Salvador’s Carnaval became the most popular festival in Brazil, surpassing
the one in Rio. The six-day-long street party attracts an estimated 2 million
people. More than 160 groups parade on different locations and everyone is welcome
to join in. But Carnaval is just the beginning. There’s the
Lavagens, the Yemanjá festival, the pre-Carnaval.
Salvadorenses are always inventing an excuse
for having a party.
The best time to visit Salvador, the capital of Bahia, is in the summertime, between the months of December and
March. At this time the city is on fire with religious, folk, and popular festivals all filled with music, food, drinks,
água de cheiro (perfumed water), flowers, dancing and happiness. Almost every weekend in this time frame there is either a
lavagem (ritual washing of a church which culminates into a party) or a Candomblé `beating of the drums’ (a ceremony in
the Nigerian Yoruba religion of Candomblé). The three most popular festivals are: the Lavagem of the Church of
Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, the Festa of Yemanjá (Yoruban Goddess of the Ocean) and of course, Carnaval.
Lavagem do Bonfim
This festival takes place the second Thursday of January every year. This ritual has been occurring in Salvador
since 1754. All meet at one church, Church of Conceição da Praia and march to the Church of Bonfim 10 kilometers
away where the ritual washing is to occur. At 10:00 am, the
cortejo (procession) is scheduled to leave for the Church
of Bonfim. In front of the Church of Conceição da Praia there are
Baianas dressed in all white with multicolored
sacred beads, carrying long white vases on their heads filled with perfumed water and white flowers.
There are also horse-drawn carriages, musicians, as well as government officials, including the mayor of Salvador.
The Carnaval group Filhos de Gandhy (Sons of Gandhi), who traditionally lead the procession, march right behind
the Baianas all the way to the Church of Bonfim. Whereas the procession group and bystanders congregate outside
the church, tens of thousands of others are scattered around among booths of food and drinks, and
trio elétricos featuring such musical favorites as Olodum, Ara Ketu, Gera Samba.
The ten-kilometer procession is full of energy, drumming, chanting. The sun is piercing hot, the people stay cool
by drinking water, beer, orange juice, or by pouring little bags of water over their heads. All participants, Filhos
de Gandhy, Baianas and regular people alike wear white, the color of the Yoruba God Oxalá, who is syncretized
with Senhor do Bonfim. After an hour or so, all arrive at the Church of Bonfim, lined with spectators and policemen.
The Baianas starts pouring the perfumed water from the vases onto people’s hands and heads, for blessing, and on
the steps of the closed church; the flowers are dumped at the steps all well.
Nowadays, the water is ritually poured on the outside as a symbolic gesture of cleansing; originally the inside of
the church was washed. At this point, all sing the anthem of Senhor do Bonfim. Next the party disperses ove all
which direction. People go to the booths by the Church of Bonfim to eat and drink. There’s dancing on the streets,
among the traditional booths of Baianas selling
acarajé (West African food made of black eyed peas fried in palm oil).
There are many young vendors of the ribbons of the Church of Bonfim which most visitors to Bahia come back
adorned with. These ribbons come in all colors, the length of each is the exact length of the arm of the sacred statue of
Senhor do Bonfim with lives inside the church. Tradition states that the tying of the ribbon on the wrist grants the wearer
three wishes which come true by the time the ribbon falls off.
People either stay at the Church of Bonfim to party or take one of the many city buses back down to the
Conceição da Praia Church where the
trios blast music until morning. Although the festival attracts tens of thousands of
people, a suffocating mass of bodies, the day is a beautiful feast for all the senses: flowers and beads, scented water,
delicious food, great music.
Festa de Yemanjá
This beautiful festival dedicated to the Goddess of the Ocean is celebrated every year on February 2nd. At dawn
the area around the Rio Vermelho beach is lit up with fireworks. Shortly thereafter hundreds of people, all dressed in
white, start to line up outside the temporary shack erected to hold the gifts to Yemanjá. Inside the shack is where the
`main gift’ is kept, a statue made of either silver or bronze of the goddess admiring herself in a hand held mirror. Sitting
by and guarding the statue are a few Baianas
dressed in the traditional white dresses, head coverings and
Around the statue are huge wicker baskets ready to accept the offerings either brought from home or bought from
street vendors just outside. These gifts consist of either plastic necklaces, perfume bottles of
Alfazema, white roses, soaps, mirrors. Yemanjá is believed to be
very beautiful and she knows it; offerings to her reflect this vanity.
Many people write notes to her, asking her to grant them a wish. These
notes will also enter the baskets later to be dumped into the ocean for
Adjacent to where the gifts are held there is a Candomblé ceremony, involving
Mães de Santo (Candomblé
priestess) dancing and chanting. The area is dark, but the white garments, lively dancing and drumming brighten up the
room with gaiety and vibrance. The gift baskets, once full, are taken to an area where all the baskets are held until the
time they will be loaded onto boats, usually around 4:00 pm. This area is colorful, sweet smelling with about fifty
huge baskets all filled with roses, carnations, chrysanthemums, as well as miniature boats, plastic dolls, perfume bottles,
and ribbons from the Church of Bonfim.
At around 4:00 pm, all gather around and wait to witness the yearly spectacle. The fishermen’s boats are filled
with the baskets. The main gift, the silver statue, arrives and passes everyone on her way to the shore. All stand in awe
as the beauty of Yemanjá gleams in the sunlight and graces everyone with her magical presence. She will accompany
the boats, will oversee the dumping of the baskets, but will return with the fishermen, for she must be present the
Once the boats leave, people party to live music on the streets until dawn. Salvador has once again pleased the
ever-powerful Goddess. Legend has it that fishermen’s wives would send offerings to Yemanjá to appease her so that
she would return their husbands back to them, since once at sea, the fishermen were symbolically married to Yemanjá
and belonged only to her.
This year’s Carnaval was the biggest ever. In fact, Salvador’s Carnavals have surpassed that of Rio de Janeiro,
making it the most popular festival in Brazil. The six-day long festival attracts an estimated 2 million people, who consume
5 million liters of beer, 3 million liters of soft drink, 2 thousand tons of sandwiches and 300 tons of ice cream! The
162 Carnaval groups parade on different locations simultaneously, including the Historic Center, Campo Grande and
the Avenida, and Barra / Ondina.
Unlike the Carnaval of Rio where Samba Schools parade, in Salvador everyone is welcome to parade with their
favorite group, all you need to do is buy a costume. The costume grants you the right to parade inside the corded-off area
around the bloco, where it is much safer than on the streets. The costumes go from $200 for the
blocos Afros all the way to $600 for Timbalada and Chiclete Com Banana, and must be ordered ahead of time.
Another distinguishing factor of Salvador’s Carnavals is the
trio elétrico, invented in 1950 by Osmar and Dodô.
These are essentially huge trucks with many speakers, rumbling loudly, carrying the band and singers of the
blocos. Participants usually follow behind, dancing and jumping.
This year’s highlights were the ever popular Chiclete com Banana (in
bloco Camaleão), Daniela Mercury (in
bloco Crocodilo), Netinho (in bloco Pinel), and of course, Gera Samba (in Bizu) with their super hit “É O Tchan”. All
these blocos had masses of people behind them, wearing a tunic shirt
(abadá) and matching shorts and bandanna, and
the occasion pom-pom. The costume is the same for men and women and usually comes in a day-glo color.
In the Liberdade district, the 22-year-old Ilê Aiyê made its traditional Saturday night entrance with its
yearly Candomblé festivities. Ilê’s theme this year was “Bantu Civilizations”; its 2,000 participants looked majestic
in costumes representing Mozambique, in Ilê colors: white, red, yellow, and black. Ilê is the only
bloco in Salvador that restricts participation only to Blacks.
From the Historic Center of Pelourinho, the Afoxé Filhos de Gandhy made their much anticipated entrance
into Carnaval on Sunday afternoon, after a ritual Candomblé ceremony held at the Largo do Pelô. The all-male bloco
of 5,000 participants wear white long pants and shirt, a white turban with a sapphire blue plastic stone on it, white
sandals and sapphire blue socks. They are beautifully adorned with many necklaces of blue and white plastic beads which
they carry and distribute on the streets.
Founded in 1949, this bloco originally formed to honor India’s Mahatma Gandhi is well respected and
aesthetically overwhelming. Friday night marks the official entrance into Carnaval of perhaps Bahia’s favorite Afro band,
Olodum. This year 3,000 participants wore red sailor-inspired costumes to represent the group’s theme “Sons of the Sea.”
Their 16th Carnaval entrance was heralded by 200 drums, all painted in the colors of Olodum: red, green, gold and
black. The drummers consisted of the youth of Salvador, both men and women, led by their master Neguinho do Samba.
Carlinhos Brown’s Timbalada was, as usual, a huge success. Thousands came to watch the bloco the three times
it paraded. It was an extravaganza for the senses: beautiful people displaying body paint all over their bodies,
beating on timbau drums, dancing and singing with a tremendous amount of energy. In fact, on the last day of Carnaval,
Ash Wednesday, it is Timbalada who leads thousands on an
arrastão behind them marking the official end of Carnaval.
Does the city rest after Carnaval? No way. Some blocos, such as Olodum, still continue to hold their weekly
ensaios (rehearsals), there are many shows cleverly referred to as
Ressacas (hangover) of Ara Ketu, Timbalada, Gera
Samba. It is party as usual for this wonderful city, which in spite of its poverty manages to celebrate life. 1996 in fact
marks the first time Salvador will have a “pre-Carnaval” in October, complete
with trio elétricos, blocos Afros,
Afoxé, abadás. Here we go again…
Pravina Shukla is a Ph.D. candidate in Folklore and Mythology at UCLA (University of California,
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