The Drums, The Drums

Even the citizens of Rio find Salvador exotic. Gareth Mason arrives on a Tuesday…

While we wait for our weather to decide between winter and spring, it’s little consolation to see pictures from across the world illustrating the hottest of parties. Swallowing unnatural quantities of chocolate at Easter hardly compensates for that lost fun. But with a little planning, you could exchange this year’s frown for the widest smile on the next. Shrove Tuesday means church or pancakes to many.

To others, it is the hook on which carnival is hung, drawn out and quartered around the world. And cities, like Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans host one huge annual bash that tends to keep the flame burning for the rest of the year. This month we are focussing on one such place which even the proud inhabitants of Rio admit, under their breath, to being wilder than home...

In Salvador, second only to Rio for visitors, the crowds have swollen well before carnival. On land and sea, people come in their thousands, first to venerate their saints, later to dance till daylight on its beaches. Salvador, a city of two million, is state capital of Bahia. It’s often dubbed ‘Africa in exile’ – a legacy of the slave trade installed by their 16th century masters, the Portuguese. Here, African rhythms mingle with the smells of its food amid the hillside colonial architecture of the old fortified town.

While the Catholic churches are truly impressive – compared to the regular one’s agnostic tourists feel compelled to visit – it is Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion performed with elaborate ceremonies, dancing and drums, which has 1,000 temples dedicated to it. And if the drums don't get you, the berimbau will. You will hear this one-stringed instrument twanging along to another local institution, Capoeira. This is a bizarre part-dance, part-martial art developed by slaves from Angola now gaining currency in Nokia phone ads and leisure centres worldwide, and practiced by the New Yorker who took himself rather too seriously in the corridor outside my dorm.

Arriving towards the end of the (not very) rainy season in mid-August, what could I expect from a Tuesday night in Salvador? Preferring to be lost in the middle of an unfamiliar place than on its outskirts, I found a friendly bustling hostel in the Centro Historico, heart of the old colonial centre. The pastel coloured colonial buildings, now protected by UNESCO, have been fully restored and contribute the visual appeal to a city, which otherwise looks rather drab. The main churches are grouped around the square, one of which has a huge ceiling covered in gold leaf, another, built by former slaves, houses wooden effigies of black saints.

The bigger musical events usually take place here – one night here I saw local boys, Olodum, a carnival drumming group who starred on Paul Simon’s Rhythm of The Saints. This surreally beautiful quarter is part of the upper half of the city which looks down from high on the coast most directly connected by cable car. The docks and commercial area of the lower city look out upon a bay which extends over 1,000km and encloses 38 islands.

Up top, wandering early evening about the craft shops, bars and eateries of its close, cobbled streets, I met, without trying, my first half-dozen friends. Each one wanted to share a drink. And around now, I heard the first drums. I stopped for a kilo of food. In Brazil, you can buy your dinner by weight so you only have one person to blame for small portions. By sundown, bands popped up on the stages dotted about the quarter playing various samba strands including the home-grown Axe. Like most of the local music, it relies heavily on African rhythms pounded out by large troops of drummers. Swaying harmoniously down the narrow streets, the drummers face off against rival groups. All are backed by mobs of dancing followers picked up along the way. They didn't finish early. Nothing ever did. By the time the drumming stopped, the berimbaus of the capoeira classes heralded a new day.

During carnival in Bahia, they say there are one and a half million people dancing at any one time. And if you’re not around for Shrove Tuesday, you can’t go far wrong with a regular one, or a Wednesday, Thursday...

After seven such nights, through a surfeit of good times, I fell ill. I took a bus to deep inside the country and rested for a few days. But the drumming remained with me for some time.

Fashionline magazine spring 2002