NY > Salvador….and now São Luis do Maranhão

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I arrived in Salvador five days ago. After finding a room for a the first days, I began my round of meetings with university professors at UFBa (Federal University of Brazil, Bahia campus) local contacts, mentors and friends to get a sense of how things in city and in my area were doing or had changed. The first image is indicative of both a corrupt local government trying to show modernist improvements before the election season and the unrelenting desire to address the ‘racial democracy’ via their tanning habits. That coupled with continued local in fighting over mass transit and public health seem to indicate that some of the public works projects positioned as markers reflective of a 21st century Bahia/Brazil for the upcoming international sports games might backfire. Most of my contacts are complaining about the lack of essential services and an obsession with these unnecessary plans. Local working class people in both Salvador and Maranhão have also mentioned that the use of Crack is growing as a drug problem.

The street shots typify how popular some of the regional dishes, acarajé, abarra, and vatapa are with young people. These dishes and other foods that have a sacred root in Yoruba cultural traditions and directly address my research are often presented for consumption in public arenas. As indicated in the photos the women producing the food wear the classic Bahiana colonial dress. Traditionally these women were all noviates (novices) in Candomblé temples and this work helped fund the temples. I have been told that other individuals outside of the religious community are also producing these goods, including entrepreneurial men. Interviewing some of these vendors will be part of my task once I return to town.

My academic meetings seemed fruitful and have provided more needed resources particularly for my first leg in São Luis do Maranhão, way up north. In speaking with Professor Luis Nicolau Parés, I learned that Maranhão state is the only locale in country where Sene-Gambians were imported. This area also has some Dahomean influence but little of the Angolan presence which formed the base of African culture in early colonial Salvador. Professor João José Reis confirmed this fact, yet said there were no overt retentions from the Sene-Gambian foundation. He said that he had not found evidence of an Islamic presence that should be reflective of this region of Africa. He couldn’t affirm whether there had been a rice culture as we have in the Low Country.

I am now sitting in the Fortaleza airport with a five-hour layover in a ‘barcalounger’ area being bitten by mosquitos as I type.  Two young brothers sharing the next lounge chair fascinated by my computer are climbing on top of each other to get the best view of my screen. Their interest might possibly be the English writing that they are reading, or the diversion from the boredom of waiting. Their pre-adolescent whining is a bit trying.  If their mother doesn’t look over here shortly she will have to interrupt the sibling tussle they are about to initiate.  Thankfully, their horseplay is distracting me from the fact that my room reservation wasn’t honored and I am trying to find a room in São Luis sight unseen with a 10:00 PM arrival in a strange town, with one too many bags….

I am optimistic that Maranhão will provide me with opportunities for an additional research site or comparative analysis relative to what I have previously observed in Bahia. The new contacts, both in the academic and spiritual community of São Luis will help.

Hopefully my letter of introduction to the priestess, or Mãe de Santo, octogenarian Mãe Deni will help me gain access to her and the terreiro, Casa das Minas. This 19th century temple is the oldest terreiro for the spiritual practice of Tambour de Minas in São Luis. This tradition is more similar to Voudon than Candomblé. Additionally, there are several popular public dance forms, Tambour Crioula, Dança de Coco and Bumba Meu Boi being the most popular. I hope to enter or speak with the people at Casa de Nago and Casa de Fanti-Ashanti as well.

São Luis, the state capital is considered the portal to the Amazon. As such the agricultural base is much more exotic than Salvador providing many unique fruits and sweet-water fish among other products.  Cattle are prominent both as an agricultural product and as the thematic focal point of the Bumba folkloric dancing. Previously, rice, cotton and sugarcane were also Ag cornerstones. Mandioca (aka cassava or yucca) continues to dominate including an artisanal industry of a manioc-based beer like drink, gari or a bluish aguardiente, Tiquira, which is more potent than cachaça. Ultimately, oil refineries rule the day. The culinary and cultural bricolage of Indigenous and African crioullo communities should provide a strong counterpoint to the predominant African presence evident in Bahia.

Posted by Scott Alves Barton — PhD Candidate in Food Studies at NYU

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