On She Goes

Afro-Brazilian Cultural Tour in Rio de Janeiro

Rio’s Black culture is an open secret that’s just outside the usual tourist spots.

Kiratiana Freelon
Kiratiana Freelon
October 10, 2017
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Tourists in search of Brazil’s Afro-Brazilian culture and history usually head to the coastal city of Salvador where the locals—and the tourist board—actively promote the city’s African roots. Thirteen years ago I made this same mistake, thinking that all of the country’s Black culture existed only in Salvador. I wrote Rio de Janeiro off as just an urban beach paradise, with little Black culture. Now that I live here, I’ve learned that Rio’s Black culture is an open secret that’s just outside the familiar tourist haunts of Copacabana and Ipanema. Here’s a brief guide to experiencing the highlights of Afro-Brazilian culture in Rio de Janeiro.

Pedra do Sal
Argemiro Bulcão – Saúde

Afro-Brazilians created samba music in the early 20th century, and its birthplace was Pedra do Sal. Back then, the neighborhood surrounding Pedra do Sal used to be called “Pequena Africa” because formerly enslaved Africans settled there after abolition. They lived communally and often held African religious celebrations accompanied by music. On Friday nights from 7 to 11 p.m., Pedra do Sal hosts one of the largest roda de sambas, a music format in which musicians play samba music around a table, in Rio de Janeiro. After midnight the streets surrounding Pedra do Sal switch to funk and R&B music, making the neighborhood an outdoor club.

The colors of the Mangueira Samba school are pink and green.
photo by Kiratiana Freelon

Mangueira Samba School
Visconde de Niterói, 1072 – Mangueira

More than a hundred samba schools exist in Rio de Janeiro, but Mangueira is considered the most traditional samba school. Samba schools were created by Afro-Brazilians in the 1920s as an alternative to the prevailing mode of carnaval in Rio—extravagant balls that were off limits to people living in favelas. A samba school is not a school per se; it is a cultural organization whose main goal is to prepare the best parade during Carnaval each year. It does this by holding “ensaios”—practices that are really just marathon parties. Every Saturday the school opens its doors to tourists and samba lovers for a five-hour party. Get there by 11:30 p.m. to see the procession of samba school dancers

Viaduto de Madureira
Carvalho de Souza – Madureira

When I first arrived in Rio de Janeiro, I stumbled on a street party of Afro-Brazilian people line dancing to New Jack music from the 1990s. It was a baile charme (pronounced buylee char-mee). Baile charme is the name given to Rio parties that popped up in the late ’70s when Black Cariocas became enamored with Black American soul music. The baile charme of Viaduto de Madureira is the largest and most popular type of these parties, happening on Saturday nights. The party is filled with professional dancers who lead the amateurs in choreographed routines to the latest hip-hop and R&B music. Don’t arrive until 12:30 a.m. The party goes late.

The Valongo wharf was the most active slave port in the Americas.
photo by Kiratiana Freeln

Cais do Valongo
Av. Barão de Tefé – Saúde

The Cais do Valongo may be the greatest physical testament to the impact of the Atlantic slave trade. In 2011 construction workers accidentally uncovered the Cais do Valongo (Valongo Wharf), which played a major role in the Atlantic slave trade. More than one million enslaved Africans arrived at the port between 1811 and 1831, making it the most active port in the Americas. In July 2017, UNESCO named it a World Heritage site and now Rio is discussing the possibility of building a museum near the site. Anyone can visit the site, but a guided tour will better explain its significance. The Afro-Rio Walking Tour created by Sadakne Baroudi is recommended. Follow the website for a self-guided tour or contact her through email for a guided tour once you set the date for your Brazil trip.

Museu do Negro
Uruguaiana, 77 – Centro

Catholic brotherhoods and sisterhoods were the earliest ways for Afro-Brazilians to organize together. These irmandades were always connected to the Nossa Senhora do Rosário e São Benedito dos Homens Pretos church, whose patron saint is Black. One hundred years ago the church also functioned as a meeting place for slavery abolitionists. So it’s no wonder that the church houses Rio de Janeiro’s only museum dedicated to Afro-Brazilian history. The small museum’s collection includes reprints of Jean-Baptiste Debret images that depict Rio slave life in the 19th century as well as torture tools used during the time. The museum is also filled with sculptures related to Afro-Brazilians and Catholic saints, as well as myths like the slave Anastacia.

Guide Cosme Felippsen stands in front of a house in the Providência favela .
photo by Kiratiana Freelon

Providência Favela Tour

The post-abolition history of most Afro-Brazilians begins in the “morro,” hillside communities that freed Afro-Brazilians created. After almost 400 years of free labor, Afro-Brazilians were left with little—no education, no job, no money. People close to Rio climbed the hills and built their own houses. With no government help, the morros became self-sustaining communities that outsiders now call favelas. These communities became incubators of Afro-Brazilian culture, creating samba and funk music. Located close to Rio’s port, Providência was one of the first favelas to arise in Brazil. The group Providência Turismo, run by tour guides and journalists who live in the communities, gives tours of Providência and other favelas.

Instituto dos Pretos Novos
Pedro Ernesto, 32/34 – Gamboa

Merced Guimarães was renovating her Rio port-area house in 1996 when workers began to uncover bits of bones. Guimarães immediately stopped the renovation work. Her house soon became an archaeological site, and the remains of 26 Africans dating back to 1824, and aged 3 to 25, were unearthed. They had been buried in a communal burial site for enslaved Africans—pretos novos—who died shortly after arriving in Brazil. At the time of the discovery Guimarães worked as a housewife, but she soon found a second calling—to respectfully honor the Africans who arrived in Brazil and educate people about their journey. The 61-year-old Guimarães has since turned her house into a cemetery and a museum. Visitors can look at the remains of the enslaved Africans through two open holes in the ground. A video with English subtitles explains the history of slavery in Rio de Janeiro and the significance of the pretos novos.

Dida Bar e Restaurante
Barão de Iguatemi, 408

Although Black women have worked in Brazil’s kitchens for the last 400 years, it’s difficult to find a restaurant owned by a Black woman in Rio. Four hundred years of slavery followed by 100 years of institutionalized racism and sexism has created a situation in which Black women earn 60 centavos for every 1 real that a white man earns. That’s what makes Dida Bar e Restaurante special. Dida Nascimento opened the bar in 2015 to great fanfare, and Afro-Brazilians support her in great numbers. Some popular Afro-Brazilian dishes include Mãe Beata fish, shrimp Caril, and Chicken Piripiri. On Tuesdays, Nascimento hosts a popular pagode samba party.