Saturday, March 7, 2020

Brazil Vol. 2: Ilê Aiyê, Another Privilege Check & Mario Pam

Weekly Update 2020-09: The second of three chapters on the beautiful Brazil, a place full of culture, excitement, poverty and music that stole my heart and some other things, too. 

Music: Ilê Aiyê
Sometimes it just doesn't make sense until you go there. I made the trek all the way to Brazil, and even then on a particular evening of my trip, a trek from the relatively safe, touristy neighbourhood of Pelourinho all the way down the line to Curuzu where the original bloco afro of Samba Reggae was born: Ilê Aiyê.

Ilê Aiyê pioneered the bloco style of Carnaval drumming currently popular worldwide. Founded in 1974, they are not only the first Carnaval bloco of the modern era in Bahia, but the first all-black Carnaval group. They singlehandedly sparked a renaissance that not only redefined Carnaval, but began a wider social movement known as "resistância cultural”—which calls for respect for African heritage in Brazil.

Ilê Aiyê's impact and influence comes through in music, dance, fashion, politics, and in youth education programs. Influenced by the 1970s American black pride movement, Ilê Aiyê created their infectious rhythm samba afro by fusing Rio-style samba with candomblé and samba de roda. It's so interesting that samba could travel from Salvador down to Rio, and then migrate back up to Salvador again to become this and many other sounds.

I literally cannot stop singing the songs on their Spotify Album Black Chant. The album is predominantly sung in Portuguese but I am doing my best to learn the lyrics in both languages to sing along and learn the meanings. More on this below.

Picking up where we left off in the last post: Wednesday morning we piled in a van to nearby Piraja to do a workshop with Mestre Gordo for Cortejo Afro fame. We played with him all day and learned some very cool beats. Downstairs I noticed some women sewing Carnaval costumes - always the unsung heroes of the huge musical events. You rock, ladies!

Our practice room for the day, with Cortejo Afro's drums.

Lunch in Piraja!

Mestre Gordo and me :D

At night we had a special lecture from some of the famous mestres on Pelourinho: Pato had brought together the famed Anderson (who had come to visit us in Toronto), Mestre Jackson, Alex Rosa and more extremely talented drummers to discuss their history in the city of Samba Reggae. And, just before they started to tell us their stories, we heard some drumming coming from down the street through the open windows. Looking out into the streets below, we caught the tail end of the full drumming band of Olodum doing a practice parade through the streets of Pelourinho! How cool.

Pato trying to learn from Mestre Jackson the way I learn from him!
That's Alex Rosa beside Pato on the right playing repique.
The guy under Alex was also an AMAZING drummer, George Sopa.

So many amazing drummers in this rooooooooom!

Anderson's family also cooked us a huge Brazilian meal. It was a lovely evening listening to some of the best drummers in the world.

On Thursday morning we had a bit of tourist time before our next Tambores Do Mundo workshop. Some of us went over to the Lacerda Elevator to get to the big Mercado Modelo - a market of Brazilian crafts and goods. There was some lovely textiles, small drums and instruments, and other stuff but I didn't find too much to buy since Gary had already given me his Olodum shirt! It was still nice to walk around the market and finish off with an Acai.

The city is divided between high and low, with an elevator to go between (Elevator Lacerda).

The gang about to go out on the town.
Barbara is hanging out the window where we stayed.

After that came the last Carnaval workshop with Tambores Do Mundo before we paraded together.

On Friday we did our daytime parade with Tambores Do Mundo, admittedly falling off early to run back to Pelourinho to catch the Saída do Olodum (thematic departure parade from their home in Pelourinho to Campo Grande, where their trio eletrico awaited them). I thought I had never been so squished in my life, but I had no idea what I was in for later that night.

We walked and danced alongside as Olodum's drummers and performers paraded through Pelourinho on their way to Campo Grande, and then walked to meet them at their trio eletrico. From here on out, I was so squished shoulder-to-shoulder that I could only tiptoe as slow as the crown around me moved, everyone a huge, sweaty, drunken, rowdy, stinking mass. I am happy I did it, but I would never do it again. I could only really hear the drums at certain times, and the crowd was just too much. But it was still a once-in-a-lifetime experience. See if you can find me in the crowd!

Can you spot me? Hardest Where's Waldo ever...

On Saturday we got a well-deserved beach day at Praia Do Buraçao, as I hemmed and hawed about whether my body could handle another night of craziness after Olodum. Tonight Ilê Aiyê was doing their Saída from the Barrio Preto of Curuzu (closeby-ish to Pelourinho) and I just didn't know if I could do it all again.

I think all of us got a little naked moment in the water because the waves were so powerful here!!

Caipirinhas delivered to your beach chair for $3 CAD.

I did force myself to go in the end and realized quickly that Ilê Aiyê's vibe is very different from that of Olodum, and much more my speed. Curuzu is a very culture-rich neighbourhood, absolutely predominantly black, and home to several cultural buildings belonging to Ilê Aiyê.

They began their Saída with a brass section, of course lots of drummers, a release of doves into the air, throwing of popcorn into the crowd, and the most sensational moment of all the audience singing along to their classic song Negrume Da Noite, the words of which I have since learned to heart. Too bad I didn't do so before the event!

Since this magical night watching the band parade up the streets of Curuzu in their Saída, I have been forever changed by their music. The vibe felt so different from that of Olodum, much more homegrown and meant for the true love of music and culture. Yes, it was hot as hell and yes, people were pretty drunk and pushing into each other like a big, sweaty can of sardines, but this particular can felt more positive vibes than Olodum had the previous night over in Campo Grande neighbourhood. Many factors could play into this, but this was my impression of two seemingly comparable evenings in the throes of Carnaval. More on the Saída later on in this post.

We tried to take it easy on Sunday, one of the hottest days yet. The streets of Pelourinho were filled with blue-and-white flurries of followers of the Filhos do Gandhy (Sons of Gandhi), and everything seemed a little more surreal.

This group or afoxé was founded in 1949, and today is the largest and (some would say) the most beautiful group in Salvador's Carnaval with approximately 10,000 members.

As per the name, you may guess the group is made up exclusively of men. They take inspiration from the principles of non-violence and peace of the Indian activist Mahatma Gandhi, and bring the tradition of African rhythms through songs of the instrument the "agogô" in the Yoruba language.

Members use white sheets and towels as a costume to symbolize Indian dress, and for some amount of money I would assume any man could have a literal towel sewn onto their head in a sort of headdress with a shiny blue-and-silver talisman affixed to the front.

I didn't actually get to see any of the musical members, but oh boy there were Filhos everywhere that day.

At night we did our final parade at night with our very own trio eletrico and Bloco Alabê to help us keep the beat all the way to Campo Grande.

Heck yeah, we had our own rope protecting us and our trio eletrico.

This was a perfect way to say goodbye to Pelourinho because my body was well and truly done after three hours of parading, and then dragging the drums all the way back to Pelourinho after that.

I'm going to relax as much as I can over the next three days in the beach town of Praia do Forte, and then unstick myself from all the sand and head back to reality.

Random Thought: Privilege Round Two
Attending the Saída do Ilê Aiyê in Barrio Preto (Portuguese for "Black Neighbourhood") after such a crazy night at Olodum felt like a risky move without knowing what I'd be getting into, but once we made it to Curuzu I could tell the vibe would be different.

The crowd was filled with people who, through their sweaty, drunken states, just wanted to be one with the music and the band and the dancers and each other. This is something I definitely understand from the music festivals I've attended in other countries, though the Saída do Ilê Aiyê was certainly unlike anything I had seen before.

I admit I am pretty clueless on the role I am allowed to play as a white person in enjoying the music of this band, and Olodum as well for that matter. Both groups are formed of people of African heritage, descendants of people who were forced from Africa to Brazil and many other countries to work as slaves. Salvador itself is an interesting city in that it was the main slave port for Brazil back in darker days.

To take up space in a place called "Black Neighbourhood" for an event that is meant to celebrate and promote an oppressed culture to which I do not belong, felt a little wrong. I did notice that I was absolutely in the minority in the crowd in terms of race, which only made me feel that I was taking space away from someone who would feel more culturally connected to the event than myself.

But as soon as the drums started, I recognized Mario Pam and Patinho Axé and Alex Rosa marching past in the band, and the absolutely beautiful singer began singing atop her trio eletrico, and I just melted into the pavement. I was literally carried away by the crowd alongside the band, each outfit was more beautiful than the last, the drums were so, so good. It was almost too much. As I mentioned above the entire crowd was singing Negrume da Noite and it just felt really electrifying and happy and crazy and too sweaty in all the ways Olodum sadly was not. But I'll see them again.

Speaking of the beautiful woman on the trio eletrico, she was singing about the African country chosen for celebration in this year's Carnaval, which happens to be Botswana, "Uma história de êxito no mundo" or in English "A success story in the world". Botswana is a country known for peace, tranquility, diamonds, and exuberant nature according to Ilê Aiyê's research handout (translated to English) for this year's theme.

Unfortunately, the Botswana Anthem is too new to be found anywhere on the interwebs, so I will have to wait to find the beautiful song again. I can sing it in my head though, take a listen real hard...

In the meantime, the album I linked above does contain a wonderful song on Senegal, specifically the city of Bakel and a couple mentions of the capital Dakar as well. Take a listen through the link above in the music section as you read along.

It was some fun to read through the lyrics of this song, both in the original language to sing along (yes, I do all the parts because I'm a singing hog) and in English to try to string together the meanings. Negrume da Noite is a lot more straightforward because it translates pretty clearly from Portuguese to English. Plus their songs repeat verses with call-and-answer, a tool used commonly for political or crowd-chanted songs meant to be easy to learn and participate in as a big group.

I removed the call-and-answer to showcase the translation in this example.

Once I had (mostly) picked up Negrume da Noite, I tried my hand translating Cerca de Bakel (translates to Around Bakel). Here's my favourite verse (singing/melody-wise)

I started looking up if Senegal was famous for its natural indigo or ballet performance, but it wasn't quite working. Hmm, seems like this song isn't fully in Portuguese. It's suggesting the language of Yoruba for this verse, which is spoken by 3 to 4 million people in West Africa and native to Nigeria, Benin and Togo. So let's translate it into Yoruba and see what's up now:

A little darker, this time around!

Each new verse translation is a discovery for me, and I'm learning a tiny bit of Portuguese (and Yoruba). I think learning language (or perhaps anything) through music is really powerful and can't really stop listening to Portuguese songs.

And hey, the drumming on these songs is pretty amazing too.

Inspiration: Mario Pam
Keeping the Ilê Aiyê train going, I want to spotlight another workshop leader: Mario Pam of Ilê Aiyê.

Master percussionist Mario Pam, from Salvador Bahia, Brazil, began his musical career in 1991 as a founding member of Ilê Aiyê’s youth group. In 2000, he became one of the directors of the professional adult ensemble. Since then he has been creating innovative repertory and directing 150+ percussionists during Carnaval. He has performed and/or taught in Brazil, Europe, the USA, and Africa. I'm hoping to add Canada to that list this year if we can manage to get him to Toronto for a show and a set of workshops.

After learning from him during the Tambores do Mundo workshops, I got to see what a bright, jolly guy he is, even though we don't speak each other's languages. When I offered to translate what he was saying into my phone, he told me after our workshop that "today is a very special day", such a nice sentiment.

One of the main reasons we came to Salvador was to connect with Pam through his project Tambores do Mundo, an association that promotes musical-percussive exchange between groups that perform Afro-Bahian music around the world.

Afro-Bahian music is a huge part of local culture. Bands like Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, Muzenza and Malê Debalê are all examples of the musical expression of rhythm that were part of the popularization of this music worldwide. In efforts to further promote the music of Bahia, Tambores do Mundo is now in its twelfth year (and first with TDot Batu).

After our parade with Tambores Do Mundo - Mario is in the top center between Leon and Edwin.

Before the Saída do Ilê Aiyê in Curuzu.

I really hope we can get Mario up to Canada in May. If so, I'll need to learn a bit more Portuguese ahead of time!

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