Brazil’s unheralded ‘capital of happiness’

Salvador, considered the birthplace of modern Brazil, has produced a distinct “axé” (or energy) and way of life.

The rich aroma of Baiana vendors’ acarajé fritters blended with the rhythmic drumming of Salvador’s street bands. Tourists and locals flocked to the Pelourinho neighborhood’s bars to watch Brazil’s first game in the 2022 World Cup, and the crowds erupted when the Brazilians scored against Serbia. This joyful celebration, set against the blue skies and pastel-colored colonial-era buildings of the Terreiro de Jesus square, is typical of Salvador de Bahia, the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia (better known as Salvador).

I quickly discovered that celebration is the norm rather than the exception in Salvador, a city on Brazil’s north-eastern coast near some of the country’s best beaches that many consider to be the birthplace of modern Brazil. Locals have a saying that goes, “Sem pressa, olha para o céu, fala com Deus, você tá na Bahia,” which, as Salvador-born Alicé Nascimento points out, embodies the relaxed and feel-good atmosphere unique to this region. It is no wonder then that this Unesco World Heritage city is unofficially known as Brazil’s “capital of happiness”.

When you ask locals (known as Soteropolitanos) what makes Salvador so jubilant, they all seem to mention the same thing: axé, a Yoruba West African term that loosely translates to “energy”. Jair Dantas Dos Santos, a Salvador local, describes Salvador’s axé as a “powerful presence in the air, which is something to be felt rather than explained”. Indeed, according to Soteropolitanos, axé is an energy woven into the fabric of Bahian culture, infusing everything from Salvador’s music to its laid-back attitude toward life.

Bahian axé cannot be described without first considering the region’s layered and turbulent history. Salvador was founded in 1549 by Portuguese colonialists and served as the first capital of Portuguese America until 1763. During the transatlantic slave trade, it was a major seaport and is regarded as the New World’s first slave market, with enslaved Africans brought to work on the region’s sugar plantations.

According to Antônio Barreto, a local teacher and poet, all it takes to understand Salvador’s complex history is the name given to the city’s historical centre: Pelourinho (pillory), the wooden device used to subject individuals to public abuse. Enslaved people were publicly punished on pelourinhos for alleged infractions during colonial times. Its name lives on today as a reminder of Salvador’s dark past. 

The Portuguese enslaved more Africans than any other country during the slave trade era, transporting nearly five million of them to Brazil. The majority of these enslaved people originated in Angola, another Portuguese colony, and other western African countries. Slavery existed in Brazil until 1888, according to Barreto, but enslaved Africans and their descendants fought for their freedom and traditions for many years. The Latin phrase “Per ardua surgo” on the Bahian coat of arms represents the people’s strength (I rise through the difficulty).

Salvador is now known as the Afro-Brazilian capital, with roughly 80% of residents descended from Africans. The city’s distinct culture reflects the city’s strength and courage. People who enjoy the axé of the present and are proud of their rich Bahian traditions derived from Portuguese, African, and Amerindian peoples. Walking down the streets, it’s easy to notice how these various musical, culinary, and religious practises blend together.

As Barreto and I strolled through Pelourinho’s centre, we came to the Terreiro de Jesus square, which is notable for its colonial-era churches and 17th-century monuments. The mix of stucco buildings and African-inspired art found throughout the Terreiro de Jesus exemplifies the city’s cultural fusion and resilience. The square, which was once used to beat enslaved Africans, now serves as the backdrop for Bahian festivals celebrating capoeira and samba, two Bahian traditions.

We happened upon an energised capoeira roda (circle) performed as part of the Festival de Cultural Popular, which celebrates Bahian traditions, in front of the So Francisco Church, which is notable for its golden-sculpted interior and illusionistic, Baroque-era painting. Capoeira dancers moved effortlessly to the beat of atabaque drums and the berimbau, a single-stringed, bow-shaped percussion instrument from western Africa. Capoeira, like the atabaque and the berimbau, has its origins in Africa.

Historians believe that capoeira, a unique blend of martial arts and dance, was created in Brazil by enslaved Africans as a form of self-defense under Portuguese rule. Capoeira is now a popular form of street entertainment in Salvador, representing both liberation and freedom. Practitioners claim that their agile movements embody the spirit of vadiaço.

Barreto and I discovered a samba performance across the Terreiro de Jesus, where the dancers’ movements were timed to the beat of guitars, drums, and pandeiros (tambourines). Samba, like capoeira, was created by enslaved Africans in Bahia and is now considered Brazil’s national dance. Various forms of samba developed throughout Brazil during the colonial era, with Salvador being the birthplace of the Samba de Roda. This is a group performance that combines dancing, musical instruments, singing, and poetry from both African and Portuguese traditions. Samba is now widely danced throughout Brazil, with professional performances celebrating the Bahian-born dance held at Salvador’s Balé Folclórica da Bahia.

Bahian traditions such as capoeira and samba are widely celebrated. In fact, Salvador’s main holiday season, which lasts from December to January, It all starts with Samba Day and ends with Carnaval. Locals are quick to point out that the world’s largest Carnaval street parties are held in Salvador, not Rio.

Candomblé, a syncretic religion that combines Yoruba and other West African traditions with Roman Catholicism, may best exemplify the concept of axé. If you ask Soteropolitanos, they’ll tell you that they’re happier than other Brazilians because they have more festas (celebrations) than other regions, owing to the Candomblé faith’s strong presence, and if you walk through Salvador today, you’re likely to see Candomblé practitioners offering blessings to passersby.

The Candomblé faith arose in Brazil during the colonial era, when the Portuguese forced enslaved Africans to practise Catholicism. Enslaved peoples attempted to preserve their spiritual identity by blending the likeness of Catholic saints with their own African orixás (spirits). While Candomblé is now widely accepted in Brazilian society, practitioners still face discrimination on occasion. In Salvador, however, both Catholic churches and Candomblé terreiros (temples) coexist in relative peace, with Candomblé’s presence felt strongly throughout the city.