Last updated: 06:03 PM ET, Tue March 17 2015

Dispatch: Culture and Sound in Salvador

Tour Operator | Avanti Destinations | David Cogswell | March 17, 2015

Dispatch: Culture and Sound in Salvador

Photo courtesy of Thinkstock

Today I am heading to Salvador, Bahia, Brazil, with Avanti Destinations. It is a place I have longed to see for a long long time.

Salvador is not everyone’s first choice of places to visit in Brazil. Of course everyone wants to see Rio de Janeiro and for good reason. Rio is unbelievably beautiful with its amazing coastline and harbor with landmarks like Sugarloaf Mountain, legendary beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema, historical hotels like the Copacabana, and a rich tradition of samba music that took the world by storm.

Salvador is far less prominent in the minds of international travelers than Rio. But it has a richness all its own.

Rio native Ruy Castro wrote in “Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire” that the Portuguese explorer Goncalo Coelho sailed into the bay now known as Guanabara on Jan. 1, 1502. Thinking the bay was the mouth of a river, the ship’s chief pilot and navigator Amerigo Vespucci named it “River of January,” or Rio de Janeiro.

But the Portuguese, after initially discovering and naming Rio, left it alone, made no permanent settlement there and continued up the coast where they found Salvador and that’s where they made the hub of their American empire.

Although the Portuguese were the first Europeans to discover Rio, the area had been populated for 10,000 years. And when French merchant marine ships were searching the coastline for dyewood, the French seamen took a particular liking to the native women. They liked them so much that they started deserting in large numbers to cohabitate with the native women. So in fact, the foundation of the city of Rio was a cross-cultural Franco-American colony.

Just as the original Dutch traders who established New Amsterdam in the 1600s left a mark of their business-minded culture that still shapes New York in the 21st century, so Rio retains its French influence, visible today. Compare some of the light bossa nova music, like “Girl From Ipanema” with soft cabaret and lounge music from France.

After the Portuguese moved on up the coast and established Salvador (their Salvation) as their main hub in the Americas, Salvador remained the capital of Brazil until it was superseded by Rio in 1763. Today the capital is Brasilia.

Salvador was the center of slave trade for the entire Americas for three centuries. It is said to have more Africans than any other place outside of Africa. A majority of the population is descended in part from Africans brought as slaves from Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin.

A DNA study from 2008 showed the ancestral heritage of the population of Salvador to be 49.20 percent African, 36.30 percent European and 14.50 percent Native American. It is a marvel of rich cross-cultural electricity. It is the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, which is reflected in its music, cuisine and culture in general.

I am particularly interested in absorbing as much as possible about the musical heritage of Salvador. Each of the different New World Colonies that brought Africans to work as slaves developed its own styles of Afro-American music, producing today's Afro-American blues and jazz, Afro-Carribbean and Afro-Cuban music and of course Afro-Brazilian music. I’m thrilled to go to the source of all the great music I have heard from that region.

So you can call this a cultural tour with a special emphasis on musical culture. It’s been designed to my specifications by Avanti Destinations, who was one of the earliest adopters of technology that enables the company to piece together custom-made travel packages that include exactly the components the customer wants from virtually whatever is available there.

Avanti is the master of this kind of custom packaging. Avanti is also way out front in its coverage of Latin America. The company still gets most of its business from European travel, but it also staked out Latin America as a specialty long ago, and in that regard as well, Avanti was way ahead of the game.

So this trip will also be to report on Avanti Destinations and how they do business on the ground in Salvador.

One thing that particularly endeared me to Bahia and Salvador was the book Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands,  written by Bahia-born Jorge Amado, and in the 1970s made into a movie by Brazilian filmmaker Bruno Barreto.

Dona Flor and her Two Husbands is a romantic comedy of the fantastic realism school, and it presents a wonderfully warm picture of the culture of Bahia.

I’ll be spending the week there on a cultural tour created in coordination with Avanti Destinations. I’ll be taking off from New York JFK this evening and arriving in Brazil tomorrow morning. At that time I’ll have much more to tell you about what it is really like.

In any case, it’s a little hard to write rationally about this as departure time rapidly approaches, because I’m really giddy when I think about what I am about to partake in. It renders me speechless. And besides, I have to pack and catch my ride to the airport.

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