“This is life in Bahia, baby. You are able to find the strength that you didn’t know you had deep down inside you.”
We are on the bus bouncing through the too small streets of Salvador that are now congested with a maniacal traffic created by Brazil’s growing economy (they passed the United Kingdom last year in GNP to be the 6th largest in the world). Roseangela, one of our teachers and the creator of the Silvestre technique, is hyped at how well we did in our Afro-Brazilian dance class, which was taught by a rising star in the Brazilian dance community, Tatiana. Tatiana is small and round with braids down to her butt and an entourage of muscular dancing boys who followed her into class. They filled in the empty space between what we are calling Club 38 because most of us are that age, and then we began one of the fastest, loudest, most exuberant and back-breaking dance classes I have ever had in my life.
But Club 38 brought it, and we took it to the end of the class, with all of us soaked in sweat, our clothes and hair dripping, and me about three minutes from an out-of-body experience from pushing myself to a physical limit. African dance is hard. For me, I can survive only because the drums carry me, give me the strength when I think I my body has nothing left to give.
And there it is with Bahia. The strength of the city is the constant pulse of music, of drumming, of singing, of Africa’s ancient knowing. Of axe, of Divine Energy, of the presence of the Orixas, who are responsible for the energies that move through this earthly life.
It is very trippy here, and i am not one bit surprised that i have ended up passing through Bahia on my spiritual adventure.
The candomble ceremony was held in a small “house” down an alley in a neighborhood that was far from the tourist part of town. At the bottom of the hill we entered a nondescript temple, and members of the house were lighting fireworks so people would know the location. Many people, even in Brazil, disparage candomble as some kind of hoax, a voodoo. But most people are misinformed which creates a social trend to persecute candomble and its devotees.
We wore all white, the accepted dress, and stood on the women’s side of the room. Tonight’s “party” honored Nana, the energy that forms the body and carries the dead body back to the earth and the spirit to the heavens. Earlier that morning, as we were learning Yoruba songs about her for the ceremony, I just started crying and could not stop. She lives in the sedimentary waters of the swamp, and so calling to her in song felt like meeting someone who loves me so much and was waiting for me to show up, my long-lost holy grandmother. Most people roll their eyes or make jokes about me loving the swamp, and how could I ever explain it is a spiritual place for me? Like I need to be any weirder.
But Nana knows and I don’t have to explain it. So, I cried, because I am at home with her and her melody and her drum. That is all.
The party was in full swing when we arrived and the devotees danced in a circle as the singer called out the songs to the gods. In a small alcove next to the entrance, a fresh goat skin hung over the door. A candle burned on the small table.
For an hour, we watched and sang, eating guava cakes and some kind of meat pastries as the devotees, dressed as the Orixas, danced to the drums and the calls of the members of the house. Soon, the Orixas themselves began to fill the bodies of the celebrants and join the party. Members shivered, and then the energies overtook them, and they paraded in the dance as the powers who guide them. It was very similar to what happens to people who are overtaken by the Holy Spirit, which, in my way of understanding things, it is.
The outfits of the people dancing as the Orixas were stunning, handmade costumes intricately detailed with hundreds of cowrie shells. People fell out next to me, we sang, we honored the forces of life with our voices and bodies and talents, and, frankly, it was cool as shit and I felt very happy to be alive.
When the ceremony ended, with the traditional song and the recession of the devotees, we received plates of food–chicken, a meat I didn’t recognize, and beans and rice. Some people drank beer and Brazilian soda, and the women, dressed in the Bahiana outfit of colorful hoop skirt, white eyelet scarves tied around their chests and heads, and layers of beaded necklaces, smiled at us, recognizing we weren’t from around there.
At 10:25, we headed home, up the stone street past what smelled like an open sewer, and through the dark neighborhood on the outskirts of Salvador. One of the drummers, who also drums for our dance class, told us in Portuguese not to step in the balls of horse dung. Said horse stood by the stone fence guarding the neighborhood and ate grass.
This morning we were told the animals sacrificed for the woman who was initiated as a devotee of Nana last night were used to feed the people at the ceremony. I remembered the goat skin, the unfamiliar meat on my plate. Years ago I wouldn’t have been able to stomach the thought of animal sacrifice, of then consuming its flesh. But, now it makes sense, the communion of the sacred circle. I love eating alligator, which surprises most people, but I love eating it for this same reason–the animal and I are connected in life and death, and there is a sacred energy that moves through all of us as we journey through the Mystery.
Night night beloveds.