At 35, Olodum band retains its African-Brazilian roots
Born as Carnival revel out of a black neighborhood in Salvador, the
Published in 02/05/2014 - 19:00 By Helena Martins reports from Agência Brasil - Brasília
You will hardly find a Brazilian who does not remember those strongly drummed songs that were the trademark of a Carnival street band in Bahia, Olodum. Created as an alternative Carnival revel by black Bahians in the capital city, Salvador, the ensemble celebrated its 35th anniversary on April 25 as an icon of African-Brazilian culture – a heritage which it has helped promote across the continents.
Breaking the black-white divide
Major carnival blocos (groups of street revelers usually parading alongside a musical band) were mostly white in Bahia until the 70s. In order to make a presence and challenge the racial divide in the revelry, black communities began to form their own blocks. But Olodum really stood out in the crowd for the level of national prominence that it gained.
The band was created in 1979 in Pelourinho, an old part of the city of Salvador that earned its name (Portuguese for “pillory”) for being the historic site of a whipping post for publicly chastising black slaves. Over time, it declined in importance, and by the 80's, it had become a stigmatized part of the city, home to outcasts and poor families and prostitutes living in the historic two-story buildings. There, black Bahians turned to their music, religion, and language, as expressions of resistance. Combining all these elements, Olodum emerged as a cultural and political project to stand up against prejudice. The president of the group, João Jorge Rodrigues, explained that their work was intended to educate audiences about the history of Africa. “At first, we were heavily criticized for talking about Egypt – people didn't use to see Egypt as part of Africa. With a little research, we showed people that Egypt is Africa, Madagascar is Africa, Ethiopia is Africa.”
Their choice had a deeply political character of reviving black traditions. “We wanted to show how these African countries have made invaluable contributions to history – including science and the alphabet, for example” he said, and went on: “We wanted to highlight the magnitude of Africa's diversity in response to the dominant Hollywood depiction of central characters in African history: they have historically been portrayed as being white.” This purpose is also clear in the band's name – “Olodum” is Yoruba for “god of gods”.
African and Northeast Brazilian
Olodum's music enjoyed such popularity that their lyrics, filled with references to another strong cultural element in Bahia – their broader identity as Northeastern Brazilians – have earned a place of their own into Brazilian mainstream. The band sought to make their Carnival repertoire as informative as possible by researching the topics beforehand and packing them into textbooks, which were then handed out to the songwriters and singers in order to give them some background and familiarity with the stories. Revolta Olodum, for example, is about the Bahian Conspiracy (Conjuração Baiana), also known as the Tailors' Rebellion (Revolta dos Alfaiates), a late 18th-century uprising against the Portuguese domination.
Jair Silva, a historian and member of the Black Movement of Campina Grande, regards the African-Brazilian blocos as critical to the affirmation of a black identity in Brazil: “The movement has contributed a rich historical perspective as it devoted itself to throwing light on long underrepresented narratives amid a white cultural hegemony that still persists nowadays.” According to Silva, by telling the tales of the struggle for freedom, Olodum, which labels itself as a social movement, has “given the black communities in Bahia a sense of self-esteem.”
“It all began with communities here and there making their own rehearsals, creating their dances, their hairstyles, their costumes. The lyrics would always carry a sense of depicting blacks as beautiful, able, and strong,” says anthropologist Goli Guerreiro, author of A Trama dos Tambores – a Música Afro-Pop de Salvador (“The Rhythm of the Drums – African Pop Music in Salvador”). The movement initiated by the blocos, most notably Olodum, gained force: “Several communities in Salvador began standing up for their black identity, building their self-esteem, in a distinctly African-Bahian manner that conveyed a sense confidence, of being proud of who they are – of being black.”
Olodum and samba-reggae
The musical and rhythmic pulse of the 80's found its “flagship Bahian style” – as Goli Guerreiro puts it – in samba-reggae. A creation of Bahian musicians, among them Neguinho do Samba and Mestre Jackson, the beat has become Olodum's trademark. The anthropologist credits the innovation to the intense contact between the existing African-inspired blocos and the then-current musical trends, including Michael Jackson, Fela Kuti, and others. “This Atlantic exchange allowed each city to combine influences into their own unique mix to create something original – with a local flavor, but suggesting a continental-wide dynamics,” she said.
With a distinctive rhythm-charged sound powered by a diverse combination of some 200 drums, samba-reggae was so powerful that it ended up being incorporated by trios elétricos (amplified bands playing on truck-mounted floats). In the '90s, bands started incorporating such harmonic instruments as the electric guitar and reducing the number of drummers, creating a sound that was labeled as axé music. This helped the new beat to extend its popularity from the powerful trios elétricos to the radio charts and record stores.
This success eventually led traditional blocos to adopt the changes. Many of them set up their own performing bands with electric guitars, and shifted toward a more market-oriented approach as the music of Olodum and other groups began to gain commercial attention. Goli Guerreiro believes that this market orientation and the interest of the travel and tourism industry led to changes in the traditional samba-reggae lyrics. “The once ideologically-motivated words started to become more generally playful and light-hearted.” But for João Jorge Rodrigues, Olodum was actually struggling to survive, which led it to turn to the international market. “In Brazil, a group that created music, books, and even inspired the national styles of funk and rap had no appeal – but in the international market, it sure did.”
He argued that the group has not departed from its roots, its links to the struggle for equality and the Pan-African ideal– which can be seen in its choice of green-red-yellow-black-white colors, a reference to the anti-racist struggle. Extolling Olodum's international prominence, recognition, and partnership with 49 international artists – including Paul Simon, Michael Jackson, and Alpha Blondy – he defined the group as “an aerial for Candomblé [an African-Brazilian cult]: grounded, but in tune with the world.”
Rufar dos Tambores project
The land of Olodum, João Jorge says, is still Pelourinho. Ever since the Rufar dos Tambores project was launched, in 1983, the organization offers percussion classes for residents of the nearby community of Maciel-Pelourinho. Since 1984, when the bloco officially turned into a cultural group, Olodum has promoted educational activities through the interaction of several artistic languages.
“The social projects organized by the African-Brazilian blocos are the fruit of the urge to change reality. They’re more than social projects, they provide the space for black children and young people to get together and take their perspectives beyond the harsh conditions of poverty and social exclusion that the black population is historically subjected to,” notes Professor Rita Maria, from the Federal University of Bahia (“UFBA”).
The Escola Criativa Olodum, the project in which Olodum’s first music group was created exclusively with children, has engaged approximately 20 thousand children and adolescents from 7 to 21 years old over the course of 30 years, reports coordinator Cristina Calácio. She described the school as “pioneering, as it encourages the involvement of the African-Brazilian community; and innovative, as it combines art and education in its work.”
Requiring students to enroll at a public school, the institution attempts “to reveal gifts, rather than simply to teach how to play the drums. Activities are aimed at empowering children and teenagers, so that their inclusion in ethnic and cultural citizenship becomes a possibility.”
According to the coordinator, apart from music, the institution’s forte is the participation of their members in seminars, African-Brazilian dance and singing workshops, as well as computer classes.
The success of the project, in Cristina’s view, owes much to the fact that “it’s a different school; it’s connected with whatever young people are into – in other words, culture and technology, which is what they interact with nowadays.”
Another project created by the group, in 1990, is called Bando de Teatro Olodum. The Bando has enacted African tales and stories connected with the African-Brazilian world, revealing the talents of actors such as Lázaro Ramos, Tânia Tôko and Jorge Washington Rodrigues, who performed in the theatrical version of the Brazilian film Ó Pai, Ó, which has also become a TV series.
“I started studying drama in Calabar [a neighborhood in Salvador] and I was stung by this theater of transformation – a tool in the fight against racial prejudice, in the fight for freedom. As soon as I saw the headlines in the papers ‘Olodum creates black theater company,’ I said: ‘That’s the theater I want to join,’” said Jorge Washington Rodrigues.
Still in the music field, the influence of Olodum’s projects is crystal clear. Musicians who grew up to the sound of samba-reggae have gotten their big break in the cultural scene, like Anderson Souza, Mariela Santiago and Afro Jhow.
In the opinion of Jorge Washington Rodrigues, the challenge in cultural production lies in not changing the focus and fostering the career pursued by the group members. “We need to reach for the theater of self-assertion, the music of self-assertion, because the market is tempting, and tempts us all the time.”
Chairman João Jorge also believes they have to keep reinventing themselves, innovate and never give up fighting for public policies, education and employment for blacks. “Racism is a disease. And Brazil hasn’t overcome this problem. That’s why Olodum remains current,” he argues.
Translated by Mayra Borges and Fabrício Ferreira
Fonte: At 35, Olodum band retains its African-Brazilian roots
Edition: Lílian Beraldo / Olga Bardawil
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