This week, Rio de Janeiro should have celebrated, its lively streets with locals and tourists honoring the Carnival of the cities, a tradition dating back to the 17th century. But for the first time outside of the two world wars, the main event of the cities is canceled. His only reasonable decision given how out of control the pandemic is in Brazil, yet locals and tourists still mourn the loss of the world’s most prestigious pre-Lent festival, a root in the sound of samba.
A century ago, samba becoming synonymous with Brazils cultural identity would have seemed impossible. In the early 20th century, the ruling elite of Rio was ashamed and afraid of the rhythm, which was associated with African-Brazilian cults. Samba faced police persecution: musicians were often arrested, their instruments confiscated or destroyed; the rallies were abruptly closed. It might not have lasted if it were not for the intelligence and diplomacy of the entrepreneur, artist, spiritual guide, and community leader known as Aunt Ciata.
From the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rio de Janeiro was a bustling capital of Latin America. Slavery was officially over and Brazil’s industrialization was gaining momentum. Rio attracted working-class Europeans and African-Brazilian migrants from the northeastern state of Bahia in search of better living conditions. Ciata, born in Hilria Batista de Almeida, was one of them. She arrived in Rio at the age of 22 in 1876, moving to a neighborhood known as Little Africa thanks to her predominantly African-Brazilian community and becoming one of the many so-called aunts including Bebiana, Amlia, Perciliana and Veridiana who formed community.
From Bahia, Aunt Ciata brought the culture inherited from her African ancestors and the habit of celebrating life as a form of resistance. Her parties have lasted five, sometimes seven days, without interruption, says Gracy Mary Moreira, Ciata’s great-grandson and caretaker since 2007. Tia Ciata House, a cultural institution dedicated to its memory and heritage. Ciatas riot rallies attracted all sorts of people, from the African-Bahraini community to Jewish, Arab, Latin European, and even Cariocas (denizens of Rio) middle-class working class immigrants. For Ciata, the fuller the house, the better.
This unique multicultural encounter gave birth to an authentic musical expression, today called Rios urban samba (or samba carioca). In his 1995 book, Tia Ciata e A Pequena frica no Rio de Janeiro (Aunt Ciata and Little Africa in Rio de Janeiro), author Roberto Moura explains that, thanks to Rio’s cosmopolitan environment, black music has always had a dialogue with western folk music in spaces where different social and racial groups gathered.
The Ciatas courtyard became a defining cultural center where young samba composers and songs could find popularity before the existence of radio in Brazil. It was a foreign market. Police persecuted black musicians and practitioners of the African-Brazilian religions, despite the individual freedoms promised by the 1891 constitution. Ciata became smarter by avoiding repression, Moreira says.
A true samba party would necessarily require the presence of drums, which have always been negatively associated with African-Brazilian religious cults. So Ciata would wisely place samba musicians in backyards, supposedly the most hidden and safe part of the house. In the entrance hall, houses the most visible and audible space, brass and string instrumentalists would play choro music [considered more erudite, and hardly linked to anything close to Black magic]. When police arrived, Ciata meant she was expecting a choir meeting and things would normally be fine for the rest of the night.
Samba evolved in the backyard of Ciata. Here you will find the upcoming giants of the genre including Pixinguinha, Joo da Baiana and Heitor dos Prazeres. The first hit recorded in samba, Pelo Telefone of 1916, was created there. It reflects the cultural union that created the genre, says Moreira. It has elements of maxixe [a genre inspired by the European polka and the African-Brazilian lundu] and chula [an Afro-Bahian rhythm].
The authority of Pelo Telefone is usually attributed to Donga, the musician who recorded the part in his name, but Ciata, writes Moura, helped in its composition. Moreira says her grandmother created many other samba, which are still being researched. Moreover, her skills in dancing and singing were admirable: She taught my father how to dance in every sub-genre of samba, says Moreira, whose father, Bucy Moreira, helped establish the school. first samba in Rio, Deixa Falar.
The Ciatas parties gained legitimacy thanks to a casual meeting with the president. As a practitioner of Candombl’s Afro-Brazilian religion, she was highly respected for her spiritual wisdom. When President Venceslau Brs (1914-1918) sought a cure for a long-term foot infection that no doctor could treat, an adviser recommended herbal Ciatas treatments, says Moreira. The supposedly incurable wound healed in three days.
Community prestige around Ciata meetings was strengthened at institutional levels. Her home became known as the capital of Little Africa and received police protection from more than six officers at the same time during the party days. Distinguished Rio musicians from the most respected genres performed in Ciatas, such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Chiquinha Gonzaga, who, says Moreira, composed the first Carnaval song there
She also gave her mark at the celebrations. Every ranch with the former name for the blocks, or parties on Carnival streets passed by Ciatas and greeted him first, writes Moura. She founded two farms, one of which was born out of the goal of bringing peace and harmony to the community, says Moreira, who five years ago founded Batuke de Ciata, a bloc made up mostly of female instrumentalists.
Today, the Rio Carnival is the most watched and most widely broadcast event of its kind, generating annual revenue of around $ 1 billion for the city. The event has even inspired other countries to set up their own samba schools like Rio, from Japan to Finland. But its Afro-Brazilian origins may go unnoticed, especially as the blocks whitewash and the Sambadrome parade area softens, and ultra-conservative evangelicals, empowered by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, stifle and attack Afro-Brazilian history.
It was Ciata, her farms and her community in Asia Minor that created the basic instruments of the parades, such as cuca and tambourine, and the famous choreography of contemporary samba schools: one of the most traditional wings (morning groups in 100s costumes forta) of every samba school, the Baianas arm, is a direct homage to Ciata. The resurgence and concentration of her legacy, says Yna Lopes dos Santos, a history professor at Federal Fluminense University and a specialist in ethnic-racial relations in America, has ramifications beyond samba. Remembering Aunt Ciatas’s story is the pursuit of an anti-racist perspective, a perspective that truly introduces Black characters into the story of Brazil’s history.
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