September 2001

Olodum Power

The Bahian, by himself, lives very poorly in social terms.
He lives with poor transportation, housing, education.
It’s difficult to explain how a population that has such a precarious
social situation is able to be happy, in their
day to day lives as well as Carnaval.

Jeff Duneman

The following interview was conducted with Mr. Nelson Mendes, Cultural Coordinator of the internationally known Bloco Afro Olodum of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Mr. Mendes has worked with Olodum for over a decade and develops projects and organizes communication between Olodum and other Afro-Brazilian institutions in Bahia, as well as other national and international organizations. This conversation took place on March 15, 2000 in Mr. Mendes’ office at the “Casa do Olodum” located in the Pelourinho neighborhood of Salvador.

The interview was completed entirely in Portuguese and tape recorded. At the time I was in Salvador completing an Independent Studies course on Bahian Carnaval and the blocos afros of Bahia. In the translation process, I took some liberty in creating a “flow” to the conversation, as opposed to a direct translation, which, in my opinion, sometimes creates text difficult to follow. I was more interested in the “feeling” of what was being discussed rather than a word for word translation. This project was funded in part by a Research, Projects and Travel (RPT) grant from the University of New Mexico.

 Definitions of some Portuguese terms used during this interview:

 Maciel-Pelourinho/Pelourinho—Neighborhood in central Salvador where Olodum originated. Previously run down and ignored by the city government, today it is the center of tourism in the city

Centro Histórico—Another term for the Pelourinho

Largo do Pelourinho—“Pelourinho Square” located on a steep hill in the center of the Pelourinho where Olodum used to play free weekly concerts and still performs on occasion

Casa Do Olodum—Olodum’s headquarters, located in the Pelourinho

Bloco Afro Olodum—Formal name of Olodum. A bloco afro is simply an Afro-Brazilian based Carnaval and/or community group

Ilê Aiyê—Another famous bloco afro of Bahia

Male Debale—Another famous bloco afro of Bahia

Filhos de GhandyA famous afoxé group of Bahia

Povo—“Common people,” understood to mean the less privileged classes

Mestre—Musical leader, director or teacher of a Brazilian band, or musical style

Camarote—Grandstand of sorts used during Carnaval for people to sit above the festival in the streets below. Sometimes quite expensive

Trio Elétrico/Bloco Trio—Common Carnaval group in Bahia, distinguished by a more pop orientated sound, sometimes sponsored by big businesses in Bahia

Brazzil—Speak about the history of the bloco. How was it formed? What was the vision at the beginning?

NM—The Bloco Afro Olodum is a group that originated with the inhabitants of the Maciel-Pelourinho, where we are right now, which was the most marginalized area [in Bahia.] There were just poor people, these houses were abandoned, but many families lived in them. At the end of the 1970s, the Bloco Afro Olodum appeared as a cultural expression of the inhabitants of the Maciel-Pelourinho, to take to the streets and express their Afro-Brazilian identity. In the beginning the group united people principally from the Centro Histórico neighborhood. Later it grew and people from other neighborhoods came to participate. At this time, Olodum was one of the first [Carnaval] groups to bring together over three thousand people. It was founded on April 25, 1979. Their first Carnaval was 1980.

Since then, during the 1980s, we grew into a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) to include discussions about the fight against racism… we became an NGO with the objective of centralizing and to give a perspective of consciousness for black culture in Bahia, for people who lived principally in the Centro Histórico, but also for the entire city of Salvador. We organized lectures about Africa, about blackness, what racism does, how racism manifests itself. We did seminars, film exhibitions, and created a newspaper, all at the beginning of the 1980s.

Later our work grew and we formed a band—the percussion that accompanied the Carnaval group already existed—later, we formed a band for shows and private parties as a way to earn money to sustain the organization. This band was very successful in Bahia and Brazil. They were able to do shows all over Brazil. Then Paul Simon arrived in Bahia to shoot a video for a song from an album of his, called “The Obvious Child.” So this video was done here in Salvador in the Pelourinho and afterwards Paul Simon invited Olodum to play in New York’s Central Park during one of his shows. This was when Olodum first appeared in the international scene. (Note: When asked about the date, Mr. Mendes wasn’t sure as he was out of the country at the time. He thought it was in the early or mid-1980s. “The Obvious Child” by Paul Simon was released in 1990, so this show in Central Park was probably 1990 or 1991.)

From that moment on we received several invitations to have Olodum play outside Brazil. Today, Olodum is a band that has done shows in Europe and the USA for over ten years. The United States is more difficult—we’ve done several shows there, 1998, 1999, this year we should be there also, we’re more organized now. But in Europe, continually for the last ten years, Olodum goes to Europe in June and Julythe European summer—to play there. The reception is very good, the European public, for Olodum.

Besides Olodum, we also created an education project called “Olodum’s Creative School” (Escola Creativa Olodum) which in the beginning was set up to take care of the children of the band’s percussionists—those [kids] who also wanted to learn how to play percussion. But… we thought this was insufficient, too little, just percussion classes. [So we also created] a project so that these kids could also get immersed in the art of percussion, dance, theater, and also citizenship classes about what it means to be a descendent of Africa. This project now has been going for eight years.

Several percussionists who today play in Olodum as professionals graduated [from this school.] We’ve also just started a computer course. Our concern now is that these kids, these adolescents from seven to nineteen years also learn, besides percussion and dance, learn how to use computers. It’s important for them to have a profession so that if they leave Olodum, if they don’t want to play anymore, that they have a way to enter the work market. So today we’re seeing a lot of this. We’ve set up [computer] courses, in a short period of time, to train these kids. Also, we’re setting up a course for the adult percussionists. It’s also necessary. Today, much world communication is done via computers. So this is our concern.

We also annually organize an “Olodum Music & Arts Festival” (Festival de Música e Artes OlodumFEMADUM) during which we select the songs for Olodum’s Carnaval appearance and to record on the albums. Some of the songs come out of these festivals. They’re public festivals, free, that occur once a year in January here in the Pelourinho. To participate in this festival songwriters register and participate in a pre-selection process. Until the final arrives when we give out the prizes, select the mestres, money, etc. This is the “Olodum Music & Arts Festival.”

Brazzil—So in these festivals the songs that are recorded and played in Carnaval are written?

NM—Yes. The process is like this: the songwriter signs up here at the “House of Olodum” (Casa do Olodum), brings copies of his lyrics. We have two categories of compositions. “Samba-Poetry” (Samba-Poesia), which is an open theme—he can talk about Bahia, about being black, about racism, about Olodum. This is called “Samba-Poetry.” Then there’s the “Samba-Theme” (Samba-Tema), which is a samba about the theme that Olodum is going to use during Carnaval. For example, this year we marched with the theme, “From Egypt to Bahia: The Road to Eternity” (Do Egito à Bahia: O Caminho da Eternidade).

So the songwriters need to write about this theme. How do they write? We prepare a written example, a research project, and we deliver it to them. They read about this research project and then compose songs around this theme. This is the “Samba-Theme.” Each songwriter can write one composition in each category. Also, they generally like to write a “Samba-Poetry,” which is the open theme. This year, 2000, we had one hundred and fifteen compositions written for the “Samba-Poetry” and forty-seven written for “Samba-Theme.”

So these compositions go through a process of public evaluation in the Largo do Pelourinho, with a commission of judges made up of people from the community, musicians, the percussionists. We select fifteen compositions… for the day of the festival where they are presented publicly on stage in this big festival, which is the “Olodum Music & Arts Festival.” So you have this concert of Bahian bands—afro groups, samba groups, pagode, reggae. Then we have this contest, it’s a great night. [We] select three songs, three “Samba-Theme” and three “Samba-Poetry.” These are the big winners of the festival.

Brazzil—Why was the name “Olodum” chosen, or what does the name “Olodum” mean?

NM—“Olodum” is a simplification of the name “Olodumaré”, which signifies “God of the Gods.” It’s a Yoruban word that means “the creator.” So we use the simplification of “Olodumaré,” just “Olodum.”

Brazzil—For Olodum, what does Carnaval represent?

NM—Carnaval represents a space for the expression of Afro-Brazilians. We’ve lived in a Brazilian/Bahian society in which the presence of black people is the majority, in terms of population, however our expression in the spheres of power, in the media is still small. We still don’t have a dignified expression of our black Bahian population. So this given, we understand that there still exists racial discrimination in Bahia. Carnaval signifies the occupation of that space. It’s when we sing, when we wear African clothing… we already wore more African-type clothing. Today due to the reflection, or the adaptation to Bahian Carnaval [we don’t use as much African clothing]… We haven’t lost our Afro-Brazilian identity, but we don’t dress anymore—at least in Olodum—in traditional African clothing, we already did that. But it’s the space where we sing our songs talking about racism, speaking about black pride, about black consciousness, about black beauty and we wear clothes with African themes.

This year we marched with a theme that was divided into three phases. The past, which is the Egyptian past. Because Olodum is one of the groups responsible for discovering that Egypt is in Africa! And we passed this information along to all of Bahian society. Many people here in Bahia did not know that Egypt was in Africa! Nor that many black people built the pyramids in Egypt. So through Carnaval we can express this idea. So many people obtain historical information through the themes of Olodum. On the Friday [of Carnaval] we marched with the theme of Egypt. On Sunday and Monday we reflected Brazil, which signifies the present, with the theme, “Five Hundred Years of an African Invention.”

Brazil is celebrating five hundred years of discovery. But we want to valorize, we want to speak about the contributions of blacks in the construction of Brazil. So for us, Brazil is also an African invention. Then on the last day we marched with a costume referring to the future, of what is to come, the next millennium. Nobody knows how to predict it. There exist some predictions but nobody is the owner of the future. We predicted that there would be a bug in the computers and it didn’t happen, right? So the truth is that human beings don’t have control of their destiny because we don’t know what is going to happen. The main proof of this was when everyone said that at the end of the year, “the computers are going to crash, they’re going to crash!” Banks, etc… and nothing happened. So we are without knowledge of what’s going to happen to us. Within that theme, we wanted to say this about projecting ourselves into the next millennium.

So Carnaval for us is a moment of the plastic expression of African-ness. A moment of political expression as well because Carnaval has a political element in the fact that there are groups of non-black people with more economic power, that have more privilege in the space of Carnaval. And there are black groups that have less economic power and also have less space in Carnaval.

Brazzil—I spoke with Vovô [the president] of Ilê Aiyê this morning and he was saying how difficult it still is for the blocos afross to gain their own space, although they are the heart of Carnaval. They don’t march until two or three in the morning, or not at all because there’s so many trios elétricos and the city gives more preference to the trios. I myself was there waiting and waiting to see the blocos afross and… another trio… another trio. I was like, “What is this?! Where are the blocos afross?!”

NM—Yeah. The dominant population in Bahia is black. But we have problems of sponsors to produce the blocos afros. Many of the blocos trio start to organize one year before Carnaval. It’s because they have the help of big business, money to help organize Carnaval. And sometimes the blocos afros—not Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, Male Debale, who are more organized and have more economic leverage—all the same, we still don’t even receive that much assistance, but we’re able to organize and create ways to have resources to organize Carnaval. But the majority [of blocos afros] organize fifteen days before Carnaval. It’s very difficult. It’s very difficult. The problem is that big businesses don’t want to associate their images, their brands with a small, poor bloco. But these groups have a plastic expression that is very beautiful. Olodum, Ilê Aiyê, Male Debale, Filhos de Ghandy, we’re more established and more daring, so we have more capacity for articulation and we’re able to create something to present ourselves in Carnaval. All the same, it’s still too little.

Brazzil—What do you feel Carnaval means to the common people (povo) of Bahia?

NM—Carnaval to the common people (povo) of Bahia signifies a party… the common people of Bahia are very happy people, very extroverted, communicative, and Carnaval is the expression of the communication of the Bahian. The Bahian, by himself, lives very poorly in social terms. He lives with poor transportation, housing, education. It’s difficult to explain how a population that has such a precarious social situation is able to express happiness; is able to be happy, in their day to day [lives] as well as Carnaval.

The whole world recognizes that we’re considered the biggest popular festival in the world. I don’t think there exists any other festival in the world similar to that of Bahia’s! This is because… so many people in the streets, more than a million people in the streets. And this party is so large because of the popular participation. The common people of Bahia who go into the streets and celebrate Carnaval, celebrate with costumes, music, dances… it was because of this that it became an internationally recognized festival. Well known throughout the whole world.
Nonetheless, the mayor and the businesses are restricting this space. It used to be just a huge popular festival. Today, you should have noticed a very strong presence of private businesses that are privatizing Carnaval. Taking up spaces with the big stands (camarotes) for the middle class, the people who have money, to watch Carnaval. These spaces used to be more popular, but this isn’t happening anymore. Those who created the party, or who gave it the greatness—the common people (povo) of Bahia—are losing space. This is a problem because the public powersthose who organize Carnaval in Bahia are the mayor’s office and the state government; they invest the money and create the infrastructure.

There have been improvements in the organization of Carnaval, in terms of stages—they have various stages set up for shows, public bathrooms, which they didn’t have before. So there has been some improvement in the organization of Carnaval. It’s just that as a consequence we’re seeing less space for the common people, the principal actor of this party! You have Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, which is a Carnaval for tourists—fancy, money, only for those who can pay. Here in Bahia, and also in Pernambuco, are the only places that have a more public Carnaval, more participatory. People take the streets with costumes, without costumes, joke around, have fun twenty-four hours, all night long until morning. So the government is in some ways limiting this space. It’s necessary to take another look at this so that the party returns to one that has more public participation.

Brazzil—In your lifetime have you seen a change in how the blocos afros are viewed, or how the black population in Bahia is viewed here in Bahia? Compared to how the situation was before, before the blocos afros emerged?

NM—The change is still very small. Bahian society still views black people as poorly educated, like bums who don’t have good manners or good education. Nonetheless, beginning in the 1970s the organized black movement in Bahia did consciousness raising work, as a result of which a good part of the black population today has more black consciousness. And this made society, governmental organizations, the universities, come to see blacks in a slightly different manner. There is still prejudice. But the situation is getting better because today we can publicly express ourselves to society, to the government, to institutions… in a way for which we’re not punished.

For example, in Bahia we commemorate May 13th as the day of the liberation of the slaves. But we were able to change the dialogue and go into the streets to suggest that May 13th is not our day. We had big marches and we weren’t repressed [by the police.] This, to mark our presence regarding the history of Bahia because until then, before the blocos afros you had a history of repression. You didn’t use to talk about Zumbi of Palmares, who was an important black leader who wanted to found a republic in Brazil. You used to praise the document of Princess Isabelwho was a princess of imperial Brazil—who, due to people in the English government, signed the law giving freedom to blacks. It’s just that the freedom she gave was not unrestricted or extensive. The social situation of blacks in Bahia is still bad.

You can’t give “freedom” without education, without housing, without a proper diet, what kind of “freedom” is that? So the people in schools, in clubs, used to speak highly about Princess Isabel. After the black movement, after the emergence of the blocos afros, we came to criticize the official history and say, “May 13th is not our day.” And we also came to praise, to honor Zumbi of Palmares, and to honor the 20th of November, the National Day of Black Consciousness.

So throughout Brazil, the non-governmental organizations (NGOs) of the black movement, of Afro-Brazilians like Olodum and Ilê Aiyê set up activities to honor and pay tribute to Zumbi of Palmares. This contributed to these organizations [of the government] coming to see blacks a little differently, to respect us a little more. The proposals, the political activities, the legislative assemblies… so, for a short time we became protagonists in this history. Actors, not showing up only to have someone speak in the name of the black community. The difference is that now we have a discourse, we have representation and we can speak in Parliament about our history. We no longer need some studious type, be he black or not, going to speak about our history. This changed a little, improved the vision that people have about blacks in Bahia.

Nonetheless, the social situation is still really bad. Because we’re lacking the political will that would give us equality and a true “racial democracy” in Bahia. Because we are the majority and we don’t have representation.

Brazzil—It’s interesting, the difference in how people speak about racism, equality… for example, many white Brazilians who travel to the USA say, “ah no, we don’t have racism in Brazil.” Because in the USA it’s really bad. All the races are pretty separated… it’s really bad. So these people are saying, “No, in Brazil we don’t have this,” when the truth is very different. It’s because of this that I think your work is so important.

NM—Well, these people don’t live here [in Bahia.]

Brazzil—How has your music and your vision changed or evolved since the beginning?

NM—The music of Olodum emerged as popular music from the streets of Bahia. It’s simple music, extremely percussive, with its base in percussion. Also in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly in the 1980s we were… it was the height of the black movement. [A lot of] political protests because we lived in the military dictatorship, at the end of the military dictatorship. And so this contributed to the songs, the content of the songs had a lot to do with protest. Speaking out against the situation of poverty, of misery, of racism, the lack of help against corruption, all of that. So the composers of Olodum created songs with a lot of political significance.

It’s just that when democracy arrived—our democracy is on paper, we have a long ways to go to have an actual democracy—these songs lost a little of the context. These same people, here in the Largo do Pelourinho during Olodum’s rehearsals, came to not worry so much anymore about protest music. Not that the vision of Olodum changed, just the social situation. However, because of the political and cultural situation the same composers, without guidance from Olodumnot like, “write like this…” It wasn’t like that. It was understood that they were writing songs more to the liking of the public, with less political content. But the music didn’t stop talking about racism, about discrimination. Just in a less intense way. But it continues being [political.]

There were some concessions because of the recording of albums… generally the record companies aren’t interested in having music with social messages. Because the vision of a record company is commercial, to sell records. To sell records, you sell songs with a sort of easy acceptance. So there were some concessions on part of the group to record, because it’s necessary to record albums to gain the resources for the organization; to register the work of Olodum, to professionalize the musicians. So the music of Olodum did suffer a lightening, a slight change in the sense of content. Nonetheless, the percussive base remained all the way to the last album, Liberdade. The press’ assessment of this album [25 Anos] is that it has less percussion. We have a new record company who also, for economic reasons, suggested that we use less percussion, to use more technological resources instead of percussion. This is something that we’re thinking about for the next album because it wasn’t to our liking. Because the style of Olodum is the percussion. And because of the record company and the economic questions we had to reduce the percussion a little, it has more electronic sounds.

Brazzil—What do you feel or what does it mean to see Olodum pass by during Carnaval?

NM—I can’t speak as a spectator because I’m inside the group, but what I hear people say, those who are outside the group say that a good, positive energy passes by. Strong percussion, people singing together, giving the idea of unity, of strength, of pride to be Afro-Brazilian. This is important for the consciousness of people. That we bring the idea of unity—in Olodum not just black people march, it’s blacks and non-blacks. We’re not worried about that. If we struggle against racism, we can’t practice racism. Even so, we have a predominance of Afro-Brazilians in the group that gives a certain unity in the dancing, the singing. The people who hear this percussion in Carnaval are very excited, very enthusiastic. The proof of this is every Friday when Olodum marches out of the Pelourinho, the first day of Carnaval, Friday we march out with the percussionists and see so many people from Brazil, from outside of Brazil, Bahians… to watch the entrance of Olodum, which they say is very powerful, very emotional.

Brazzil—The first time I saw Olodum, it was just the rehearsal…but all the drums… it was very impressive. I bought that T-shirt that says, “Olodum é bala” (Olodum is a bullet) because… it’s right on and it’s the truth. Because the power of the percussion is impressive. The other blocos afros as well, Male Debale… they really blew me away during Carnaval.

NM—Yeah, it’s the African beat. We have the pleasure of maintaining this African root. Not to remain in poverty or return to Africa, but to affirm our African heritage in today’s society.

Brazzil—Of all the things that the group has done what gives you the most pride?

NM—Without a doubt, it’s “Olodum’s Creative School.” To teach adolescents African pride, to teach percussion. Because this is the continuation of our work. We’ve already done a lot with this work, we’re not tired and we won’t stop. But we need this continuity so that the next generation also does this work. So the most pride, the most pleasure is to see the adolescents, the new generation, kids from ten to fifteen years old playing, singing the music of Olodum, learning how to work with computers, learning about the history of Afro-Brazilians.

Brazzil—If you could say one thing, about the music, the culture, the work of Olodum, to the people of the United States, what would it be? A message to the people of the US?

NM—We have a really good relationship with African-Americans, and American people in general. Last year we did a tour for twenty, no thirty days in the United States, in fourteen American cities. Colorado to New York, to Boston, Washington… and the reception was very good. So what I would say is this: that African-Americans and Americans in general continue enjoying Olodum, respecting our work. Because we also really enjoy American culture. We have common ground because we have important references like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King who taught us that it’s important to have pride in our race, that it’s important to maintain our traditions, our roots, without losing our identity. So the American people are also a people that have contributed to our struggle. We’re always very well received and we really enjoy having these exchanges, the sharing of experiences between black American culture, particularly, and Bahian culture, in particular, black culture.

Brazzil—One thing I always see, as a musician… wherever I go I always seek out the music I like, music with a lot of percussion. One thing that always unifies the countries [of our hemisphere], I feel, is the African influence in popular music. From funk, hip-hop, blues, jazz, reggae, samba, mambo, salsa…

NM—Yeah, there’s always that African link. Independent of whatever person, there’s always that feeling, that link between these rhythms.

Brazzil—I think, as a musician… if you’re a musician in the Americas, of whatever color, you have to believe in this African power.

NM—Yes, this is very important because you musicians identify a lot with each other. You bring your experiences and also want to absorb our experiences. There’s always an exchange between musicians. We perceived this in the United States at these festivals. Musicians would come to talk to us about the songs, the percussionists. When you all come here, you take the percussion workshops. We had the experience of this American musician who lived in Bahia for more than two years. I don’t remember his name, but he played percussion with Olodum and marched with us during Carnaval for several years…

Brazzil—Yeah…we’ll see if one day I march with you all! …Brazilian music fascinates me and, as a drummer it’s kind of like… the heartbeat. Well, that’s everything I have, if you have any other comments or anything to say… I’m very satisfied!

NM—I’m satisfied also. Thanks for the attention and I hope that your work is very successful. This contributes to register Afro-Brazilian music in the world. Your work, like all the others, is important because it’s a reflection of what we’re doing. This will be around for eternity. We’re going to die but the work is going to stay!

Jeff Duneman is currently finishing his Masters thesis on the Mangue music and cultural movement of Recife, Brazil. He is in the Latin American Studies department at the University of New Mexico. Jeff is a musician (drums & percussion) and full-time music fanatic. Originally from the Midwest, temporarily transplanted to New Mexico, he has lived and traveled extensively in Mexico as well as visiting other parts of Spanish Latin America. Recently Jeff spent several months in the Brazilian states of Pernambuco, Bahia, and Rio de Janeiro studying Afro-Brazilian music. You can reach the author at:

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