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Day 32: Salvador

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The breathtaking, gilded interior of the eighteenth- century Church of St Francis in Salvador.
Michael Palin - BrazilA short walk through the streets near our hotel with Charles Butler, an artist who created the Pousada Redfish from a shell of a house which he bought for something like $10,000 back in 1998. It's now worth well over a million. We walk in the opposite direction from the touristy Pelourinho. This area, called Santo Antōnio, is much less comprehensively restored. I'm surprised to hear that even the most picturesque houses we pass are not nearly as old as they look. Most only date from the 1920s, when Brazil had been independent for forty years, so they can't be described as 'colonial'. They look older, says Charles, because the European styles took a long time to get out to Brazil. And, what with the heat and the rain and the termites, the fabric of the buildings deteriorates fast. Their preservation is largely in the hands of foreigners, with French, German and Italian money leading the conservation investment. According to Charles the Brazilians don't really have an idea of 'old'. When they want a house they want something new. And there's a marked lack of modernity in these streets. A wiry old man comes by, pushing a wheelbarrow piled high with fruit and vegetables. Every now and then he'll be asked for something, or he'll stop at a house and ring the bell. Charles has been living here for almost thirty years. He likes the fact that this neighbourhood still has room for rich and poor. He says it's a good place for an artist, and much of his work reflects the strong, vibrant colours of the neighbourhood. His only real criticism is reserved for state education. He has two children by a Brazilian from whom he's separated and though he'd far rather have them publicly educated, he says the system is so bad that he has no option but to go private.

At the end of the road is a square, the Largo de Santo Antōnio, from which comes the sound of clapping and chanting. On a wrought-iron bandstand in the middle of the square four women in white robes, white tunics and white shoes are singing to a small congregation, members of which stand in line to have healing hands laid upon them. One of them has her eyes tight shut, as hands are moved over her stomach. A small distance away a massive body-builder is working out on a set of exercise bars. His muscles spread like sails on a ship as he hoists himself into the air, his grunts of effort a counterpoint to the chanting of the Evangelicals. Do the Brazilians have a word for self-conscious? I can't think when they'd ever use it.

There are extremes of wealth and poverty here in Salvador, as anywhere else in Brazil, and there are many young people from the favelas, the shanty towns, who leave home and live on the street, dealing drugs and getting into prostitution to earn some money. Over recent years there have been a number of inventive initiatives aimed at these lost children. Among the most successful is Olodum – the name is African, short for Oludumare, the god of gods of the Yorubį people of Nigeria. Through the Escola Olodum the organizers aim to bring some dignity and achievement back into the lives of these street children by teaching them the art of African drumming. At the same time, and a little more controversially, they have the political agenda of reminding them of their African heritage. Olodum was dreamt up in 1979 by a charismatic figure called Joćo Jorge, born and brought up here in the Pelourinho. He has political aspirations and is running as a Socialist candidate in the next mayoral elections. A confident and energetic man in his mid-fifties, thick-set, dreadlocked and bespectacled, he says he was brought up on Bob Marley, James Brown and, less predictably, the Beatles and Elvis. He talks to me in the Nelson Mandela Auditorium, a rather grand name for an upstairs room, but Mandela has once been to visit and it's clear that the whole issue of African pride is very important to him. Joćo insists I sit directly opposite him at the table as he punches out figures about Olodum's success. Famous on five continents. Taking 360 poor children, black and white, from the favelas to their summer school each year. Their drummers chosen to accompany Michael Jackson and to back Paul Simon in his Rhythm of the Saints album. And below the Nelson Mandela Auditorium they have a shop selling Olodum-related merchandise.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 32: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 135

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