Ultimate Street Party

By Tom Andre

Once again the blissful madness has descended on Salvador, a sprawling city of nearly two million considered the city with the most African influence of the Americas. Unlike the centerpiece of Rio’s festivities, where samba schools vie for attention in the stadium-like Sambadrome, Salvador’s Carnaval lives in the streets. Music and dancing erupt on street corners, in shops, even on city buses. Carnaval offers something for everyone – as long as you like excitement. You didn’t come for peace and quiet, but you can’t imagine how much you’ll dance and sing even if you don’t know the words, or what they mean.

History Dances On
Pelourinho is the historic center of this historic city, the first capital of Brazil. It’s a neighborhood of brightly-painted colonial buildings, elaborate churches, and funky shops and restaurants. During Carnaval it explodes with rhythm and color. Banners with bright tropical birds blaze above the streets, while costumed dancers parade through winding cobblestone alleys. The parade yanks tourists and locals in, transforming the entire neighborhood into a hive of clapping and dancing.
Enter the afoxis. Once these percussion and social organizations were upstarts, promoting African culture and class issues when Carnival was dominated by European elites. Now they run the show. Thousands of members of these clubs strut through Pelourinho, drums pounding, bodies shaking, costumes ablaze. Here’s Olodum, of Paul Simon’s Rhythm of the Saints fame, and the world-renowned Ilj Aiyj, making entrances each more elaborate than the next. Then come, in a blaze of white, the Filhos de Gandhy (Sons of Gandhi). This afoxi was originally an organization of striking dockworkers who found Mahatma Gandhi’s teachings inspirational. Now its members appear in a blaze of pristine white, marching slowly yet pounding on their drums with a fierce energy.

The Streets Explode
Though organized events like these abound, you could miss them all and still experience the magic simply by walking the streets. The night before Carnaval has even started, a percussion band swings out onto the boulevard along the beach and sweeps us along with it. What begins as a small group of revelers soon blocks most of the traffic on the road. As a bus inches its way in the opposite direction, passengers press themselves against the windows and begin dancing as well.

While the drums pound on the floodlit promenade, a block away the crowd at sidewalk bars and kiosks overflows into the street. Car stereos blare Bahia’s own upbeat axi music and dancers pour their movement into the side streets. A fast-food restaurant hastily clears out its tables as moving bodies invade. During Carnaval, it is entirely normal to buy a beer from a street vendor and then spend the next few minutes banging out rhythms on his cart.

Concert on Wheels: the Trios Elitricos

If the narrow streets and small plazas of Pelourinho lend a bit of intimacy to Carnaval, the trios elitricos blow it all away. The centerpiece of Salvador’s Carnaval, the trios elitricos blast energetic music from atop 18-wheelers transformed into elaborate sound stages. (Imagine thirty rock concerts rolling majestically down Main Street all night. ) As Brazil’s most famous singers and bands energize the city, it is hard to believe the trios were once small, informal bands playing on the backs of flatbed trucks. The wide boulevards are rivers of light, music, dancing, and flirting.

Throughout Salvador, the music literally shakes your body – it is impossible not to dance. By four in the morning your legs want to fall off, but you can’t dream of stopping. What to do? It’s the dilemma of Carnaval, one that most of us resolve by dancing on and on.

Published: 8 Mar 2000 | Last Updated: 14 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


Sign up to Away's Travel Insider

Preview newsletter »