Mestre Didi, the leader of an Afro-Brazilian cult of the dead, is a 6th-generation descendant of African slaves. He has traced his ancestors back across the South Atlantic, visited their West African homelands and learned the archaic Yoruba language they spoke.
Like Mestre Didi, more than half of Brazil’s 145 million people have African ancestors. Not all Brazilians are as intimately in touch with their roots as he is, but Africa’s influence remains widespread and vigorous in this country’s religion, music, dance, art, food, folklore and foreign policy.
“The continuation of African culture is much more visible in Brazil than it is even in the Caribbean,” says anthropologist Juana Elbein dos Santos, a naturalized Brazilian who is the wife of Mestre Didi.
In the past decade, black Brazilians have taken increasing pride in their racial and cultural heritage. At the same time, Dos Santos said, they have successfully pushed for greater recognition by the white-dominated society of Africa’s contributions to Brazil.
“It has been a conquest of the black community,” she said.
For most of this century, Brazil as a nation gave little public recognition to the undeniably strong African element of its culture. Officially, the country saw its “people of color” as being “whitened” by intermarriage and assimilated into a European-oriented society.
But a black pride movement began emerging in Brazil in the late 1970s as the military government then in control gradually loosened its dictatorial restrictions on mass media and activist organizations.
Since then, Afro has been in. The 1988 centennial of the abolition of slavery in Brazil further strengthened the focus on African roots as the nation reviewed its black peoples’ history.
In addition, the black pride movement in the United States has strongly influenced the movement in Brazil. The independence of black African nations, including Portuguese-speaking Angola and Mozambique, and the racial troubles of South Africa have helped spark Brazil’s interest in its African links. And some say reggae music, with its infectious Afro-Caribbean beat and its aggressively pro-black political message, has had a major impact on Brazilian blacks.
Today, Brazilian musicians are blending reggae with the famous Afro-Brazilian samba. The result, samba-reggae, is a hybrid musical phenomenon with a double dimension of African influence.
Singer Gilberto Gil, a samba-reggae pioneer, said the rise of the new genre is a symptom of surging Brazilian interest in black culture and things African.
“More and more, Brazil wants to be black,” he said.
Gil, 47, is a city councilman in Salvador, also called Bahia, the capital of Brazil’s northeastern state of Bahia. He is also an influential booster of cultura Bahiana, the city’s African-flavored popular culture.
For centuries, the city was the seat of the Portuguese colonial government and the main depot for slave ships from Africa. Today, an estimated 80% of Salvador’s 2 million people are blacks or mulattos, as Brazilians of mixed race are called.
African-style art flourishes in the galleries and shops of Pelourinho, Salvador’s historic central neighborhood. Women in turbans and white dresses with lacy full skirts sell Afro-Bahian snacks on the sidewalks. Books on Afro-Brazilian religions fill the shelves of popular bookstores, and religious shops sell images and supplies for the worship of orishas , the gods of African-origin religions.
While Salvador is Brazil’s “most African” city, African influence is also strong throughout the country.
Afro-Bahian food is a mainstay of restaurants in all the states. Orishas are important in Afro-Brazilian religions that have become increasingly popular even among descendants of European immigrants.
“Today, Afro-Brazilian religion is probably the most practiced religion in Brazil,” said Antonio Houaiss, a prominent linguist and social researcher.
John Dwyer, cultural affairs officer at the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, observed that Afro-Brazilian religion is now “not an underground, subterranean culture; it’s part of being Brazil.”
Abdias do Nascimento, a professor of black culture in Rio de Janeiro, notes: “In the United States, they are searching for roots in Africa. For us, Africa is here; we don’t have to search.”
Samba music and dancing are the heart of Brazil’s pre-Lenten carnival. “It is not African in origin,” Do Nascimento said, “but what is the carnival? It has become a great manifestation of African culture.”
Salvador’s annual celebration is a mass outpouring in which neighborhood blocos , or carnival groups, dance through crowded streets. In the 1970s, a Salvador carnival group began calling itself Ile Aiye, Yoruba for “big house.”
“It was the first ‘ bloco Afro ' in Bahia,” said Ile Aiye member Ana Celia Santos, 40. Other groups copied Ile Aiye, and now there are dozens of blocos Afros . Santos, in fact, became so interested in the food that she opened a Salvador restaurant named Zanzibar that specializes in African and Afro-Brazilian cuisine.
Caruru is made with shrimp, okra and onions cooked in palm oil, known in Brazil by the African name dende. Acaraje is a cake made of black-eyed beans with dried shrimp fried in dende .
Up the cobblestone street from the Casa de Benin is a research foundation headed by Pierre Verger, a French ethnologist who has done extensive research into Brazil’s African roots. Verger, 87 and still active, said that the Afro-Brazilian religions called Candomble have done the most to keep African influence strong in Bahia.
Until about 15 years ago, Verger said, the practice of Candomble was discouraged by local officials. Today it is thriving.
“Even the people of the so-called high society are proud to know which orishas will protect them,” he said. “It’s part of the culture in Bahia.”
Candomble preserves African cultural traits through food, music, customs and values. For many Bahians, it is a way of life as well as a religion.
Cremilda Ramos, 35, a professional dancer known as Kafune, said she discovered her preference for African and Afro-Brazilian dance by participating in Candomble ceremonies.
“That was when I found myself, in the sense of being well, of being at peace,” Kafune said.
African influence in Brazilian art has been strong since Aleijadinho, often called the country’s greatest architect and sculptor, developed a unique Afro-Brazilian baroque style in the 18th Century.
Today, African influence is clearly visible in the work of such well-known Brazilian painters as Emanoel Araujo, Terciliano Jr. and Sidney Lizardo.
The strength of African influence in Brazil is based partly on numbers. Although census figures are inconclusive, some scholars estimate that up to 60% of Brazil’s population would be classified as black in the United States.
“Brazil is the second-largest black country in the world, with more than 80 million persons of African descent,” wrote Narcimaria do Patrocinio, a Bahian researcher in education.
Partly because of that, Brazil’s official foreign policy is especially concerned with cultivating relations with black African governments. Another factor that strengthens Brazilian ties in Africa is the Portuguese language and colonial past it shares with Angola, Mozambique and other countries.
A 1985 Brazilian decree banned cultural and sports exchanges with South Africa and arms exports to South Africa. Brazil has consistently voted against South Africa on United Nations resolutions against apartheid.
More than 3.5 million slaves were brought to this country from Africa. By 1822, 75% of the Brazilian population had African blood. Widespread miscegenation encouraged cultural blending.
“Unlike in the United States, there was no formation of two societies, a white society and a black one,” said Yeda de Castro, director of the Center for African and Oriental Studies at the Federal University of Bahia.
“We were always more African than Latin American,” she added. “Culture is the basis for the formation of nationality, of the mental structure of a people. The African element in this cultural formation in Brazil is the most important.”
African languages, however, were largely lost in Brazil except for words and phrases used in Candomble religions.
In the first centuries of the colony, slave owners intentionally separated slaves who spoke the same languages and dialects as a precaution against united revolt. In the 19th Century, when most new slaves came from West African areas where Yoruba dialects were spoken, Portuguese had already taken hold in Brazil as a common language among blacks and whites alike.
Ashe, a word of Yoruba origin, has become a common greeting in the streets of Bahia and is spreading through black communities in other Brazilian cities. In Candomble religion, ashe is a kind of communal force that favors the community’s members. Roughly translated, it means “may the force be with you.”
Muniz Sodre, a social scientist in Rio de Janeiro, said ashe is the nucleus of Candomble and in Afro-Brazilian culture.
For Brazil’s overwhelmingly poor black majority, ashe offers hope for overcoming negative forces behind poverty, sickness and other problems, Sodre said. It helps blacks “dribble around” the reality of European cultural barriers.
“ Ashe is the solidary force,” he said, “and only with solidary force does the black believe that he can overcome, that he can change the world.”