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Note from BW of Brazil: Anyone who has had the pleasure of visiting Salvador, Bahia, known as the country’s center of black culture, knows that learning about the black pride movement wouldn’t be complete without learning something about two cultural organizations: Ilê Aiyê and Olodum. This year, Ilê Aiyê celebrated 40 years of its existence and Olodum celebrates 35 years. In a Brazil that has long put in place subliminal and as well as blatant messages will the objective of destroying the celebration of blackness or African ancestry, these two organizations have represented a powerful weapon to challenge a very sinister form of white supremacy in the northeast, the region considered the blackest in the country. Learn a little about the history of the organization and its accomplishments below.
Celebrating 35 years, Olodum maintains its roots and the struggle for the affirmation of black culture
It’s hard to imagine a Brazilian who went through the 1980s or 1990s without hearing “Ilha, ilha do amor, Madagascar” (Island, island of love, Madagascar) and “Canta, canta Salvador, canta, canta. Canta meu amor” (Sing, Sing Salvador, sing, sing. Sing My Love), always backed by the strong sound of the drums. The author of these and many other popular songs, Olodum, celebrated on April 25th, 35 years. Created as an alternative Carnaval of blacks in Salvador, Bahia, the group became an exponent of Afro-Brazilian culture. A culture that it helped to divulge in 35 countries, across all continents.
Olodum – Protesto Olodum; images from film Ó Paí Ó
Until the ‘70s, the large blocos of Bahia’s Carnival were composed mostly by whites. To ensure the festival of the black population and confront racism, in 1974, the bloco afro Ilê Aiyê, which in the last Carnival was honored for its 40 years of existence, was created. After that initiative, other communities produced their blocos, such as Malê Debalê (1979) and the Muzenza (1981), often bringing together residents of specific neighborhoods. In the case of Olodum, the neighborhood of Pelourinho-Maciel.
The location – whose name refers to the stone column that was used to punish enslaved blacks – had lost centrality in Salvador’s economy and, until the ‘80s, survived stigmatized as a space of “marginals.” Sobrados (duplexes) were occupied by poor families and prostitutes. For maintaining the location, the photographer Pierre Verger even claimed that “a monument to the whores should be erected in Pelourinho.” There, in the cortiços (ghetto tenements) and the slopes of the “Pelô”, as the locals called it, negritude could reassert itself through culture.
Blacks of Bahia made of music, religion and language, expressions of resistance. Bringing together all these elements, Olodum emerged as a cultural and political project to combat prejudice. The group’s president, João Jorge Rodrigues, says that the work was intended to make African history known. “In the first carnivals we were criticized a lot because we spoke of Egypt. They didn’t understand that Egypt was part of Africa. We researched and showed that Egypt is Africa, Madagascar is Africa that Ethiopia is Africa.”
The choice carried the deep political nature of the appreciation of black traditions. “We wanted to show that these African countries have produced fundamental elements to history, like science and the alphabet,” he says. “We wanted to bring to light the extent of the diversity of Africa, because there has always been a Hollywood vision of the characters of the history of these countries: they were always portrayed as white,” added the president of Olodum.
“I know the sea of history is agitated,” said the group in “Canto ao Pescador”, whose lyrics show another cultural matrix of Olodum: the northeasterner. References multiply themselves, from the figure of the fisherman to the citation to Oloxum, passing through legendary Bahian singer Dorival Caymmi. The successes have led to the lyrics of Olodum, a Yoruba word that means “God of the Gods”, to enter the Brazilian repertoire.
All the preparation for Carnival was meant to be educational. The issues that were to be addressed were researched, transformed into handout and then delivered to the composers and possible singers in order that they appropriate the facts and identify themselves with the stories. In “Revolta Olodum”, the group refers to the Revolta dos Búzios (1), also known as Conjuração Baiana, as well as the Guerra de Canudos (2) and to the cangaço (3).
Historian and member of the Movimento Negro (Black Movement) of Campina Grande (state of Paraíba), Jair Silva considers that the actions of blocos afros were fundamental to the affirmation of black identity in Brazil: “It is a movement that writes history, that has made this commitment to uncover facts that were denied by white hegemonic culture that is still in our country.” According to Jair, when speaking of the freedom struggle, Olodum, which assumes itself as a social movement, “created self-esteem for the black community in Bahia.”
“In the beginning, it was something good of each community, from going the bloco rehearsal, inventing dances, the hair, the clothes. The contents of the lyrics always pointing to negro como bonito (black as beautiful), powerful, intelligent,” says anthropologist Goli Guerreiro, author of the book A Trama dos Tambores – a Música Afro-Pop de Salvador (The Network of the Drums – Afro-Pop Music in Salvador). According to her, the movement generated by blocos, especially Olodum, was “extraordinary”. “Several areas of the city of Salvador began to observe themselves in order affirm a blackness that has to do with self-esteem, with the Afro-Bahian aesthetic that won a pride, a liking being what they are, of being black.”
“Olodum tá hippie, Olodum tá pop/Olodum tá reggae, Olodum tá rock” (Olodum is hippie, Olodum is pop/Olodum is reggae, Olodum is rock)
The musical and rhythmic drive generated in the 80s had in samba-reggae “the crown of the Bahian aesthetic,” says Goli Guerreiro. Created by Bahian musicians, among them Neguinho do Samba and Mestre Jackson, the rhythm become characteristic of Olodum. For the anthropologist, that creation expresses the intense circulation of information existing between the blocos afros and theirs with what circulated in the world of music, like the sound of Michael Jackson, Fela Kuti and others. “This exchange of information of the Atlantic world allows each city to make its combination of references and invent something of their own, local, but that points to a continental dynamic,” she says.
Marked by the presence of intense percussion composed of different types of drums and played by about 200 musicians, samba-reggae showed so much potential that it was appropriated by blocos of trio elétrico. In the ’90s, bands whose music would later be called Axé music, included harmonic instruments such as the guitar, and decreased the amount of drummers so that the rhythm would catch on not only in trios, but also on the “charts” of the radios and in record stores.
The success ended up making traditional blocos also adapt. Many of them created bands to do shows, introduced the guitar and sought the music market, where the music of Olodum and others earned prominence in the voice of other singers. A significant exception is the traditional bloco afro Ilê Aiyê, which up to today participates in carnivals with drums and feet on the ground.
Goli assesses that the market entry and the fact of having become a tourist attraction brought changes in the lyrics of samba-reggae. “The songs are a less extreme from the ideological point of view, speak more joy in general.” The president of Olodum, João Jorge, said the group sought sustainability to continue existing, and as such also entered into the international market. “In the Brazil market, a group that makes music, a book, that inspired funk and national rap is of no significance, but overseas, it is.”
He argues that the group has not lost its roots, linking the fight for equality and the ideology of Pan-Africanism – expresses itself in the colors adopted by the group: green, red, yellow, black and white, known as references in the fight against racism. Highlighting the international projection of Olodum, recognition and partnership with 49 international artists, among them Paul Simon, Michael Jackson and Alpha Blondy, he affirms that the group is the “satellite dish of Candomblé: it has its feet on the ground and its head in the world.”
“Se o futuro nos pertence / Então temos que lutar” (If the future belongs to us/then we have to fight)
The ground of Olodum, says João Jorge, remains the Pelourinho. Since 1983, when the Projeto Rufar dos Tambores was created, the group offers percussion classes for residents of the Maciel-Pelourinho neighborhood. Since 1984, when then Carnival group became the Grupo Cultural Olodum, it has developed educational activities in dialogue with various artistic languages.
“The social projects of blocos afros are a natural consequence of this desire to change reality, and more than the social projects, these blocos offer a positive living space for black children and young people, opening up prospects beyond the deterministic everyday poverty and exclusion to which the black sections of the population are historically subjected,” says Rita Maia, professor at the Federal University of Bahia (UFBa).
Today called Escola Criativa Olodum (Olodum Creativity School), the project that resulted in the formation of the first Banda Mirim Olodum, involved in 30 years, about 20 million children and adolescents, from 7-21 years of age, according to the coordinator of the school, Cristina Calácio. She believes the school “a pioneering space for the participation of the Afro-descendant community and innovator for working with art and education jointly.”
Having as criteria the enrollment of students in municipal or state schools, the school aims to “reveal magnitudes, much more than simply teaching the beat of the drums. The activities aim to empower children and adolescents, so that their inclusion in the ethnic cultural citizenship is made possible,” says Cristina.
Besides music, “the strength of the institution,” according to the coordinator, is that the project participants also participate in seminars, African dance and choral singing workshops, and computer classes.
The success of the project, for Cristina, is due to the fact that “a different school, plugged into what young people like and with what they are interacting with today, which is culture, technology.”
Another project initiated by the group in 1990, the Bando de Teatro Olodum (Olodum Theater) staged African tales and stories related and projected actors like Lázaro Ramos, Tânia Tôko and Jorge Washington Rodrigues, who participated in the stage production and the movie Ó Pai, Ó that became a television series.
In one of the intervals of the rehearsals of the pieces that the group was scheduled to perform in the Brazilian Theater Festival in Rio Branco, Jorge Rodrigues conceded an interview to Agência Brasil.
“I started doing theater in Calabar [neighborhood in Salvador] and was bitten by this theater of transformation that is a tool to combat racial prejudice, for equality. When I saw the headline in the newspaper: ‘Olodum monta companhia de teatro negra (Olodum putting together black theater company), the project had the participation of Márcio Meirelles, who was already an established director, then I said: ‘It’s in this theater that I want to be in.’”
The actor, who failed to perform in only one of the assemblies of the group, over 24 years ago, when he had to leave Bahia for the birth of his daughter, says the project has spread through the neighborhoods of Salvador and the country by means of the actors who were trained by Olodum. Also, in the field of music, the influences of Olodum are noticeable. Musicians who grew up listening to samba-reggae such as Anderson Souza, Mariela Santiago and Afro Jhow stand out in the cultural scene.
For Jorge Washington Rodrigues, the challenge of this cultural production proposal is in not changing the route and strengthening the path that has been followed by the group. “We need to seek affirmation of this theater, this music of affirmation, because the market is tempting and tempts us at every moment.”
The organization’s president, João Jorge, also believes that it’s necessary to continue to reinvent, innovate and move forward as part of the struggles for public policy, education and jobs for blacks. “Racism is a disease. And Brazil has not overcome this, however Olodum is current and contemporary,” he argues.
Source: Agência Brasil – EBC
1. A movement for abolition and independence that began on August 12, 1798. Source
2. The War of Canudos (Guerra dos Canudos) was a conflict between the state of Brazil and a group of some 30,000 settlers who had founded their own community in the Northeastern state of Bahia, named Canudos. After a number of unsuccessful attempts at military suppression, it came to a brutal end in October 1897, when a large Brazilian army force overran the village and killed nearly all the inhabitants. This was the deadliest civil war in Brazilian history. Source
3. Cangaço is the name given to a form of “social banditry” in the Northeast of Brazil in late 19th and early 20th centuries. This region of Brazil is known for its aridness and hardships, and in a form of reaction against the domination of the land owners and the government, many men and women decided to become nomadic bandits, roaming the hinterlands seeking money, food and revenge. Source