Tag Archive: Afro-Brazilian culture

We have already talked about “capoeira” on this blog (an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines elements of martial arts, music and dance). It’s very popular in the Northeast of Brazil, where it can often be seen on the streets of Bahia.

If you are interested to learn more about it, you may be excited to hear of a new Brazilian movie that has just been released called “Besouro” (Beetle in English). The story is set in Bahia in the 1920s, and is based on a legendary capoeira fighter called Besouro, who uses his skills to fight the harsh conditions which the black population in Brazil had to face even after the abolition of slavery. Besides showing part of Brazil’s history, the movie also presents some strong elements of the Brazilian culture, such as Candomblé – an Afro-Brazilian religion that uses the power of different saints to help people to achieve their goals.

Apparently, the production has cost millions of dollars and counts with the action director Huan-Chi Ku (from Kill Bill and Matrix). The soundtrack is one of the best features of the film, with important national bands, such as Mestre Ambrósio, S/A, Nação Zumbi, Eddie, Otto and Junio Barreto.

The film was directed by João Daniel Tikhomiroff, a veteran in the world of advertising who makes his directorial debut with “Besouro”.

Curious to know more? Then have a look at the trailer below:



Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian art form that combines elements of martial arts, games, music and dance. It was created in Brazil by slaves brought from Africa, especially from present day Angola some time after the 16th century. It was developed in the region of Quilombo dos Palmares, located in the actual Brazilian state of Alagoas, and has great influence on the Afro-Brazilian generations, with strong presence at the present day states of Bahia, Pernambuco and Rio de Janeiro.

Participants form a circle and take turns playing musical instruments (such as the Berimbau), singing, or ritually sparring in pairs in the center of the circle. The sparring is marked by fluid acrobatic play, feints, and extensive use of sweeps, kicks, and headbutts.capoeiraslaves

Over the last three decades, capoeira has spread itself throughout the whole world, especially in the U.S. It all began when capoeira masters started to immigrate to North-American cities like New York.

Speaking of it, New York Daily News has just posted an article describing a capoeira group created by Brazilians in NYC as the new Brooklyn craze:

“There is the music, heavy on drums and the plaintive timbre of the berimbau, an instrument that looks like a longbow with a gourd attached. Music is the foundation for each workout. And there is the movement – a seamless string of hand stands, kicks, blocks, forward and back rolls, following one after the other in high-energy, acrobatic dance.

Hardened heels slice the air inches over a just ducked head. Foreheads dart in to lightly touch chests, playfully warning of the damage a head butt would have inflicted if violence had been its intent.

Roda_de_capoeira2It all looks so easy as the couple cavort around their Capoeira Brooklyn studio in Park Slope.

‘It is easy, once you learn’, Costas said. ‘Your body has to take time to adjust to the art.’

Right. Try doing a hand stand, dear reader. Then roll out of that and execute a leg sweep that takes your opponent to his or her knees.”

Well, it takes indeed a little bit of flexibility! Click here to see the full article published in the New York Daily News website.

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.