Rich aroma fritters akaraye sold by vendors Baiana, mingles with the rhythmic drumming of El Salvador’s street bands. Tourists and locals packed bars in the Pelourinho district to watch Brazil’s first game at the 2022 World Cup, and the crowd erupted when they scored against Serbia. It is a joyful celebration that takes place against the background of blue skies and pastel colors of the colonial era in Terreiro de Jesus Square, typical of the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, Salvador de Bahia (better known as Salvador).
I quickly learned that celebrations are the norm, not the exception, in Salvador, a city located along Brazil’s northeastern coast near some of the country’s best beaches, and considered by many to be the birthplace of modern Brazil. Local residents have a saying ” Sem pressa, olha para o céu, fala com Deus, você tá na Bahia (Take your time, look at the sky, talk to God, you’re in Bahia), which embodies the relaxed atmosphere of good mood unique to this region. So it is not surprising that this city from the UNESCO World Heritage List is unofficially called ” the capital of happiness » Brazil.
When you ask the locals (aka Soteropolitanos ), what makes El Salvador so joyful, they seem to be referring to the same thing: ax , a West African Yoruba term that loosely translates to “energy.” Jair Dantas Dos Santos, a local resident of El Salvador, describes El Salvador’s ax as “a powerful presence in the air that is felt rather than explained.” Indeed, Soteropolitanos says axé is an energy woven into the fabric of Bahian culture, and it permeates everything from Salvador’s music to his laid-back attitude to life.
It is impossible to describe the Bahian axé without first considering the region’s multi-layered and tumultuous history. Salvador was settled in 1549 by Portuguese colonizers and served as the first capital of Portuguese America until 1763. It was a major seaport during the transatlantic slave trade and is considered the first slave market in New World where enslaved Africans were recruited to work on the region’s sugar plantations.
Antonio Barreto, a local teacher and poet, says that to understand the complex history of El Salvador, one only needs to look at the name of the historic center of the city: the Pelourinho (pillar of shame), a wooden device used for public violence against people. In colonial times, enslaved persons were publicly punished by pelorinhos for alleged violations. Today, its name remains as a reminder of El Salvador’s dark past.
During the era of the slave trade, the Portuguese enslaved more Africans than any other country, shipping almost five million of them to Brazil. Most of these enslaved people came from Angola, another Portuguese colony, and other West African countries. Slavery persisted in Brazil until 1888, but Barreto explained that enslaved Africans and their descendants continued to fight for their freedom and traditions throughout the years. The coat of arms of Bahia illustrates the strength of its people through the Latin phrase ” Per ardua surgo (I rise through difficulties).
Today, El Salvador is considered the Afro-Brazilian capital, where approximately 80% of the inhabitants trace their roots to Africa. The city’s unique culture is a testament to the strength and courage of its people, who embrace modernity and proudly celebrate their rich Bahian traditions, drawn from the Portuguese, Africans and Indians. Walking the streets, it’s easy to see how these diverse musical, culinary, and religious practices blend together.
Salvador is the Afro-Brazilian capital and the country’s first capital (Image credit: Jan Sochor/Alamy)
As Barreto and I strolled through the center of Pelourinho, we came upon the Terreiro de Jesús square, known for its colonial-era churches and 17th-century monuments. The combination of stucco buildings and African-style art found throughout Terreiro de Jesus highlights the cultural fusion and resilience so unique to this city. Once a place where enslaved Africans were beaten, the square now serves as the backdrop for Bahian festivals celebrating capoeira and samba, two practices born in Bahia.
In front of the Church of San Francisco, which is famous for its golden sculptural interior and illusionistic painting of the Baroque era, we came across a charged capoeira roda ( circle), made in frames Festival de Cultural Popular , which celebrates the traditions of Bahia. Capoeira performers moved fluidly to the rhythm of the atabaque and berimbau drums, a single-stringed bow-shaped percussion instrument originating in West Africa. Like atabaque and berimbau, capoeira also has its roots in Africa.
Historians believe that capoeira, a unique combination of martial art and dance, was developed in Brazil by enslaved Africans as a means of self-defense. under Portuguese control . Today, capoeira is a street entertainment staple in El Salvador and symbolizes both liberation and freedom. Practitioners say that their nimble movements embody the spirit vadiação which loosely translates to disorder, and is an example of the easy energy of the region.
Through Terreiro de Jesus, Barreto and I found a samba performance where the movements of the dancers were synchronized with the rhythm of guitars, drums and pandeiro (drums). Like capoeira, samba was born in Bahia by enslaved Africans and is now considered the national dance of Brazil. Various forms of samba developed throughout Brazil during the colonial era, and samba de Roda originated in El Salvador. This form is a collective performance that combines dance, musical instruments, singing and poetry drawn from both African and Portuguese traditions. Today, samba is danced all over Brazil, and at the El Salvador Dance Club Balé Folklórica da Bahia professional performances dedicated to the dance born in Bahia are held.
Samba and Capoeira were born in Bahia and developed by enslaved Africans (Image credit: Kate Schoenbach)
Bayan traditions such as capoeira and samba are celebrated with great regional pride. In fact, El Salvador’s main holiday season, which runs from December to March, begins with Samba Day and ends with Carnival. Locals are quick to point out that the biggest street parties in the world are not held in Rio, but here in El Salvador.
Perhaps nothing embodies the concept of the ax more than Candomblé, a syncretic religion that combines Yoruba and other West African traditions with Roman Catholicism. Ask Soteropolitanos and they will quickly tell you that they are happier than other Brazilians because they have more holidays (celebrations) than in other regions, mainly due to the strong presence of the Candomblé faith, and if you wander around El Salvador today, you’re likely to see Candomblé practitioners blessing passers-by.
The Candomblé faith developed in Brazil during the colonial era, when the Portuguese imposed Catholicism on enslaved Africans. In an effort to preserve their spiritual identity, enslaved peoples mixed the image of Catholic saints with their own African ones. orixás (spirits). Although candomblé is now widely accepted in Brazilian society, unfortunately, practitioners still face discrimination from time to time. However, there are Catholic churches and Candomblé churches in Salvador coexist in relative harmony, and Candomblé’s presence is felt throughout the city.
The influence of Candomblé is particularly visible in the glittering dress proudly worn by the women of Baiana de Acarajé who sell traditional street food. Their colorful clothing is a symbol of Candomblé and emphasizes the mixed traditions of the diverse population of the region. While Baiana clothing is inspired by both European Baroque dress and Yoruba clothing, their colorful beaded necklaces represent the Candomblé orixás. The streets of El Salvador are filled with Bayana women selling things like acarayes ( black-eyed pea fritters) and cockatoo (coconut dessert) , and also happily share their culture with both locals and tourists.
Like religion and dance, Salvadoran food is heavily influenced by its African roots and should be celebrated (Image credit: Kate Schoenbach)
In El Salvador, food, like life in general, is meant to be celebrated. Popular local dishes like akaraye and abara (an akraje-like snack steamed in a banana leaf) are offered to Candomblé orixás during ceremonial celebrations, and local worshipers impale them with an axe. Outside of Candomblé’s holidays, the city’s thriving restaurant scene and bustling markets are a great way to experience El Salvador’s unique cuisine year-round.
While exploring the bustling area of Ladeira da Preguis, I met local chef Chris Oliveira de Santana, who described her favorite dish, abara, as “an explosion of flavor that combines Brazil and Africa.” Like other Bahian traditions, Oliveira de Santana said Bahian food is not only a local identity, but also represents the “berço do Brasil,” or homeland of modern Brazil.
From mixed arts to fusion cuisine, El Salvador’s traditions embody historical resilience and cultural pride, inextricably linked to the city’s festive life. Perhaps the real key to Salvador’s happiness lies in its ability to transform its tumultuous history into the unique joy that Salvador has given to the rest of Brazil.