Capoeira and Candomble in Salvador, Brazil

The legacy of the slave trade lives on in Bahia province in Brazil's north-east – discover black saints, voodoo ceremonies and ego-shattering martial art-dances

3 mins

Soft waves lapped against the white-sand beach. 

A fat orange sun was setting behind the mangrove forest at the end of the bay and the air was rich with the scent of a thousand tropical fruits. It sounds like an earthly paradise – so why was I lying on the ground, every muscle screaming with pain and with a clump of sand blocking my left nostril?

This was the undignified result of an out-of-shape Englishman daring to attempt the dancelike martial art of capoeira. Performed by a master, capoeira combines the grace of classical ballet with the lightning-fast power of an oriental fighting sport. Somehow, despite the best efforts of my instructor Mestre Guilherme, I made it look like a hippopotamus doing the can-can. 

It had seemed like a great plan: find a sleepy island off the coast of Brazil, hire the services of a local master and get fit in a tropical Eden. Bahia, the province on the north-east point of Brazil, poking out into the Atlantic, boasts the country’s best music, food and colonial architecture. It is also the cultural home of black Brazilian culture – more than 90% of the locals can trace their origins to Africa and the slave trade. 

Above all, it is the birthplace of capoeira, a unique art form that, some say, is a New World slant on traditional Angolan tribal dances. Others believe it evolved as a form of non-violent conflict resolution in the slave barracks where fights were punished by flogging – or worse. Either way, capoeira has developed into a popular non-contact martial art, and learning its techniques is the most hands-on way to experience one of South America’s richest cultures. 

Slavery, samba and spice

Salvador (Dreamstime)
Salvador (Dreamstime)

The odyssey that ended with the beachside capoeira class of Mestre Guilherme started in Salvador, the one-time capital of colonial Brazil. This city of 2.6 million has had its ups and downs since its foundation by Portuguese colonists in 1549, but thanks to its new status as a Unesco World Heritage site, the historic centre is now booming. 

Driving in from the airport at first light, I saw the favelas give way to scruffy high-rise suburbs and depressing billboards advertising fizzy drinks and moustachioed candidates for local elections. But the city centre – the Pelourinho – is a gem. Exuberantly painted baroque townhouses jostle for space with wedding-cake churches on the narrow cobbled streets and ornate public fountains set off the grand public squares.

Pelourinho means ‘pillory’ or ‘whipping post’, and I soon found the old slave market, a 19th-century wharf as large as a shopping mall. Its cavernous size is more evidence of the role this peculiar institution played in the development of the region. Once there would have been cramped pens holding men about to be sent to a life of back-breaking labour in the sugar plantations. Now the space serves as a craft market where I haggled for a vivid painting of capoeiristas at dawn.

The first-floor balcony proved a good spot to sample typical Bahian cuisine while watching ships slide across the bay. The waitresses wore white dresses with headscarves and bottom-inflating bustles – the sort of outfit you might associate with West Africa. Looking through the menu, I tentatively ordered the moqueca, a stew of seafood, tomato, coriander and chilli.

As an enthusiast of anything spicy, I found it disappointingly bland. Only later did I realise chefs go easy on the hot stuff for their white European customers. If you want them to turn up the heat you have to ask – and even then the waitresses look at you as if to say: “At your own risk, sonny.” 

Paint it black

church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Dreamstime)
church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos (Dreamstime)

Everywhere I looked I saw evidence of Salvador’s twin influences – religion and slavery – but nowhere more so than in the church of Nossa Senhora do Rosário dos Pretos: our Lady of the Rosary of Black People. This lavishly decorated sanctuary was painstakingly built over the 19th century by the Pelourinho’s slaves as their own place of worship (they were denied access to the ‘white’ churches), and financed by contributions from the impoverished local free black population. 

When I visited it was the middle of the day, but the interior was like a crypt at midnight. Through the darkness I could just discern the brightly painted statues, their black faces gazing down on me: the interior is filled with images of black saints.

As I reflected on the tenacious faith of Nossa Senhora’s builders, a young Bahian sidled up to me in the gloom and whispered conspiratorially: “You want to see a candomblé ceremony?” 

I’d heard of candomblé, the popular Bahian cult based on African folk religion – a sort of Latin American voodoo – but I’d hardly expected to be offered a guided tour while in a church. For many years candomblé was outlawed and driven underground. These days – like capoeira – it is officially encouraged as part of the Bahian cultural revival. Lucas, my new acquaintance, gestured to a stand in the corner where Salvador’s official candomblé society offers visits to nearby temples. 

I couldn’t help but like the breathless sales pitch – which is why, that evening, I found myself standing next to Lucas outside a shack in a Salvador favela so dark I could barely make out the ground beneath my feet. Was this really what a candomblé temple looked like? 

Inside, the women in our little party sat on the left, the men on the right. We were among the first to arrive. A few local matrons wearing white – dark colours are considered unlucky – began ferrying live chickens into an anteroom; slowly the little hall began to fill. Some boys began to whip up a rhythm on their homemade drum kits; ladies in African-style robes began singing the most extraordinary harmonies while others chanted in a guttural bass that recalled the Xhosa throat singers I’d once seen in South Africa.

The temple elder, wearing a white headdress, incanted words in an exotic dialect for some minutes; but that was all we were permitted to see. The elder approached us and, through my interpreter, said: “Listen, this is a pretty serious ceremony. We go on through the night. Sometimes we are possessed by spirits ourselves. Then embarrassing things happen...

What embarrassing things?

I was agog with curiosity – but alas, that was our cue to leave. I had to content myself with the nocturnal entertainments back in the Pelourinho, where I found musicians in flowing robes strumming their one-stringed berimbau (another West African import) while capoeiristas practised their moves in time to the rhythm. Oh yes, the capoeira. I had almost forgotten.

“Now I will teach you real capoeira”

A capoeira performance in Salvador (Dreamstime)
A capoeira performance in Salvador (Dreamstime)

In Salvador there are many good places to learn capoeira, but one name is famous above all others – the School of Mestre Bimba, founder of modern capoeira. Bimba, born Manuel dos Reis Machado, acquired his nickname following a bet by his parents on the sex of their unborn child after the midwife exclaimed: “It is a boy! Look at his bimba!” There are not many places in the world where a sporting icon is named after a slang term for the male genitalia.

Bimba laid down the key principles that make capoeira unique: first, that it should be cooperative – not competitive – with the strong player looking after the weak; second, that it is a non-contact sport. Unlike oriental martial arts, the punches and kicks should stop short of actually striking the opponent’s body.

The morning after my candomblé initiation I found the school in an upstairs room of an old colonial house, which had the look and smell of a boxers’ gym. My guru for the morning was Mestre Buda – so called because of his shiny bald pate and compact figure. (These capoeiristas revel in goofy noms de guerre.) “I was a very weak and sick child,” he said. “My parents sent me to capoeira when I was five. It made my body strong. But it also made my mind strong.”

Buda also told me some of the history of his sport: in the early decades of the last century capoeira was still prohibited – players could be punished by having their Achilles tendons cut. By the time Bimba died in 1974 capoeira was legal and flourishing. “Now we teach police officers capoeira,” Buda said. “How things change, eh?"

Donning the compulsory uniform of white tracksuit bottoms and unflattering muscle top, I was ready to go. 

Buda introduced the basic move – the ginga, a triangular step upon which all the more complex kicks and blocks are built. I copied him, adequately but inelegantly. So far, so good. 

Then he introduced more fiddly moves such as the (cartwheel) and gato (hand-spring). Each time I had almost got the hang of one, Buda would come out with his catchphrase: “That is just blah, blah, blah – now I will teach you real capoeira.” Slowly I was starting to see how all these moves might eventually fit together. I knew I would never become a mestre, but I was hooked. I just needed a little time and space to practise.

Showdown at sundown

Capoeira at sunset (Shutterstock)
Capoeira at sunset (Shutterstock)

A two-hour hydrofoil to the island resort of Morro de São Paulo, a tractor taxi from the beach through dense palm forest and a hitched ride on a fishing boat eventually got me to my final destination: the enchanting island of Boipeba.

It was a remote spot, 26 sq km of mangrove swamp and sandy beaches that proved just the place to sample unspoilt rural Bahian life – and get back into my capoeira training.

My host was Charles Levitan, an American who lived in the region for 20 years before opening his own clutch of cabins facing out to sea.

Boipeba has so far been spared the ravages of over-development because it is so remote. Come sunset, the island population was pretty much just me and the few hundred local inhabitants. Charles’s partner Matias explained how they were working on education projects with the islanders. The first library has just been opened but sadly illiteracy is still the norm rather than the exception. 

“These are wonderful people, but traditionally they’ve been farmers and fishermen,” said Matias. “Development is going to happen – whether we like it or not – and education is vital if the locals are not to be excluded from the new wealth.” 

By chance my first night coincided with the full moon – and the monthly party that is Boipeba’s only nightlife. Matias took me to a wooden shack that formed the disco venue. The local teenagers grooved to reggae beats while their mums served caipirinhas. Brazil plays the kind of music where you just have to pull your partner close – but with mums and aunties watching, the fun was all fairly innocent.

Karate kids

The next morning I tracked down Mestre Guilherme, the local capoeira teacher, who was occupying his usual spot on the beach, strumming his berimbau. He agreed to become my personal trainer for the week.

Mestre Guilherme combined the inscrutability of Karate Kid’s Mr Miyagi with the physique of a Royal Marine, and he made my class in Salvador look like kindergarten. My routine here was an hour of punishing exercise each day at sunset before, finally, on my last night, I was invited to join his regular beginners’ group. 

We assembled at a deserted beach bar: me, a seven-year-old boy, a dopey-looking girl and a fat kid – notable on an island of muscled black Adonises. I figured I had a chance. But any credibility I may have had was lost when, while attempting a particularly high kick, I managed to rip my tracksuit bottoms.

I limped back and consoled myself with one of Matias’s special ginger caipirinhas.

In Britain there has been much hoopla surrounding the bicentenary of the end of the slave trade. Politicians – mainly white ones – have rushed to congratulate the men who brought about the end of this cruel institution before applauding themselves on how much more enlightened our society has since become.

But in Bahia, while slavery may no longer exist, its influence can still be felt everywhere, having left behind a distinctive living culture. It has also left a legacy of poverty and a lack of education among descendants of those emancipated slaves. These scars are healing – slowly. I only hope that development does not erode what makes this colourful corner of Brazil so unique.

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