luiz gonzaga2This week, Brazil paid tribute to Luiz Gonzaga, a famous folk singer and songwriter that will complete 20 years of death next month. Known as the king of baião, he was responsible for the promotion of this gender of northeastern music throughout the rest of the country.

Born in 1912 in the state of Recife, Gonzaga grew up to the sound of the instrument that his peasant father played and that was going to be his symbol: the accordion. He used to accompany his father by playing the zabumba (type of bass drum) and singing at parties and religious celebrations. In 1930, he left home to join the army and toured Brazil with an army band.

After noticing that the northeastern immigrants missed the music from their hometowns, he started to give listeners the sort of music they craved to hear: xaxados, baiões, chamegos and cocos. In 1939, decided to dedicate his life to music, Gonzaga left the army. Then he started to play at talent shows and at radio programs, which made him popular enough to start making records. The emblematic song of his career was Asa Branca.

Luiz Gonzaga died of natural causes in 1989, leaving behind a deep and poetic understanding of the northeastern truth; of the pains and sensibility of an extraordinaire people.

by Oliver Balch*

Brazil’s strong African roots are celebrated in Pernambuco

Brazil’s strong African roots are celebrated in Pernambuco

“Black is Culture”. The phrase appears on t-shirts and banners across Brazil. It is more than lazy stereotyping. No float during Rio de Janeiro carnival is more eagerly anticipated than the Blocos Afros. No footballer is more highly vaunted than the “next Pelé”.

And nowhere is Afro-Brazilian culture more vaunted than in Pernambuco. Jutting into the Atlantic ocean, this black and mestizo dominated state survived for centuries on its slave-driven sugar trade.

Around three million Africans made the torturous journey to Brazil during the colonial era. In the country’s north-east, their descendants continue to vigorously celebrate the music, art and religions of their African origins.

My introduction to this region’s rich cultural legacy came in bohemian Olinda. Inside a community theatre, the audience was drinking rum and wolfing down heaped platefuls of feijoada while a flamboyant company of barefoot dancers bounded onto the stage. The troupe resembled a band of Congolese warriors.

I had stumbled on an authentic marakatú in session – up there with a candomblé religious ceremony or capoieira martial art class as one of the region’s most authentic cultural experiences.

The performance concluded with a glittering coronation scene: originally styled on the Portuguese court, a local marakatú instructor gave a different take on the ceremony: “It’s to remind us we were once kings, not slaves.”

Given that many of the slaves shipped to Pernambuco came from tribal kingdoms in West Africa, the interpretation contains more than a grain of truth.

Brazilians are proud of their cultural and ethnic heritage, especially in the Afro-Brazilian dominated north-east. Its importance goes beyond the fun of carnival. It backs up the country’s carefully manicured image as a champion of multiculturalism.

“Brazil is a racial democracy. To see that, you only need to compare our experience with that of the United States … There were never segregation laws here after emancipation,” argues Professor Maria Coelho Prado, a historian at the University of São Paulo.

She cites tough anti-racism legislation passed in the past three decades as evidence of Brazil’s official commitment to colour blindness. “But that not to say that Brazil still doesn’t suffer silent discrimination”, she admits.

It is an important caveat, and one backed up by statistics. Seven in ten of very poor Brazilians are non-white. As well as being one of the most Afro-Brazilian provinces, Pernambuco is also one of the poorest.

Education figures are equally alarming. Children of mixed-race or Afro-Brazilian couples typically receive two years less education than their white peers, according to the Ministry of Education. Only one in 20 Afro-Brazilians between 18 and 24 is enrolled in a university or equivalent institution. That number jumps to 37.3 per cent for whites of the same age.

In the light of such disparities, race activists argue that the strong association of culture with Afro-Brazilians is potentially restrictive and unhelpful.

“Naturally, black music, art and religion … [are] a vital tool in self-identity”, concedes Silvio Humberto, director of the Steve Biko Institute, a black rights advocacy organisation.

But when a black person tries to step into the worlds of politics, business or academia, then the “fiction” of Brazil’s racial democracy becomes apparent, he argues: “Culture is a space reservoir for blacks here. It hems them in.”

Six kilometres down the coast from Olinda lies Recife, the state capital and scene of one of Brazil’s best-known carnivals. I arrived in time to catch a month-long Afro-Brazilian cultural festival, organised by the province’s tourism authority in December to provide a warm-up to carnival season.

The event offered a dizzying array of music and dance genres: forró, frevo, coco, maculele, afoxé, ciranda, seresta, caboclinhos.

I opted to follow my ear, which led me to a bandstand where a guitar-led quartet was playing charinho.

The romantic spell was soon broken by a costumed troupe acting out a traditional samba, which has a more hard-edged, backcountry feel to than its contemporary namesake.

A fiddler-cum-clown led a curious musical assortment comprising a tambourine, a pair of elongated maracas and an ‘agogo’ – a high-pitched, conical bell connected by what looked like a plumber’s U-bend and struck with a metal baton.

By midnight, a forró party in the main square had reached full swing. Forró is not the easiest of musical genres to nail down: heavy percussion, and accordion, overlaid with a splice of rock and jazz, and charged up with some serious electronics.

My party legs worn out, I returned to my hotel to find a procession of musicians blocking the door.

Eventually they moved on, their romantic serestra ballads and midnight cheer growing fainter and fainter as they danced down the hill and into the night.

Black is culture – of that there’s no doubt. But it needs to mean more.

When it does, South America’s self-acclaimed rainbow nation will have a true cause for celebration.

*Oliver Balch, author of the travel book ‘Viva South America’, published by Faber & Faber in March 2009, wrote this article for The Financial Times.

Brazil is the world’s tenth largest energy consumer. At the same time, it is an important oil and gas producer in the region and the world’s second largest ethanol fuel producer.

Brazil's Itaipu: world's second largest dam for hydroelectricity

Brazil's Itaipu: world's second largest dam for hydroelectricity

The governmental agencies responsible for energy policy are the Ministry of Mines and Energy (Ministério de Minas e Energia), the National Council for Energy Policy (CNPE), the National Agency of Petroleum, Natural Gas and Biofuels (Agência Nacional do Petróleo, Gás Natural e Biocombustíveis – ANP), and the National Agency of Electricity (Agência Nacional de Energia Elétrica – ANEEL). State-owned companies Petrobras and Eletrobrás are the major players in Brazil’s energy sector, as well as Latin America’s.

Its energy comes mostly from renewable sources, particularly hydroelectricity and ethanol; and nonrenewable sources, such as oil and natural gas. A global power in agriculture and natural resources, Brazil unleashed the greatest burst of prosperity that it has witnessed in three decades.

The discovery of potentially massive reserves of oil and gas off its coast in 2007 seems set to transform the Brazil’s position as an energy superpower and the government says it plans to join Opec in the near future.

As a result, the Latin American giant appears to be perfectly set up to deal with the energy challenges of the next century.

You can see an interactive map about Brazil’s energy sources here.