Thursday, November 13, 2014


                                                                          Tia Ciata 

I entered this city through its music, and with every step I hear the sounds of a tradition so rich and powerful the roots spread across the Atlantic Ocean from the coasts of Africa to Brazil, and then ricocheted back to Europe and the States, where it influenced generations of musicians … and one 15 year-old girl who sat in a movie theatre, watching the classic film by Claude Lelouche, A Man and a Woman, for the third time—not just for the love story, but for the song Pierre Barouh sings to Anouk Aimee as he climbs stairs behind her swaying hips and lovely face as she turns back to smile at him. He sings the words of Samba Saravah, by Brazilian songwriter, Vinicius de Moraes, an ode to the female heart of samba: “She came from Bahia, centuries of dancing and sorrow … and though she may be white in form, she is black in her heart.”

That year I’d gone to Paris for the first time, where someone informed me that as a Moroccan-born Jew, I was considered a pieds noir—someone with black feet. It was clearly not meant as a compliment, but I took it as one. I have black feet, I thought—wow, that means I am part of that vast African continent—and in that theatre, where the projectionist ran the film for only me, I added a black heart to the mix.

Years later, I stand on the notorious Pedra do Sal (Rock of Salt) in Pequena Africa (Little Africa), near the Empress Wharf where slaves from Africa were unloaded, and not far from the square (now a park) where they were bought and sold. Today, the Rock is hushed. A woman carrying groceries climbs past me, two boys sit and play with their dog.

The sun is bright as I climb the stone steps carved by slaves to make it easier to carry salt. The ocean is minutes away, and behind the dust I smell the sea breeze. During Carnaval the port will be crammed with cruise ships, but today—November 7th—our ship is the only one docked in the harbor. We sailed from Morocco—the northwest corner of Africa—to Barcelona, and then a fourteen-day crossing to Rio, echoing the Middle Passage—the heart-wrenching transportation of slaves from the coasts of Africa to Brazil and Barbados. Brazil received four million slaves, more than the United States—a fact that surprised me. Generations of slaves kept coming, keeping the African traditions alive, until slavery finally ended in 1888.

Walls surrounding the Rock are covered with graffiti—dancing figures, balloons and cryptic symbols, a stenciled black model with an Afro, and a message: “If you don’t think she’s beautiful, then you need to free yourself from your preconceptions,” and slogans like “Zumbi Vive” indicating that the spirit of Zumbi, one of the first heroes of slave rebellions, is still alive. And if there’s anywhere to feel the spirit of hope and freedom, it’s here on the Rock, and if there’s anyone to thank, it’s Tia Ciata, the woman whose house I face.

Her full name was Hilaria Batista de Almeida, but she became known as Tia Ciata. Never a slave, she was one of the Bahian aunties—the African women who moved to Rio de Janeiro at the turn of the 20th century and brought with them centuries of traditions, including knowledge of the healing powers of Candomble, the African-based religion that relies heavily on percussion and movement as well as communication with orixas—saints and gods. Slave owners banned both Candomble and samba, and the dangerous, subversive merging of infectious rhythms, wild dancing and chanting that led to trances.  

But there was one place in Rio where Afro-Brazilians—whether they were free, slaves, or slave-owners themselves—could dance all night to the pounding of drums and clash of tambourines: Tia Ciata’s house.

A century after Tia Ciata opened her door to samba, her door is closed, but it’s easy to imagine the Rock still jumping. Tonight there will be live samba. Turn a corner in Rio and you’re likely to find a band or singer and his guitar, crooning samba in one of its many variations.

                                    with our lovely chef who made us feijoada at the Samba Warehouse

my students & I in Carnaval costumes

Earlier today I took my students to the Samba Warehouse, where Akiva Potasman took us for a lively percussion workshop and for a tour of his Samba School’s workshop—the lush wonder of costumes and floats in process as they prepare for next year’s Carnaval. The importance of samba & Carnaval is impossible to exaggerate in the lives of those involved—students rehearse 3 days a week, 4 hours at a time, and must find their transportation to and from the school space, often traveling an hour each way. There are about 5,000 students in each “school,” and there are 12 schools in Rio. They create, rehearse, work, dream, and prepare for the 2 days of Carnaval-- an opera under the stars, magical realism at its most intense. And only1 school will be lucky enough to win.  

The following day I return to the Pedra do Sal, and it feels like I’m coming home. To quote Vinicius de Moraes again, “Singing a samba without sadness is like loving a woman who is only beautiful.”

I think of the dedication that drives the students of Samba and Carnaval to create beauty over centuries of pain.

The heavy, sultry voice of Ito Melodia at the gorgeous club, Rio Scentarium, in Lapa.

The blues—another form of music carried from Africa and whipped into raging life by generations of slavery. It is raw and harsh and crooning and direct and it hurts so good. Like samba, it is the kind of sadness that transforms into joy, that gives birth to hope. It’s survival music that seizes you by the throat and won’t let go.

block party in one of my favorite neighborhoods, Conceicao

So I stand on the Rock, waiting for Tia Ciata to open her door. It is a sunny, quiet afternoon, but I hear sounds of percussion and feet tapping, voices singing, and see hips swaying and heads thrown back. And I feel saudade—that wonderful untranslatable word that means nostalgia and longing for what you’ve left behind, what can never be recaptured, and even nostalgia for the future. I feel saudade for this me in this city at this moment … even as it slips away and I look back over my shoulder at the Rock of Salt and sea wind blows me away from Rio.

Tenho saudade de voce, Rio.

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