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Happy Birthday Salvador

Happy Birthday, Salvador!

The first capital of Brazil, Salvador da Bahia, is 461 years old today, 29th of March 2010!

Compared with many European cities, this number might not be very impressive, but Salvador is, still, one of the oldest cities in Brazil. And for 461 years, it has a lot of (hi)stories to tell. Founded in colonial times, having played an important role in the era of slavery, and consequently having been one of the centers of the movements of resistance, and for the abolition of slavery and later, until now, of the movements for racial equality, “Salvador” has a special meaning for everyone who lives in or even only visited it. There is something special about the “City of Salvador (the Savior) by the Bay of all Saints”. Despite of the many dark chapters in its history, and despite of the fact that still today, the city struggles with huge problems (social inequality, high unemployment and poverty rate, an inappropriate infrastructure with a tube line of only 8 km which has been under construction for over 20 years and still is not in service, while roads are getting more congested by the day, and a growing crime rate, related to an increase in the use of drugs and drug traffic, amongst others….), despite of all these difficulties, Salvador is a city that is loved and admired by most of its inhabitants and visitors. When asked, they will tell what they love and admire: the beauty of this city by the sea with countless beaches and view of the bay and its islands, the music, the colors, the culture and traditions and dance, the year-round sun and the sea, the food, and – most of all – the smile of its people. Maybe the “something special” about Salvador is just this: HOPE. Despite of all problems, people smile. This may not be the best way to start a revolution to change and improve things quickly, but it makes each day a little bit better. And it fascinates.

Today on its 461st anniversary, Salvador celebrates with a bit of everything. The city organizes educational tours for schools to historical places, to keep awake the memory of both good and bad moments of its history. Several architectural projects such as health centers, public squares and areas for physical exercise have been finalized and opened to the public, to improve the quality of life in the specific neighborhoods in the city. Libraries and shopping centers are hosting photographic exhibitions capturing the visual beauty of Salvador and it people. And one thing that cannot be missing: Music. At night, on the square Praça Castro Alves, Salvador celebrates its birthday with shows with the popular band Parangolé – and with the Gospel Band MD7, which brings us back to the theme of HOPE.

Want a glimpse of the preview of the Birthday Party: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07knDJcRVTc

So whether we consider 461 years for a city old or young, the lesson of Hope is a beautiful lesson Salvador can teach. Happy Birthday, Salvador.

With best wishes from Brazil


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Spring and Fall and other contrasts

Today is the beginning of spring in the Northern hemisphere; after this year’s winter has been exceptionally harsh, the first flowers are finally bringing some color back into Europe’s and  North America’s landscapes. Night and day divide today’s 24 hours equally and in the months to come, there will be more light than dark hours; something many are looking forward to.

In the Southern hemisphere, on the contrary, a hot summer with symptoms of the El Nino Phenomenon in South America is coming to an end. It is the beginning of Fall.

What does “Fall” mean to Brazil?

Somehting different in every region. In the very South, days get shorter and nights cooler. In the very North, the Amazon, practically on the Equator, there is hardly any difference between the seasons.

And in between, on the coast in the North-East, it is the beginning of the rainy season. After a long and dry summer, thick and dark clouds have been accumulating above the sea, and from the sunny beaches you could watch them waiting for their time to come. This weekend was overcast. Any time soon, the thick drops of tropical rains will fill the air and flood the roads, transform stairways into riverbeds and stop rushhour traffic in hot and humid mist. For about one month, people will wake up at dusk from the sound of water pouring down, as if the neighbours had left the shower running at full power, for an hour; then the sun will dry up the clouds, then the roads, and shine for a day of blue sky perfect for going to the beach.

Later, the rains will get more frequent, lose their regularity, until June will have days as grey and filled with soft but permanent rain as a London November day. These days will be warm though, too warm use a waterproof jacket, but warm emough to feel like summer as soon as the rain stops.

This is, perhaps, the secret: I have not researched statistics, but from observation, I believe that in most (coastal) parts of Brazil, it rains more than in Europe. That is how the land is so green. But as soon as the rain stops, the sun makes you forget it ever rained. Not a bad effect… just do not end up facing the hardest rains in rush-hour traffic and formal clothing, as neither the sewage systems nor umbrellas are up for it.

With best wishes

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Musical Seasons – or one season of music

Samba is known worldwide as the “national dance of Brazil”, and Samba music with its electrifying rhythms has become a national symbol. It is true, there is a lot of Samba in Brazil – but there is a lot more music in Brazil than “just” samba. In this young country inhabited by immigrants from all continents, music is the same as its people: diverse, open-minded, creative, experimental and curious and deep inside, it is really the specific mixture of all kinds that is “typical Brazilian”.

This letter from Brazil can only take a subjective point of view. Brazilian music mix is so varied, it is different in any place or state in this huge country. Even if all ingredients together form the mixture, they are not equally distributed over the country’s entire geography. Some styles dominate in one area and are almost unknown in another. Samba, for example, is without doubt popular all over Brazil, but in Rio even more than elsewhere. An objective and complete report would certainly fill a book, not just a letter. Additionally to the geographical influence, observation in this field is certainly personally biased; after all, one hears the music played on the parties one goes to and on the radio channels one tunes into.

One thing that is true in the entire country is that national music is far ahead of international trends in popularity. Being a developing country, Brazil still maintains a mentality of having to follow and try to catch up with first world countries in economical, political and educational issues – which is probably true for many – but when it comes to music and football, most Brazilians are convinced that this is where the world can learn from them.

The viewpoint I take in this letter is from Salvador, Bahia, first capital of Brazil (before Rio de Janeiro and, today, Brasilia), and center of African heritage due to the slave trade in the first centuries of Brazil’s existence as a colony and later independent state. As I mentioned in precious letters, Salvador is so close to the Equator that it does not really have summer and winter, much less spring and autumn. To divide the year into seasons, the temperature is of not much use – it remains relatively stable throughout the year, day and night, and feels pretty much like summer. You can rather divide the year into seasons by the weather (dry and rainy season), or… by music. Right, by music. In most parts of the world, you would not exactly listen to Christmas songs in July, and some radio stations identify “the greatest summer hit” of each year, but apart from that, most songs can be played year round. In Salvador, there is a musical calendar. The year begins officially in the summer, in the run-up to Carnival. The music of Salvador’s Carnival is not so much samba, as in Rio, but Axé: happy, fast-paced, light-hearted music with lyrics easy to remember and to sing along, and a dance that might be described as jumping from one leg on the other and sometimes with both at the same time. When Axé singers like Ivete Sangalo, Claudia Leitte, the bands Chiclete com Banana (translated Bubblegum with Banana) and Asa de Aguia (translated Eagle’s Wing) want to make their audience dance, they shout “Tire o pé do chao” (Take the foot off the floor), and are the first to do it themselves.

After carnival, and after recovering from the carnival hang-over, the next big festival to look forward to is Sao Joao (Saint John’s), officially on June 24th, but actually celebrated for at least a week in most small towns in the state of Bahia and the whole region of North-Eastern Brazil. The music of Sao Joao is Forró. Legend tells the name comes from the Brazilian pronunciation of the English “For All”, which apparently they heard as relieved exclamations from English-speaking immigrants when those finally saw a dance style and rhythm which they found they could accompany: significantly slower than samba and with a basic step “two steps right, two steps left”, Forró is indeed much more student-friendly for beginners than other styles. But as often, the devil is in the detail, so that there is a long way to go for foreigners before they manage the swing of the hips quite the way Brazilians do. Apart from that, Forró developed figures of steps reminding partly of Salsa, partly of Rock’n Roll, which most prefer to watch than to try for themselves. Forró music is kind of the Brazilian equivalent of country music; obligatory equipment for a band are Accordeon, Triangle, and peasant’s hats, and lyrics tell funny or melancholic tales of life in the countryside.

The second half of the musical year in Salvador has its climax in December on the national day of Samba with a traditional parade of – of course – samba bands.

Before, after, in between and during these distinct musical seasons, however, a huge variety of styles of music and dance move Salvador year round. Afro-music influenced by the afro-brazilian religion Candomble and its ceremonies, Samba-reggae and percussion by bands such as Olodum, which became world famous with the video clip they produced with Michael Jackson for his song “They don’t really care about us” in the streets of Salvador’s historical Pelourinho district, and styles originating in Samba, such as Arrocha and Pagode are just a few examples. And if you’re looking for it, of course you’ll find Funk from Rio de Janeiro, Bossa Nova, Tropicalia, Reggae, international music and… and… and…

Therefore, whatever your taste… Salvador will have a music for you, in any season.

 With best wishes

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A special Beach Party

The new year has begun in Brazil. Carnival is over, but the summer isn’t quite yet. Honestly, it never really is in large parts of the country, which is so huge and in its Northern part touches the Equator. If  summer is the season of  parties, music and festivals, the season does not need to ever be over, either, right?

In Brazil, you do not need a reason to party, you might rather need one for not being in the mood for a party, should that ever happen some day. To me it does sometimes, usually for no specific reason whatsoever. It does also happen to most of my really close Brazilian friends – but it simplyfies your life if you adapt to the local habit of inventing a reason why unfortunately you will miss this party instead of trying to explain you prefer to do something else… the latter is a time-consuming project and unlikely to receive much understanding.

When you are in the mood for a party, though, there is plenty of choice. Yesterday, there was a special one in Salvador, Bahia: a beach party with a marathon of music shows from a stage floating between the fisherman’s boats in front of the Porto da Barra – one of the most picturesque city beaches. From 12 noon until 2 am, several bands played giving examples of the huge variety of rhythms and melodies, from modern Axé to typical samba and traditional songs performed by regional bands and orchestras from the smaller villages in the interior rural areas of the state. The audience was sunbathing on the deckchairs, swimming or just drifting in the slow waves, in watching the performance on the stage in front of the panorama of the sea and the distant island while the sun was setting behind it. Later on, when the darkness took away the heat of the cloudless day and the almost full moon spread its white light over the scene coloured in yellow, pink and blue by the lights coming from the stage, they started to dance. Some on the sand, others in the crystal clear, warm water of the sea.

Well, maybe you do need a reason for not being in the mood for a party like this!


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A happy new year from Brazil!

Well, you may say, the year 2010 is not all that new any more, except in China, where they celebrated the new Year, the year of the tiger, just on February 14th, while in large parts of the Western world, couples exchanged Valentine’s Day gifts and swore each other eternal love during a romantic candlelight dinner behind windows covered in snow.

In Brazil, none of these customs have been given much importance during those days: it was Carnival. Samba dancers with coffee brown skin in colorful costumes were to be admired in the Sambodromo stadim in Rio de Janeiro and on television screens in Brazil and all over the world. Giant caricature statues of politicians and celebrities were carried through Olinda’s Baroque streets.

In Salvador on Brazil’s North-East coast, popular bands played Axé music and percussion rhythms from giant trucks, so called “Trio Eletricos”, completely covered in loudspeakers, and made millions of people from all over the world dance along the palm-tree lined beach promenade. From Thursday to Tuesday, from noon till dawn, the city gets carried away in a non stop celebration. And even on Ash Wednesday the party is not over yet. Whoever can still stand on his own legs takes part in the “Arrastao”, in which the best bands play this year’s most poplar songs over and over, mixed with songs dealing specifically with the yearning for the next Carnival. Simultaneously, in Rio, the winner’s parade features the best of the best of this year’s samba school contest and the shows com to a dazzling climax.

Only the next day, on Thursday, all is over: the carnival, and with it the Brazilian summer, the time of festivals, shows, travel and vacation, which began for many in the Christmas days. And only when the carnival is over, when all of the costumes shown, all new songs are played and all festivals are celebrated, only then is the time for life to go back to its normal rhythm. This is when schools and universities, shops and offices get busy and lively again. Therefore, Brazilians say: the new year begins after the carnival – regardless of religions and calendars.

A happy new year from Brazil!


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