popular

Africa in Brazil: How Ilê Aiyê Brought Blackness to Salvador's Carnival

Salvador's carnival, once a white-only event, was reclaimed by black Brazilians looking to celebrate their African heritage.

Those unfamiliar with the Ilê Aiyê (pronounced e-lay ah-ay) group, might assume its members come from Nigeria or Benin. The headdresses the women wear could be found at a Nigerian wedding. The cloth of their costumes sport the bright colors typical of wax cloth. The music is driven by just drums. But few people in this group have ever visited Africa.


Ilê Aiyê was the first Afro-Bloco carnival group in Salvador and in the last 44 years, it has helped black people across Brazil to reclaim their African heritage in a positive way. Of the city's 3 million residents, more than 80 percent identify as black. Their heritage is a legacy of Brazil's transatlantic slave trade, which brought more than 2 million Africans to the coasts of Brazil.

Although Salvador, Brazil is a majority-black city, its mainstream carnival had evolved into an event for whites by the 1970s. Back then, as it is today, Salvador's carnival was dominated by blocos that followed moving sound systems—trio-electricos. White Brazilians danced to these trio-electricos while black Brazilians held a cord around them to prevent poor people from entering their space.

Image by Rosilda Cruz/ Secult BA

At the time, it was considered dangerous to create a carnival group that exalted blackness and only included blacks. The dictatorship always squashed any efforts by blacks to organize against racism. But this didn't stop a circle of black friends, who, while coming back from a day at the beach, decided to create a carnival group with just black people—Ilê Aiyê.

“We're helping black people build their self-esteem," said Vovô do Ilê, the leader and one of the founders of the Ilê Aiyê carnival group.

Vovô and 100 other friends created Ilê Aiyê in time for 1975's carnival. During that year, they dressed in red, yellow and white fabric and paraded throughout Salvador to the song of Que Bloco é Esse - What is this bloco? For the following year, the group chose a theme—the Tutsi people of Rwanda. Since then, Ilê Aiyê has honored more than 20 African and Caribbean countries during carnival. This year, the group will celebrate 100 years of Madiba: Nelson Mandela.

Ilê Aiyê was born in a house of the Candomblé Afro-Brazilian religion. The mother of Vovô, Mother Hilda, reigned as the Candomblé priestess of the Ilê Axé Jitolu candomblé house until her death in 2009. So the influence of the Afro-Brazilian religion on the cultural group is very strong. It can be heard in the rhythms of the drum section and the lyrics of the songs. Even the name Ilê Aiyê comes directly from Yoruba—the roots of Candomblé. Ilê Aiyê generally means the "Black World" by black Brazilians. To this day, the Ilê Aiyê has the most members of any Afro-Bloco who practice the Candomblé religion.

Image by Juliana Gabriela/ Turismo Bahia

In those early years, Ilê Aiyê fine-tuned its identity. That identity eventually came to define the genre of the Afro-Bloco: A Yoruba name exalting blackness. A large drum section providing the musical foundation; Songs whose lyrics promoted Brazil's African heritage; Fantasias made of a fabric highlighting the year's theme. In 1979 the Afro-Bloco fever spread to the north of Salvador. Black Brazilians in Itapuã created the Afro-Bloco Malê de Balê, which paid homage to the African Muslims who led the greatest revolt against slavery in Brazilian history. Blacks in the center of Salvador created Olodum, an Afro-Bloco that Michael Jackson made popular in his video "They Don't Care About Us." Today there are more than a dozen Afro-Blocos in Salvador and their music, dance and fashion are the foundation of Salvador's "black" carnival. Black communities in cities all over Brazil and the world have also created Afro-Blocos.


Image by Juliana Gabriela/ Turismo Bahia

White beauty has always been the standard in Brazil, so much that even today it's rare to see dark-skinned women fronting advertising campaigns or winning beauty pageants. From the beginning, Ilê Aiyê always promoted dark-skinned black women as beautiful, and divine. In 1979 Ilê Aiyê held it's first Beleza Negra beauty pageant to choose a Deusa de Ebano "Black Goddess" who would reign as the queen of the bloco.

"Ilê Aiyê is showing us our beauty and our importance," said Jessica Nascimento, 19, the winner of this year's Beleza Negra beauty pageant. "We don't even recognize this ourselves."

Image courtesy of Odú Comunicação.

This year the pageant celebrated its 39th edition with 16 women competing. In a program lasting four hours, contestants are judged on their representation of the year's theme and how well they dance. Nascimento will represent Ilê Aiyê during carnival and in concerts across Brazil and the world.

"We see black women being represented as a goddess," Nascimento said. "Black women aren't in these places where they are the protagonist. Ilê Aiyê brings a social and political conscious to the table in addition to the beauty."

The highlight of the beauty pageant is when each competitor dances the Black Goddess dance. In this dance, competitors show what they are feeling through the dance.

*

Watch "How Ilê Aiyê Brought Blackness Back to Carnival" above.

Featured
Courtesy of the artist

Meet Musa Okwonga, Poet, Musician and Activist Standing Up Against Xenophobia One Line At A Time

We talk to the artist about leaving London, being a migrant and resisting Germany's resurgent fascist movement.

A German TV channel recently announced a TV debate on whether Germans should still be allowed to say the N-word.

One of the announced panelists was Frauke Petry, the former leader of the AfD—a German far-right party that recently got 14 percent of the vote in local elections. Petry openly called for the return of Nazi-era terminology in public. This issue might have remained hidden for anglophones if it wasn't for the British writer, poet and activist Musa Okwonga who called out the TV channel on his Twitter account. Eventually, they cancelled the show.

Keep reading... Show less
Sports
Via CONIFA

At This World Cup, Players Risk Imprisonment to Compete

What you need to know about the CONIFA World Cup, the football tournament for breakaway nations.

The ConIFA World Cup, the global football tournament for unrecognized nations, and football associations not affiliated to FIFA, is about to begin its third edition. The championship will kickoff on 31 May in Sutton, Greater London, where the Barawa FA team will act as host.

Barawa FA, named after the port city of Barawa in southern Somalia, represents the Tunni and Bravanese people who live there, but it also represents the wider Somali diaspora in the United Kingdom. So, even though the tournament will be played in England, this will be the most African ConIFA competition to date, with not only an African member hosting and heading the organizing committee, but with two other African teams taking part in the competition: Matabeleland and Kabylia.

This will be the largest edition of the ConIFA World Cup so far, with 16 teams playing in 10 stadiums—seven in Greater London, two in Berkshire and one in Essex. In contrast, the previous edition, held in Abkhazia—a separatist region of Georgia—in 2016, featured 12 teams in two stadiums; while the inaugural edition, held in Lapland—a region encompassing parts of northern Sweden, northern Norway, northern Finland and north-western Russia inhabited by the Sami people—in 2014, only featured one stadium and 12 teams. It will also feature the largest number of African teams so far, as only two participated in 2014 (Darfur and Zanzibar) and 2016 (Somaliland and Chagos Islands).

The tournament has also raised its profile. Irish bookmaker Paddy Power announced it will be sponsoring the tournament, probably seizing the opportunity to take bets on the tournament, which will occur between the end of national European leagues and the beginning of the FIFA World Cup in mid-June.

Keep reading... Show less
Events
Photo by Farah Sosa.

Here's What Amplify Africa's Inaugural Afro Ball Looked Like

The awards event was a celebration of excellence and ambition in the African community.

On Saturday, May 19, the Los Angeles Theater Center in downtown LA became a mecca for idealists and dreamers from the African diaspora.

The casual passersby would've been greeted with an effusion of bold prints, intricate headwraps and color coordination—the likes of which had not been seen since their favorite 90s music video (or church, or a wedding for some of us). And though the festivities might have vaguely resembled a film set—as is all too common downtown—this moment wouldn't be rehashed months later in a movie or television show. Attendees were flocking to Amplify Africa's inaugural Afro Ball. With the support of BET International, Buzzfeed, OkayAfrica, the GEANCO Foundation and more, Afro Ball lived up to its name as a "for Africans, by Africans" awards event, celebrating excellence and ambition in our community.

Keep reading... Show less

get okayafrica in your inbox

news.

popular.