Friday Night Samba Special

Matando as saudades” – a quintessentially Brazilian Portuguese expression that translates both roughly, and unsatisfyingly, into “killing your longings” – is something Brazilians do whenever they’ve been away from the places and people they love for a long (or often even short) time. Usually, this ritualistic nipping of nostalgic yearnings in the bud involves a great deal of hugging, kissing, eating, drinking, merrymaking and music.

Over the last week, since I returned to Bahia after an almost 3 month absence (an eternity by Bahian standards), I’ve been matando as minhas saudades in small increments. Aside from all the hugging and kissing, this has involved sinking my teeth into crunchy acarajés, fluffy bean fritters, deep fried in dendê (palm oil), and overflowing with glistening shrimp, pimenta, and vatapá (a thick purée of bread, coconut milk, dried shrimp, cashews, and ginger); wolfing down a plate of feijoada (the national stew of beans, sausage, and various sundry parts of beef and pork); and lingering over a sizzling moqueca de carne de sol, a typical Bahian stew of tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, and coconut milk in which the usual seafood was substituted for sun-dried beef.

For those of you who have never been engulfed in samba, I won’t attempt to describe the sensation except that it’s like a heady shot of instant euphoria.

But Friday night, I went all out in terms of eradicating any lingering saudades. In the company of my dear pals Myra and Edi, I visited Santo Antônio, a traditional Salvador neighborhood that lies beyond the more baroque, picturesque, but tourist-infested colonial center known as the Pelourinho. The main street, Rua Direita de Santo Antônio runs from the Convento do Carmo, a 16th-century Carmelite Convent, part of which has been converted into a luxury hotel, to the Largo de Santo Antônio, a handsome square from which you can gaze out over Salvador’s Cidade Baixa (Lower Town) and the Bay of All Saints, a view that is particularly bewitching at night when the ships in the bay glow like fireflies.

The Largo itself, shaded by flame trees, is really an eyeful. At one end, it’s framed by the Forte de Santo António Além do Carmo, a whitewashed colonial fortress that today shelters some of the city’s most traditional capoeira schools. Even more imposing is the 17th-century Igreja de Santo Antônio, one of the city’s busier churches due to the fact that, aside from protecting the poor, as the patron saint of marriage, Santo Antônio is in hot demand by bachelors and lonely hearts.

Our main interest, however, was a simple bar on the corner where the Grupo Botequim was hosting a traditional roda de samba (“samba circle”). These rodas, held on the last Friday of every month, are part of a project called “Cinema, Capoeira, e Samba,” which kicks off at 7pm, in the Forte de Santo Antônio, with the free screening of documentaries and short films related to capoeira and other forms of regional culture. The samba sessions, however, have become an “evento culto,” drawing a carefree, diverse, and attractive crowd of locals (with a few in-the-know gringos) who are primed to sing and dance the night away.

Myra, Edi, and I arrived at around 9, when the bar – one of those cinematic places with bright walls, deliciously garish local landscapes, and leftover yellow-and-green World Cup streamers fluttering from the sky-high ceilings – was starting to hop. Tables in the center had been reserved for the sambistas, around a dozen, of all ages, sexes, and colors, who were singing, plucking, and pounding out classics to which the crowd knew all the words.

Even before snaking through the masses for our icy beer, we were drunk on the atmosphere. Myra, who is a historian, commented on the fact that Brazilians (and Bahians especially) are never happier than when crammed together into tight areas – soccer stadiums, samba school parades, bars – where they can give full reign to their love of communal experiences. And indeed, as I joined the collective sway, caught up in the infectious rhythms, dance, words (most of which I don’t know – but I’m great at picking up refrains and belting them out with the best of them), I felt the last of my saudades melting away.

Of course, an hour or so later, the bar was so crazily full (defying all spatial logic, people just kept squeezing in) that matando saudades had become secondary to breathing space. Within 15 minutes, we had managed to extricate ourselves from the throng and were out on the square, along with hundreds of other revelers who had transformed the event into a regular festa de largo (street party).

For those of you who have never been engulfed in samba, I won’t attempt to describe the sensation except that it’s like a heady shot of instant euphoria (the above clip captures it better than any words). Even if you don’t know a word of Portuguese, and haven’t cut a rug since high school, you’ll find yourself singing out caught fragments and swaying, bobbing, and perhaps even shaking your booty, to the beat. However, beware: experiencing samba in Brazil has is very likely to awaken yearnings you never suspected you had, setting off the beginning of a vicious – and delicious – cycle of saudades.

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