K. Ibura




Vol. 20, In Brazil: Ilê Aiyê and Tourist-Native Relationships

Posted on 22 February 2002

Salvador, Bahia

I’m not a person who “keeps house,” but here, as in many warm places, the necessities for cleaning are multiplied. With so many openings to the homes—balconies, wall openings for ventilation, windows without screens—dirt easily comes in and settles on the floor. Floors need to be swept almost daily. With the presence of insects, foremost among them, ants, you can’t afford to leave trash for too long or leave dishes sitting too long after a meal. Sugar, cookies, crackers, bread, any food item has to be stored in airtight containers or the ants will find a way in. And of course, most people on this side of Salvador (the richer areas are another story) don’t have washing machines and so, have to wash their clothes by hand. This is something you learn to do by trail and error.

Hand-washing your clothes can be an hours long affair: washing, scrubbing, rinsing three times, and finally hanging the clothes on the line. Before you even wash your clothes, they have to soak. I soaked all my whites together and all my colors together, but when I went to wash them, I noticed two pairs of underwear—one red and one green—had leaked dye all over my yellow Ile Aiye tank top. It’s ruined. I was upset, but felt lucky that that was the only piece of clothing I had messed up in my ignorance. Then I hung my clothes. When they were dry, I pulled my white skirt down to discover dark marks on the skirt. I was upset all over again, but I couldn’t figure out the mystery of the stain. I sat on my bed, looking at the stain, mumbling to myself, I know this stain wasn’t here when I washed the clothes, where did it come from? It must have happened while the skirt was hanging on the line. Then I realized, I hung my white skirt right next to my dark blue tennis shoes. The freshly washed tennis shoes must have slid down the line and come in contact with my wet white skirt. Boom, a stain is born. Needless to say, I’m not in a rush to wash my clothes again.

The tennis shoe thing was especially irritating because after washing them, I wore them in the dirty streets of Salvador during Carnaval and then used them daily during a trip to Lençois, a city seven hours away from the coast of Salvador (five hours if you’re driving directly in your own car). Lençois is a tiny cobblestoned city with two squares and a few streets, but it is close to a large number of rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. A few hours away is Fumaza, the largest cachoiera (waterfall) in Brazil. In Lençois, you take tours up mountains, through forests, and on boats down rivers to commune with nature. After two days there, nature was all over my sneakers, the ones I sacrificed my white skirt to clean. What a waste.

Lençois was beautiful, but we had to work to see the beauty. Besides paying for the tours, you pay with your sweat and blisters by climbing and climbing and climbing. The first day, we went to a waterfall that’s near the top of a mountain. The first third of the trip was pleasant, I translated everything the guide said for my friends, we chatted away about the environment, expressed appreciation for certain sections of the climb. Then suddenly we fell silent. Before we knew it, we had begun climbing over boulders that were our height, stepping down to shorter rocks over chasms, taking off our shoes to wade through water while ducking under a large overhanging rock. We climbed for hours, our guide walking confidently ahead, refusing to baby us.

I found it absolutely unbelievable that we’d climb for almost two hours to get to a waterfall. We laughed about it, of course. Through our fear, through our tiredness, through our exhaustion, through our irritation, we laughed. When we finally got there, the guide led us even higher up a steep climb until we were standing on a ledge above the waterfall. We could see people below, relaxing in their bathing suits, talking, swimming, snacking. “What are we doing up here?” I asked the guide “For the view and to take photographs,” he said. Fuck the photographs, I grumbled to myself, get me to the water.

We swam in the river, climbed the rocks behind the waterfall, let the roaring water whip past our faces until we couldn’t see. We sat on the edge of the waterfall and enjoyed our own private rainbows created by the sunlight’s dance with the falling water. While we were at the waterfall, word came to us that a tourist couple had been robbed on the hills on the way up to the waterfall. There are a few groups or couples who decide to navigate the climb themselves. Watching them, it was clear to see the confusion and distress on some of their faces. The mountain path isn’t clearly marked, so there were a few moments where they had to figure out which rocks would lead them out. The old man who told us about the muggings said the tourists were without a guide. That would never happen with a local guide, he said, because everyone knows each other and they would certainly be recognized and, I think, probably fussed at for stepping on someone else’s hustle.

The next day, our bodies were aching. As our second guide took us walking through a stream to get to a hydromassage waterfall, I told him I’m not an eco-tourist. I fully support it, but I’m just not the one. I began to look at even the smallest rocks with skepticism. My muscles just didn’t want to work anymore. But the walking through the stream prepared us for the after-lunch adventure, when we had to walk barefoot through muddy waters to get to the boats that would take us down a swamp river. We left one day early with mosquito and spider bites all over our bodies.

Two days in Lençois were enough for me. Most people stay for a week, but those are athletic folks who come on their vacation to physically challenge themselves. We had great meals every night. It’s funny that such a tiny mountain town draws so many international visitors. It’s like the residents can have the best of both worlds. They can live their quiet country lives and, through the constant stream of tourists, have contact with the bustle that exists beyond the boundaries of their city. The standard of living seemed higher in that tiny little city. The street animals were cleaner, the people looked healthier and more content. It’s funny how some cities have everything, and yet are unable to provide you with the basics you need to live a simple healthy life.

Back in Salvador, we decided to stroll by the Fort of Santo Antonio one day on a whim. When we neared the square where the fort sits, we realized a few people in capoeira outfits were entering the square. When I first came to Salvador in 1997, the Fort of Santo Antonio was where Ilê Aiyê held weekly rehearsals, Jão Pequeñho (an energetic and charismatic 85 year old capoeira mestre) had his Capoeira Angola School and there were a few other community organizations housed there. I thought the Fort had been deserted, but apparently I was wrong.

When we entered the fort, I got a shiver in my belly. My cousin asked if I thought slaves were housed here. I said I didn’t know, but I told her I was feeling something. There’s some ill energy housed in those old stones. It reminded me of an art gallery down in Pelourinho that contains a small room where slaves were held. It’s freaky to be back there, it’s dark and smells like piss, and it’s where the owner stores his African art. Back in the fort, we heard the sound of various berimbaus (the stick and gourd instrument that accompanies capoeira) and percussive instruments (drums, cowbells, and handheld wooden instruments) and knew immediately that a capoeira roda was in full swing. There were four benches set up for spectators and signs everywhere that said “no filming allowed.” We took our place amongst the mixed spectators (some capoeiristas from other schools, some interested Brazilians, some Brazilian tourists, some foreign tourists) and watched the games. It was like visitor’s day at church (and it was indeed, a Sunday). There were at least five, if not more, different schools represented. And a few mestres came along as well to play or to accompany the playing with music and/or song.

It was wonderful to step into the fullness of the roda—full of people, music, and song—and feel the energy of the room. The capoeira Angola roda is, of course, different from the Regional (another style of capoeira) roda. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the styles, but my friend, who plays both, but is trained in Regional told me once he was longing to go to an Angola roda because of the fullness of the music. It’s like being surrounded by sound. The rodas you see on the streets of Salvador are almost exclusively regional. Regional is a flashier style—they use more leaps, kicks, and explosive flips. Angola is closer to the ground and the players are closer to each other. To me, it’s like chess played with the body. You don’t actually strike your opponent, but you like to get your foot right next to their nose or softly brushing against their ankle to let them know, you could have kicked them in the face or knocked them off balance if you wanted to. Angola, especially, can be confusing to watch when you don’t understand the game. It’s all about strategy. Sometimes I have to lean over and ask a more knowledgeable person, “Who’s winning?” “She is,” they might say, “She’s playing smarter.” While another player may have wider kicks and high jumps, the winner of an Angola game has the most possible strikes and when they’re all twisted up on the floor, it can be hard for the untrained eye to discern who’s getting what in.

The Regional street rodas are definitely more involved with tourism. Whereas foreigners who have studied capoeira Angola in their own countries might seek out a particular Angola school to train with while they are in the city, any foreigner can happen upon a Regional street roda and stop to check it out. Some groups are more aggressive than others. One is so famously aggressive that it was written up in the Lonely Planet. If you’re walking by Mercado Modelo (the group has since moved to Pelourinho), the guide book says, don’t stop to watch the capoeira roda unless you’re prepared to pay. These particular capoeiristas—large, muscular men—are in the habit of intimidating people into giving them money. Despite the fact that they’re outside playing capoeira in the open air, they believe you should pay them if you become part of their audience. I have a friend who used to play with them, he was an impish player who often played with a huge smile on his face in stark contrast to the grunting, angry-faced men who were his group members. He used the few reis (Brazilian monetary unit) he got from playing to eat a large lunch. He spoke a little English and rather than intimidate people into paying, he charmed them. He’d say “Hello, my name is ______. I work all day in the hot sun (while he’s saying this, he said he wipes sweat from his body and flicks it on the tourists), I hope you will offer me a collaboration,” and he hands them a hat or whatever container they’re accepting money in.

This same friend shocked me by revealing that the rodas are where foreign women—Australian, German, Italian, and I suppose, American—go to pick up Brazilian men. When he was 14, foreign women began propositioning him. He was young, horny and hungry. Older women were offering him money and sex, he thought it was the best deal he ever could have gotten. He said one woman came to a roda and sat nearby having a beer. When it was over, she called him over to her. She put down three piles of money—”this is for the beer,” she said, “this is for clothes for you, and this is for the hotel later.” “You went with her?” I asked. “Hell, yeah,” he said. He’s had menage a trois with foreign women and has all kinds of stories from his own and his friend’s experiences. After sex was no longer a novelty to him, he stopped having such direct money-sex relationships and began dating foreign women. When I met him, he had recently seen a news special on sexual tourism. As he told me about it, I said, “Oh, like you.” “Me?” he said, “I’m not a prostitute.” “But women paid you to sleep with them,” I said. He had never seen it that way. He thought he was the one getting the deal. A horny teenage boy, getting paid for something he desperately wants. I suppose prostitution, in and of itself, can be a simple relationship that does not have to be fraught with negativity. The problems come in when the prostitute is doing it out of necessity, not out of curiosity or personal interest.

Most of the tourists who come to Salvador can be broken down into two groups: the cultural tourists and the sexual tourists. The cultural tourists come to study capoeira, percussion, dance, or some other Bahian cultural expression, the sexual tourists come to have sex. The last time I was here, a white man came to stay in this house (not that white men are the only sexual tourists. A friend who traveled up to Rio told of all the black American men down there taking advantage of Brazil’s poverty-driven prostitution). He kept bringing prostitutes in to spend the night despite the fact that the owners of the house told him they didn’t want that to happen. Eventually, while he was taking a shower, one of the prostitutes came into my room and stole a favorite dress of mine and some money. That didn’t upset me so much (although I missed the dress dearly), the hustle is about survival and I’m sure it’s routine for her to see what else she can pick up when she does a job. But days later, she came back claiming that she lived in my room, saying she needed to check to see if she left anything behind. That’s when I got angry. Weeks later this man found a regular Brazilian woman and they planned to get married. At their engagement party, he was bragging about how when she came home from work, she would iron his clothes and insist on cooking his meals. She wouldn’t even let him do the dishes, he said, despite the fact that he didn’t work at all. The party was full of these type of couples white men—both American and European—with their Brazilian (and sometimes Angolan) wives and/or girlfriends. It was a very weird scene.

The type of tourist-native relationship I’m more familiar with are the friendships/relationships based on mutual interest, but the environment of sexual tourism can inject paranoia into even the healthiest of these types of relationships. I have friends who’ve had different levels of relationships. One woman fell in love with a man who lived in a hippie village. She went home to take care of some business and came back to find he had been completely celibate during the months of her absence, not because she asked him to, but because he wasn’t interested in anyone else. They decided to have a child. Their baby was born in Brazil and for a few months they lived in a favela so they could move away from the hippie village, yet be close to the sea. She taught English, he took care of the baby. Now they live in Oregon or California, a happy family

Another friend extended a school-related stay to be with her Brazilian boyfriend. She had run out of money and was afraid to ask her parents for more. So she was sleeping on the floor of his thrift shop at night, bathing in a very disgusting public bathroom, and eating at his mom’s house for months, until she finally went home. Their relationship survived a lot, but it ended when—despite the fact that her wealthy father wrote a letter stating he would be financially responsible for her boyfriend—he was not granted a visa to go to the U.S. They still talk on the phone, and every time I come back he seems to be with women who look like her.

I didn’t understand why women would proposition boys 14 and 15 years old until I heard stories of women who tried to befriend men, and the men pressured them into relationships they weren’t interested in. I thought every foreign woman-Brazilian man couple I saw was out of a mutual exchange of romance and financial support. She buys the groceries, he provides the love. Brazilian men (at least the ones in this tourist area) seem to be eternally ready to fall in love. Rather than bitterly trying to avoid it, like so many of the men I know at home, they seem to be ready to dive headfirst. This can be quite a dizzying experience, add it to the magic of the city, and you get a relationship of astounding emotional proportions. Though there won’t be any money exchanged, it’s understood that the foreigner will pay for meals and drinks. That’s the most basic exchange of personal resources between a Brazilian and foreigner. It’s one that can be based on mutual respect and mutual fun. Yet somehow, some women (I guess women who are vulnerable to manipulation) find themselves with men they’re not so interested in, yet the man pressures her to buy him drinks or groceries or purchase his art. This type of pressure happens because the male-female dynamic is still in place. Just like how a group of female strippers are completely at the service of the men at a bachelor party, yet a male stripper can come into a woman’s bachelorette party and dominate the space. He’s still a man in a world where men dominate women. But if a woman chooses to buy time a boy, rather than a man, she remains in control. This is the conclusion I came to when I was on a beach in Jamaica and I watched a skinny boy oiling the back of this middle-aged white woman. “What does she want with a boy?” I wondered aloud. Then I thought about the power dynamics with a grown man vs. a teenager, and I immediately understood. An aggressive man would take your money, then call the shots in the situation.

A brief word about Ilê Aiyê: Ilê Aiyê was founded in 1974 to bring the presence of black people to the Bahian carnival. Before 1974, the afoxé group Filhos de Ghandy had been guaranteeing a presence for black men in Bahia’s carnival since 1949. The exclusively male group wears all white with accents of blue. With the name Ghandy, they intend to be a peaceful, but powerful presence. When they spill out into the streets it’s like a huge white river flowing down the avenue. The men attempt to break up fights (some say they start a few by jumping in before they know what’s happening) and they carry perfume to spray beautiful women with (they spend a lot of carnival flirting). Since I’ve been coming to Brazil, Gilberto Gil has been a part of the group. Their music, like all the music of the afoxé groups, is clearly African—based on percussion and remembered rhythms.

Since Ilê Aiyê’s founding they’ve fought to celebrate the beauty of black Bahia. Based in Liberdade (one of the working poor neighborhoods in Salvador), Ilê Aiyê starts off their carnival season by parading through Liberdade before joining other blocos in the more central areas of Salvador. Today, Ilê Aiyê is also a huge cultural organization committed to the development of black Bahians. They run a school, offer professional courses, run the band, as well as many other social projects. Their presence—and the presence of other afoxé groups since inspired by Ilê—makes a huge difference in what the Salvador carnival looks like.

Their costumes are always regal, the lyrics to the music (as well as the music of all the afoxé bands) are more invested in social and cultural realities, advancement and equality for the poor, and the celebration of blackness. Most of the young people interested in afoxé music show up for Ilê Aiyê’s Liberdade parade, but they actually costume with other afoxé bands. Ilê Aiyê is peopled with older mature folks, late 20s and up. They use creativity to add a few beads here, an eyelet or lace edge there, to augment the beauty of the costumes. All the women have high head wraps, the men have kufis and everyone’s costumes billow about them in an expanse of African print. One proud member said that they no longer compete at carnival for best band status because they won so often in the past (I don’t know if that’s true or not).

My favorite memory of being with Ilê Aiyê was one day a few years ago when I was participating in the band. The predominant color of the costumes that year was red. We rolled up to a corner, and came face to face with a pagode truck. There were bleached blond women on top of the truck, shaking their exposed bellies, butts, and legs with fury and abandon. As we got closer, the pagode truck’s sound system drowned out our music. Eventually the drummers of Ilê Aiyê stopped playing. The woman on top of the Ilê Aiyê truck—dark skinned, fully robed, head wrapped—spoke into her microphone. “Oh swingy (that’s what they call the bands), oh swingy, deixa o mais belos dos belos passar.” [“Oh swingy, let the most beautiful of the beautifuls pass.”] (Ilê Aiyê was dubbed “o mais belos dos belos” by a local singer Daniela Mercury in one of many songs singing the praises of the band.) The other band, turned off their sound system, the women stopped gyrating and stood quietly, like disciplined children in the presence of elders, and waited for us to pass by. Ilê Aiyê’s drums rose again and we danced past, tracing stiff-armed shapes in the air in the style of Bahia’s African dance.

Be well. Be love(d).

K. Ibura

: : : August 2001 – present : : :

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0

Publications: 5
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 0


Specific installments of the KIS.list are being included in both online and print publications. I don’t include it in the below list, because it is not a reflection of the submission process. So far, the KIS.list is being posted on two websites, one list-serv, and just yesterday I was asked for permission to reprint the carnival post in a new African publication. The scope and reach of the Internet continues to present fresh opportunities.

No acceptances or rejections this week.