This week, Rio de Janeiro should have been celebrating, its streets alive with local people and tourists honouring the city’s Carnival, a tradition dating back to the 17th century. But for the first time outside the two world wars, the city’s flagship event is cancelled. It’s the only reasonable decision given how out of control the pandemic is in Brazil – yet locals and tourists are still mourning the loss of the world’s most prestigious pre-Lent festival, one rooted in the sound of samba.
A century ago, samba becoming synonymous with Brazil’s cultural identity would have seemed impossible. In the early 20th century, Rio’s ruling elite were ashamed and afraid of the rhythm, which was linked to African-Brazilian cults. Samba faced police persecution: musicians were frequently arrested, their instruments confiscated or destroyed; gatherings were abruptly shut down. It might not have lasted were it not for the intelligence and diplomacy of the entrepreneur, artist, spiritual guide and community leader known as Aunt Ciata.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Rio de Janeiro was a bustling Latin American capital. Slavery was officially over and the industrialisation of Brazil was gaining momentum. Rio attracted working-class Latin Europeans and African-Brazilian migrants from the north-eastern state of Bahia searching for better living conditions. Ciata, born Hilária Batista de Almeida, was one of them. She arrived in Rio aged 22 in 1876, moving to a neighbourhood known as Little Africa thanks to its predominantly African-Brazilian community, and became one of many so-called aunts – including Bebiana, Amélia, Perciliana and Veridiana – who shaped the community.
From Bahia, Aunt Ciata brought the culture inherited from her African ancestors and the habit of celebrating life as a form of resistance. “Her parties used to last five, sometimes seven days, nonstop,” says Gracy Mary Moreira, Ciata’s great-granddaughter and custodian since 2007 of Casa da Tia Ciata, a cultural institution dedicated to her memory and legacy. Ciata’s riotous gatherings attracted all kinds of people, from the African-Bahian community to working-class immigrants – Jews, Arabs, Latin Europeans – and even curious white middle-class Cariocas (denizens of Rio). For Ciata, the fuller the house, the better.
This unique multicultural encounter birthed an authentic music expression, today called Rio’s urban samba (or samba carioca). In his 1995 book, Tia Ciata e A Pequena África no Rio de Janeiro (Aunt Ciata and Little Africa in Rio de Janeiro), author Roberto Moura explains that, thanks to Rio’s cosmopolitan environment, Black music has always dialogued with western folk music in democratic spaces, where socially and racially diverse groups gathered.
Ciata’s yard became a trendsetting cultural hub where new samba composers and songs could find popularity before the existence of radio in Brazil. It was an outlier. Police persecuted Black musicians and practitioners of African-Brazilian religions, despite the individual liberties promised by the 1891 constitution. Ciata grew smart at evading repression, says Moreira.
“A true samba party would necessarily require the presence of drums, which have always been negatively associated with the African-Brazilian religious cults. So Ciata would wisely place the samba musicians in the back yards, supposedly the most hidden and safest part of the house. In the entrance hall, the house’s most visible and audible space, brass and string instrumentalists would be playing ‘choro’ music – considered more erudite, and hardly linked to anything close to ‘Black magic’. When the police came, Ciata would say she was hosting a choro gathering and things would normally be fine for the rest of the night.”
Samba evolved in Ciata’s back yard. Here you would find future giants of the genre including Pixinguinha, João da Baiana and Heitor dos Prazeres. The first recorded samba hit, 1916’s Pelo Telefone, was composed there. It reflects the cultural merging that created the genre, says Moreira. “It has elements of maxixe [a genre inspired by the European polka and the African-Brazilian lundu] and chula [an Afro-Bahian rhythm].”
The authorship of Pelo Telefone is commonly attributed to Donga, the musician who registered the piece in his name, but Ciata, writes Moura, helped with its composition. Moreira says her great-grandmother created many other sambas, which are still being researched. What’s more, her dancing and singing abilities were admirable: “She taught my father how to dance to every samba subgenre,” says Moreira, whose father, Bucy Moreira, helped found the first samba school in Rio, Deixa Falar.
Ciata’s parties gained legitimacy thanks to a chance encounter with the president. As a practitioner of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé, she was highly respected for her spiritual wisdom. When President Venceslau Brás (1914-1918) sought a cure for a long-term leg infection that no doctor could treat, an adviser recommended Ciata’s herbal treatments, says Moreira. “The supposedly un-healable wound healed in three days.”
The community prestige surrounding Ciata’s gatherings was reinforced at institutional levels. Her house became known as the capital of Little Africa, and received police protection from as many as six officers at a time during party days. Distinguished Rio musicians from more respected genres performed at Ciata’s, such as Heitor Villa-Lobos and Chiquinha Gonzaga, who, says Moreira, composed the first Carnaval single there.
She also made her mark on the celebrations. Every rancho – the former name for blocos, or Carnival street parties – would pass by Ciata’s and greet her first, writes Moura. “She founded two ranchos, one of them born from the aim of bringing peace and harmony to the community,” says Moreira, who five years ago founded Batuke de Ciata, a bloco mainly composed of female instrumentalists.
Today, Rio Carnival is the most-watched and most widely broadcast event of its kind, generating an annual income of around $1bn for the city. The event has even inspired other countries to found their own Rio-like samba schools, from Japan to Finland. But its Afro-Brazilian origins can easily go unnoticed, especially as blocos are whitewashed and the Sambadrome parade area is gentrified, and ultra-conservative evangelicals, empowered by the far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, suffocate and attack Afro-Brazilian history.
It was Ciata, her ranchos and her community in Little Africa who created the parade’s foundational instruments, such as cuíca and tamborim, and the famous choreography of contemporary samba schools: one of the most traditional wings (100-strong costumed parading groups) of every samba school, the Baianas wing, is a direct homage to Ciata. Resurfacing and centring her legacy, says Ynaê Lopes dos Santos, a history professor at Fluminense Federal university and specialist in ethnic-racial relations in the Americas, has ramifications beyond samba. “Recalling Aunt Ciata’s story is the pursuit for an anti-racist perspective, one that truly inserts Black characters in the telling of Brazil’s history.”