TLast week, Rio de Janeiro should be celebrating, its streets lively with people and tourists in honor of the city’s carnival, a tradition that dates back to the 17th century. But for the first time outside the two world wars, the city’s main event was canceled. It is the only reasonable decision, given how out of control the pandemic is in Brazil – but residents and tourists are still mourning the loss of the most prestigious pre-Lent festival in the world, based on the sound of samba.
A century ago, samba becoming synonymous with Brazil’s cultural identity seemed impossible. In the early 20th century, Rio’s ruling elite was ashamed and afraid of the rhythm, which was linked to Afro-Brazilian cults. Samba faced police harassment: musicians were often arrested, their instruments confiscated or destroyed; the meetings ended abruptly. It might not have lasted had it not been for the intelligence and diplomacy of the businesswoman, artist, spiritual guide and community leader known as Tia Ciata.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rio de Janeiro was a bustling Latin American capital. Slavery was officially over and Brazil’s industrialization was gaining momentum. Rio attracted working-class Latino Europeans and Afro-Brazilian migrants from the state of Bahia in search of better living conditions. Ciata, born Hilária 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 for her predominantly Afro-Brazilian community, and became one of the many so-called aunts – among them Bebiana, Amélia, Perciliana and Veridiana – that shaped the community.
From Bahia, Aunt Ciata brought the culture inherited from African ancestors and the habit of celebrating life as a form of resistance. “Her parties lasted five, sometimes seven days, non-stop”, says Gracy Mary Moreira, Ciata’s great-granddaughter and caretaker since 2007 at Casa da Tia Ciata, a cultural institution dedicated to her memory and legacy. Ciata’s tumultuous meetings attracted all types of people, from the Afro-Bahian community to working-class immigrants – Jews, Arabs, European Latinos – and even curious white middle-class Cariocas (inhabitants of Rio). For Ciata, the more crowded the house, the better.
This unique multicultural encounter gave rise to an authentic musical expression, today called Rio’s urban samba (or Rio samba). In his 1995 book, Tia Ciata and A Pequena África in Rio de Janeiro (Tia Ciata and Little Africa in Rio de Janeiro), the author Roberto Moura explains that, thanks to the cosmopolitan environment in Rio, black music has always dialogued with folk music western democratic spaces, where socially and racially diverse groups came together.
Ciata’s courtyard became a cultural pole for the creation of trends, where new composers and samba songs were able to find popularity before the existence of radio in Brazil. It was an outlier. The police harassed black musicians and practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions, despite the individual freedoms promised by the 1891 constitution. Ciata became smarter in escaping repression, says Moreira.
“A true samba party would necessarily require the presence of drums, which have always been negatively associated with Afro-Brazilian religious cults. Thus, Ciata would wisely place the samba musicians in the backyards, supposedly the most hidden and secure part of the house. In the entrance hall, the most visible and audible space in the house, brass and string players played choro [considered more erudite, and hardly linked to anything close to ‘Black magic’]. When the police arrived, Ciata would say that he was having a crying party and that normally everything would be fine for the rest of the night ”.
Samba evolved in Ciata’s backyard. Here he would find future giants of the genre such as Pixinguinha, João da Baiana and Heitor dos Prazeres. There, the first recorded samba hit was composed, Pelo Pelo, from 1916. It reflects the cultural fusion that gave rise to the genre, says Moreira. “It has elements of gherkin [a genre inspired by the European polka and the African-Brazilian lundu] and foul [an Afro-Bahian rhythm]. “
The authorship of Pelo Telephone is commonly attributed to Donga, the musician who recorded the piece in his name, but Ciata, writes Moura, helped with the composition. Moreira says that his great-grandmother created many other sambas, which are still being researched. In addition, her dancing and singing skills were admirable: “She taught my father to dance all the subgenres of samba,” says Moreira, whose father, Bucy Moreira, helped found the first samba school in Rio, Deixa Falar.
Ciata’s parties gained legitimacy thanks to a chance meeting with the president. As a practitioner of the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé religion, he was highly respected for his spiritual wisdom. When President Venceslau Brás (1914-1918) sought a cure for a long-term infection in the leg that no doctor could treat, a counselor recommended Ciata’s herbal medicines, says Moreira. “The supposedly unrecoverable wound healed in three days.”
The community’s prestige around the Ciata meetings was reinforced at institutional levels. His home became known as the capital of Little Africa and received police protection from up to six police officers at a time during the holidays. Renowned Cariocas from the most respected genres performed at Ciata’s, such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Chiquinha Gonzaga, who, says Moreira, composed the first carnival single there.
She also left her mark on the celebrations. Every ranch – the old name of blocks, or carnival parties – passed by Ciata and greeted her first, writes Moura. “She founded two ranches, one of them was born with the goal of bringing peace and harmony to the community”, says Moreira, who founded Batuke de Ciata five years ago, a group composed mainly of female instrumentalists.
Today, Rio Carnival is the most watched and broadcast event of its kind, generating annual revenue of around $ 1 billion for the city. The event even inspired other countries to found their own samba schools like Rio, from Japan to Finland. But their Afro-Brazilian origins can easily go unnoticed, especially since the blocks are whitewashed and the parade area of the Sambódromo is ennobled, and ultra-conservative evangelicals, with the power of extreme right president Jair Bolsonaro, suffocate and attack Afro-Brazilian history. Brazilian.
Ciata, his ranches and his Little Africa community created the fundamental instruments of the parade, such as cuíca and tamborim, and the famous choreography of contemporary samba schools: one of the most traditional wings (parading groups of 100 people) of all. The samba school, wing of the Baianas, is a direct tribute to Ciata. Resurrecting and centralizing his legacy, says Ynaê Lopes dos Santos, professor of history at the Universidade Federal Fluminense and specialist in ethnic-racial relations in the Americas, has ramifications beyond samba. “To remember Aunt Ciata’s story is to seek an anti-racist perspective, which really inserts black characters in the narrative of Brazilian history.”