The miracle of Pentecost does happen, though not in tongues of flame. More like a glowing ember, nurtured by breath—by speech itself—until you have light enough to find your way in a new languageBy John Ryle • 2001 • Granta • Revised • Posted 2016 • 4,425 words
In the late 1980s I was living in Salvador da Bahia, the old capital of Brazil, studying Portuguese. I didn’t spend much time in class. There was a beach at the end of the street. And scattered all round the city and the shantytowns beyond—beckoning from the groves of trees that surrounded them—were the terreiros, temples of Candomblé, the African-derived religion of which Salvador, an old slave port—once Brazil’s capital—is the heartland.
At weekends I frequented a Candomblé temple outside the city, beyond the airport. It stood among trees in the lee of a sand dune, close to the sea. The name of the temple was Ilê Axé Opô Aganjú—the House of the Power of Xangó—the name of the Yoruba god it was dedicated to. Here the sound of drums summoning African divinities merged with the roar of airplanes and the distant cry of surf. During the Saturday-night trance-dance rituals in this poor, black, rural suburb, the devotees—dressed in spectacular versions of nineteenth-century-style ritual costume—would chant canticles in the Yoruba language over the beating of drums and assume the form of gods from West Africa. This, too, was a distraction from the study of grammar.
Weekdays, when I first arrived in Salvador, I stayed in the city, at the Anglo-Americano, a five-dollar-a-night hotel overlooking the Bay of All Saints, the great expanse of water where the city lies.
São Salvador da Bahia de Todos os Santos—to give it its full name—with its sheltered anchorage and fertile hinterland, was the centre of the colonial state of Brazil from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, staging post for the slave trade that fuelled the sugar industry in the interior. Sugar and slaves paid for the baroque churches and municipal buildings that cluster in the city’s heart. Most of these were now decaying, rat-ridden ruins. The Anglo-Americano dated from a later, less vainglorious era, though it, too, was in a state of decay. A yellowing, tumble-down, early nineteenth-century edifice, it stood out like a broken tooth in the line of sleek, new, white high-rises on the bluff above the harbour, at a little distance from the old city.
I was happy to be there. The coffee at breakfast was weak, I wrote in a letter home, the milk reconstituted from powder. But the view across the bay was mesmerizing. I would sit entranced for hours by the changes in the light, as the breeze transformed the bay from a sheet of zinc to hammered bronze, rust-flecked where oil-tankers lay at anchor. Here, at my most besotted, I felt that I was living in some sybaritic, coastal version of the terra em transe, the alternative universe I had come looking for in Brazil. And here, in the City of All Saints, I yearned for the miracle of Pentecost, for the gift of tongues, to merge into the language that was sung and spoken all around me.
The radio played all day at the Anglo-Americano, a cascade of the many genres of Brazilian popular music: sambas, pagodes, frevos, afoxés, choros, bossas, serestas—and jazz. The music seemed to be one with the sunlight that streamed into the building. And it was there at the Anglo-Americano, in the enchantment of a morning with no obligations, that I discovered Caetano Veloso.