Here’s something you might not know: In the city of Salvador, in Brazil’s Bahia state, more than 90 percent of the population identifies as Afro-Brazilian (black and mixed). And that makes it a city that embraces blackness more than most around the country. In Brazil, the American “one-drop rule” works in reverse, meaning that one drop of “white blood” in your heritage lets you self-identify as white, dark brown or light brown. Anything but black, really. That’ll make sense in a bit, when we get to one of the genres of music that’s sprung from Salvador.
First, there’s a certain energy to the place. Every day but Sunday, street vendors in the city centre sell everything from vegetables and underwear to iPhone chargers. Moto-taxis weave through traffic alongside buses, cyclists and pedestrians, like a giant game of Russian Roulette. Favela communities stand next to expensive high-rise condos, just streets from suburban neighbourhoods.
Almost 500 years ago, the city was the first slave port in the Americas with most Africans taken from what is now Ghana, Benin, and Nigeria. An outline of that African imprint is stamped on the local food (see Nigerian-influenced dishes like acarajé), on the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé and on music known as Axé (pronounced ah-SHAY). It's hard to articulate exactly what makes Axé as dynamic as it is, bar yelling "go listen to some right now." But here are the basics. Imagine music rooted in West African instrumentation, influenced by the rhythms of Caribbean calypso, and you're not far off. In Axé you hear the reverberating pounding of drums, layered under the subtle ting-tong of the agogô bells, the delicate strands of the berimbau (a single-string instrument) and the metallic clink, shimmy and thud of the pandeiro (tambourine).
Axé exploded in the late 1980s, around the time that bloco-afros (Afro-Brazilian carnival bands) started to appear in Salvador’s carnival. Until then Afro-Brazilians had previously been barred from taking part in the festivities. Their music was heavily inspired by the drumming, singing and chanting found in the religious Candomblé ceremonies. The genre thus blends black musical and spiritual markers, but you wouldn’t necessarily be able to tell that from its most visible stars. Axé is dominated by white Brazilian artists, particularly white women like Ivete Sangalo, Daniela Mercury and Claudia Leitte. “Blonde white women have taken over as this symbol of Axé music,” says composer and artist Tiganá Santana. “You have them in front of everything and it’s really hard for black women to make it. In my opinion, Axé music is something that incorporated black culture but didn’t include black people its context, marketing, visibility, or media. Black people are not wanted on the scene.”
That doesn’t mean Afro-Brazilian artists don’t express themselves through Axé. In addition to Santana, who’s been releasing music since 2010, artists like 30-year-olds Luedji Luna and Xênia França, and more deeply embedded mainstays like the legendary Margareth Menezes and Virgínia Rodrigues, give black Brazilians plenty of role models in the genre. In August I went to see Luna perform. Dressed in white, she was joined by Tiganá Santana, who’s also a friend of hers. Her music makes you feel something akin to the joy of basking in the sun on a warm day. Her balmy voice bounced through an auditorium packed with people whose skin glowed with the depth of different shades of melanin and whose dyed afros in varying textures bobbed along to the music. Every person I could see knew the words to her songs. “I think my people really enjoy my music because the things I am saying are things they also know. I am not just talking about myself. I am talking about our history,” she told me a few months after the gig.
It is this sacred point of entry that Brazil’s upcoming Afro-Brazilian musicians have chosen to focus on. Luna, Santana, Menezes and Rodrigues all come from Salvador (Xênia França is from Candeias just outside of Salvador). And by centering black stories, they’re all taking back Axé music, making the people at its roots visible above ground. They’re doing their bit to push back against a culture that’s erased black people, while also profiting from their creative inventions. Here’s a guide to their lively scene.
Just last year, Luna released her debut album Um Corpo No Mundo (A Body in the World) and used it to thoughtfully echo the shared feelings of displacement felt by black people in the diaspora. It’s an album you can listen to on long drives or while lying back in a hammock. It’s surprisingly breezy and understated for something that highlights difficult experiences. “When I moved to Sao Paulo from Salvador I felt alone,” she tells me. “In Salvador I was in one of the blackest cities in the world – São Paulo is the opposite. I felt like a stranger in my own country. I can’t ‘go back to Africa’ because I don’t know where my ancestors were kidnapped from, but I also don’t have a place here. So I made the album to say I belong nowhere but in the world.”
In the video for the title track you see her as a solitary figure in white walking across the streets of São Paulo. Near the end of the song she sings, “Je suis ici” (I am here), as a purposeful addition to covertly address a very real problem. “There is so much anti-black xenophobia in São Paulo, especially against black people from Haiti and Senegal. I sang that line because I wanted them to know that I could see them and I am with them.”
When you scroll through the comments on França’s Youtube videos, the word "arrepiante" (creepy) often comes up. It conveys the chill-down-your spine effect of her work. On “Breu (Tar)” from her 2017 album, Xênia, she sings about the collective pain felt by black woman no matter the age, over the sounds of piano and clanging percussion. The video for her single “Pra Que Me Chamas? (What Do You Call Me?)” synthesises Axé rhythms and the storytelling calls of West African griots to ask an urgent, and somewhat impatient, question about the appropriation of blackness. “Parque me chama se nao me conhece?” she sings, which translates as “Why are you calling me if you do not know me?”
It makes sense that Santana approaches music with his level of focused intention – as well as a composer and guitar player, whose tenor voice delivers itself like a lullaby, he’s a Philosophy graduate. Santana is the first artist in Brazil to release music in the Bantu languages of Kimbundu and Kikongo. His last album, Tempo e Magma (Time and Magma) was released three years ago and on the single “Congo-Angola-Bahia,” he fills the first 46 seconds with a heady mix of African instruments whose sounds flow in singular melodic syncopation. His music has been labeled Axé but he doesn't firmly classify himself that way.
I remember crying the first time I heard Menezes’ deeply distinctive voice live. With a career spanning over 30 years she has zig-zagged across genres, blending her voice into samba-reggae and música popular Brasileira (MPB). She injected a pulsating pop feel into Axé, expanding its edges without moving it too far from its African roots. Salvador’s annual carnival is all the more vibrant because of Menezes’ appearances. Her hits bring everyone to their feet, while also bringing to mind the spirit of a Samba de Roda: an Afro-Brazilian mixture of music, dance and capoeira.
When you listen to Rodrigues you’re listening to a vocal gift. Her first album Sol Negro was released 20 years ago this year, steeped in a soulfulness inspired by grief, vulnerability and resistance. Her second album Nos, released in 2000, cemented her status as an unmatched singer. Nos featured songs from Brazil’s best Axé bands and bloco-afros, from Ilê Aiyê to Timbalada, Araketu, Afreketê and Olodum. The album was a musical capsule of a specific genre as told by the people who created it. Rodrigues has also carved out a space to fold in elements of jazz, using the genre’s symbiotic relationship with improvisation. Currently working on a new album, there is no doubt it will evoke the untenable spirit of Axé and black creativity.
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This article originally appeared on Noisey UK.