Africa, Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

BRAZIL: African Rhythms Open Prospects for High-Risk Youngsters

Fabiana Frayssinet

SALVADOR DA BAHIA, Brazil, Jun 19 2008 (IPS) - “Axé” is a word that means “positive energy or life force” in the Yoruba language of West Africa, an important concept in the Afro-Brazilian “candomblé” religion. For hundreds of children and young people involved in the Axé Project, it is indeed a force for life.

This non-governmental organisation working in Salvador da Bahia, 1,200 kilometres north of Rio de Janeiro, is bent on recovering traditional rhythms in this city where over 90 percent of people are Afro-descendants.

The New Axé Band, made up of teenagers and young people, are at music practice with the project’s musical coordinator Fernando Cerqueira. They are rehearsing numbers including all the styles of Bahian Axé music, derived from its carnival.

Axé music mingles African and European rhythms in genres such as frevo, forró, maracatu and even reggae, which undergoes a change of beat, Bahian style.

“It’s difficult to talk about Bahian music, because it is itself the source of a wide range of influences in other parts of Brazil,” Cerqueira told IPS.

“Bahian music has grown from several different roots and is based on the culture of many peoples, especially Afro-descendants who arrived in Brazil in colonial times. This tradition intertwined with European music, brought by the Portuguese and others, creating a style that is unique to this city,” he said.


The Axé Project is trying to bring prestige and distinction to this style through its social programmes with young people in high-risk situations, many of whom are former street children. The bands give professional performances and provide the young people with an opportunity to make a living.

“The young people we work with are mainly Afro-descendants, and the project is precisely about increasing the prestige of their culture on the basis of its musical creativity,” Cerqueira said.

Former student Luis Silva Santana is now the Axé Band’s percussion instructor. “I think Bahia greatly appreciates samba-reggae rhythms, but we are always looking for ways to innovate,” he told IPS.

“To be a Bahian,” says another former project member, Lindomar Pereira, “is to be multicultural, to understand several musical languages, both of European culture and of our African roots.”

And new influences continue to arrive. “Tourists come to the historic centre of Bahia to experience our culture, and they end up bringing their own influences as well,” he said.

Pereira is now a percussion tutor for Nucleo Tec, a band that plays electronic music but “with a strong mix of Bahian beats.”

“They say we’re just another hip-hop group because they identify us with the ghetto, as poor areas in Salvador da Bahia are called, because that’s where this kind of music is listened to most. But we also incorporate rock and Bahian axé music, although not funk music from the United States or Rio de Janeiro,” he said.

This is what sociologist Caubi Nova, a teacher with the Axé Project, defined as a “different cultural profile,” arising from the high degree of intermixing of Europeans and Africans in Bahia, historically one of the main ports of entry to Brazil for African slaves.

“The inter-ethnic mix is the basic characteristic of Bahia. It is what gives us our imagination and inventiveness,” said Nova.

Valuing these origins is a cultural affirmation that is emerging strongly now in Bahia, together with other artistic expressions, such as “capoeira”, a martial arts dance form of African and indigenous origin, and religions like candomblé.

Candomblé drumming, in fact, gave rise to many of the rhythms in Bahian music styles. But the contributions of local black musicians and artists were not always so appreciated.

Antonio Carlos Vovo, the leader of “Ile Aiye”, the first Afro-Brazilian group to have participated in Bahia’s famous carnival, which is second only to that of Rio de Janeiro, recalls that before 1974 black people were relegated to menial functions like carrying float parts and costumes, or if they were lucky, drumming.

Ile Aiye, born in Liberdade, “the largest black neighbourhood in Latin America” with a population of 600,000, was formed “to fight racism from within the carnival.”

The group only accepts black people as members, and it “revolutionised” Bahia’s carnival, Vovo said.

Formerly carnival music was predominantly a blend of indigenous and European musical genres, especially frevo and maracatu from the northeastern state of Pernambuco, but now “samba rhythms and African drumming” have joined the mix, he said.

“We changed the music and the colour of Bahia’s carnival. Our music is more cadenced, less frenzied, a music that has created a cultural revolution and helped democratise the carnival,” said Vovo.

 
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