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Heat & Soul : Bahia's unique African-Brazilian sensibility, a legacy of brutal slave trade, has left behind a mesmerizing mix of passionate spirituality and exotic sensuality.

March 20, 1994|PATRICIA COHEN | Cohen covers the federal courts for New York Newsday. and

BAHIA, Brazil — It took two buses and three more hours of bouncing travel after our Saturday morning flight from Rio de Janeiro to the northeastern Brazilian city of Salvador, but we decided to push on to Cachoeira that same day. We wanted to be sure we wouldn't miss that evening's service of Candomble, in the town where it is most devoutly practiced.

An African-Brazilian cult developed by black slaves forced to mask their Yoruba religion in the cloak of Catholicism, Candomble is still widely practiced throughout Brazil's Bahian region. During all-night ceremonies, shaman priestesses, spun into frenzied trances, serve as conduits between worshippers and their African orixas or deities.

Perhaps more than anything else, Candomble evokes for me the passionate soulfulness and exotic sensuality of Bahia.

The Brazilian state of Bahia is where Portuguese explorers landed at the turn of the 16th Century. They stayed for more than 300 years, turning this coastal region and its capital city of Salvador into a wealthy commercial hub and a slave trading post. Today, industrial development has not kept pace with that in the nation's southern states, leaving the vast majority of its black-skinned residents in dire poverty. Still, Bahia's African connection has left a cultural legacy that causes even its often condescending neighbors further south to consider it the soul of Brazil.

That sensibility is what drew me and my friends Miriam and Ruth to northeastern Brazil in late August for an eight-day trip. And Bahia delivered on its promise of of spiritual and cultural intensity. I tasted it in the fragrant stews spiced with dende palm oil and coconut milk and heard it in pulsating African rhythms that pounded my lungs and eyes as much as my ears; I read it in the magical lyricism of Bahian novelist Jorge Amado and saw it in the grotesquely carved wooden statues depicting proud Africans in chains, a reminder of Bahia's brutal history of plantation slavery.

That first night in Bahia, I also felt it at the enigmatic Candomble ceremony we found, with the help of a cabdriver, across the river in Cachoeira's sister village, Sao Felix.

As we made our way up a dirt path that wound around shabby matchbox houses, I heard a steady drum beat and a piercing chant that managed to simultaneously pique my sense of adventure as well as my anxiety. One look inside the crowded, steamy house at the top, however, and rapt wonder shoved aside my discomfort. Two women, heads shaved, lay face down in the center of the floor, their white lace petticoats ballooning around them like parachutes that had just hit level ground.

Slowly they rose to their feet, joining three other women in a sensuous dance-like movement. Suddenly one woman went rigid, her cocoa-colored features collapsed in on each other as if her face were compressed in a painful vise. The fevered intensity of the trance lasted only a few moments before her body slumped and the other women gently led her out of the room. Although the ceremony usually continues till dawn, after only an hour I was already drunk with the throbbing rhythms and ritualistic movements that we were welcome to quietly watch but failed to fully understand.

We awoke the next morning determined not to spend another night in the dirty, bug-infested pousada , or pension, we had happened upon the evening before. So we moved to what every guidebook seemed to agree is the only place worth staying in Cachoeira, the Convento do Carmine, an old Franciscan monastery that has been converted into a charming hotel. We stayed in one of the blessedly clean, high-ceilinged rooms with dark mahogany floors that are located around the perimeter of a lush, open-air square of green at the center of the monastery.

Although barely anyone spoke English, nearly everyone we ran into patiently waited until we made ourselves understood, using a blend of phrase-book Portuguese and hand signals. The town, designated a historical landmark by UNESCO, boasts 18th-Century churches and municipal buildings that date back to the days when Cachoeira was a busy trading post between the vast sugarcane plantations and the rest of Brazil. But that morning, we opted to leave our guidebook in the room and just wander through the sleepy colonial town.

We passed the delicate, scalloped facades of row houses, some crumbling away from years of neglect. Yet their chipped and fading pastels lent the town an aura of authenticity that the studied prettiness of historical reconstructions couldn't hope to match.

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