In an anonymous meeting hall on a São Luís backstreet, the sweat is dripping off the walls. Several generations of one family are partying together at the front of the dance floor, and the divisive demarcations of race and class that often dominate contemporary Brazil seem absent. Although English is not widely spoken, dancers mime the choruses of obscure roots classics by Eric Donaldson, the Maytones, and Larry Marshall, all Jamaican countryside singers of a bygone age — you could be forgiven for thinking that dancehall never happened, let alone soca, grime, or dubstep.
A handwoven tapestry of the Maranhão State Vinyl Association hangs proudly from the ceiling, and when DJ Jorge Black drops the needle onto Tradition’s “Gambling Man”, a languid slice of British lovers rock from 1978, waltzing couples push to the fore, anxious to demonstrate their command of ritmo agarradinho, an intricate, ecstasy-inducing move for clinching close-dancers that roughly translates as the “rhythm grab.” It is the dance of choice for all discerning Maranhese, who shun prospective partners that cannot master it.
São Luís do Maranhão is one of the most intriguing and atypical cities of Brazil’s far northeast. Located midway between the beach bum’s utopian expanse of Fortaleza and the ornate Amazonian metropolis of Belém, it was built on an island flanked by two broad rivers that feed an Atlantic bay, the picturesque yet dilapidated town centre attesting to its former opulence. São Luís’s complicated history and peculiar geographical location have rendered it one of the most ethnically diverse of all Brazilian cities, its relative isolation yielding a strikingly unique culture. The town’s long locus as a slave port and its proximity to the Amazon basin have resulted in substantial black and Amerindian communities, and many of European descent reached the city from the barren hinterlands known as the sertão, all of which is reflected in local cultural practices.
For instance, the annual festival of Bumba-meu-Boi centres on the myth of a slaughtered bull resurrected by an Amerindian shaman with the help of St John the Baptist. The local variant of Candomblé, known as Tambor de Mine, mixes West African spiritual traditions with Amerindian elements, while the Tambor de Crioula and Cacuriá dance traditions have their roots in West Africa, augmented by European and Amerindian influences.
São Luís also has deep associations with romantic and Parnassian poetry, and reggae, not samba, is the music of choice, being so deeply engrained in the local psyche that the state government has just established a Reggae Museum in the heart of the old colonial centre — the only such institution outside of reggae’s Jamaican homeland. It is another of the many unexpected aspects of this vibrant and colourful city, known variously as the “Brazilian Athens,” “Love Island,” and the “Brazilian Jamaica,” which forms a very rewarding destination for travellers who make the effort to reach here.
“São Luís is a distant place that’s not easy to get to, even by plane,” says Otávio Rodrigues, a journalist and broadcaster who presented the popular Bumba Beat radio show in São Luís during the 1990s. “The nearest metropolitan capitals are about 1,000 kilometres away, and historically the city was more connected to Europe than to the rest of the country, which resulted in a well-educated elite with a remarkable list of writers, poets, and journalists, but also a poor mass, mainly of African descent, or of mixed Amerindian, African, and European. Aside from the beautiful buildings of the historic centre and a kind of bucolic poetry in certain circles, the city has none of Europe’s glamour. Instead, popular traditions like Bumba-meu-Boi and Cacuriá stand as some of the best examples we can find of Brazil’s rich folkloric universe.”
This was once the site of a village of the indigenous Tupinambá tribe, known as Upuon Açu. When French settlers arrived in 1612, they named the town St Louis de Maragnan, after Louis XIII, but the Portuguese soon ousted them, renaming the city São Luís in 1615. Dutch invaders occupied the settlement from 1641 to 1645, and when they left the Portuguese made São Luís one of the most noteworthy outposts of their South American empire, designating it part of an independent state in the eighteenth century and a subsequent commercial metropolis.
Its industries were based on plantation economies of sugar cane, cocoa, and tobacco. The city’s fortunes peaked during the US Civil War, when São Luís began exporting cotton to Britain, making it the third largest city in Brazil, but the end of the war initiated a long decline. During the 1950s, citizens of São Luís had the lowest life expectancy in the entire country, but the lack of ready finance ironically helped preserve the city’s colonial centre, sparing it the fate of more prosperous neighbours whose ancient structures were bulldozed in the 60s and 70s.
An amble around the city’s historic centre today makes it abundantly clear why São Luís was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997. The heart and soul is the area known as Praia Grande, due to its proximity to the largest in-town beach, which is also sometimes referred to as the reviver, since the district is undergoing extensive renovation. It is home to dozens of houses flanked by ornate azulejos, the distinctive blue tiles brought as ships’ ballast from Portugal during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A smaller number of mustard- or rust-coloured tiles were brought from France and the Netherlands, and sloping tiled roofs, elaborate shuttered windows, and wrought iron balconies are equally evocative portals of the past.
With so much of historic and architectural importance, UNESCO has begun the long, slow process of reviving this area of cultural significance, and although there is much still to be achieved, even the roofless structures of Praia Grande retain uncommon beauty, such is the dramatic effect the large number of azulejos inevitably have on the eye. Particularly striking examples can be found on Rua Portugal, where the Museu de Artes Visuais (or Museum of Visual Arts) has a whole floor devoted to them. Surrounding streets such as the narrow Rua Dialma Dutra and Rua Nazareth have plenty more.
Nearby, the Domingos Vieira Filho Cultural Centre on Travessa do Giz and Casa do Maranhão on Rua do Trapiche are both great places to learn about Bumba meu Boi, Tambor de Mine, and other local cultural traditions, while Casa de Nozinho on Avenida Portugal displays local folk art in handcrafted wood. These venues often have informal tours in English, offered by local volunteer guides, with those at Casa do Maranhão being especially motivated to share their insights on aspects of the prevailing culture.
The Museu Historico e Artistico (or Historical and Artistic Museum) of Maranhão on Rua do Sol is another place to get a sense of the city’s glory days. It’s the preserved home of a wealthy family of the nineteenth century. In addition to many artefacts of the period, there is an original copy of Aluísio Azevedo’s abolitionist novel O Mulato, which is considered the first work of Naturalism in Brazilian literature, though Azevedo was primarily associated with a set of Romantic poets then based in São Luís. Their ranks included Antônio Gonçalves Dias, regarded as the National Poet of Brazil for his 1843 opus “Canção do Exílio”, or “Song of Exile,” and Joaquim de Sousa Andrade, an abolitionist poet known professionally as Sousandrade, who wrote a Pan-American epic, “Guesa”, published in 1871. Andrade subsequently became the city’s first mayor after Brazil was declared a republic in 1889.
That poetic tradition continues to the present, with important instances surfacing in the bitter years of Brazil’s military dictatorship, most notably in Ferreira Gullar’s “Poema Sujo” or “Dirty Poem”, an homage to resistance in São Luís, written in exile in 1975.
My days in São Luís were typically spread among the cultural delights of the Praia Grande, exploring its azulejos, Art Deco palaces, and baroque churches, as well as the small crafts and food market, Casa Das Tulas (where you can find local dishes such as the caldeirada maranhense seafood stew, and an enigmatic soft drink labelled Guarana Jesus). Or I would nip across the Jose Sarney Bridge to the beaches of Calhau and Araçagy, passing through the administrative centre of the rapidly expanding “Cidade Nova” in the process. As Otávio Rodrigues explains, “The centro histórico is located in front of Baía de São Marcos (or Saint Mark’s Bay), where the Anil and Bacanga rivers meet; a bridge was constructed in 1970 to connect the city to the coastline, and what was a wild area of sparse, rustic houses became the ‘New City,’ where tall buildings and shopping malls pretend to exalt some modernity. Around all of that we have the residential neighbourhoods, where part of the city’s history was also written, and where we still can find traditional fishing and farming procedures, besides portions of original forests.”
Catching an inevitably spectacular sunset on the beach or at a hilltop plaza overlooking the bay from the reviver is a marvellous way to end the day’s explorations. And once the sun goes down in São Luís, reggae time has certainly arrived.
The story of reggae in São Luís is a long and complex one, spawned by the efforts of a few early record collectors during the 1970s, including Ademar Danilo, whose pioneering radio show helped to introduce reggae culture to the city — so much so that Danilo has been appointed the Reggae Museum’s first director. Merchant seamen and the operators of radiolas — as sound systems are locally known — also played important roles, with a range of resident characters all aiding the music’s dissemination and local identification. The city clearly retains one of the most unique reggae scenes in the world — hence the motivation behind the museum, which aims to “materialise the memories of a song that conveys messages of equality, peace, freedom, and love,” looking at the “yesterday, today, and tomorrow of reggae in Maranhão, Brazil, and the world,” according to the official opening statement.
“Reggae is important in São Luís for a lot of different reasons,” Rodrigues says. “The reggae scene emerged here in the late 70s among some of Brazil’s poorest people, similar to how it developed in Jamaica: through competing sound systems, open-air dances, and specialist radio programmes. And although the music’s religious subject wasn’t absorbed, the social message and especially the romantic mood found a friendly territory in which to spread.
“The scene got bigger and bigger throughout the 80s and 90s, building a cultural bridge between the two countries which more recently fed the rise of local studio production and superstars, pushing reggae music in different directions. So it’s easy to imagine what reggae did, and continues to do, for the people of São Luís’s self-esteem.”
“In São Luís, one soon understands that reggae plays a profound role in the local economy,” adds Kavin D’Palraj, a musician from Chennai who wrote his doctoral dissertation on São Luís reggae. “It has affected political practices and outcomes, defines relationships between neighbourhoods and different socio-economic strata, and continues to stir passionate debate on the destiny of the city and its people.”
Ultimately, Rodrigues feels that São Luís’s Reggae Museum is primarily concerned with local validation and the potential to increase the number of overseas visitors. “We’re talking about forty years in the timeline, which includes big and colourful sound systems, rare records, radio diffusion, dance crews, pioneers, DJs, and others that worked to get it going. So from this point of view, the museum will help maintain the history, honour a lot of local people, and evoke reggae’s relevance in the local culture.
“On the other hand,” he adds, “São Luís is a touristic city with colonial architecture, beaches, and folkloric festivals, and reggae became an appeal for visitors here too. But the local scene is still authentic, with radiolas playing far in the outskirts or other places where tourists prefer not to go. For most of them, the so-called ‘Brazilian Jamaica’ is visible only on t-shirts and some red-gold-and-green things at the souvenir shops in the old town. So in this sense, a museum will contribute to keeping the reggae spirit alive and to broadening its appeal.”
Caribbean Airlines operates daily flights from destinations across the Caribbean to Miami and Paramaribo, with connections on other airlines to São Luís