We’d like to — if we may presume — welcome our Travel Noire friends to Salvador da Bahia, Brazil (“we” is Ben Paris and Randy “Pardal” Roberts, pardal being sparrow in English and a capoeira apelido, or nickname). We say presume because we’re not from here ourselves. We’ve been here for a combined 50 years though (divided equally between us), attracted by a culture in many ways unique in the world, and we have been retained and secured by deep ties of friendship and family. A substantial portion of our lives has been devoted to trying to impart to the world-at-large something of what makes this place so extraordinarily, almost surreally special.
We’re open doors and would like be helpful to you in any way we are able…all ya gotta do is ask!
The history of capoeira’s birth and early evolution is probably lost forever in the mists of time. There are those who claim certainty and others who question the reality of the facts upon which this certainty is based. There are those who say that capoeira was born in Africa, and there are others who claim that it was born in the Recôncavo (the area of sugarcane plantations around Bahia’s bay). Whatever the case, capoeira as it exists in Brazil does not exist in Africa unless it was taken there by Brazilians.
What is indisputable was that capoeira was the martial art of enslaved Afro-Bahians and their descendants. And among many legendary masters, two stand out above the rest: Mestre Pastinha, who taught in the Largo do Pelourinho, and Mestre Bimba, who likewise taught in Pelourinho. Both were trained in the traditional style now called capoeira angola but Bimba, seeking to build upon capoeira’s utility as an effective fight, incorporated techniques from another leg-based Afro-Brazilian fighting/playing style called batuque — of which his father was a master — into capoeira, along with other developments of his own. And because capoeira was outlawed in Brazil, Bimba claimed to teach a luta regional baiana, “the Bahian regional fight”. For this the capoeira which has descended from Bimba is called capoeira regional (heh-zhee-aw-NOW). Later practitioners of capoeira regional abandoned much of the tradition that Bimba himself retained, but there’s now a neo-traditionalizing movement undoing this aesthetic and historical wrong.
What looks to many like merely an inoffensive dance can be very deadly. Indeed one of the lines in a traditional cantiga de capoeira (capoeira song) is esta dança pode matar, “this dance can kill”. Bimba took on all comers in all styles of martial arts and was never defeated.
Due to Bimba’s work in proselytizing capoeira, showing that what was formerly considered by the upper classes to be a pastime of violent and dangerous vagrants was actually a valuable Brazilian art form, capoeira was de-criminalized in 1937.
The academy in which we’ll “train” is run by Mestre Nenel, Bimba’s son. Bimba’s “real” name was Manoel dos Reis Machado. Mestre Nenel’s “real” name is also Manoel. Something common in Brazil is that family will begin to call a child what that child calls her/himself. And young Manoel called himself “Nenel”. QED! We’ll get to the origin of Bimba’s apelido in the class.
And that class will be taught by a professor (as they say here in Brazil) himself taught by Nenel, Ministrinho (literally “Little Minister”, but here in Brazil the name for a type of buzzard).
In capoeira one is said to “play”. In this introductory Travel Noire class Nenel says we brincar de jogar…”play like we’re playing”.
Brazil arguably has the widest range of folkloric music — that developed, played and sung by people unknown to us today — than any other country on the planet. And what’s widely unknown is that the preponderance of this music, that bequeathed to Brazil (and to the world!) by its Afro-descendent population, is based in the rhythms of candomblé, the African religion almost dead on what was its native ground but fervently alive in Bahia. When you hear samba, you are hearing music based in a rhythm from candomblé angola (the candomblé of the Bantus brought to the Recôncavo) called cabila or cabula and dedicated to the hunter deity. The music of bloco afro Ilê Aiyê is built on rhythms dedicated to a number of deities (called orixás, voduns or nkisis, depending on which people they arrived with).
Macambira is a master percussionist who plays with, among others, Gilberto Gil. Macambira was raised in candomblé and the rhythms and songs of such are as familiar to him as the church hymns that many of us grew up with are familiar to us. This Travel Noire class is a toe-dip into the sweeping, swirling currents of a vast polyrhythmic sea churning under the Tropic of Capricorn.
Our cooking class will be the from-the-beginning preparation of a traditional Afro-Bahian stew called moqueca, cooked and served in clay bowls. Our chef will be Alda Cristina (who also happens to have been married to Ben for the past 25 years) and her assistant will be Rute Neyde (likewise married to Randy/Pardal for 21 years).
Alda spent her earliest years in the cidade baixa (lower city) on the peninsula of Itapagipe, from where her family was forced out (wafted out?) by — get this — a chocolate factory — by the overpowering smells of chocolate production (the factory has since closed down, presumably having driven countless Bahian children to delirium). The family relocated to the seaside neighborhood of Itapuã, originally a fishing village and at one time the location of a quilombo — a village founded by runaway slaves — called Buraco do Tatu, “Armadillo Hole”. Alda and Ben live in Itapuã today, in a house they built themselves.
Rute spent the first ten years of her life running around barefoot in a community built along a dirt road and called Mocambo — an African word meaning “hut” or a settlement of huts or simple houses — living the life of the sertão, the backlands, with no electricity or running water and an ox cart in place of a car. Now she’s mistress of Cana Brava Records, our record shop devoted to Brazilian regional music and named for the original name of the town (Cana Brava) her family relocated to and where they still live.
We’ll begin by shopping for ingredients in the Feira (Marketplace) de São Joaquim, an immense, souk-like place to where produce and wares are brought from the Recôncavo and sertão. Where Ben will in his inimitable style elucidate the sensorial mysteries of the fruits and vegetables and etc. of Bahian culinary tradition. Randy will help carry stuff.
Our schooner trip will first take us to the Ilha dos Frades, Island of the Monks, so named so the story goes because two monks sent there long ago to convert the indigenous people resident on the island wound up being sent straight to Heaven by the would-be convertees. We’ll hang on a beach which defines idyllic for an hour and a half or so, seafront for one one of the three villages on the island, a fishing village which has evolved to serve the schooners arriving and which after the visitors are off returns to its extremely quiet ways and life.
Then we’ll board and cross to Itaparica, the big island, for an all-you-can-eat buffet lunch of traditional Bahian food on tables set in the sand and under protection from the sun.
Along the way we’ll be under the hip-guiding tutelage of Lula e os Marinheiros (Lula and the Sailors), our irrepressible Captain of Samba Ceremonies from the dinner in Alaídes. All hands will be expected to follow dancing orders! (if you feel like it, of course)