by Oliver Balch*
“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.