Salvador da Bahia

As the first capital of Brazil in 1549 and one of the oldest colonial cities in the Americas, Salvador da Bahia is all about its heritage. The city is the result of the Portuguese colonization, the slave trade for almost 400 years and, of course, everything that comes from this bittersweet history.

Located in Bahia, in the northeastern region of the country, Salvador has many faces and titles – third largest city in Brazil (2017 pop. over 3 million with approx 4 million in the metropolitan area), Africa in America, part of the Caribbean, Home of Capoeira, Land of the Axé, UNESCO’s creative city for music, Carnival City, Bay of the Orixás, etc. However, even combined, all of these adjectives aren’t enough to capture the wild complexity of the city.

Salvador is known for its blended culture and religions, but also marked by its racial and class segregation. Both cases take us back to the city’s relation with Africa and the African diaspora. The port of Salvador was the door to one of the biggest slave markets in the world, and the African diaspora is an important factor in shaping the city’s spatial and cultural character.

View from Pelourinho. Photo by Rob Shields.

The multicultural factor is everywhere in the Bay of All Saints – food, languages, slangs, dances, rituals and many other moments in day to day life that mix the Yoruba, European and Brazilian cultures. From the Carnival in February or March to New Year’s Eve celebrations, the streets play an important role in Salvador’s routine, whether if it’s with the street food such as Acarajé, the tourism at the Historic Centre, the Carnival blocos, the trio elétrico followings, the Capoeira rodas, the Candomblé celebrations or the Catholic processions.

Every December 4th, one can get a sense of Salvador’s vibrant street life. The Saint Barbara Day Parade is a celebration that unites the Catholic worshipers, the firemen and even the devotees of Candomble, the Candomblecistas. The cult of African deities was a forbidden rite in Brazil until the 1930’s, so syncretism was the way early slaves found to worship their gods, the Orixás, without being caught by their owners. The Yoruba god Yansa, also known as Oya, is thus historically worshiped as Saint Barbara.

Therefore, on the same day, and even in the same church services, thousands of people take the streets of Salvador wearing red and white to pay homage to the patroness of firemen, the Catholic saint and the Yoruba deity of the winds and storms. After a parade, the celebration ends with a caruru offering, a typical Afro-Bahian meal made from okra, onion, palm oil and shrimp.

As a capital in its own right, culture is what makes the wheels go round in Salvador da Bahia, not only for its multicultural history but also for its strong culture, entertainment and tourism industries. In spite of racial discrimination and religious intolerance towards African religions, governmental agencies and residents of Bahia take pride of the idea of “Africa in Brazil”, turning the region’s African identity into a lucrative asset (Shirey 2009:8). According to the Secretary of Tourism of the Bahia State (SETUR), tourists spent US$ 154 million in Salvador during the Carnival of 2016. For 2017, expectations are something around 750.000 tourists spending US$ 480 million.

Salvador is the focus of a writing project to consider the status of this city as an overlooked or repressed ‘Vatican’ of culture, not only for Brazilians but globally.  Salvador is one of many ‘lost Vaticans’ (or even ‘black Vaticans’) with characteristic religions, literature, dance, cuisine and art that are alter-egos to the network of global cities that dominate our everyday consciousness.  Not necessarily peripheral, but often racialized, we are interested in cultural capitals that, though destinations for leisure or part of culture industries, are not completely assimilated to the frameworks and reference points of contemporary globalization.  Alongside Salvador, perhaps Edinburgh, New Orleans, Lagos, Budapest, Istanbul, Havanna, and Montreal deserve attention.

The research is mainly based on the topics surrounding the idea of space, but also racial, cultural and social studies on everyday life in the ‘lost Vaticans’. The often liminal and carnivalesque atmosphere of these cultural capitals is a significant point for the project, alongside with theories based on works from authors such as Heather Shirey, Fred Góes, Walter Benjamin, Stuart Hall, Allen J. Scott, Mikhail Bakhtin, Antonio Risério, Andrew Sayer, Lívio Sansone and Milton Moura. The 2017’s Carnival celebrations in Salvador – blocos, trios, rodas and parties – will also deliver important inputs for the project, such as videos, hashtags, maps, audios, images, articles and tweets.

Caio Bersot, University of Alberta


Carnaval: 210 mil postos de trabalho temporário serão gerados em Salvador. Retrieved February 8, 2017, from

Turismo durante carnaval de Salvador gera R$ 840 mi para economia local. Retrieved February 8, 2017, from

Historic Centre of Salvador de Bahia. Retrieved February 8, 2017, from

Shirey, H. (2009). Transforming the Orixás: Candomblé in Sacred and Secular Spaces in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, In African arts 2009, Vol. 42, Issue 4 p62­79 18p.