Early on monday morning/police arrest my brother/for working for the black community/monday afternoon/went to see my brother/police man treated me like a donkey/I say to police man you’ve got a bad attitude/oh no/I am no criminal/ I am a good black woman.
—Brenda Fassie – Good Black Women
Brazil is a country layered and complicated by realities, set up like a Matryoshka Doll. The moment you think you have unravelled and understood one particular kind of politicized social structure, another one is always deeply embedded under it. It’s a country built off government instituted eradication of blackness — not unlike Fidel Castro’s attempt in post-revolutionary Cuba, when he set about banning Afro-Cuban religions, Afro-Cuban social clubs, and blues music. Castro believed that such things were divisive, and stated that the only colour which mattered was the “Cuban Colour.” In Brazil, it was miscegenation that was always seen as the best possible way to deal with the “black problem,” and efforts to whiten the country over the decades have been widespread, intentional and historically violent. Recently, in the lead up to the most divisive election in recent memory, Hamilton Mourao, a candidate for Vice President, attributed the beauty of his grandson to branqueamento de raca — whitening of the race.
There is a widely circulated trope in the liberal West, which is that the mixing of races will undoubtedly lead to the end of structural anti-blackness and systemic racism. The hope is that when no one is darker than a brown paper bag, anti-blackness will effectively be rendered obsolete. Brazil is the living embodiment of that fallacy. An estimated 5 million Africans were brought to Brazil during the Transatlantic slave trade, accounting for 40% of the Africans who were shipped to the Americas. Dismally little is known about the experiences of Afro-Brazilians whose lives are daily overshadowed by the historical legacy of slavery and racism. This void is exacerbated by a vehement government refusal to acknowledge Brazil’s slave history and the generational ramifications it has had for its black citizens. It is against this background, that black womanhood has had to fight, survive, and thrive.
In a country where officially 56% of the population is recognized as Black/Brown, in the state of Bahia, and specifically, its capital city of Salvador, black and brown people make up over 90% of the population. One of the most pulsing points in Salvador is the historical city of Pelourinho, made up of cobblestones, Portuguese colonial architecture and stunning views of the Atlantic Ocean. Built by enslaved Africans over the dead bodies of their kin — many of whom were buried where they fell — the name Pelourinho means whipping post; a telling but obscured reminder of the city’s dark history. It’s a city of angels and demons with every corner marked by a church. Down the cobblestoned hills, and tucked away in a three-storey house, lodged between the House of Cinema and a clothing store, is the home base of the first black female percussion group in Brazil. Known as Banda DiDa (DiDa Band), for twenty-five years this band has been teaching young black women how to drum. In the process, Banda DiDa has slowly set about challenging the constricting gender and racial norms that exist in Brazil’s deeply Evangelical and machista culture.
I was first introduced to DiDa in November of 2017, during Salvador’s annual Marcha do Empoderamento Crespo (March for the Empowerment of Kinky Hair), where they sang songs by popular Afro-Brazilian female artists along with their own compositions, and dazzled the crowds with their playfully bright outfits, engaging smiles and undeniably badass drumming skills. At different times throughout their routine, one or two of the girls would raise the drum (surdo) above their heads and while its elevated, continue dancing and at times spin in circles. Swaying side to side, they thrilled spectators with not only their drumming skills, but the tricks they did with their drum batons, all while in motion. It was electrifying. Here were young black women making music on the very instruments their ancestors had used to spread messages, announce the birth of a child, the death of an elder, the encroachment of an enemy, imploring for rain or celebrating a wedding. As a musical instrument, the drum calls for a total and complete abandonment of the body, integrating into the beats, and realizing that one does not perform on this instrument, but collaborates with it; carving gestures and telling stories which are intimately close to the subject.
Banda DiDa was founded in 1993 by Neguinho de Samba — who is largely regarded as the Father of Samba-Reggae — along side Viviam Caroline de Jesus Queiros, Adriana Pereira Portela and Neguinho’s daughter Deborah de Souza. He is also the founder of Olodum, which you might know as the drumming group in Michael Jackson’s They Don’t Really Care About Us music video. DiDa was a response to the glaring exclusion of black women within the percussion community. Neguinho de Samba realized that as much as young black men needed a space to participate in the cultural traditions which are theirs by birth, black women too deserved to have their own stage. Neguinho passed away almost a decade ago, leaving Queiros, Portela and Souza with the mission of teaching percussion to young black women and children. Queiros and Portela are now instructors at DiDa, and Souza runs the administrative side of the organization. In the twenty-five years since its creation, over 2000 young women have passed through DiDa, forging not only life-long friendships, but an inextricable link with their African heritage.
Laila Castro’s afro frames her face like a halo dipped in cotton candy. She dyed it pink after seeing a picture of another black girl on Tumblr rocking the same style decked with flower crowns at the alternative music festival, Afropunk Johannesburg. “E legal ne?” “Yeah it’s really cool,” I responded to her rhetorical question, as she fluffed her hair, making sure it has maximum volume. The day we met, she had travelled from her home in the neighbourhood of Cabula, which has a population of about 24,000 people. Located an hour away from Pelourinho, her commute can easily turn into two hours when the buses are running behind schedule. “The buses here have no schedule,” she says. “They come when they come and when they don’t, they don’t.” It’s a long journey, and one she takes twice a week to make it to the band’s practices. We were sitting by the Pelourinho square, overlooking Igreja dos Rosario dos Pretos (Church Of The Rosary Of The Blacks); one of the oldest churches in the city built for African slaves by African slaves.
Castro has been a part of the group for over four years, starting when she was eighteen after seeing a video of DiDa performing online. She’s now twenty-two. “It sounds unbelievable, but I had never heard about DiDa, even though I live in the same city they are in. I knew about Olodum, but I didn’t know there was also one for women, so when I saw them I was so surprised and very, very excited.” When Castro first came to DiDa, she didn’t think she would be allowed to stay because she did not have any prior training in percussion. “I thought they would tell me to come back when I knew a bit more or tell me to take classes, which I could not afford, ” she says, wringing her hands together as if reliving the fear of possibly being denied admission into something she passionately wanted to be a part of. “But my first day, they gave me a drum and told me to sit in a class with about five other girls, and that is how I learned. They made it so easy for me. For all of us.”
Queiros, the longest serving band member of DiDa, who also happens to lead the band’s culture classes, was sixteen when she started with the group at the very beginning of its formation. Eighteen years later, she remains fiercely dedicated to making sure that all the girls who want to learn percussion have the opportunity to do so. “All of our classes at DiDa are free. A few years ago, when we were more financially stable, we had classes every day,” she said. “We would also offer the girls transportation back to their homes. But now we can’t do that and we only have classes Tuesdays and Thursdays.” Along with being a member and Professor at DiDa, Queiros is also working on her PhD in Samba-Reggae ethnomusicology.
Most of the young women in DiDa come from similar backgrounds as Castro, with accessibility always hindered by their proximity to poverty, their gender and their race. “In Brazil, a lot of people do not expect black girls to be anything. They want us to disappear, which is why you don’t see us anywhere,” Castro told me, with frustration in her voice. “When you grow up seeing this empty space, you start to believe it’s because we do not deserve anything good. That this is our fault. But being in DiDa showed me that I could do great things and be a part of something that was important and beautiful.” When Castro plays, she becomes someone else, by her own admission and that of the people who have had the opportunity to watch her. “It’s like she becomes one with her drum,” says Queiros. “She becomes this person who is experiencing almost like a trance. And it is a powerful thing to see.” In a world where black women’s bodies and voices are censored to the point of gross ridicule, it’s a particular kind of freedom that comes from knowing that in certain spaces, you can move as you please, exist as you please, react as you please, and your black life will still have value.
In Brazil, drums are present in every facet of Afro-Brazilian culture. In the religious ceremonies of Candomblé, they are used during chants and prayers. In Samba-Reggae, they are the fulcrum on which hangs the soul of the rhythm. And during Capoeira matches, the drums signal the changing pace of a game; marking the rapid fire urgency, the slow steady moves, and the swift kicks. Drums are arguably the definitive African instrument as they are visible in nearly every African country, and in countries inhabited by any number of African descendants. As with all things which hold cultural relevance for people of African descent, when seen through a white lens in Western media, the drum has been distorted and manipulated to suit racial clichés. The bastardized sounds of the drum are the background echo you hear in the imperialist, white saviour trope portrayed in Tarzan, or in mind-numbingly racist cartoons like Jungle Jitters. When stripped of their cultural significance and reduced to simply being an exotic addition to a lacklustre production, the drum ceases to be a symbol of resistance. It becomes merely an entertainment object, appropriated by the white masses and force-fed back to its original owners as bland amusement. You will sooner hear Ringo Starr labelled a drum master, than a young black girl from a Brazilian town who travels 120 minutes twice a week to learn something intrinsic to her cultural survival.
A few weeks after my first meeting with Castro, a torrential rain fell hard on the early morning of September 7th. This just happened to be Brazil’s Independence Day. Almost two centuries before, the country had declared itself independent from Portugal, and as the people in Salvador gathered to celebrate, a seemingly ceaseless amount of rain continued to fall. The day before, ultra right-wing Presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro had been stabbed in the abdomen during a campaign rally and rushed to the hospital with what had been described as near-fatal injuries. The election was set for October, and Bolsonaro, who has been dubbed ‘The Trump of The Tropics,’ by North American media, was commanding the polls with a political rhetoric that would fit well in the congress that makes up Trump’s governing elite. And yet Bolsonaro represented a particular kind of ultra right-wing sect whose beliefs are deeply rooted in Brazil’s slave legacy, its 1964-85 military dictatorship, and a growing base of radicalized evangelicals. The latter view queerness, reproductive rights and Afro-Brazilian religions as social aberrations. If this former military paratrooper were to emerge victorious in the presidential election, his policies would adversely affect the lives of women like those I met in Banda DiDa.
Three days before the election, I headed over to the DiDa headquarters to sit in on one of their late-night classes. About twenty young women were waiting in the narrow, brightly-lit entryway, painted a palm tree green and whose walls were etched with drawings of the DiDa girls drumming. The hallway turns into a staircase on the left side which leads you to the second floor that acts as a theatre space, drumming space and culture lesson space every Thursday. From 7 until 9:30 pm, classes are run, and it’s mandatory for the girls to attend all of them. Tuesday’s lessons are solely percussion based and take place on the streets of Pelourinho with a live audience. Theatre starts first and as the class progressed, the sounds of elevated voices practicing lines and improvisation could be heard from behind the closed door. And yet it wasn’t until the drum class which followed soon after, that the energy became palpable and active. Professora Portela was leading the class and her head, with her trademark black and red jumbo twists, was moving steadily to the beats of the drums. As the first female leader of a bloco-afro (African block) in the city of Salvador, Portela carries herself with the pride of someone who’s proven so many wrong, and also bears the weighted expectations of not only those who want her to fail, but those who desperately want to emulate her.
For Portela, being a black woman in Brazil has been a lesson in survival that at times feels futile. “It’s not easy, and there are some days — no many times really — where it feels like the work I’ve done and the dreams I have will never amount to anything. Because I’m black in Brazil, that means being at the bottom all the time.” In Brazil, to exist as a black female percussion player is to court derision while claiming the space that is rightfully yours. Twice a week, Professora Portela equips young black girls to maintain the legacy for which she continues to carve out a space — not only for herself, but for those she is bringing along with her. As of right now, there are eighty-five members in DiDa and this includes the young children who make up the junior classes. The children peek into the senior class every few minutes in clear anticipation of the time when they too will be able to join the ranks of the seasoned performers.
After the drum lesson, Queiros comes in to lead the last and final lesson — aula de cultura — ‘culture class’ that looks at the Brazilian landscape, its social structures and how they relate to the women congregated in the room. The feared but much anticipated election is only seventy-two hours away, and so much of the class centers around the moments in history that led Brazil to this particular point of existing on the brink of electing someone so enraged by the idea of fairness, equity and basic respect. “This is a dangerous and very important time in Brazil,” said Queiros as she sat in front of the girls who were staring at her intently while sitting in a semi-circle. She tied her honey-coloured locs behind her head and then adjusted her rings as she continued speaking. “A lot of people in Brazil don’t know the laws and they don’t know the constitution. Black people especially, look at politics and think it is not for people who look like them, and that it’s only for rich, elite white men.” Salvador has elected only one black mayor in its entire history, and the state of Bahia has never had a black governor. Brazil is yet to have a black President and just early this year, Marielle Franco, a black queer woman and city councillor, was murdered in Rio de Janeiro. To be black means being political even when unwilling — and in Brazil, active political participation for Afro-Brazilians is filled with countless landmines; least of these being visibility.
As Queiros talked to the young women around her about what was at stake in the next few days, they asked questions and also offered their own analyses on the state of their country. “Whenever I go online, especially on Twitter, I am amazed at how popular Bolsonaro is. He is always trending; 35000 tweets or 45000 sometimes,” said Castro, looking around the class to share her disbelief. “Gente que loucura. This is crazy.” Queiros nodded her head in agreement, while the girls talked amongst themselves sharing stories about the Presidential candidate and the possibility of his victory.
The country has been down this difficult road before, but all the women in the room, myself included, were not yet born or saw the final years of that rule. The Brazilian military dictatorship lasted from 1964 until 1985 and it was two decades of torture, political instability, corruption and mass fear of the state. Looking at Brazil in 2018, certain parts of the nation will be fearful of what a Brazil led by a former military man will look like. A man who has publicly shared his support for Colonel Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, one of the most feared and infamous torturers during Brazil’s military rule who died in 2015.
“For me personally, Bolsonaro is the only one who has actually talked about security. I would feel so much better with a gun as a woman because all the gangs have guns. I want to feel safe,” said Vanesca Louana, a 25-year-old from the Santa Monica bairro. One of Bolsonaro’s most popular platforms is a campaign against those deemed “criminal” or “suspicious,” particularly those who live in lower-income neighborhoods. He has also promised policemen the liberty to use violence as they please, making it seemingly inevitable that civilian involved police shootings will continue to rise. In 2016, police killed an estimated 4224 people in Brazil. A staggering number when you consider that the US, which has a population that is 35% larger than Brazil had an estimated 1134 people killed by police in 2015. The majority of these deaths in Brazil are young black men. And just late last year, Brazil’s congress passed a bill that would make it impossible for members of law enforcement accused of unlawfully killing civilians to face prosecution in civilian courts. Louana’s sentiments are similar to those shared by black people voting for Bolsonaro who have applauded his law and order stand, while discarding his anti-black discourse, whether its explicit or covert. Early this year in reference to the black descendants of warrior African slaves (quilombolas) Bolsonaro said, “They don’t do anything. I don’t think they’re even good for procreation any more.”
A few days after the class, on the seventh of October, Brazilians headed to the polls for the first round of the election. In Brazil, elections happen in two parts unless a candidate is able to receive over 50% of the vote in the first round. The final tally gave Bolsonaro 46.3% of the votes, with the second place progressive candidate Fernando Haddad almost twenty percent behind. Although Bolsonaro lost in Bahia, he took most of the Northern States. It seemed Brazil had made its decision, which would be finalized in the second round set for October 28. There were no classes the Thursday following the election. Friday was a public holiday and so the professoras decided to give everyone an extended weekend. The election result had also taken an emotional toll, so the empty class at DiDa felt less like a long weekend and more like a deep breath before jumping into the eye of the storm.
Professora Adriana Pereira Portela was once a Mulher de Olodum (Woman of Olodum). During Salvador’s carnival, Olodum, a Bloco-Afro (African Block) used to choose one black girl to dance during their performances. In 1992, she was the chosen one. “It was a big honour and it was so much fun. I had the chance to dance for millions of people during carnival. But what I really wanted to do was drum,” she tells me while we sat inside DiDa headquarters a week after the election. “I saw those drums and I fell in love. But the instructors did not want to teach women. I begged and begged and I would ask every single class, until one day Neguinho [de samba] pulled me aside and told me we would start a percussion group for women. I was so happy!” Her joy is evident, and twenty-five years later her eyes still sparkle when she talks about drumming. “Before DiDa, everyone was used to seeing only men drumming, and they would drum with force and power. Neguinho wanted us to do the same thing, but I wanted us to do something different, and so one day he let me lead the class.” Portela then got up and proceeded to show me how exactly she created the rhythmic blueprint DiDa has become renowned for. “I wanted us to dance as women. To show our sensuality and our African expression.”
Rock and roll, like drumming, was granted sensuality when black women chose to reclaim their own sexuality by harnessing the genre as a vehicle to sexual liberation. Thornton, Tina Turner and Janet Jackson are black women who subverted the anti-black notions of over-sexed black female bodies, and instead amplified their autonomy to celebrate not only their inventive musical genius, but their radical body positivity. Portela’s desire to reclaim black sensuality was likely not linked to a desire to imitate these African-American performers, and yet these women shared the same notion of wanting to frame black womanhood not as a cautionary tale, but as a glorious expression of beauty, life and defiance. Most percussion groups in Brazil have separate sections made up of those who drum and those who dance. In DiDa, everything is done at the same time by the same people. “We dance while we drum, and we drum while we dance,” said Portela. When you see DiDa, live or online, you will be drawn to their movements — and the effortlessness of their synchronized choreography is belied by the fact that they spend hours practicing; at home, at school, in the street and at the DiDa headquarters. “This is how we practice our militancy,” says Portela. “By being a part of movements that change the conversation on what it means to be black and what it means to be a woman in Brazil.”
On the 28th of October, exactly three weeks after the first election round, Brazilians headed back to the polls to make the final decision that would determine which candidate would lead the country for the next four years. After Bolsonaro’s first round victory, many had already resigned themselves to his eventual victory, yet there was a clear surge in the days leading up to the election that saw widespread mobilization by mostly women in Salvador, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, with simultaneous waves also happening online through Twitter and Whatsapp. The latter social network had largely been used by Bolsonaro’s campaign to spread “fake news” regarding his opponents. It proved to be an incredibly powerful and effective tool in a country where nearly 67% of the 200 million population uses Whatsapp as their primary source of communication. By 6 pm Sunday night, the election count was done and Jair Bolsonaro had defeated Fernando Haddad. Bolsonaro received 55.1% of the votes and Haddad came in at 44.9%. This was closer than the first round — a testament to the last minute campaign rush — but it was not enough to deter Bolsonaro’s appeal to over half the voting population. The women of DiDa would now be living in a Brazil whose leadership and goals would largely undermine their ways of living. Everything had changed, but one thing still remained constant; drumming was, and is, the avenue they would continue to use to punctuate their deep pride and love in their black existence and affirm their African heritage.
Living in Salvador, I’ve found myself privy to the fact that there is something about this city and the ways blackness has fought and survived here that has led to compelling musical innovations. Globally, for black communities, music has always presented itself as an avenue of limitless expression. From the pan-Africanist radicalism of Nigerian artist Fela Kuti and the South African songstress Brenda Fassie, to the lyricism of Bob Marley and the caustic wit of Mighty Sparrow. The singular ingenuity of Aretha Franklin, the raw appeal of Poly Styrene and the carefree joy of Scary Spice. Music and blackness have lead to stunning collaborations resulting in genres such as jazz, hip hop, rock, samba-reggae and afrobeat. Music, blackness and the specificity of the Afro-Brazilian experience in Salvador has meant that an unprecedented number of Brazil’s greatest musicians have come from the city that is home to DiDa. The likes of Virginia Rodrigues, Margareth Menezes, Tiganá Santana, Gilberto Gil, Luedji Luna, Lazzo Matumbi, and Carlinhos Brown all call Salvador home. Banda DiDa runs along the same musical lineage as these artists, and so it was preordained that their groundbreaking artistry would lean so heavily on their African heritage and outsider experience as people whose skin colour forces them to live on the margins of Brazilian society.
Inside DiDa’s building there hangs a poster of Neguinho de Samba in the hallway, with his trademark sailor cap over his braids. Below is written, “Arma a banda, a batalha ja vai comecar” — “Arm the band, the battle has already begun.” This was something he would say before a show, and it could be read as a more eloquent way of saying “break a leg.” Yet in the context of Salvador and blackness on a global scale, the messaging is clear; for black people, culture is armour, the band is our community, and the fight is one which has been ongoing for centuries.
The women of DiDa are one link in a long chain of cultural resistance, and to see them drum in front of millions of people during carnival is to see resistance in motion. Beautiful, glorious, black motion.
Tari Ngangura is a journalist and photographer based in Brazil. She documents black lives around the globe, their histories, legacies, and movements. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine, Hazlitt, VICE, Catapult, The Fader, and Rookie Mag.
This story originally appeared in Issue 3 of Gusher, a print rock music magazine written and created entirely by women and non-binary people, and focused on longform music journalism and criticism. Gusher is based in Sydney, Australia.
Longreads Editor: Aaron Gilbreath