Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia, is located on a peninsula between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay of All Saints (Baia de Todos os Santos), in northeast Brazil. It has been said that it has the richest cultural diversity in the country. I was born in Bahia, and for a deep understanding of what we are now, I must tell you a little bit about our history.
Over 500 years ago, in April 1500, the Portuguese arrived on the shores of Bahia. A half century later, in 1549, the city of Salvador was founded and became Brazil’s capital until 1763.
As the most important economical center for over 200 years, Salvador was the big front door for European settlers who came to establish sugar cane plantations. Initially, the colonists tried without success to force indigenous population into forced labor.
In the early 1530s, the huge importation of nearly five million Africans to Brazil began. They started arriving mostly through Bahia, then sent to work in plantations elsewhere. Studies show that Brazil imported more slaves than any other nation, and in 1888, was the last country to abolish slavery. Over the course of hundreds of years of trade, Africans were grouped in senzalas (huts where they would stay at night), and in quilombos (settlements of escaped slaves), where they would secretly practice their traditions.
Brazil’s booming, yet shameful, 350 year long slave trade is responsible for today’s distinctive African influence in Salvador, which can be seen on the streets through its architecture, culture, and costumes. In Bahia, the African traditions are preserved like nowhere else in the country.
Here is a list of things that you must check out when visiting this amazing city to truly experience how descendants of Portuguese settlers and African slaves have preserved their beautiful heritage throughout the centuries.
Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, was built for the wealthy European settlers when the sugar cane plantations were the most valuable commodity. The narrow cobblestone streets, with beautiful, brightly colored houses in colonial architecture, once home for the rich, is now part of the historic center of Salvador.
That same area was also a location where slaves were punished. The name Pelourinho refers to a wood or stone column (pillory) with rings, where slaves who disobeyed or tried to escape would be tied and tortured. The first pillory was placed in the Municipal Square (Praça Municipal), today called Praça Tomé de Souza. It was later transferred to different locations.
In 1985, Pelourinho was declared a historical site by UNESCO World Heritage, even though between the 1960s and early 1990s, it went through a vast physical and social deterioration. In 1992, the restoration of the historical center began, turning Pelourinho into what it is now: a center of history, culture, and fun.
Affectionately called Pelô (short for Pelourinho) by the locals, these days this place fascinates locals and tourists from all over the world. Museums, restaurants, cultural centers, capoeira schools, music venues, bars, and shops reside in many of the colonial houses. People fill the streets seeking the sound of drums, taste of the food, details of our history, and appreciation of the art. A place that is a symbol of segregation in the past, today brings all races, colors, and religions together.
Enjoy the music
Brazil represents an important music market in the world. Its unique and innovative musical genres are due to the diversity of cultural influences – indigenous, European, and African. Although samba is the most famous, many other rhythms have been featured on national and international stages (e.g., bossa nova and Brazilian jazz).
In Bahia, this diversity is no different. Distinct rhythms can be heard everywhere, and the list of talented artists and music styles is long. However, to really experience the African influence, Olodun is a must see whenever you visit. Olodun is a cultural group primarily known for its music. It exudes the African heritage through its music, dance and art. Fascinating performances combine lyrics with percussion music , and highlights themes against racism and discrimination.
Olodun’s rehearsal is an experience not to be missed. It may be the percentage of African blood in my veins, or maybe everyone senses it the same way, but the vibration of the drums through the floor goes into my heart. It is really touching! I can’t stand still. The beat makes me want to tap my feet and move my body. It is truly amazing!
Where: Praça Teresa Batista, Pelourinho
When: every Tuesday (Terça da Bênção) at 8pm
Entry fee: R$70 ($20) cash preferable
If you are lucky, you may run into them rehearsing on the streets of Pelourinho. If you hear the drums, just follow them around and have a great time.
Taste the food
No trip to Bahia is complete without tasting the African blended flavors. Acarajé, moqueca, caruru, and vatapá are some of the delicacies passed from generation to generation as part of the heritage. The key ingredients for the cuisine are shrimp, fish, coconut milk, peppers, cilantro, onions, and dendê oil among others.
Dendê oil takes the lead on many of these sizzling dishes. The bright orange-color oil is extracted from the pulp of the fruit from the dendê palm tree. The dendê palm was brought from Africa and adapted well to the tropical coast of Bahia.
Some of these traditional foods, totally safe to eat, can be found anywhere in the city – on the beaches, in the historic center, or around the corner. Descendants of African women, called Baianas, dressed either in beautiful bright colors, or just in white, have stalls (tabuleiros) all over the city, where they sell their goodies. Just walk over and ask for an acarajé, which is a black-eyed pea fritter cut in the center and filled with caruru, vatapá, dried shrimp, chopped onions and tomatoes. It is delicious! The pepper is optional.
If you are looking for a place to relax and have a delicious meal, visit Casa de Tereza in the neighborhood of Rio Vermelho. It is my favorite African influenced restaurant. The menu features plenty of options, from appetizers, main dishes, and vegan dishes, to drinks and desserts. You will not only taste amazing flavors, but also be immersed in art and culture. The well decorated restaurant is rustic and charming with unique, locally designed tables and pieces of art, resulting in a beautiful composition.
Watch a “Roda de Capoeira”
For historians, it is questionable where and when capoeira, the Afro-Brazilian martial art, originated. Many believe capoeira was born in Brazil when Africans were brought to work as forced labor. Because slaves were not allowed to have weapons, they would play capoeira as a self-defense practice, but with a dance-like appearance to camouflage its real purpose. Capoeiristas (people who play capoeira) use the rhythm of the body through the music and feet as weapons when playing it. Despite any doubts, it is clear that slaves had a crucial role on this dance-fight movement.
Even if you have never heard of capoeira, you will immediately learn about it when arriving in Salvador. Circles of capoeira (aka roda de capoeira), composed of players and spectators, can often be seen in the historic center of the city. The music that leads the dance is played using various instruments such as pandeiros, reco-reco, atabaque, and agogôs, and especially the berimbau, a one-stringed bow-like instrument. The roda sings and claps to encourage the two capoeiristas inside of the roda.
A great way to finish your visit in Salvador is by watching the Ballet Folclorico da Bahia, in Pelourinho. A group of Afro-Brazilian dancers demonstrates African heritage in a beautiful presentation of dance, music, capoeira, and religious figures of candomblé (religion based on African beliefs). Totally worth it!
Besides having a rich African heritage, our roots also contain elements from Europeans and native Indians. However, the city attractions go beyond our history. We are the “capital of happiness.” We have carnival, soccer, “Lavagem do Bonfim”, “Iemanjá”, and much more.