Their name is an abbreviation of Olodumaré, Yoruba’s god of gods. In
sixteen years of activities in Bahia, Olodum has become an internationally known
musical and cultural phenomenon as well as a drumbeater for Black rights in Brazil.
Picture yourself in Pelourinho, the historic center of Salvador, the capital of Bahia. The cobblestone streets are
lined with multicolored three-story buildings tightly wedged between the hundreds of churches the city boasts of
having. It is a Tuesday night, Pelourinho’s famous “Terça da Bença” (Tuesday of Blessing), originally designating the
day Saint Francis of Assisi would distribute food to the needy. Since the 1970s, the Black community in Salvador
chooses to commemorate this day with political, social, cultural and musical events.
On Tuesdays, the historic center is jam-packed with people eating, drinking and dancing. In this chaos of bodies
one sound is heard: the unmistakable drumming of Olodum. Hundreds stand outside the door of the open courtyard,
Praça Tereza Batista, where Olodum holds its yearly Tuesday night rehearsals. Olodum’s second weekly rehearsal, this
one free of charge, is held every Sunday night atop the slopping hill in front of the church Nossa Senhora do Rosário
dos Pretos, built by and for the slaves.
Both rehearsals attract hundreds, even thousands of people, native Salvadorians, Brazilian and international
tourists alike to see and hear the most famous Afro band of Bahia. Most people acquainted with Brazilian music will
recognize the high-energy drumming of Olodum, characterized by their vibrant drums, hand-painted in the colors of Africa:
red, gold, green and black.
The Grupo Cultural Olodum was founded in 1979 by the dwellers of the Maciel-Pelourinho district of Salvador,
for the purpose of providing these citizens with the right and opportunity to participate in Carnaval as an organized
group or “bloco” (percussion group). Prior to this, so called “marginals”: prostitutes, thieves, and Blacks were not
allowed an opportunity to partake in the pre-Lenten festivities. Olodum, in its sixteenth year, has since grown from 800 to
over 3,000 participants parading during Carnaval.
The group, from its inception, has served as a backbone for the Black community of Salvador. Its involvement in
the “Movimento Negro” (Black Movement) is significant, as they themselves state: “Olodum is an entity that seeks
the recovery, value and preservation of the Black culture, having anti-racist struggle as one of its principle [goals].”
The sentiment of this statement is often seen in the lyrics of most of their songs. Its name, “Olodum” is an
abbreviation of “Olodumaré” the God of all gods in the Nigerian Yoruba religion of Candomblé, much alive in the African
Diaspora of Bahia.
In order to be able to handle the huge amount of activities, concerts, rehearsals, musicians, Olodum has
twenty-six directors, each in charge of one specific area. Of these, the two-time president João Jorge Santos
Rodrigues, spearheads the organization as an incredibly articulate, charismatic, and intelligent man, whose words appear in
some of the sleeve jackets of the Olodum compact discs.
Pelourinho district has a few Olodum headquarters, so to speak. The first one, the pink “Casa do Olodum”
houses administrative offices, the weekly rehearsal of the “banda show” Olodum, the one that records the albums and
tours the world. Downstairs, the Olodum `house’ hosts a bar, complete with music, stacks of the multicolored
drums, posters of Malcolm X and adoring fans hovering around. In fact, on any given day, a passerby is sure to find at
least one member of Olodum sitting outside on the steps holding drumsticks, basking in the sunlight. This “Casa
do Olodum” can in fact be nicknamed the `Olodum Clubhouse,’ since it is here where the members meet to chat,
rehearse, play music.
The second most important Olodum headquarters is the “Escola Criativa Olodum,” run by the Director of Health
Tita Lopes and Director of Education Peter Leão. Here the street kids are educated in art, music, language, dance,
history. Here also the projects and campaigns against AIDS and cholera are launched, including the campaign for
condom distribution by Olodum during Carnaval.
The “Fábrica Olodum,” only a few feet away from the School, is where the Carnaval costumes, created by
Artistic Director Alberto Pita, are cut and sewn, and where the T-shirts are produced. T-shirts, along with ashtrays,
backpacks, vests, even Olodum lipstick are all sold at the “Boutique Olodum,” where you are surely to walk away from
some object with the insignia of your favorite band from Bahia.
The West’s acquaintance with Olodum came with Paul Simon’s “The Rhythm of the Saints” CD. and tour,
which featured Olodum’s drumming. In fact, this past February, Michael Jackson followed heed and recorded the song
and part of the video for his “They Don’t Really Care About Us” with Olodum in Pelourinho before heading for Rio
de Janeiro’s shantytowns. Olodum has made several appearances in the US, most notably during the 1994 World
Cup soccer final games, in which Brazil was, for the fourth time, victorious.
Olodum has given concerts in eighteen countries of the world, including Cuba, Senegal and Angola. Their most
famous song to date is “Requebra,” of three Carnavals past, the performance of which still drives the crowds wild. The
lyrics of most Olodum songs are inspired by African mythology, the “orixás” (Yoruban gods and goddesses), the
history of slavery, the struggle for Black power, Brazilian cultural heroes such as Lampião and Zumbi.
The lyrics from “Atlântida” epitomize in a
nutshell Olodum’s uncanny blend of poetry, religion and history: “Da
África, orixás e inquices aportam no cais de Salvador” (From Africa,
“orixás” (Yoruba gods from Nigeria) and “inquices” (power figures from
the Kingdom of Kongo, present-day Zaire) came and fell on the shores of
Salvador. This line credits Bahian culture back to Africa, names the
two predominant African cultural and geographical affiliations of the
slaves, and makes explicit the importance of the ocean as the link
between Africa and its people in the Diaspora.
On February 10th, 1996, Saturday, I had the good fortune to witness the filming of the Michael Jackson music
video which featured Olodum. For about a week before the date Jackson was due to arrive, about two hundred men
and women of Olodum would meet nightly to rehearse their drum participation in the song “They Don’t Really Care
About Us.” These rehearsals consisted of band members with drums, tourists and the curious all tightly packed in a
narrow dead-end street, facing Neguinho do Samba, Olodum’s brilliant “Mestre” (drum master) and creator of what is
known as Bahia’s “Samba-Reggae.”
The day before Jackson’s appearance, there was a press conference held in the “Casa do Olodum” with Spike Lee,
the director of Jackson’s music video. As the last questions were answered by Lee, clad in the Brazilian national
soccer team’s shirt and Olodum baseball cap, there was a large, Earth-rattling sound heard by all: thunderous bellows of
about two hundred drums struck outside. Everyone, including Lee, ran to see the spectacle. Two hundred men and
women beat their red, gold, green and black drums in the blinding sunlight to welcome Spike Lee to Salvador.
The following day I awoke to the same sound; the drum-beating started at 7:00 am and would go until 11:00 pm.
The tireless youths of Salvador which comprise Olodum seemed to have an infinite amount of energy, ready to share
with the most famous person to ever take notice of them, Michael Jackson. He arrived at noon, accompanied by
two children, in a car which heralded his coming with a shrinking siren. After two sequences of him dancing alone,
among adoring fans who screamed and fainted, he filmed the last sequence of the day, in which he danced in front as
Olodum stood behind him, beating their ever so beautiful drums.
Jackson’s great dancing, his readily apparent friendliness made all the people in Pelourinho smile with
pride. Especially proud were the youths of Olodum, to have had the opportunity to showcase their talent to the world
through Jackson’s video. The video was in fact filmed in the “Largo do Pelourinho,” the exact spot where hundreds of
years ago slaves were whipped and tortured by their masters, hence the name “Pelourinho” (the Pillory).
Olodum purposefully headquarters in Pelourinho to tap into the negative energy caused by the shedding of slave
blood precisely to gain strength for their fight for Black equality and power.
No description of Olodum would be complete without describing the incredible experience of participating in
the bloco’s Carnaval parades. This year’s theme was “Os Filhos do Mar” (Sons of the Ocean), and the mission was
to recount the tales of the fishermen, divulge the secrets of the seven seas, and express the sentiment of the slave
trade. The costumes were predominately red, symbolizing the Red Sea. The women wore mock sailor shirts with short
sarong skirts while the men wore similar shirts with Bermuda shorts. The band members wore the same clothes, but in
yellow while the directors’ costumes were in white.
The bloco traditionally participates in three of the six nights of Carnaval: Friday, Sunday and Tuesday. Each
time Olodum started parading around 11:00 pm only to finish at 6:30 am! At the head of the procession was the huge
boat-float with seven princesses/mermaids dressed in white with sparkling silver eye shadow. This was followed
by hundreds of red-clad participants dancing and singing. Next was the
trio elétrico, a converted truck with
massive speakers which holds the singers and creates a huge ear-popping sound.
On top of the trio elétrico the Olodum singers looked very dignified wearing all white sailor outfits, including
navy caps. Directly behind the trio
elétrico were the drummers, sectioned off by heavy cords, a mass of yellow and
drums. Behind the drummers was where most of the people parading with Olodum were dancing and drinking beer. This
year there were over 3,000 people, happy to have the opportunity to parade with their favorite band.
No visitor to Salvador can miss Olodum. The T-shirts are sold in every street corner, the music is heard in taxi
cabs, in record shops, in bars, in festivals and Carnaval. I guess last year’s song “Furacão” (Hurricane) was right when
it stated: “Se tem Olodum, tem festa na Bahia” (if Olodum is present, there is [definitely] a party in Bahia)!
1996 Olodum Carnaval Songs:
A vida é doce
como algodão doce
desperte pra vida
pro mundo adoçar (bis)
sou o seu nego bom
o batom da sua boca
sou a bala de baleiro
Olodum é bala
é bala de baleiro
Mel, bombom, mamãe
na tua boca (bis)
vem cá coisinha louca
pode vir uma garoa
se molhar é coisa boa
depois eu te enxugo toda
Life is sweet
like cotton candy
awaken to life
to sweeten the world
I am your good Black man
the lipstick of your mouth
I am the candy of candy sellers
you can set it off
Olodum is candy
candy of candy sellers
you can set it off
Bombom of honey, mother
in your mouth
bombom of honey
come here crazy little thing
it can start drizzling
if you get wet, that’s good
later I will wipe you dry
É bonito, é demais
o Olodum da Bahia
é bonito, é gostoso
o seu jeito charmoso (bis)
Um weekend odara com você
um weekend odara com você
Por você, amor, que lindo
eu vou ao infinito
eu quero é mais
estar sempre ao seu lado
você me satisfaz
Auê, auê, auê, auê, auê
auê, auê, auê, auê, auê
Nos meus sonhos você vem surgindo
querendo o paraíso eu dou
com um mar de risos
vou buscando seu amor
It’s beautiful, it’s too much
it’s beautiful, it’s delicious
your charming ways
A delicious weekend with you
all right, all right
a delicious weekend with you
For you love so beautiful
I’ll go until the end
what I want most
is to always be at your side
because quite simply
you satisfy me
Auê, auê, auê, auê, auê,
auê, auê, auê, auê, auê,
In my dreams you emerge
wanting paradise I give it to you
with an a ocean of smiles
go in search of your love
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