TThis week, Rio de Janeiro should have been celebrating, its streets filled with locals and tourists honoring the city’s Carnival, a tradition that dates back to the 17th century. But for the first time outside of both world wars, the city’s flagship event is canceled. It is the 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, one rooted in the sound of samba.
A century ago, it would have seemed impossible for samba to become synonymous with Brazil’s cultural identity. In the early 20th century, Rio’s ruling elite were embarrassed and scared of the rhythm, which was linked to Afro-Brazilian cults. Samba faced police persecution: musicians were frequently detained, their instruments confiscated or destroyed; the meetings were closed abruptly. It might not have lasted if it weren’t for the intelligence and diplomacy of the entrepreneur, artist, spiritual guide, and community leader known as Aunt 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 gathering momentum. Rio attracted working-class European Latinos and Afro-Brazilian migrants from the northeastern state of Bahia in search of better living conditions. Ciata, born as Hilária Batista de Almeida, was one of them. She came to Rio at age 22 in 1876, moving to a neighborhood known as Little Africa thanks to its predominantly Afro-Brazilian community, and became one of many so-called aunts, including Bebiana, Amélia, Perciliana, and Veridiana, who shaped the community.
From Bahia, Aunt Ciata brought the culture inherited from her African ancestors and the custom of celebrating life as a form of resistance. “Their parties used to last five, sometimes seven days, non-stop,” says Gracy Mary Moreira, great-granddaughter and custodian of Ciata since 2007 of Tia Ciata’s house, a cultural institution dedicated to his memory and legacy. Ciata’s rampant gatherings attracted all manner of people, from the African-Bahian community to working-class immigrants (Jews, Arabs, European Latinos) and even curious middle-class white Cariocas (residents of Rio). For Ciata, the fuller the house, the better.
This unique multicultural encounter gave rise to an authentic musical expression, today called Rio urban samba (or Rio samba). In his 1995 book, Tia Ciata e A Pequena Africa no Rio de Janeiro (Tía Ciata and Little Africa in Rio de Janeiro), author Roberto Moura explains that, thanks to Rio’s cosmopolitan atmosphere, black music has always dialogued with the Western popular music in democracy. spaces, where socially and racially diverse groups met.
The Ciata patio became a trendsetting cultural center where new composers and samba songs could find popularity before the existence of radio in Brazil. It was an outlier. Police persecuted black musicians and practitioners of Afro-Brazilian religions, despite the individual freedoms promised by the 1891 constitution. Ciata became smart to evade 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. Then Ciata would wisely place the samba musicians in the backyards, supposedly the most hidden and safest part of the house. In the entrance hall, the most visible and audible space in the house, brass and string players would play ‘choro’ music. [considered more erudite, and hardly linked to anything close to ‘Black magic’]. When the police arrived, Ciata said that he was organizing a choro meeting and that normally things would be fine for the rest of the night. “
Samba evolved in Ciata’s backyard. Here you will find future giants of the genre such as Pixinguinha, João da Baiana and Heitor dos Prazeres. The first recorded samba hit, Pelo Telefone from 1916, was composed there. It reflects the cultural fusion that created the genre, says Moreira. “It has elements of maxixe [a genre inspired by the European polka and the African-Brazilian lundu] and cool [an Afro-Bahian rhythm]. “
The authorship of Pelo Telefone is commonly attributed to Donga, the musician who recorded the piece in his name, but Ciata, Moura writes, assisted with its composition. Moreira says that her great-grandmother created many other sambas, which are still being investigated. Furthermore, her dancing and singing skills were admirable: “He taught my father to dance all the sub-genres 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 religion of Candomblé, she was highly respected for her spiritual wisdom. When President Venceslau Brás (1914-1918) sought a cure for a long-term leg infection that no doctor could treat, an adviser recommended Ciata’s herbal treatments, Moreira says. “The supposedly non-curable wound healed in three days.”
The community prestige surrounding the Ciata meetings was reinforced at the institutional level. His home became known as the capital of Little Africa and received police protection from up to six officers at a time during the holidays. Distinguished Rio musicians of the most respected genres performed at Ciata’s, such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Chiquinha Gonzaga, who, Moreira says, composed the first single from Carnaval there.
He also left his mark on the celebrations. Each ranch, the old name for the blocos, or Carnival street parties, passed by Ciata’s and greeted her first, Moura writes. “He founded two ranches, one of them was born with the aim of bringing peace and harmony to the community,” says Moreira, who five years ago founded Batuke de Ciata, a bloco made up mainly of female instrumentalists.
Today, the Rio Carnival is the most watched and widely publicized event of its kind, generating an annual income of around $ 1 billion for the city. The event has even inspired other countries to found their own Rio-style samba schools, from Japan to Finland. But their Afro-Brazilian origins can easily go unnoticed, especially as the blocos are whitewashed and the Sambadrome parade area is gentrified, and ultra-conservative evangelicals, empowered by far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, stifle and attack Afro-Brazilian history.
It was Ciata, her ranches and her community in Little Africa who created the fundamental instruments of the parade, such as the cuíca and the tambourim, and the famous choreography of contemporary samba schools: one of the most traditional wings (parade groups of 100 costumes ) of all The samba school, the Baianas wing, is a direct homage to Ciata. Resurfacing and centering his legacy, says Ynaê Lopes dos Santos, a history professor at the Fluminense Federal University and a specialist in ethnic-racial relations in the Americas, has ramifications beyond samba. “Remembering the story of Aunt Ciata is the search for an anti-racist perspective, one that really inserts black characters in the narration of Brazilian history.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism