Saturday night at Festa Saravá in the nightlife-fertile area of Vila Madalena, São Paulo. This regular night dedicated to Brazil’s rich devotional sounds is packed, sweaty and energised. The music as described by the promoters would require a glossary for any non-specialist – maracatu; cocos; mangue-beats; tropicália, macumba, technomacumba and Afro-psychedelica – but is full of everyday gems familiar to the Brazilians who have packed out the two-room venue. “This song is VERY SPIRITUAL!” shouts JP, a 25-year-old video editor and musician who brought us here. “VERY DEVOTIONAL!”
Trying to understand – yet alone explain – even the simplest slice of culture in this vast country is like trying to shove a lively 3D animation into a tiny black box. There are always new nodes, new layers, new directions. And trying to understand the myriad ways religion shows up in the Brazilian everyday – in songs that everyone sings, or nightclubs packed with people dancing to music that was regulated by the police up until the 1970s – simply reveals more layers, and more directions. Music in Brazil is a wily beast with multiple roots that shapeshift according to time, space and listener.
“It’s complicated,” affirms my Brazilian friend and fellow music head Gabriel. “In Afro-Brazilian culture, religiosity, it’s always there. Sometimes it’s hidden, sometimes it’s really explicit. One of the ways it’s being expressed is in nightclubs and people treating it as party music.” Gabriel was brought up in Brazil’s religious mainstream and found his way into one of the myriad Afro-Brazilian worship houses through his interest in music. He points to Tutu Moraes of the hugely popular Santo Forte events, describing him as “the guy who put Candomblé [one of the main Afro-Brazilian religions] into people’s lives because of great parties.”
There are drums associated with religion. If a popular musician is to draw from these, then the general public might notice.
The devotional dimension to the music that DJs like Tutu Moraes and the crew at Festa Saravá are playing is mutable – sometimes it lies in the rhythms and sometimes in the lyrics. But it’s there to be tuned into by those who want to hear it.
“There are drums associated with religion,” says academic Marc Gidal, whose book Spirit Song: Afro-Brazilian Religious Music and Boundaries was published last year. “If a popular musician is to draw from these, then the general public, at least those who have some knowledge of Afro-Brazilian rhythms, might notice. Even if you don’t know which orisha [deity] it might reference, it becomes a code, a symbol. The musician could be using it to emphasise something they’re saying in the lyrics – if they’re talking about fresh waters and playing music associated with Oxum [the Yoruba goddess of love], then some of the listeners will pick up on that instrumental cue.”
This happens all the time in music all over the world, he adds. “Wagner did it a lot. He had codes in his operas that are played by the instruments and not articulated by the singer. The audience is supposed to put one and one together: ‘Oh, they’re sharing a glass of water, but the music is playing this love theme.’”
“Because there’s usually no written knowledge on the Afro-Brazilian traditions, all the chants and most of the religion is [kept within] those songs,” says Gabriel. “There’s no Bible, there’s no Vatican, there’s no one to keep the accuracy of things, so things can be very blurry for some people, me included.” It’s complicated.
It’s a wet Tuesday afternoon in off-season Pelourinho in Salvador de Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian music and culture. Eight young men from one of the local “blocos” (Carnival parading groups) are rehearsing in the street. They’re testing out new music in preparation for Carnival, but the word “rehearsal” is inadequate here: It’s a full-blown performance, only without the thousands of people and the heat that’ll accompany their playing come Salvadorian Carnival in February. The guy at the back of the formation is casually lifting his outsized surdo bass drum up above his head and playing it with effortless precision. It begins to rain, and they scatter to the doorways that line these cobbled streets. There is a drummer on every doorstep, like joyful versions of the toy soldiers that march out hourly from famous clocks in European cities, and they continue to play there until the rain stops.
One of them is lodged in the doorway of a music shop that doubles as the Music Research Institute (OIM). Percussion master and OIM founder Bira Reis is inside, in his Aladdin’s cave of tamborims, agogôs bells, shakers, whistles and drums. Out the back there’s a two-tiered garden with a concrete stand banked with corrugated iron walls and roofing, layering down to a grassy stretch that looks out to the port, with colourful flowers roped around the edges.
Dani, a drummer and ethnomusicologist turned impromptu translator, asks Reis about the religious roots of the music he’s spent a lifetime playing and researching. “Before the Portuguese arrived here we already had music and religion,” he says. “Religion related to the harvest, new seasons, marriage, death. Music is extremely tied to religion – everything in music starts with religion. When you hear thunder, it’s already music. That beginning of 2001: A Space Odyssey, with monkeys beating their chests – that’s music.”
He pauses for a moment, and continues. “Music is linked to nature – you create sound aspects to represent things. After the discovery of fire, people had more spare time, and it is this space for contemplation that generates religion. Music begins to be part of this with the need to thank, respond and relate to nature. Contemplation of nature creates religion.”
The great percussionists of Salvador transform something religious into art, and help to spread it.
Turn left out of Bira’s music shop, down an alleyway and up another cobbled street, and we arrive at the street-side doorway that leads to Filhas de Gandhy HQ – the renowned bloco that has been bringing Candomblé music and female empowerment to Carnival for the past 37 years.
Their signature blue-ribboned drums sit up against the walls and a gentleman dressed top to toe in white, from his white trilby to white Cuban-heel shoes, is gently waving burning sage around the room. Filhas de Gandhy president Glicéria Vasconcelos is sitting behind a desk, explaining her organisation’s committed work. This includes year-round classes for their musicians and dancers, as well as workshops where women learn how to create an income through making and selling instruments – income that gives them choices in life. As with blocos like Filhas d’Oxum, theirs is a sacred-secular fusion with an additional layer of feminism.
We’re discussing the complexities of Afro-Brazilian beats and the meanings they contain. Concentrate: There are layers. Filhas de Gandhy are described as “afoxé”, a word which is used to describe a genre as well as a bead-covered shaker, but which in typically Brazilian style has other uses, too. It also describes Carnival blocos that place a high value on Candomblé and on African traditions generally. Filhas de Gandhy are afoxé through and through. Whilst the secular expression of Afro-Brazilian culture played in São Paulo’s nightclubs transports the sacred into a social realm, Vasconcelos adheres to a different delination between between sacred and secular.
“The beat of afoxé is essentially ijexá – a beat that exists in a Candomblé terreiro [temple],” she says. “We share the music that we’re allowed to take to the streets. Religious music must be inside the terreiro, so we don’t take the foundation songs to the street.”
Bira Reis agrees. “Within the religion there is a ritual: The atabaque [a tall drum that also has a special role in the quasi-secular activities of Capoeira and Carnival] are baptized with blood. When I count the rhythm for a dance, it creates a mantra and a geometric projection within the ritual… When you take the music to another place, you have a connection but it is not the same because it is in another context. The great percussionists of Salvador transform something religious into art, and help to spread it.”
The walls between sacred and secular could be broken down if the stakes were high enough. “If you’re talking about Afro-Brazilian music then you’re talking about the oppression of black Brazilians,” says Marc Gidal. “At various times the music is highly political, using music as part of the black consciousness movement. Afoxé groups were trying to stop police oppression by parading Candomblé music to the streets. Taking [some] Candomblé rhythms, playing on the small versions of atabaque drums and agogô bells, and singing chants that would usually be sung in private, in a closed religious ceremony, and they’re parading in the street during Carnival. The message couldn’t be clearer. In a Carnival that’s dominated by the whites, they’re saying: ‘Here we are! We’re free. We should not be oppressed, we have a religion that should not be oppressed. We are playing our Candomblé music in the streets as a celebration.’”
You can see Afro-Brazilian music and references in Carnival as a form of political protest, he adds. “Música Popular Brasileira (MPB) would also reference religion for political reasons… People pick up on it.”
In Salvador they are fusing sacred and secular for social activism. Elsewhere, the current wave of DJs are taking the threads of religious music and weaving them into new references for young, city-dwelling Brazilians. One Sunday night in São Paulo, we witnessed DJ Nuts dropping rare Brazilian 7"s, dipping into his record box like a lolly into lemonade powder. In any other city in the world tonight would be strictly for the heads – a male-heavy reverential for an era of lost breaks and funky loops – but here it’s a joyful, gender-mixed dance party where everyone is singing along to Fáfá De Belem’s “Emoriô” like it’s as familiar as “Happy Birthday.” It’s 2 AM, drinks are spilling in time to the music and the couple of hundred Paulistas packed inside are singing, dancing, getting off with each other and generally having an extremely Brazilian midweek night out. The majority of the songs are twists on Tropicália or MPB classics – Spanish or Italian versions of Gilberto Gil or Gal Costa songs, and rare arrangements of Jorge Ben Jor.
The music Nuts is playing is rooted in a complex double helix of religion and politics, full of signs and symbols that are ripe for multiple interpretations. Some listeners might recognise one of these rhythms as one that creates sacred geometric connections to the orishas in the terreiro, as with “Canto de Ossanha” by Vinicius de Moraës & Baden Powell. They might clock a coded political message made by the artists under the 1964-1985 dictatorship, like on Chico Buarque’s “Apesar de Você” – it’s studied in schools – or they might just implicitly recognize the participatory nature of Brazilian culture and sing along.
“I feel like there was always someone in the 20th century reminding us that this [music] came from the orishas,” says my friend Gabriel. “Maria Bethânia, Caetano Veloso, Clara Nunes, the samba schools. There’s always some mention of it. It’s bit underground, the religious aspect of samba, because it’s seen negatively by some people. Even today, whether you see it or not, the religious basis is still there.”
For real, it’s complicated.
Illustrations by Ben Clark