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From my city to yours: capoeira master Gilberto da Silva on the beaches and beats of Salvador, Brazil

Among those most affected by the of loss of tourism to Salvador are its capoeira masters, who share their heritage with travellers through performances and classes. One of the city’s foremost capoeiristas shares the highlights of the city he loves.

By Doug Loynes
Published 1 Apr 2021, 08:00 BST, Updated 6 May 2021, 11:18 BST
Capoeira's spiritual home is the pretty port city of Salvador, whose lively beaches and squares pulse ...

Capoeira's spiritual home is the pretty port city of Salvador, whose lively beaches and squares pulse to the rhythms and beats of traditional music.

Photograph by Getty Images

Capoeira is intrinsic to the cultural tapestry of Brazil. Originating in the 16th century, the balletic martial art has its roots in the rituals and resistance of the African slave communities brought to the eastern state of Bahia by Portuguese colonists. It is, in short, an expression of the country’s history — and, for many in the Afro-Brazilian community, a statement of identity.

Today, its spiritual home is the pretty port city of Salvador, whose lively beaches and squares pulse to the rhythms and beats of traditional music. Al fresco capoeira spectacles are commonplace, particularly in the historic neighbourhood of Pelourinho. With the rate of Covid-19 infections soaring, however, footfall in this old colonial city has reduced dramatically and the music has all but stopped.

Among those most affected have been the capoeiristas, whose income mainly comes from sharing their heritage with travellers through classes and performances. Local capoeira master Gilberto da Silva, of Grupo de Capoeira Angola Zimba, discusses the role the martial art plays in local society, and the best ways to engage with the culture and enjoy the tropical coastline around Salvador.

Head to Pracaerreiro de Jesus, in the historic neighbourhood of Pelourinho, to find capoeiristas performing in the streets.

Photograph by Getty Images

What is capoeira?

We say that capoeira came from Africa, but the truth is there is no capoeira in Africa. Like many aspects of Brazilian culture, capoeira was influenced by the rituals and traditions that the black African slaves brought with them to Brazil, but ultimately it was born out of the experience of slavery itself. The slaves suffered under Brazil’s colonisers, and capoeira grew out of their need to protect themselves against this violence. Back then, capoeira was a martial art disguised as a dance so that it could be practiced in plain sight of the plantation owners. Today, it’s a mixture of both. 

How important is capoeira to the Afro-Brazilian community?

You should understand capoeira as being like a conversation. With your body, you ask a question, and your opponent gives you an answer using theirs. But more than this, capoeira is an expression of our heritage. Through capoeira, we can tell our own histories and celebrate our culture, all to the beats and rhythms from ancient African instruments: berimbaus (single-string instrument with a bow), agogôs (bells) and pandeiros (hand drum). You can really feel the energy of Africa in a capoeira circle.

When the pandemic's over, what will be the best way to experience capoeira in Salvador?

If you head to Pracaerreiro de Jesus, in the historic neighbourhood of Pelourinho, you’ll find many capoeiristas performing in the streets. They’ll encourage you to join in and offer to teach you a few moves, but you should expect that they’ll ask you to donate to the projects they’re running in the community.

Capoeira is a wonderful outlet for poorer children on the fringes of society here in Salvador, but very little support comes from the government. When the pandemic is over, we want to welcome people back to my capoeira club, Grupo Zimba Salvador, also in Pelourinho. The club is run by Master Boca do Rio, who works to preserve the tradition of capoeira by sharing it with visitors through classes and workshops. 

How can travellers get to know the real Salvador?

Tourists always go first to Pelourinho. It’s the historic town centre and it’s where you’ll find the colourful colonial buildings you see on all the postcards. You should go in the mornings to beat the crowds, see some capoeira, take pictures and visit museums like the Muncab — National Museum of Afro-Brazilian Culture.

But for locals, life in Salvador happens on the beach. Come to my neighbourhood of Rio Vermelho, on the waterfront, and have dinner in Largo da Dinha. It’s a lively, open square where there’s always live music playing and where you’ll mix with Brazilians drinking caipirinhas and eating moqueca — a local seafood stew that’s made for sharing. Also, try acarajé. These fried bean and onion balls are a traditional — and very spicy — African-Brazilian treat that you’ll find the baianas (female descendants of enslaved African domestic workers) selling all around the city. 

Outside of the city, which beaches would you recommend?

Praia do Farol da Barra is only a small beach but there’s an old Portuguese fort and a lighthouse there that offers some of the best views of the sunset in the city. If you travel a little further north along the coast, you’ll reach Praia do Forte, where the beaches are said to be some of the best in Brazil. If you have time you should take a boat to the paradise island of Morro de São Paulo, too. When it comes to beaches, we’re very spoiled here in Salvador

What three things do you love most about Salvador?

Capoeira, the culture and the people. And the climate!

Gilberto’s club, Grupo de Capoeira Angola Zimba, runs evening classes for locals and visitors in the historic neighbourhood of Pelourinho at Rua Guedes de Brito, 157-111. Prices start at R$40 (£5) for a 90-minute session and can be booked via Instagram on @zimba_salvador or at grupozimba.weebly.com

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