Tourism, Carnaval and Citizenship

by | Dec 22, 2002

Photo by Piers Armstrong.

​It’s Carnaval 1996, and I am in Salvador for just two weeks to do fieldwork. My colleagues in São Paulo, usually respectful of my efforts as a participant observer of various forms of associational life at the grassroots in urban Brazil, find it hard to take this particular venture seriously. They endorse my focus on the role of associations in the formation of democratic citizens, the theme pursued in my fieldwork in favelas in São Paulo and Recife. And it makes sense to them that in Salvador, Bahia, where over three quarters of the population is Afro Brazilian, I should be studying associations and movements which might be fostering citizenship in a politically and economically subordinated and disadvantaged Black majority. But, my friends ask rhetorically, “carnival associations? And during carnaval?” That’s not fieldwork, but mere tourism! For them carnaval is time out, pure fantasia, an escape from everyday reality into a separate world of noisy sensuous fun. It has nothing to do with the serious business of fostering civil rights of Afro-Brazilians or empowering them as citizens. And the carnaval associations? Well they are not the autonomous civil associations they know I’m looking for, but one of two kinds. On the one hand, they say, there are the old blocos like Filhos de Gandhi, which lock Blacks into a system of patronage dominated by white elites and reproduce the hegemonic ideology known as baianidade. On the other hand, the newer blocos afro, represented by Olodum, claiming to foster a sort of Afro-Brazilian citizenship movement, but basically failing to live up to the aspiration. In the view of these properly skeptical social scientists, Olodum may be a culture industry success story, satisfying tourists with samba-reggae, producing CDs with SONY and enriching its directors. But it has achieved all this at the price of becoming a creature of the industry, adrift from its local roots

I know my friendly colleagues are not against my having fun, and I know they are well-informed: their critique of carnaval and of the blocos afro, echoes much I have read in the academic literature and heard from Brazil’s Movimento Negro Unificado activists. So I have to take their questions, and extensions of them, very seriously. Am I a mere tourist? Insofar as I am, does that mean I’m part of an undifferentiated band of consumers who get what they demand, and as they do, destroy not only local culture, but the creative role of locals in the negotiation of social and cultural change? Is carnaval only a momentary escape from reality, as much for locals as for the tourists? Are the blocos afro, far from wresting control over the production and content of carnaval from local white elites and the tourists, becoming part of the problem of commodification: exploiting rather than nurturing local creative energies for the gain of a global cultural enterprise?

Let me sketch answers to these questions as I reflect on some of my fieldnotes, taking advantage not only of views and information taken on board since 1996, but of the luggage I took into the field: largely research reports and interview transcripts prepared by my one-time research assistant, Piers Armstrong, in 1992-3.

Reflections on a composite of fieldnotes: 1996 Carnaval on the street Down on the street carnaval engages all the senses and stirs every emotion. At one moment, the tri-eletricos (trucks with banks of powerful speakers forming the walls of a high platform on top of which is an amplified band) engulf me in a roiling surf of sound. At another, as I’m swept forward or back in the moving crowd, my whole body resonates to the thunder of a phalanx of drummers. Now there’s just enough room to dance, vicariously experiencing the boneless muscle flow and skilled abandon of the dancers on floats. Then the space closes and I’m swept along in the flow of the street, jostled, moving always moving, but out of control now. Time for seeing: the red black and gold of Olodum is succeeded by the white and blue of another bloco, and on the floats gorgeous costumes, and less attired gorgeous bodies. Eros stirs, but other emotions too: fear of the flow, of sporadic violence, of being out of control; the anxieties of the stranger aware of being able to read only an unknown proportion of the cascade of meanings and messages; on the other hand, intense gratitude for the collective generosity that welcomes me into this so corporeal farewell to the flesh. A few times I’m excluded: an Afro Brazilian friend has taken me to accompany the first appearances (the saidas) of the blocos afro Olodum (February 16) and Il Aiy (February 17) and he takes me where he is entitled to go and I’m not, inside the stout maritime rope, the corda, that encircles bloco members. I?m alternately bidden outside by bloco marshals and persuaded back in by my protector. Even outside the corda, however, I can join in this year’s bloco songs that I have to learn over the hours of the parade but that have clearly long since been rehearsed by everyone else: songs of identity, of the struggles and achievements of Afro Brazilians here in Salvador and all Africans of the diaspora, songs of love and longing and hope. On tourism and tourists. Tourist I may be in all this, but not much in control of anything, and certainly not witness to a performance for me or for other tourists. I never managed to get down to Salvador’s pale imitation of Rio’s Sambódromo to be the real tourist, up on the stands, consuming the local color. But who is the real tourist among the 450,000 so-called tourists who swell Salvador’s 2.5 million population at Carnaval time? We’re a diverse lot, varied in purpose, origin and budget, and our stories weave into the fabric of carnaval in quite different ways. One story—the one my Paulista friends had in mind, I think—goes like this: The type one tourist from the North arrives in Salvador for the duration and heads for a reserved room in one of the magnificent ocean-front hotels down Ondina way where the stands are ready to frame the local color. S/he’s after spectacle, amorous adventure, escape from the routines of the gray Northern winter. S/he wants fun, and has the money to pay for it. S/he contributes powerfully to Carnaval Inc., and helps carnaval-turned-commodity replace the carnaval of multiple meanings that locals once performed for themselves.

But there are other stories, including this far from untypical one: The young European or North American tourist lives it up on the street at carnaval, but has not come just for the occasion. This type two tourist has been drawn to Salvador by many things, including the sounds of Timbalada and the samba-reggae of Olodum. Knowledge of and admiration for the blocos afro has also played a part. S/he wants somehow to be part of the Afro-Brazilian identity and civil rights movement s/he believes is taking shape in and around the blocos in their year-round social and cultural activities. Occasionally s/he succeeds directly by contributing skills to the already impressive pool of management and technical skills available in the blocos. More usually the contribution is in the form of validating Afro-Brazilian culture and brokering new relationships between white elites and the Afro-Brazilian population.

This latter story suggests a sort of virtuous circle in which local practices and cultural products attract a type of tourist who becomes part of a dense set of local and transnational socio-cultural exchanges. These add value to the local cultural product and channel resources to the projects for civil rights and social change promoted by the local producers of Afro-Brazilian culture. This virtuous circle co-exists with, and helps counter the vicious circle suggested by the first story. In that, the local color attracts the type two tourist who boosts processes that turn the local cultural product into a commodity that is at best of scant “use-value” in the lives of producers, and at worst subversive of any movement for enhanced Afro-Brazilian citizenship.

But to talk of containment of such a vicious circle suggests there must be signs of the virtuous circle in the carnaval itself. On carnaval and the blocos afro Perhaps my colleagues from São Paulo are right. My condensed record of three nights of carnaval speaks of lack of control, erotic charge, sensuous flow. But note in the saídas especially, those signs of firm intention, prepared statement, and long rehearsal, as well as the spontaneity and unpredictability. Il Aiy sets out from its year round headquarters, several miles out from downtown, very much as the Afro-Brazilian bloco of a particular community. The neighborhoods of Liberdade define their historical community in the rituals of departure. In those songs, led by young musicians trained in Il Aiy’s neighborhood school, the community celebrates a proud local history and tells itself and the city that it is on the move for a brighter future for all Afro-Brazilians. Olodum, setting out from a different neighborhood, similarly manifests its character as a year-round Afro-Brazilian community association, even as it celebrates a more cosmopolitan Afro-Brazilian identity, that of the African diaspora at home in Salvador.

The saídas also signal all that the skeptics told me I should find: involvement of the blocos afro in traditional patron-client politics, choreography for TV and the tourists. But, as well, here was massive and moving display of these blocos afro as central formative associations in vital local communities and in a variegated Afro-Brazilian identity movement. Olodum and Il Aiy, in their different ways, emerge as elements in the virtuous circle that challenges the skeptics. They foster and empower local creativity through the year; they create opportunity and public space for local performers who (in the case of Olodum especially) attract not only the local poor but also well-resourced young members of Salvador’s elite, as well as the tourists. They channel resources back into the local communities for neighborhood projects and further encourage local cultural creativity. And in all this, thus far, they and the locals remain in control, even as they cater to (while also transforming) the tastes and expectations of the outsiders.

Some conclusions:
From the vantage point of the saí­das  the whole of carnaval can be seen as a sort of argument, joyful, exhilarating, occasionally violent, between various Afro-Brazilian identities, conceptions of the past and dreams of the future. And it remains an argument largely between locals, for locals. Given that it has also become a tourist magnet, and harnessed to the globalized tourist and culture-production industries, how has it avoided the fate expected by the skeptics?

Part of the answer emerges as we look again at the bloco afro performers, at the carnaval performances themselves, and at spaces in which the performances take place. The performers in the bloco afro processions—not just the lead drummers and singers but the throng within the corda—are members of a local community performing for that community, more than they are for tourists and other spectators. One of their shared beliefs is that they are re-creating and strengthening their imagined community in the fun of carnival. The performance itself is not an event detached from communal life, but a vital product of year-round competition and rehearsal within the community. And it is performance made anew every year with new themes, new songs and rhythms, not a repetition of dead, if colorful tradition for the sake of type-one tourists. The saí­das look to the past as they depart from places heavy with the symbols of slavery—the slave-markets, the neighborhood remembered as the refuge of runaway and rebel slaves. Then the blocos set out through the streets of cosmopolitan Salvador to make an exuberant claim on the future.

Here is proof against the vicious circles, destructive of local community, culture, and ultimately Afro-Brazilian citizenship in which our type one tourists have a part. Constantly re-created performances of a remembered past and a desired future, rooted in the year-round, every day life of Afro-Brazilian communities, generate the energies, moods and motivations for new forms of Afro-Brazilian citizenship. And in the virtuous circles that link the fun of carnaval to this deepening of Brazilian democracy, our type two tourists have a small but significant role.

Winter 2002Volume I, Number 2

Rowan Ireland is a Lemann Scholar at DRCLAS for the Fall semester. When in Brazil and not dancing carnaval, he studies social movements and religion and politics. He teaches in Latin American Studies and the Sociology/Anthropology Program at La Trobe University in Australia.

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