For six successive nights every February, a million people dance in the streets, few under 15, fewer over 50, packing the roadways in Pelourinho, around Campo Grande and along the coast between Barra and Ondina.
On an average night, there are five killings in Salvador—which is why visitors don’t go where they don’t go; it is an edgy city forever on the cusp of violence and street crime. Oddly, it is a lot safer during carnaval when heavy-booted officers move through the crowds in groups of five, imposing order as they pass. Still, you should keep your eyes open and your wits about you; carry nothing valuable; empty your pockets, and tuck the minimum money necessary for drinks and a taxi home into your socks, underpants or bra.
Each of the three processions is made up of blocos. An enormous flat-bed lorry is piled with amplifiers, topped with a stage where one of the local stars performs, and surrounded by a roped-off enclosure within which hundreds or even thousands of followers dance the night through. Few of the stars’ names—such as Chiclete com Banana, Daniela Mercury, Ivete Sangalo, Carlinhos Brown and Timbalada—are famous beyond the region but they are demigods and goddesses within it.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that the fun of street dancing in Brazil increases as the average skin colour of the participants darkens. You can choose to watch the procession of blocos from the relative safety of a camarote—a stand where for £50 or so you can sit in an airless gallery with access to a bar, toilets and other facilities—but they are very pallid and as middle class as a home counties golf club. Much better to join the pipoca, locals from the favelas and others in the street, squeezing with them into the narrow spaces between ropes and
camarotes as blocos pass, and at other times spilling into the roadway in search of cool drinks and space. There can be intense crowd pressure at junctions, but there are usually some husky Brazilians to shelter behind.
And all the time you dance. Shirts drip; sweat-soaked skin gleams in the street lights; and the naked muscles of capoeiristas glisten as they show off their tricks. Great rhythm. Great fun—an exhilarating and wonderful party. It matters not if you are dancing alone. Most people welcome you for a few minutes, and if an occasional xenophobe pushes, simply move along. The axe beat is irresistible and will soon intoxicate you again.
As dawn’s rosy fingers gild the eastern sky, the carnival closes down. The empty camarotes loom dark and desolate. The stall holders lock their wares away, spread a blanket on the pavement and go to sleep. Women come with rakes to scoop the solid detritus from the liquids (mainly urine) in the gutters, men with brooms follow on to sweep the litter in to piles for others with shovels to place in dustcarts. The last night is a scene of much greater devastation as drum kits are removed, carnival finery is stripped away, and massive lorries return to their everyday existence.