Salvador, Brazil: Where the Party Never Ends

We’re four guys laughing and posing for photos in the middle of a crowded street in Salvador, Brazil. One man wears a red miniskirt with black polka dots, black kneesocks, and red gloves. Another pairs a blue-trimmed bikini top with blue eye shadow. A third guy is shirtless, all the better for showing off his pecs and biceps as he flexes in exaggerated bodybuilder poses.

Although I’m in regular clothes, speak no Portuguese, and have just met these three gentlemen, who speak no English, we quickly bond and mug for cameras. Hey, that’s just the party spirit.

The Portuguese surely had a different image in mind when they established Salvador as the first capital of Brazil. They imported Catholicism and churches to cement morality and virtue, or at least a fear-of-God work ethic to keep noses to the grindstone.

But to actually do the work — the really hard manual labor — the Portuguese also imported tens of thousands of slaves from Africa. And so this port city on the northeastern coast of Brazil became a melting pot of indigenous Indians, Europeans, and Africans, with all those religions and customs stirred and heated in the humidity of this rain forest zone.

The resulting stew transformed the City of the Holy Savior of the Bay of All Saints, as Salvador was known historically, into Brazil’s unofficial Capital of Happiness.

Street parades, art, and music provide the rhythm of life in Salvador, so I decide to see if any locals might be willing to teach me how to party like a Salvadoran — that is, other than hanging around guys in bikini tops.

My guide, Conor O’Sullivan, drives me to the nearby town of Maragogipe to meet craftspeople who make the masks and costumes that traditionally appear in Carnival celebrations.

The elaborate masks went out of style for several years at the big parades, but as one artist tells me, “Here in Maragogipe, people say that the only person who doesn’t go out in a mask is a person who hasn’t been born yet.” I’m thinking a mask would be useful next time embarrassing photos get snapped, so I buy a couple.

But even more than festive attire, music fuels the party wagon. Here in Brazil that means the samba, an infectious beat that makes you want to get up and move.

What I quickly discover, however, is that the way I move is quite different from the way Brazilians move. My rhythm-challenged tendencies are confirmed when O’Sullivan takes me to a popular music venue to hear the group Cortejo Afro.

The band, in the best Salvadoran tradition of cultural fusion, throws some African rhythms on top of the samba line, further complicating an already impossible series of dance moves that require different body parts to move in competing directions simultaneously. Neither alcohol nor a mask can save my pride now. I think I know how Tom DeLay must have felt on Dancing With the Stars.

One last hope remains in the quest to help my inner party animal express itself: private percussion lessons. I think I can handle banging on something.

O’Sullivan takes me to the home of one of Salvador’s leading percussionists, Giba Conceição, who brings me into a room filled with drums, shakers, rattles, gourds, and every other conceivable kind of instrument that can be played by simply tapping to the beat. How hard can it be to play any of these?

Just in case, I suggest we start with an easy one, so he pulls out an instrument called a reco-reco. It’s a metal tube with a couple of springs attached along one side. To play it, I’m told you drag a stick across the springs. Of course it’s all about the rhythm and the direction you drag the stick, and whether it’s a short drag or a long drag — and right there, that’s doing two or three things at once, so the reco-reco goes back in its box.

Conceição demonstrates a variety of shakers, all of which require the player to dance while shaking to the pulse, a skill harder than walking and chewing gum at the same time. I tell Conceição I need an instrument that will allow me to just sit and bang on something. We settle on a conga drum. He shows me the simplest beat.

After much practice, I learn I still cannot find the rhythm, at least consistently, especially when Conceição adds syncopation to provide texture and flavor — the essence of Salvador’s music. Every time he adds, I subtract by getting lost.

But he does teach me the most important lesson about Salvador’s party spirit, and it’s the same message those guys on the street were sharing.

It’s not about how well you dance, or play the drums, or sing, or even if you speak the language. It’s about your willingness to throw yourself into a moment. If you’re willing to jump in with both feet, Salvadorans are happy to welcome you to the party.

And anytime you find a place where people aren’t judging your performance but are simply applauding your effort, you’ve found a capital of happiness.

Boyd Matson is one of Traveler magazine’s contributing editors. Follow his story on Twitter @boydmatson