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Socialist Review Index (1993–1996) | Socialist Review 175 Contents

Socialist Review, May 1994

Dave Treece

Brazil Festival

Songs of slavery


From Socialist Review, No. 175, May 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Between the 16th and 19th centuries, five to ten million slaves were shipped to Brazil from western and southern Africa. They arrived first in the Northeastern port of Salvador, the capital of the state of Bahia where, for a hundred years, their labour made Brazil the world’s biggest exporter of sugar. That history of brutal exploitation here, and in the silver mines and coffee plantations further south, remains alive in a legacy of subtle but deeply ingrained racism and virtual social and economic apartheid.

But there is another history, one of resistance, from the rebellions and independent republics of escaped slaves to the ways in which dance, music and religion sustained their memory and identity, transforming and often subverting the culture of their oppressors in the process.

Nowhere is this tradition of resistance more alive than in Bahia itself, whose culture is being celebrated in a London festival this month. There is an opportunity to experience the art of capoeira, a technique of footfighting developed by the slaves. Outlawed under the imperial regime, it became disguised as an excitingly acrobatic dance.

A series of talks and discussions at the Institute of Contemporary Arts will examine the cult of Orishas, or candomblé.

There will also be two lectures by and about the Bahian writer Jorge Amado, whose widely translated novels, such as Gabriela, Cloves and Cinnamon, popularised the re-evaluation of the black presence in Brazilian society. Amado’s early socialist realist novels of the 1930s, which marked the beginning of his loyalty to the Stalinist Communist Party, charted the capitalist transformation of Bahia’s plantation economy and the revolutionary possibilities this opened up.

The Barbican Centre is screening a series of films, beginning with a profile of the region, Bahia of all the Saints. The programme includes Nelson Pereira dos Santos’ marvellous adaptation of the novel Barren Lives, the story of a family of peasant migrants struggling to survive victimisation and drought in the and Northeastern interior, and Carlos Diegues’ Quilombo, about the first rebel slave community which survived for nearly a century until its repression in 1695.

The festival ends in the Royal Albert Hall with a ‘musical extravaganza’, bringing together 50 drummers and dancers of the Mangueira Samba School and four leading figures of Brazilian popular music who were central to the movement known as Tropicalia which in 1967, three years into the military dictatorship, revolutionised the music industry by experimenting with a combination of samba, electric rock and Bahia’s African and rural traditions. This was too much for the regime (and the orthodox nationalist left) to stomach, and two of them were imprisoned and exiled.

In his 1991 album Circuladò one of the musicians, Caetano Veloso, depicted the decaying urban landscape of Sao Paulo and linked it to the global crisis in a multilingual refrain, ‘Something’s out of order in the New World Order.’ Tropicalia 2, his most recent collaboration with Gilberto Gil, returns to the historical legacy of Bahia’s traditions of slavery and resistance. An extraordinary rap composition, Haiti, inspired by a real incident, exposes the profoundly racist character of the city’s repressive police force.

Try to catch some of this festival if you can.

Festival of Bahia, 1 May to 1 June. Festival Hotline 081-748 0276

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