WITH OVER SEVENTY percent of the population claiming African ancestry, Salvador, Bahia, Brazil has been described as the “Most African city in the Americas.” Yet limiting Bahia to a tiny piece of Africa nestled into the coast of Brazil is a bit too neat. Bahia represents one of the great cultural mélanges of the New World. Nowhere is this more evident than in the musical traditions of Salvador.
Living and working in Salvador, I’ve found that taking in the local music and nightlife is the best means of unwinding after my long, hot, post-work commute, or after an all day sun-bake at the beach. Salvador offers a wide assortment of venues and distinctive musical styles.
While Carnaval is the celebration of the year, the city provides ample year-round entertainment. From the authentic sounds of Northeastern Forró, Axé, and Samba, to African drumming and imports like Salsa and Reggae, to a unique breed of singer/songwriter types–there is truly something for everyone.
The following are the 10 best spots / events to take in the unique nightlife of Salvador.
1. Terça da Bênção
The weekly Terça da Bênção (Tuesday of Blessing) in Pelourinho jam-packs the streets of the Old City with both locals and tourists. Salvador’s famous drumming blocos take to the streets, and behind them Soteropolitanos (Individuals from Salvador) perform elaborate synchronized dances. Onlookers encircle the musicians and performers. Didá Banda Feminina, an all-girl Afro-bloco (and one of many community-based music groups) consistently draws a massive crowd.
2. Terreiro de Jesus
Terreiro de Jesus, the central public square in Pelourhino, framed by churches on nearly every side, is a popular place to check out a variety of local acts. The city erects a large, well-lit stage, and fantastic sound system. Folks flood the square; standing and sitting at plastic tables, eating Acarajé from Baihanas, drinking beer and citrus-sugary capirinhas. People dance and sing along. The effusiveness of Bahians is infectious—you will inevitably find yourself on your feet, dancing and chiming into the music.
Gerônimo is a must-see on Tuesdays. He and his band, Mont Serrat, take the stage which sits atop the steps of the Igreja (Church) do Passo on the Ladeira (Hill) do Carmo. The church stands at the cusp of Pelourhino and neighboring Santo Antônio, and the festivities begin around 7 PM. Arriving early is best to secure a superior view of the band.
Gerônimo’s music is the pride of Salvador, and the number of bodies crammed into the bottleneck-shaped space is always staggering. It may be a claustrophobe’s nightmare, but few Brazilians are daunted by the crowd’s density. Relax and join in the revelry.
4. Salsa Night at Sankofa’a African Bar
Stroll back in the direction of Terreiro de Jesus and stop in at Sankofa’a African Bar for Salsa night. I try to grab an open seat near the edge and watch the talented band and the highly-skilled Salseros. I am generally too intimidated by the expertise of these dancers to join in. For those more valiant than me, Salsa teachers who frequent Sankofa will be glad to lead if you are willing to try.
If your two left feet get the best of you, wander upstairs and take a break on one of the hammocks, and check out the old Reggae music videos on the projector screen, or wander onto the veranda and gaze down at the crowds below.
5. Reggae night at Arté Bahia
Salvador’s music scene is largely homegrown, but Reggae (pronounced “hay-gee” in Portuguese) is becoming an increasingly central element of the city’s musical repertoire. Friday is reggae night at Arté Bahia in Pelourinho, the open air bar; cheap drinks and affordable admission have inspired me to return time and time again.
As the popularity of Reggae continues to increase in Salvador, new artists are popping up rapidly. Even so, polished, experienced, and professional artists are still easy to spot.
6. Saturday Nights at Bispo Hostel
Bispo’s crowd ranges in age from teens through seniors, and the group is lively, the ambiance intimate and welcoming. Candles arranged in a circular pattern adorn the walls and provide the sole light source for the upstairs music area. Bispo also boasts a large backyard, with an elevated stage and a pit.
Performances are typically collaborative and varied, featuring new musicians and regulars alike. Shows integrate African-derived call and response, experimentation with such instruments as Zimbabwean Xylophones, as well as kalimbas and shakeres.
7. Ladeira do Curuzu on Saturdays
Ilê Aiyé is an Afro-bloco based out of Liberdade and can be seen on the Ladeira do Curuzu on Saturdays. Recently, I was fortunate enough to catch their annual Festival of Black Music and was treated to a showcase of talented musicians; some from Salvador and others from greater Brazil. Margareth Menezes’ powerful voice shook the walls of the concert hall from the stage, while the members of Ilê Aiyé drummed away on the same floor as the concert-goers, who were encouraged to participate, dancing and singing until 5 AM.
8. Sundays at O Galpão Cheio de Assunto
Peu Meurray has done a great job of turning his art into an accessible and interesting musical endeavor, including the transformation of tires into rolling drums. He plays on Sundays at O Galpão Cheio de Assunto in the Sete Portas neighborhoos. Accompanied by his band, os Pneumáticos, he adds new life to the classic sounds of Northeastern Forró.
The open-air music venue doubles as a miniature gallery, one of the most colorful and eclectic spots in the city. This is also a great place to learn how to dance forró. Locals will take you under their wing and show you the simple moves. Be prepared to move your hips; this is NOT the Texas two-step!
9. Jota Veloso at Sesi in Rio Vermelho
Rio Vermelho is a neighborhood on the opposite side of town, another popular location for both music and nightlife. Largo de Santana is notorious for having the best Acarajé in town. After grabbing a beer and food, I walk over to Sesi, a pricey but lovely restaurant and venue which backs up to the Atlantic Ocean.
Featured on selected nights is singer/ composer Jota Veloso (nephew of the legendary Caetano Veloso). A showcase of some of Salvador’s finest talent.
10. Mondays at Casa de Mãe
Another option is Mondays at Casa de Mãe, which are inexpensive, and relaxing. Get there early, and grab a seat with an ocean view on the balcony, as the heat inside can become a bit stifling. An interesting spot is Nhô Caldos, an anomaly in Salvador.
The bar and restaurant pours out onto Rua do Atlantico, and is the only place I have seen punk music featured in the city thus far. Yet other nights it maintains a quieter, family-friendly atmosphere. I cannot quite figure it out, but I like it.
Tips on Nightlife in Salvador
The quantity of things to do is contingent upon the season, the day of the week, and the weather conditions. Carnaval time in February is the apex of the high season, while the low season is between July and September.
Though there is great fervor surrounding Carnaval, the city is much more affordable and relaxed during the low season. Spending the evening at one of Salvador’s many cheap outdoor bars and sharing beer with friends can be just as enjoyable as a night out on the town.
Arriving early at sure-to-be-packed events is a good idea, but do not be surprised if they begin an hour or two after scheduled. Nightlife is a game of give-and-take in Salvador; folks are incredibly low-key when it comes to going out, expect them to be similarly relaxed when it comes to punctuality. Shows scheduled for 7 PM may not commence until 9; friends with whom you have arranged to meet at 9 may not arrive until 10 or 10:30. I have grown accustomed to it.
Finally, these recommendations are intended to provide a concise list of possibilities for visitors and those new to the city. New opportunities to experience the vibrant music and nightlife of Salvador emerge weekly. Come see for yourself. Boa Sorte!