Lost Samba – Chapter 22/02 – The magnificent Carnival of Salvador
Bahia’s capital, Salvador, is 1,200 kilometers from Rio de Janeiro. Even if I had wanted to take Blues Boy, the trip there and back would have been much more expensive than the bus fare and perhaps the feat of driving that distance on a two way motorway would have been too much of a challenge for my driving skills and for the car’s resistance. There was no other choice but the twenty-five hour bus trip. The uncomfortable journey did not diminish the excitement of going for the first time to the city that I had fallen in love with through Jorge Amado’s books and through the music of the Novos Baianos.
I went with Mauricio, the same guy who hit his knee on the bed in the Casa Rosa. Mauricio had grown up to be even squarer than Edu and was not even into chasing girls. He was obsessed with proving himself in obvious topics: money, football, mathematics problems and other theoretical issues that, as far as I was concerned, were annoying and had no life breathing through them. I never understood where within him lurked anything resembling a sense of fun. Perhaps because of these traits, Mauricio was prone to go hysterical whenever he grew nervous, and this was a frequent happening. His weedy build did not back these moments, despite them being extremely loud and usually disproportionate to the issue that had lit the fuse, and this made his outbursts resemble psychotic episodes. On the first bus stop, the bar man overcharged him for a sandwich which caused a fit that shocked all of our fellow passengers. I had seen this side to Mauricio’s behaviour before but had never got used to it. Yet, I had agreed to travel to Salvador with him because none of my other friends were available and, in any case, there was still a lingering sense of loyalty to a friendship that went way back. However, after this embarrassing moment, I just hoped that this would not be an introduction of what was yet to come.
I was determined that Mauricio would not spoil my precious holiday. Salvador’s carnival was arguably the best in the world and I wanted to enjoy it at its full. Those were the heydays of the trio elétrico, a musical genre that all Baianos affirm to have pioneered the electric guitar worldwide. In the 1940s, two popular musicians, Dodo and Osmar, discovered that putting whale wax around sound captors allowed them to amplify their mandolins without causing feedback. The method became a hit in the city’s street carnivals. The musical style was similar to Recife’s frevo but with two guitarras baianas substituting the brass section. By the late 1960s the trios added a bass and more percussion to provide extra weight to their performances. With the arrival of rock music, the instruments improved, the influences changed and the sound became sharper and more aggressive.
During the carnival, the musicians paraded through the cobble stone streets of the city’s Portuguese colonial centre balancing themselves on vans which they loaded with sound gear and loudspeakers. Thousands of people followed these musical fortresses impregnated by Bahia’s strong joie de vivre, dancing in a frenzy that appeared like a Hindu religious procession fused with a punk rock concert.
There were more primitive, non-electrified groups that paraded on foot, and that performed Afro-Brazilian rhythms in a completely different vibration. Among them was the Filhos de Ghandi (Sons of Ghandi), a group of muscular, pitch-black dockworkers who paraded in white tunics with a message based on Mahatma Ghandi’s pacifist teachings. They played the mellower afoxé, a rhythm used in Candomblé spiritualist sessions. This group and others, such as the Ile Aye were fully acoustic, relying only on their drums and their voices to move the crowd, which responded in a calmer and more respectful way, but with the same intensity.
The streets and the alleys of the oldest part of Salvador still retained the splendour of Brazil’s first capital. The carnival groups passed through here on a route resembling a figure of eight: in the central junction, where the two loops met, was Praça Castro Alves, the epicentre of the carnival, and our hotel was around the corner. The bands stopped there to allow the crowd to strengthen and then they played their best numbers. It was common for two bands to approach from opposite directions and reach at the praça at the same time, an encounter known as an encontro dos trios. When this happened, the bands would take turns playing and would compete for the ecstatic crowd, the winners being the many thousands of people enjoying the spectacle.
By an amazing stroke of fate, I was there at the praça when a unique face-off took place between the royalty of Salvador’s carnival – Novos Baianos and the Trio Elétrico de Dodô e Osmar. The former was my favourite band of all times and the latter were the creators of the trio elétrico and featured the best ever guitarist of the genre, Osmar’s son, Armandinho Macedo. After a short pause where the musicians and the crowd prepared for what they knew would be one of the highlights of that year’s carnival, the music took off. The feeling was as though the heavens had opened their gates, pouring carnival energy down onto us mortals. With each and every song, the assembled crowd seemed to be celebrating a never-ending World Cup victory, the overwhelming energy compelling the immense mass of people to join in and unite as one.
Mauricio hated crowds so, during the day, he’d go to the beach alone while I immersed myself in the carnival. At night, we would go to the safer, indoor carnival balls, a more sensible but utterly boring choice. Our differences were leading to a serious fall out, but on the last night of carnival, we managed to find something that both of us were up for. We decided to crash Salvador’s most exclusive ball at the élite Clube Bahiano de Tenis, a place where very few people ever played tennis but instead basked in the high status implied by the inclusion in its name of a sport the British had introduced to Brazil.
Security at the door was tight, but the walls surrounding the club were low and easy to jump over. We joined some passerby’s who had the same idea as us. Mauricio was one of the first to climb the wall – and one of the few successes. Before my turn came, the police arrived running and those still outside had to disperse as fast as they could. I and some other fellow escapees found another discrete length of the wall, climbed up and landed next to the tennis courts. But as soon as we hit the ground, huge, fierce and unleashed dogs came racing towards us. We took flight and managed to scramble back up the wall as in a cartoon film. After that I gave up and went back to the hotel, the Salvador carnival was over for me.