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BRAZIL Carnival is a growing attraction for tourists

BRAZIL Carnival is a growing attraction for tourists
A street vender waits for client in Salvador,bBrazil,in this January 6 file photo.
BRAZIL Carnival is a growing attraction for tourists

A street vender waits for client in Salvador,bBrazil,in this January 6 file photo.

Rhythm is king in this seaside city long known as the capital of Afro-Brazilian culture, or more simply as the Black Rome - and not only at carnival.
Drums thunder from behind the colorful walls of colonial houses that line the winding cobblestone streets of the historic Pelourinho district. Passengers on passing buses thump out intricate poly-rhythms on the seat backs, floors and windows.
Even the city's reputed 365 Catholic Churches - one for each day of the year - percolate with the popcorn of rhythm, with samba groups often standing in for the choir to celebrate the saints' days.
But when the throbbing rhythm gets under your skin and the rumbling won't leave you in peace, it can only mean one thing: Carnival is coming to Salvador da Bahia.
"Carnival is actually just the culmination of a series of festivals that make up our summer season, beginning in December," said Valter Oliveira Leite, president of the municipal carnival council.
The uninitiated could easily mistake the seemingly endless series of shows and festivals in the run-up to carnival for the actual event. But Carnival itself is unmistakable - with some 2.5 million people clogging the city's main avenues and dancing behind more than 200 bands that ply the city's streets on top of enormous sound trucks, night and day.
It's very different from Rio's more famous made-for-TV parade, with fans in grandstands evaluating the elaborate floats and costumes. But many Brazilians feel the real street Carnival is the full contact sport of Salvador, some 1,200 kilometers northeast of Rio.
Salvador's carnival officially begins this year on February 15, a day earlier than Rio's bash, and runs a day later. February 20 is the date known in New Orleans as Mardi Gras; here, many bands turn out for a last gasp the next day, Ash Wednesday, as well, despite protests from the Catholic Church.
In recent years, Salvador's carnival also has become a haven for black American tourists in search of their African roots in Brazil.
A little history
Salvador was Brazil's first capital and major stop for slave ships coming from Africa to the New World. Today the city is more than 70 percent black and is a center of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomble - similar to Santeria and Voodoo. It also is a nucleus of the martial art-dance form known as capoeira - as well as the birthplace of samba.
"It's all just religiously, spiritually inspired. It reminds me of New Orleans and some parts of South Carolina where I grew up," said George H. Smith, a 63-year-old black American printmaker from Washington D.C., who was on his second visit to Brazil.
This year, U.S. producer Quincy Jones is expected to attend Carnival as a guest of Culture Minister and pop star Gilberto Gil, with an eye toward making a Buena Vista Social Club-style documentary about the proceedings. Plans to bring Janet Jackson and Oprah Winfrey, however, have fallen through, according to Gil's spokeswomen Gilda Matoso.
Keeping the culture
Anthropologists say in many ways slavery-era African culture is better preserved in Salvador than it is in Africa.
"We worry more about our African roots than they do in Africa. In Africa, they don't want to remember the past. Here we want to hold on to what we were torn away from," said Vera Lacerda, a retired history professor who now runs one of Salvador's most popular carnival groups, Ara Ketu.
The biggest attraction of Salvador's carnival are the "trios eletricos," huge bands that play a calypso-inflected samba known as "Axe (ah-SHAY) Music" from the top of the sound trucks.
Axe stars Ivete Sangalo and Daniela Mercury are famous across the nation and their songs can be heard on the radio all year around. Other bands like "Chiclete Com Banana" are a hit in Bahia and at offseason carnivals around Brazil during the rest of the year.
But many foreigners, especially black Americans, are more interested in the elaborately costumed Afro "blocos," or carnival groups like Olodum, which appeared on Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints," album. Or the "Afoxes' (ah-fo-SHAYS) like Filhos de Ghandi, who pound out Candomble rhythms on percussion instruments, roam the streets in white turbans and will happily pour perfume on you for the asking.
There even been efforts to include rock, hip-hop and reggae in the celebrations. Last year, the Irish rock band U2 attended the festivities, though plans to have the band to play on top of a sound truck reportedly were canceled because of security concerns.
"The first night we let our tourists watch from the stands, and then next night it's up to them whether they think they can handle it down below," said Conor O'Sullivan, who works with Brazil Nuts Tours, which specializes in cultural tours and student groups.
Dishing out the cash
To celebrate Salvador's street carnival, you can spend anywhere from 30 reals (US$14) to 2,000 reals (US$930) for an "abada," usually a T-shirt and head scarf which allows revelers to follow a band around for three days and nights separated from the general population by a thick cord, held in place by throngs of burly men.
Some 86,000 "cordeiros," or rope holders, are employed each year just to separate the crowds.
Or you can stay in the "pipoca," or popcorn, which costs nothing and means hanging out in the densely-packed streets. The advantage of the pipoca is you can glimpse various bands from outside the ropes. The disadvantage is that each passing band is capable of sweeping one down the avenue with the force of a tsunami.
Peace all around
Organizers are understandably proud of how little violence there is traditional is in Salvador Carnival. In general, there are no more than one or two homicides each year.
"Everybody who comes here says, 'if this kind of thing happened in my city you'd have some 200 people dead on the first day,'" said Merina Aragao, carnival manager for Emtursa, the Bahia state tour agency that organizes the event.
About 18,000 policemen and 3,000 firefighters are employed to provide security.
Still, Aragao admits that robberies and purse snatching are frequent. But she argues that it's all but inevitable in the crush of bodies where millions of hands can be found groping in search of intimate body contact or cash.
With romance in the air, the federal government hands out millions of free condoms each year during carnival, as well as tips on how to avoid the spread of AIDS.
In recent year, a big fad among revelers has been exchanging openmouthed kisses with strangers before moving on. And one resourceful businessman has begun marketing an antiseptic spray to protect serial kissers from the spread of disease, although the health ministry doesn't vouch for the product's efficiency.

Updated : 2021-12-05 14:16 GMT+08:00