By Brazil Nuts Tours Director ADAM CARTER
It is said that few things start early in Bahia. Carnival is one of them. Carnival officially starts on Thursday night at 20:00 when the keys of the city are given to the Carnival King “Rei Momo”. The unofficial opening though is on Wednesday with the Lavagem do Porto da Barra, with throngs of people dancing on the beach. Later on in the evening is the Baile dos Atrizes, starts at around 11:00 and goes until dawn, very bohemian, good fun. Check with Bahiatursa for details on venue, time etc.
Carnival in Bahia is the largest carnival in the world. Unlike Rio de Janeiro, (very much a spectator event), Salvador encourages active participation. It’s time for dancing in the street. It is said that there are 1 1/2 million people dancing on the streets at any one time.
There are two distinct musical formats to be seen and heard during carnival. The Afro Blocos are large drum based troupes (some with up to 200 drummers) who play on the streets accompanied by singers from atop of mobile sound trucks. The first of these groups was the Filhos de Gandhi (founded in 1949), whose participation is one of the highlights of Carnival. Their 6000 members dance through the streets on the Sunday and Tuesday of Carnival dressed in their traditional costumes of white and blue, a river of white and blue in an ocean of multi-colored carnival revelers. The best known of the recent drum based Afro blocos are Ilê Aiye, Olodum, Muzenza and Malê Debalê. All of these are groups which operate throughout the year in cultural, social and political areas. Not all of them are receptive to having foreigners amongst their numbers for Carnival. The roots of the so-called axé music comes from these groups who have looked to their African and Brazilian origins, creating exiting new rhythms. The basis of the rhythm is the enormous surdo (deaf) drum with it’s bumbum bumbum bum anchorbeat while the smaller repique played with light twigs provides a crack-like overlay. Ilê Aiye take to the streets on Saturday night and their departure from their headquarters at Ladeira do Curuzu in the Liberdade district is not to be missed. Their departure time is around 21:00. The best way to get there is to take a taxi to Curuzu via Largo do Tanque thereby avoiding traffic jams. The ride is a little longer but much quicker. A good landmark is the Paes Mendonça supermarket on the corner of the street from where the bloco leaves. From there it’s a short walk to the departure point.
The enormous trio eléctricos, 40-foot sound trucks with powerful sound systems that defy most decibel counters, are the other format to be heard during the festivities. These trucks, each with it’s own band of up to ten musicians, play songs influenced by the afro bloco’s and move at a snail’s pace through the streets drawing huge crowds of revelers.
Each of the Afro Blocos and blocos de trio have their own distinct costume. Each has its own security personnel who cordon off the area around the sound truck thereby permitting bloco members to dance in comfort and safety. Entrance to this area is only permitted to those wearing the relevant costume.
Carnival becomes more decentralized as years go by. The traditional route is from Campo Grande square
(by the Tropical Hotel da Bahia ) to Praça Castro Alves near the old town. The bloco’s go along Avenida 7 de Setembro and return to Campo Grande via the parallel Rua Carlos Gomes. Many of the trio’s no longer go through the Praça Castro Alves, once the epicenter of Carnival. The best night at Praça Castro Alves is Tuesday ( the last night of Carnival ) when the famous “Encontro dos trios ” ( Meeting of the Trio’s ) takes place. Trio’s jostle for position in the square and play in rotation until the dawn ( or later! ) on Ash Wednesday. It is not uncommon for major stars from the Bahian ( and Brazilian ) music world to make surprise appearances.
There are grandstand seats available at Campo Grande throughout the event. Day tickets for these are available the week leading up to Carnival. Check with Bahiatursa for information on the where the tickets are sold. Tickets are US$ 10.00. These can be bought on the black market for three times this price on the day. The bloco’s are judged as they pass the grandstand and are at their most frenetic at this point. There is little or no shade from the sun so bring a hat and lots of water. Best days are Sunday through Tues.
For those wishing to go it alone just find a friendly barraca in the shade and watch the bloco’s go by. Places to avoid are the Piedade Square and Relogio de São Pedro. Both of these areas are on Av. 7 de Setembro where the street narrows creating human traffic jams.
The other major center for Carnival is Barra to Ondina, along the seafront. This area has become very popular in recent years, rivaling the traditional route mentioned above. The bloco’s alternativos ply this route. These are nearly always trio electrico’s connected with the more traditional bloco’s who have expanded to this now very popular district. Not to be missed here is Timbalada, the drumming group formed by the internationally renowned percussionist Carlinhos Brown.
Carnaval in Pelourinho :
This area has been become extremely popular in recent years also. It is here that the more traditional form of carnival is to be found, brass bands playing favorites carnival tunes followed by crowds through the narrow streets of the Pelourinho area. This is perhaps the least daunting of the carnival manifestations, a good introduction to the revelries.
Viewing area, commercialized by private companies have sprung up along the seafront route at Barra. Payment gets you the identifying tee shirt, wristband etc that allows you access to an enclosed area, above the street, giving great views of the action down below. All have bar and bathroom facilities, security personnel.