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Brazil's Bahia a link for African Americans

The state, where black customs are kept up, is a draw for U.S. tourists hungry for tradition.

September 23, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

CACHOEIRA, BRAZIL — Semaj Williams, a stress-management consultant from New Jersey, feels Brazil in his past, and his present.

"It's very clear to me that in another life I was Brazilian," said the hulking Williams, seated on the shaded patio of a colonial convent-turned-upscale-hotel. "I'm sure of that: Brazil is one of my places."

He is one of thousands of U.S. visitors, virtually all of them African American, who have journeyed to the cobblestoned lanes of this northeastern Brazilian town in pursuit of roots and a shared history.

With its varied and exotic attractions, Brazil has long been a travel mecca, drawing more than 700,000 U.S. citizens annually. But the big attraction for many black Americans is Brazil's flourishing African heritage, most evident here in Bahia state, where vast slave plantations once serviced Europe's craving for sugar and tobacco.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 27, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
Brazil map: In some editions of Sunday's Section A, a map with an article about African culture in Brazil's Bahia state incorrectly showed the location of the city of Cachoeira. This map shows the correct location.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Brazil map: In some editions of the Sept. 23 Section A, a map with an article about African culture in Brazil's Bahia state incorrectly showed the location of the city of Cachoeira. This map shows the correct location.For the Record
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, September 30, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Brazil map: In some editions of the Sept. 23 Section A, a map with an article about African culture in Brazil's Bahia state incorrectly showed the location of the city of Cachoeira. This map shows the correct location.

"The different African traditions have certainly been better preserved here," said Paulette Bradley, a marketing manager who was visiting with a group from Atlanta. "It seems that African heritage was more diluted in the States."

Black Americans' increasing advance into the middle class has created disposable income, leisure time and a multibillion-dollar tourism boom. Brazil may not yet rival Africa as a "roots" destination, but those keen for a cultural encounter are converging on Bahia.

"There's a shared sense of the African diaspora culture, of being a product of the slave trade," said Lisa Earl Castillo, an American scholar in Salvador, the capital of Bahia.

Despite barriers of language and culture, many African American visitors speak of a sense of empathy and identification with Afro-Brazilians. Folk practices still thriving here evoke for many the specter of slavery and its aftermath, calling to mind wisps of oral tradition passed down by long-dead grandparents and great-grandparents.

A must-see on the African American itinerary is this picturesque colonial town and its mid-August spectacle, the festival of Nossa Senhora da Boa Morte, or Our Lady of the Good Death. It is a classic incarnation of religious syncretism: Roman Catholic elements imported by the Portuguese coexist with Afro-Brazilian devotion, specifically the belief system known as Candomble.

Today, agencies specializing in African American tourism book rooms months ahead, filling hotels here and in Salvador, a two-hour drive to the southeast. Package deals with stops in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere are built around the festival and its Aug. 15 finale.

It is a date of raucous celebrations to the beat of drums and brass bands, including a vigorous samba de roda, a traditional dance performance in a circle. Afterward, participants feast on feijoada, the iconic, bean-based Brazilian soul food dish.

African-inspired rites unfold parallel to the feast of the Assumption, which marks the Catholic belief in the assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven.

Preserving belief here is a unique society: the "sisterhood" of Boa Morte, mostly elderly black women who have kept their ways over the decades, even as similar social groups dating from the era of slavery disappeared elsewhere in Brazil.

Among other things, the organizations are said to have helped slaves buy their freedom. The groups' connection to the Roman Catholic Church provided a measure of protection, even as members continued to revere their African orixas, or deities, linking them to Catholic saints.

"Somebody built up a wall in the United States, and the African Americans are unable to see their history," lamented Marcos Reis, a tour guide who lectures on the mingling of European and African customs. "Here in Bahia we were able to keep our orixas."

For many visitors to this humid, verdant region along the River Paraguacu, the sisterhood is reminiscent of secret women's associations in Africa and storied underground slave societies in the U.S. South.

"Brazil has been an incredible classroom for me," said Wande Knox Goncalves, a teacher from Pasadena.

When she was specializing in African studies at the University of Ibadan in Nigeria in the 1970s, Knox recalled, a wizened professor told her: "If you want to know about African continuities in the New World, you have to go to Bahia."

She made her first foray here in the early 1990s. Boa Morte blew her away.

"It brought together everything I had studied about the continuity of African culture," Knox said. "These women were revolutionary. And they looked like your grandmother or your mother or your auntie! It was an incredible thing to see."

She returned to Brazil, and married a Brazilian here in 1995. Every two years, Knox organizes visiting groups from the United States.

"We African Americans talk about our connection to Africa, but we don't have that much evidence for our connection," Knox said. "But we go to Brazil and Cachoeira, and it's all so evident, and meaningful."

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