Mr Bongo At Salvador Carnival - Part Two
Feb 14, 2013
Dave 'Mr Bongo' Buttle wrote an article on the history and traditions of the Filhos de Ghandi (Sons Of Ghandi) for Straight No Chaser Magazine back in 2004 after one of his many celebrations with them at carnival in Salvador, Brazil.
The famous carnival society ‘Filhos de Gandhi’ (Sons of Ghandi) is headquartered in the Pelourinho district of Salvador, where it runs a cultural and community centre. Founded in 1949 by stevedores (dock workers) from the port of Salvador, it was the subject of a renowned documentary by Lula Buarque de Holanda, with a score by Gilberto Gil (who also recorded an unforgettable tribute to the Filhos with Jorge Ben).
The port of Salvador was responsible for the heavy flow of merchandise from all the ports of Brazil and Europe. During the war, in Bahia as in other states, it was the stevedores who initiated protests against Nazism and Fascism, refusing to unload ships from Franco’s Spain & Hitler’s Germany. They were the first to march against the Nazis.
Soon after the Allied victory, various communist leaders sought out the stevedores because of their active participation in the fight against fascism. With the legalization of the political parties that had been meeting in secrecy, a large number of stevedores joined the Communist Party. In the elections that followed, the stevedore Jaime Maciel was elected state deputy. For this reason a certain reaction grew up against the stevedores, although they were not intimidated. During the Dutra government, however, this reactionary element was able to interfere in the labor unions and the stevedores were among the most persecuted.
Before the Second World War, the stevedores had always participated actively in the popular festivals of Bahia. By 1949, the stevedores were suffering bad times. The federal government announced a post-war economic plan, placing the union in federal receivership. The Captaincy of Salvador imposed a climate of terror.
LEGEND HAS IT…
It was Thursday of carnival week. A handful of stevedores were sitting beneath an old mango tree drinking and discussing the day-to-day business of the union. The men lamented the situation of the nation and their own misfortunes deciding ’God was asleep at the wheel’ as they say in Brazil. At this point Vavá Madeira decided to take the initiative and introduced the ideas of Mahatma Gandhi. The proposal for the group was accepted, and the Sons of Gandhi were born.
Learning that the stevedores were going to march in the carnival under the name of Gandhi, the governing junta of the union summoned the responsible parties, warning them “any carnival block mounted by the stevedores would be deemed a Communist demonstration.”
On the first day, blood flowed, but only from the feet of the participants. The uniform was a twisted white cloth made of plush toweling, along with a sandal of raw leather known as a malandrinha which punished the feet.
As the group had decided, women were not permitted to join and the use of alcoholic beverages was strictly forbidden, except on the sly. The rationale for these prohibitions was that where there is women and liquor, there is conflict and the fundamental principle of the society was peace. 20 fixed strict rules apply during carnival time.
THE ORDER OF THE GANDHI
Like the man whose name they adopted over 50 years ago, they are pacifists. Their traditions are also deeply rooted in Candomblé. All members are bound by a strict code of ethics. They run many community projects like the Projeto Crescer e Aparecer – a cultural educational center helping 1500 children and adolescents. In the early 80s the FdG were going through a downturn as numbers decreased and people were more attracted to the more modern and colourful Ile Aye and Olodum blocos. Gilberto Gil decided to give them a boost and famously showed solidarity by marching with the FdG, which swelled their number as at the time Gil was going through his most populist period.
FAST FORWARD TO SALVADOR 2004: 4 GRINGOS IN THE FdG
In 2003 I met with one of the pillars of the Dona Aurora community in Salvador: Luis Barbosa, who showed me photos of his recent carnival exploits with the legendary Filhos do Gandhi. Mr Bongo’s Bosco de Oliveira and even our own Bahian bad boy Paul Bradshaw (Straight No Chaser) had spoken of the filhos in hushed tones (PB’s most treasured possession is his FdG t-shirt).
FdG came from the city that gave us Candomble, Tropicalisimomusic movement, the writer Jorge Amado and the great samba singer Dorival Caymmi. It is the centre of Brazilian culture with the famously beautiful UNESCO world heritage site and the more haunting Pelourinho (otherwise known as the whipping post from the days of slavery).
On this basis I had persuaded 3 other honourable high-minded gringos to accompany me on the trip: Gav Smith (Disorient and Bongo man), Alexis Maryon (Straight No Chaser Lensman) and journo Steve O Rourke.
Having researched the pacifist history of the Gandhi I was expecting a middle-aged, laid-back, bell-ringing bloco who had a more measured approach to carnival going than the crazy foot-stomping, elbow-crunching, slam-dancing youth or Yuff of blocos like Olodum, Ara keut and Ile Aye. These filhos guys would surely be marching slowly along, chanting about the Orixas (Candomble gods) drifting into a meditative state… How wrong could I be?
On arrival in Itapoa we touched base at the Dona Aurora street children project that we work with. Two days of preparations then followed, most importantly the fitting of the treasured towel turban, which had to be hand-stitched on to each filhos and could cook your brains to 100c. A giant white robe with a picture of Gandhi was also tapered to length, blue and white DIY sandals, numerous beads, white gloves, ribbons and the one they all went mad for – the lavender Gandhi spray. Included in the preparation was the question ‘what does a FdG wear under the gown?’ There were 2 schools of thought: leave the keks at home so as to not get too hot, or wear the keks to avoid chaffing.
The first few nights feature relatively light carnival action, maybe 6 hours of dubbing it in the reggae 70s dancehalls. As with West Africa, Bahians were crazy for the killer reggae sounds of the 70s, even Jimmy Cliff moved out for a while and started singing with Olodum. However, the sound is so distorted it sounds like they’re singing in Brazilian…lets all chip in for a full King Tubby’s rig to be installed.
After 2 days of mild partying we were ready for the big event. Everyone we met was constantly reminding us that carnival was highly dangerous, so to not to take anything valuable with us. Poor old Alexis had to cope with the prospect of carrying his big lens camera with him, which was absurd as even earrings were fair game. Luckily Alexis’ fears were eased as the costume of filhos tended to dissuade any vagabundos.
Luis, the experienced filhos veteran, showed us his credentials and all was settled… Some beach-side drinking ensued to muster the courage to prance around for 3 days and nights looking like gringo gandhis. In the meantime, Luis explained the only real rules: ‘Not to get too drunk’ – desregrado (which means immoderate). In other words, ‘do not drink immoderately’, rather than ‘drink moderately’, which can allow for some misinterpretation. The ultimate dishonour, however, is to let someone else wear your turban.
Later that day a meeting was arranged where all FdG congregate in the main square of the pelorinho at 3pm so, in typical Brazilian time, by 6pm they had turned up. There upon ensued a huge bar crawl following smaller samba groups through the old cobbled streets of the city. Having spent the best part of the next 3 hours drinking in the FdG bars we pondered whether or not the filhos actually marched anymore and had just become a gentleman’s drinking club. One man asked to have a sip of my chives regal whereupon he downed it in one…Luis informed me he was the chief of police. The filhos it seemed were composed of fine upstanding pillars of the community, lawyers like our marching friend Juvenal and policemen, but boy could they drink. There was a kind of pre-match atmosphere developing, a hint of expectation was in the air. Luis then gave the nod, we turned down a few street corners and came upon the sea of the 8000-strong filhos. This sight truly stirred our souls. We were late so had to run to catch up and enter the FdG carnival ropes. Each bloco is roped off so no members of the public can enter and interfere with their carnival pursuits, although the FdG are allowed to wander off.
Once inside there was no sign of the quiet bell ringing FdG of old… these guys had come to party. The centre of our procession consisted of 3 massive trio electrico boom lorries, packed full of speakers with a filhos singer rubbing the mike on top of dropping carnival hits aplenty. Alexis so excited with camera in hand entered the bus and his flash didn’t stop until he realised the first deck was a giant urinal and having taken photos of prominent politicians in uncompromising positions, was not overly popular. We rocked and partied and sprayed our scent all over the well wishers. The filhos are well liked and they even had their own lookie-likie Gandhi who was perched on top of one of the speaker lorries.
We then entered the giant bullring that is Central, mixing it up with other blocos we decided to split and join other blocos like Daniel Mercury, Araketu and Bloco Paratins. By the end of the night we had lost contact with each other, all the FdG had spread out and were mixing well with the crowd. Gav had to head home early with chaffed thighs, maybe keks were advisable. Alexis had spent the whole time hiding his camera as numerous Capiataes de Areia (Captains of the sand), basically thieves, had been arrested in a heavy-handed manner. The military and civil police just wrap a truncheon behind the Bahian youth which is sadly watched by many rich Salvadorean residents from behind their barred gates. The gate issue is huge in South America due to their fear of crime, but the lack of inclusiveness just seems to breed more crime.
So proceeded two more days of hedonistic mayhem. Over the carnival period I was to see the filhos flying close to the edge, although none ever gave their turbans away. The other top 5 carnival groups were Ile Aye (always the best-designed clothes), Filhos de Oxum (traditional roman red colouring), Olodum (bit quiet this year) and Timbalada (very noisy and could do with a better singer). Carlinhos Brown marched with the FdG on the last day of the carnival this year as a mark of respect.