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By Charles E. Cobb, Jr.Photographs by David Alan Harvey

An African rhythm drives this Brazilian coastal state, home to descendants of the first slaves brought to the New World.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The cradle of modern Brazilian civilization is the country’s own fertile crescent, a broad band of dark, rich soil called the Recôncavo that surrounds Baía de Todos os Santos, or All Saints Bay. In the early 16th century Portuguese settlers established plantations in this region, where slaves—at first Indian, then African—worked fields of sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. The wealth they generated enriched Salvador, Brazil’s first capital. By 1850 the city’s port had received an estimated 3.5 million slaves, far more than the 430,000 sent to the United States during its slave-trading era. This hits me hard: My great-grandfather was born into slavery in Alabama. He founded a farming community in Mississippi called New Africa in 1888, the year that slavery was abolished in Brazil.

Today in Bahia, the most African of Brazilian states, blacks make up 80 percent of the population. Though slavery is long gone, hard labor persists for sugarcane workers who earn only about five dollars a day, with a bonus for higher production. Much of this dangerous work is still done by hand with machetes—and conditions can be spartan.

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Listen to the intricate rhythms of Bahia—a unique mixture of Caribbean reggae and contemporary African percussion and vocals. 

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In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Like jazz in the United States, samba music encompasses many different forms. The samba reggae style of Bahia—the most African of Brazilian states—combines contemporary African percussion and voice with Caribbean reggae. Two prominent blocos Afros, or Afro-block bands, in Bahia are Ilê Aiyê and Olodum. Inspired by developments in the United States, these all-black groups formed on the heels of the U.S. civil rights movement. They use provocative lyrics to reconnect with contemporary Africa and address social issues facing blacks in Brazil today.

Instrumentation in these groups involves heavy percussion—up to 250 drums may play at once. Drum types include two-headed bass drums called surdos, smaller high-pitched drums, or repiques, and medium-toned snare drums called caixas. Timbaus, or conga hand drums, are also used occasionally.  Singers amplify their voices through microphones as the bands parade through the streets of Salvador, the capital of Bahia.

—Christy Ullrich

Did You Know?

Related Links
African Music
Celebrate the musical cultures of Africa and the African diaspora.

Explore various aspects of black culture, including history, music, and the arts.

Sisterhood of the Good Death
Delve into the history of the Irmandade da Boa Morte, or Sisterhood of the Good Death, a religious order devoted to the Assumption of the Virgin, and learn about the history of slaves brought from Africa to the cane-growing Recôncavo region of Bahia.

The Brazilian Sound
The Brazilian Sound offers a virtual music store and index where you can learn about Brazilian music and order CDs.

Michael Spiro
This is the commercial site for Michael Spiro whose music is featured on this page.  The site includes his biography, tour dates, and a listing of available CDs.


Bradbury, Alex. Backcountry Brazil: The Pantanal, Amazon, and North-East Coast. Bradt Publications, 1990.

Cleary, David, Dilwyn Jenkins, and Oliver Marshall. Brazil: The Rough Guide. Penguin Group, 1998.

Haddad, Annette. Travelers’ Tales Guide Brazil: True Stories of Life on the Road. O’Reilly and Associates, 1997.

Hunt, Carla. “Brazil’s Bahia offers spectacular feast of sensual delights,” Travel Weekly (February 13, 1997).

McGowan, Chris. The Brazilian Sound: Samba, Bossa Nova and the Popular Music of Brazil. Temple University Press, 1998.

Perrone, Charles, and Christopher Dunn, eds. Brazilian Popular Music and Globalization. University of Florida Press, 2001.

Selby, Nick. Lonely Planet: Brazil. Lonely Planet Publications, 1998.

Thomas, Hugh. The Slave Trade. Simon and Schuster, 1997.


NGS Resources
Ehrlich, Anne H., and Paul R. Ehrlich. “Brazil: Flight to the Cities,” National Geographic (December 1988), 934-937.

Vesilind, Priit J. “Brazil: Moment of Promise and Pain,” National Geographic (March 1987), 348-385.

McIntyre, Loren. “Rio—Carnival to a Samba Beat,” National Geographic Traveler (Spring 1985), 86-97.

McDowell, Bart. “Brazil’s Golden Beachhead,” National Geographic (February 1978), 246-277.

White, Peter T. “Brazil, Ôba!” National Geographic (September 1962), 299-353.

Sá, Hernane Tavares de. “Metropolis Made to Order: Brasília,” National Geographic (May 1960), 704-724.

Phillips, Henry Albert. “Air Cruising Through New Brazil: A National Geographic Reporter Spots Vast Resources Which the Republic’s War Declaration Adds to Strength of United Nations,” National Geographic (October 1942), 503-536.


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