smile. While we wouldn’t dare interpret its deeper meaning, the African smile is preserved amongst African Americans and Afro-Brazilians as a typical gesture of pleasure within performance.
Princesses of Ilê Ayê (rainhazinhas) - Several finalists in the competition to be Queen (Rainha do Ilê Ayê) including the winner, in the foreground to the right. There are no set rules for the hairdo. The costume, also an original creation for the occasion, integrates traditional elements, such as the cowrie shells used for divination in the Afro-Brazilian religion, Candomblé (see glossary). New ideas and traditional motifs are mixed in a conceptual collage.
Strut your stuff (toda menina baiana) - A parade catwalk in a public square, lit up all day and night, when not being used for an official event, serves as an impromptu stage for young dance fiesta enthusiasts. Though the dancing here is relaxed, we can see how graceful movements are acquired in the greatest academy of them all, the one with no visible walls - the informal, unconscious school of culture itself.
The Sorceress’s apprentice (suingueira) - More on the acquisition of dance grace. Or rather, in the case of the girl on the right, performance of a grace already fully possessed. Her little brother is still getting the swing of things, but his hands suggest a budding sophistication.
Ginga (ginga) - Three grown-ups samba-saunter up the street with the new group, Cortejo Afro. The peculiarity of samba as a dance is its subtlety. Its movements are fluid and often slight, emphasizing the trunk of the body and the legs, leaving the head, ideally, quite relaxed. “Ginga” means the spring-in-step in the walk of someone who can dance. An incidental observation: the lady on the left is virtually the only woman in Salvador with an “afro” (as in the voluminous hairstyle popular in the 1970s).
Timbalada dancer (a baiana desce) - A dancer for the Timbalada group shows how to mix pleasure and precision. Choreographed or semi-choreographed dance wings are a feature of blocos afro, and their dance steps are often derived from dança afro, that is, African dance as circulated outside Africa. Because of the investment of human resources required, there are becoming less common.
Scandinavian samba (Dinamarca tem samba) - As of the end of the twentieth century, in an increasing number of cities around the world, some form of mini-carnival has popped up. The performative model is samba as performed in the Rio carnival, though without the grandiose pageantry, in a more participatory, party vein. This Danish group has participated in the carnivals of Rio, Recife and Salvador.
How is that? (como é?) - This small carnival club, Arca do Axé (Axé Ark; axé [see glossary] is the spiritual karma of a house of Candomblé [see glossary]), successfully mixes tourists and locals. The tourists struggle to catch up on the dance steps. Some of the locals have included in their outfit an African hat of the sort used by West African Muslims. Adherence to all the elements of the official costume varies. The main thing is at least have the T-shirt with the name of the group.
Wingspan (os gringos se afinavam) - A European woman in the dance wing of Olodum, the most famous bloco afro [see glossary]. She has gone beyond the first level of participation, which means buying the costume and club pass, and partying freely, and is part of a large, loosely choreographed troupe. She may be a bit stretched by some steps, but she is certainly spreading her cultural wings. Olodum does not restrict membership to blacks or to Brazilians. Though afro-centric, its approach of “all sympathizers to the cause are legitimate members” differs from that of Ilê Ayê, which maintains an exclusively black membership.
Street and Police
Sleeper (sonhei que) - Another traditional part of carnival is partying and excess. Carnival can provoke reflection on the character of various vices, just as sins were scrutinized in the Middle Ages. “Crashing out” after drinking is an excess of appetite, while sleeping in the street breaks another social taboo. Outside carnival, many poor people sleep on the street. In Brazil, unlike in the U.S., homelessness is associated with misfortune rather than mental illness. Our subject here may have a home to go back to or not. Regardless, he emanates a strange tranquility, at peace with his dream.
He went thataway! (sonhei que) - While the police have traditionally been feared for brutality during carnival – they go stomping through the crowd using their baton as a machete – in this picture we see another characteristic – tolerance, indifference even. The two bodies – one crashed out, another official – could never co-exist in the U.S. In Brazil they can, during or outside carnival.
Men in uniform (todo policial baiano tem jeito que Deus dá) - The majority of police in Brazil are in a corps called Polícia Militar. Normally they engage in civil matters and wear blue. This full-on jungle garb sends a strong message, and when the police pass by, everyone instinctively slows, gets out of their way, waits for them to pass .... and resumes what they were doing. Whereas the older girls on the left are more cautious, in the pose of the younger girls on the right we see fear and a tinge of pre-teen attitude. In front of the police, rope holders, generally black and poor, secure the boundary of a mobile rectangle, inside which are more affluent revelers (not seen). Enthusiasts on the outside, often pressed together on the sidewalk, and still dancing, are called the “popcorn” (pipoca).
Workers in Carnival
Many traditional sectors of the Bahian economy are now in decline. Service industries, especially leisure and tourism, seem to be the way of the future. Summer tourism, culminating in the carnival, prompts a dip in the unemployment cycle. Carnival also provides a unique commercial opportunity for would-be vendors, many of them very poor. The minimum formula is a foam bin, some ice and cans of drink from the supermarket. Formerly, the main avenues were lined with such vendors. Recently, with the investment of greater capital, these people have been pushed out of these prime areas and now gather at the edges of the carnival area. They often camp on the street for a week during carnival, working, witnessing the festivities, defending their space from other vendors and government officials. Profit margins are unpredictable. Many of the most traditional aspects of carnival are preserved in this makeshift community.
Shanty eyes (tenda dos milagres) - The people in the foreground are climbing stairs up to a main carnival thoroughfare, just a few yards away. Still, the boy resting against the post seems miles away.
The plantation comes to town (ciclo da cana) - Over the centuries, the Brazilian economy has been powered by a series of single product booms, followed by decline. The first was sugar, and the plantation economy and influx of African slaves were the generative social matrix of the coastal areas of the Northeast, including the Bay of All Saints and surrounds, known as the Recôncavo [see glossary]. In the photo, at back on the right are sugar cane stalks, to be crushed to get the sweet juice that is drunken unmixed, with ice.
Up and down (bum xi bum xi bum bum bum) - Balloons for corporate sponsors rise above a roadway leading to a main carnival thoroughfare. Behind are high-rises, the standard housing of the urban middle class. The balloons are anchored in a normally unused space below the viaduct, which has been appropriated by carnival squatters.
Family table at mealtime (a cena) - Amid the disorder, this family has set up an apartment without a roof, shoes neatly sorted on the wall. The girl’s symmetrical stance makes a table where there is only a chair. The father’s style is methodical, his hat respectable. The infant, large spoon in hand and no doubt ready for eating action, seems a little serious for his age. Perhaps the domestic propriety is the work of the woman on the right with her back to us, facing her pots.
Redesigning public space (é uma perna) - Just 100 yards from the main carnival square, a road running up to the square has been closed off for carnival, and appropriated by vendors and others as a camp. In the photo, a woman strips bark from sugar-cane stalks to extract the juice. The concrete structures are bus-stop shelters; hanging from the roof of the foremost one is a leg.
Popsicle story (picolé) - All the persons in the picture are related. The large foam icebox has beer and is tended by the large woman at right. In the lap of the woman seated on the left is a daughter of the pregnant woman standing in the middle, who is about to head off in to the crowd to sell popsicles from a small portable foam ice-box, just visible.
Carnival manifestations are realized at a series of organizational levels. Large blocos [see glossary] charge $100 – 500 for the right to parade and dance within an enclosed area marked by rope which moves along the street. The music comes from a stage mounted on a truck covered in speakers (trío elétrico [see glossary]), featuring a notable local band (playing axé music [see glossary], during the 1980s and 1990s). TV coverage of the carnival concentrates on these large blocos. The blocos afro were created as communitarian associations but most have since adopted the commercial formula of the blocos. Smaller groups with different resources and dimensions gather particularly in the in the narrow streets of the historical center (Pelourinho [see glossary]). Here we find everything from eccentric individuals in inexplicable costumes, to miscellaneous community groups, such as small theater and dance troupes taking their work to the street, to smaller carnival blocos. This area is also the best place for parents to take their kids in costume.
Carlinhos Brown (Mr. Brown) - The most innovative carnival bloco of the 1990s was the Timbalada, creation of master percussionist and composer Carlinhos Brown. The sound draws on Candomblé [see glossary] and local secular rhythms, adding technology, world pop influences and eccentric creativity. The look is global primitive chic. In the photo we find Carlinhos atop his trio elétrico (stage-truck), at palm-tree height, with the sea behind looking like a blurred TV screen. At right, primitivist co-performers and a very focussed sound technician.
Timbalada girl (Barbarella) - The body painting of the Timbalada is not traditional Afro-Brazilian or indigenous. It is a globalized artistic cannibalizing of various traditional motifs, and also invents new forms. The solid lines visible here suggest use of a stencil. The girl is mounted on the side of a trio elétrico [see glossary] decorated as a spaceship in the style of 1950s Hollywood. Partial nudity is another taboo-breaking act associated with the Timbalada. Generally, the extravagant, fetishistic idealization of the naked female form as presented in the Rio carnival show, and indeed any other form of nudity, is absent from Bahian carnival. As a participatory event, with less clear boundaries between performers and enthusiasts, rules of social behavior must be more conventional, despite the party atmosphere.
Bloco Didá and Neguinho do Samba (para ver a banda passar) - The most important musician in the creation of axé music [see glossary] may well be Neguinho do Samba, who created the samba-reggae rhythm while musical director of the bloco afro Olodum. This became the backbone of the axé music sound, well beyond its original communitarian confines. Neguinho do Samba subsequently left Olodum to work with the much smaller, all-female communitarian bloco named for its leader, Didá (a corruption of the name, Adriana). In the foreground photo we see the back of Neguinho do Samba wearing a Wayne Gretzy shirt. His raised hand directs the youthful band, which, for carnival, includes boys also. Didá’s face is visible on the extreme right, with cowbell in hand, her face raised in musical concentration.
Café boy (quem não tem colírio) - There’s a song from an old American musical that goes, “there’s an awful lot of coffee in Brazil”. True, still, Salvador does not have cafés (establishments where one pays for and consumes coffee rather than a meal). Coffee is sold by wandering street vendors armed with a row of thermoses and a set of little plastic cups. Some do this with great flair and build up rolling coffee trolleys with lights and sound. Here, the “coffee boys” have been invited by a new bloco afro, called Cortejo Afro, to participate in the bloco’s parade, and been given the costume of the bloco. The main subject is particularly strong on café PR and has candies for sale and ribbons and CDs for decoration. The tall white antenna shapes are stacks of plastic coffee cups and the rectangular white boxes are cigarette packets; the cigarettes are sold individually and often consumed with coffee. Such coffee consumers are also street workers. Most professionals eat in restaurants where coffee is served after the meal. Thus street coffee belongs to a locally oriented social realm. The coffee boys are a classic example of the informal or black market economy - undocumented, untaxed, and low paid, but often paying more than the minimum wage of many formally contracted employees. These humble professional activities can be engaged in a way which accentuates individualism - a sort of symbolic resistance to the impossibility of conventional social legitimacy in the “system” as it stands – racist, classist, etc. Brazil has one of the worst patterns of income distribution inequity in the world. Some people grumble about how all the best coffee is exported, which seems emblematic of the dependency syndrome, whereby rich countries get the best product from poor countries, and also repackage it and sell it back to these countries. There’s more to coffee than meets the nose.
Cafuz (cafuza) - The cultural acknowledgment of racial mixing is reflected in the rich vocabulary of Brazilian Portuguese for various specific mixed racial types. Mulato really means of black and white mix; cafuz means a black and indigenous mix; caboclo means white and indigenous, like mestizo in Spanish. This local dance troupe is not an ethnically consistent group. Most would identify as Afro-Brazilians. Their costume focuses on indigenous Brazilian themes, with various elements external to this source thrown in.
Body art (marcha) - A theatrical group dance through the streets of the Pelourinho. They have used body painting to incorporate partial nudity, along with creative weaving of reeds for hat-gear.
Mask group (máscaras) - Masks are the hallmark of another famous carnival, that of Venice in Italy. Here a community group that has worked on mask-making through a government grant takes its product to the street.
Represent (cantar é contar) - This small classic samba group is playing what is Brazil’s most characteristic music outside of carnival. The signature style of samba was developed in Rio but the rhythm originated in Bahia and there are many local sub-genres. This group has improvised a costume for carnival with the creative application of a pair of scissors to yellow T-shirts. They are amateurs but play well and with a decided intensity. Title tip: “get out and represent” or just “represent” (intransitive verb – you don’t say “what” you represent) is slang in Los Angeles, California, for making the effort to be present at some event, thereby affirming one’s community or group.
Individuals in Motion
Carnival is a space out of normal time, and a chance to be seen for a moment in a magical way. Just as precious as the extravagance of some outfits is the idea, simply in the enthusiast’s mind, of heading out for fun in public spaces, of using the city’s size for visibility or invisibility, hoping to find the unexpected, and perhaps being the unexpected for others. Carnival is a time for masks and illusion, but also a time when desires are manifested openly, sketched out in costumes and pencilled momentarily on lips and in eyes.
Filhas de Oxum (nesta cidade todo mundo) - The small bloco [see glossary] Filhas de Oxum is a good example of a communitarian group specifically oriented to carnival. Oxum is the orixá [see glossary] of beauty and feminine vanity, and a lover of gold. Just as people have a star-sign, in Salvador and the Recôncavo people are born under the auspices of a given orixá. A favorite local song claims that “In this city, everyone is under Oxum” (Gerônimo, “Nesta cidade todo mundo é de Oxum”), suggesting that a certain feminine aesthetic flair marks the personality of the city and its denizens.
I saw the future long ago (já vi muitas cartas) - More Filhas de Oxum. Like Oxum herself, Youth is gilded. But as Oscar Wilde observed, “youth is wasted on the young”. This diviner seems confident that what she sees in the cards is knowledge worth as much as any pretty face. In her left hand is a purse full of coins.
Flaming Wooden heart (pé de pé) - The Gays of Bahia Association is well organized and led by a dynamic activist, Luiz Mott. Transvestites parade in various categories at the Municipal Square in front of the Mayor’s office. The winner in 2000 was number 13, decked out entirely in thin slices of wood.
Beautiful Boy (você sabia?) - Many of the transvestites are not trans-sexual but use body-adjusting hormone treatments and implants that give them a female figure while still retaining the penis.
Crowd agog (povão sorridão) - This crowd is the same of the previous two photos. The event takes place in the central square, in front of the Mayor’s Office, where there are also many semi-official, family-oriented events, and the crowd is more of the day-time than night-time type. Their enthusiasm borders on exaltation. Given that the spectacle is of semi-nude transvestites, this suggests a healthy tolerance of deviance from generally prevailing social norms, and a great sense of fun.
Ready for action! (prontas) - Hey, don’t step on those platform heels! An “I-dream-of-Genie” Middle Eastern maiden look and the Flintstones are thematic inspirations here. In general, young children in Brazil, particularly girls, are oriented toward classic gender roles from a very early age. But these girls look like they’re ready for a lesson or two in kick-boxing or something else empowering.
Individuals in Portrait
Syncretism (concessão da Conceição) - Before the era of modern blocos afro, an important genre of carnival clubs was the blocos de índio. The Indian in question was not the Brazilian indigene, but the “redskin” of Hollywood westerns. This young man belongs to one of the few such surviving blocos, the Apachés do Tororó (a district of Salvador). He stands here with a timbau drum, manufactured in São Paulo and made of synthetic materials, bearing a rather Yankee looking eagle ensign which here is a symbol for the bloco. Behind the percussionist rises the imposing Church of the Conception (Conceição), important as the point of departure on the day of the march to the famous Bonfim Church in early January - considered the most classic syncretist religious celebration, as Nosso Senhor do Bonfim is Jesus and also Oxalá, the orixá comparable to the Greek Zeus.
History is a cross to bear (não é só brincadeira) - This little girl is dressed loosely as a baiana (see glossary). The multi-layered outfit of the baianas does not expose the belly, however; this liberty here is an adjustment for the comfort of this small person. The beads are blue and white, for the orixá (see glossary), Oxalá. While the baianas do wear beads (appropriate to their governing orixá [see glossary]), the use here is more likely a take on the beads used by the Filhos de Gandhy. Religious beads can be bought cheaply and are often incorporated into costumes with purely aesthetic purpose. While our subject is probably not contemplating such niceties, she does seem to have something rather serious on her mind as she heads out for an afternoon of fun.
Black Venus (lapidar o sonho ou Piaui) - This girl has just spent the whole night walking to the town center as a member of the seminal bloco afro (see glossary) Ilê Ayê and is exhausted. But carnival gives people energy. The bright afro-inspired costume uses red, yellow, white and black (symbolic of the African diaspora experience) and even at this hour still looks crisp. The title plays on that of an important book, Black Athena, by a white American scholar, Martin Bernal, which insists on the Egyptian derivation of much Greek art. Other scholars suggest that the pharaohs were black. These symbolic issues have been very important for black affirmation.
Oliver + Sabrina (Tristão, Isolda) - Oliver is an ambitious hairstylist who specializes in weaving. Going one step beyond typical afro styles (dreads, braids and extensions known as mega-hair), he works with glass beads and other objects, and his own head is the artist’s most important canvas. His assistant and girlfriend, Sabrina, has bright colored cloth threads weaved by Oliver into her own braided hair. The inseparable couple are easily recognized, even in a crowd. Like its sister city, Los Angeles, Salvador is one of a handful of cities marked by a certain brash extrovertedness, a penchant for eccentric and high impact appearances.
Cleaning lady and confetti man (capital cultural) - A lady worker takes a moment to look on to events from a balcony, though we can’t quite catch her expression in the shadow (though it is on the negative, the photographer swears!). She probably makes the minimum wage, about $100 a month, virtually impossible to raise a family on. The glittery figure on the left is perfectly dressed for carnival, and has no budget problems, since he is only a doll. There are always two sides to carnival.
Salvador Carnaval Glossary
axé music - The Salvador pop sound, and pop scene, of the last 20 years, incorporating elements from heavy percussion drawing on Candomblé rhythms, to national and Caribbean pop styles. The term also marks the commercial advent of Salvador as a recording location, competing directly with Rio and São Paulo for the first time. The international export success of blocos afro such as Olodum, and other bands and individual artists, lead a local journalist to coin this term for the emergent industry, juxtaposing a Yoruba word and an English word, bypassing Portuguese.
Axé - The spiritual karma of a house of Candomblé..
Bahia, baiano, baiana - The state of Bahia is names after the Bay of All Saints (Baia de Todos os Santos). The “h” was added to give it a distinctive spelling. The adjective for “Bahian” is baiano, without the “h”. Thus the women named for their state origin are baianas. A separate use of the same word (baiana) is much more specific. It denotes women, typically Afro-Bahian, who wear white lace colonial garb and are associated with Candomblé. Such baianas are conspicuous as the street-vendors of acarajé, a fried bean meal served with shrimp. They are also a characteristic presence in various Bahian parades and ceremonies, and an indispensable first element the parade of the Escolas de Samba in Rio.
Bloco[s] and bloco[s] afro - Carnival clubs in Salvador are called blocos. The bloco afro is specifically Afro-centric, created by and for the local Afro-Brazilian population and getting artistic inspiration from the Black diaspora (Africa, USA, the Caribbean and Brazil).
Candomblé - Afro-Brazilian animist religion, centered in Bahia. Candomblé derives directly from the practices of the Iorubá people in West Africa. The gods are called the orixás.
Escola[s]-de-samba - Literally, samba schools. The dozen or so large organizations in Rio that compete with huge dancing parades. This is the model of carnival exported to the world, and is certainly its most extravagant manifestation.
Miscegenation (in Portuguese, miscegenação) - Racial mixing. The term has both a a negative connotation, in racist discourse, and a positive connotation, as for “the melting pot” in English. The theme is central to the work of Jorge Amado, in works like “Tent of Miracles” and “Gabriela.”
Orixá[s] (god[s] in the pantheon of Candomblé) - Most blocos afro and many other organizations are associated with the symbolic patronage of one or other orixá. The name Olodum comes from Olodumaré, rainbow-serpent god. Filhos de Gandhy is directly linked with Oxalá, analogous to the Greek Zeus, and linked to Christ in Catholic-Candomblé syncretism.
Pelourinho - Literally, the pillory column to which slaves were chained for public punishment. The name now designates the whole central historical district, an exceptional clustering of neo-barroque architecture. This area is associated with the emergence of Afro-Brazilian cultural affirmation.
Recôncavo - The area around the Bay of All Saints (Baía de Todos os Santos), an almost closed circular bay about 50 miles across, not unlike the San Francisco Bay. This fertile zone was used for plantations. Moving inland beyond this area, the climate and terrain change rapidly. As a result the economy and culture of the inland are completely different. The Recôncavo is the strongest concentration of afro-centric culture in Brazil, so that Salvador has been called the black Rome of the Americas. It can be compared to New Orleans in this seminal demographic and cultural role, but Salvador was also the first and longest-lasting capital of Brazil.
Salvador - The city of São Salvador (the Holy Savior) is the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, (and not to be confused with El Salvador, the small Central American state whose capital is San Salvador). It is located at the entrance to the tip of the Bay of All Saints (Baía de Todos os Santos), on a triangular promontory. At the tip is a light house; one side one looks to the bay, the other to the ocean. For most of its history, the city of Salvador was referred to as “Bahia” (as the word “Mexico”, within the country of Mexico, can mean Mexico City). The carnival is alternately called “o carnaval de Salvador” and “o carnaval da Bahia” Salvador was the first capital of Brazil and remained so for more than 200 years, until Rio became capital in 1759.
trío elétrico - A truck entirely covered with a huge array of very loud speakers. The original was a an open-top car, created by Bahians who also developed an electric guitar to play loud. 2000 marked the 50th anniversary of this creation, which has undergone continual technical innovation.
Yorubá - A major ethnic group in Nigeria in West Africa, and their language. The religious cults of the Yorubá people form the base of Candomblé in Brazil and of Afro-Cuban religion. Yorubá is the liturgical language of Candomblé as Latin was for the Roman Catholic Church. Why the Yorubá, who were merely one among many African ethnic groups introduced to the New World under slavery, should have so dominated the religious market is still not really explained by scholars.
About the Photographer
The Australian-born photographer, Piers Armstrong, studied and taught Brazilian literature at UCLA, before moving to Salvador, teaching at the Federal University of Bahia, and then the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santana. Piers taught at USC in Los Angeles for the 2001-2002 academic year and later moved to Dartmouth. His research focuses on aesthetic and social aspects of the popular cultural expression of the region. To contact the photographer directly, click here.
Copyrights and Wrongs
These Jpegs of the photos may be downloaded and used freely, with the proviso that the photographer and BrazilMax are clearly listed with the photos in any usage which involves any form of digital or material redistribution. Reprints of the photos from the negatives are available from the photographer.