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  • Ilê Aiyê in Brazil and the Reinvention of Africa by Niyi Afolabi
  • Christopher Dunn
Niyi Afolabi. Ilê Aiyê in Brazil and the Reinvention of Africa. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2016. 288 pp.

Ilê Aiyê is the oldest and most venerable bloco afro, a type of percussion-based performance group from Salvador, Bahia that pioneered a new sound, aesthetic, and discourse that revolutionized the Bahian carnival with a message of black pride. Ilê Aiyê (a Yoruba term meaning House of Life), was founded in 1974 in Curuzu (a neighborhood in the most populous district of the city, Liberdade) during the period of authoritarian rule. The military regime promoted the idea that Brazil was a "racial democracy," a doctrine most associated with patrician intellectual Gilberto Freyre, while persecuting activists and intellectuals who denounced racial discrimination and inequality in Brazil. Founder and president Antônio Carlos dos Santos (known as "Vovô") and his associates were influenced by the US Black Power movement, African liberation struggles, and local black culture, most notably the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, of which his mother, known as Mãe Hilda, was a venerated priestess. With the restoration to formal democracy in 1985, Ilê Aiyê consolidated its position as a leading cultural organization oriented toward black consciousness and anti-racism. By then, several other blocos afros, such as Olodum, Muzenza, and Malê Debalê, had formed in black working-class neighborhoods around the city. In the early 1990s, with the explosion of Axé Music, a loosely defined genre of pop music that drew from the percussion-based music of the blocos afro, Ilê Aiyê collaborated with Bahian pop stars, such as Caetano Veloso and Daniela Mercury. Ilê Aiyê also forged a productive relationship with local and state authorities, dominated by a small white political elite, which recognized the symbolic value of Ilê Aiyê in promoting the city as a world-renowned center for Afro-Diasporic culture and history. All the while Ilê Aiyê limited membership to blacks, for a time even excluding light-skinned Afro-descendants, a policy that has drawn both criticism and praise given the history of race in Brazil.

Niyi Afolabi's Ilê Aiyê in Brazil and the Reinvention of Africa offers a multi-faceted, in-depth, and highly personal account of the organization and its project. No other scholar is more deeply immersed in the story of Ilê Aiyê than Niyi Afolabi, who established a personal and intellectual connection to the group in 1982 when he first visited Brazil as an exchange student from the University of Ifé in Nigeria. He recounts his first encounter with Ilê Aiyê in São Paulo, when Vovô personally invited him to Bahia and explained the group's mission: "Ilê Aiyê is about black consciousness. We connect with Africa in order to recuperate our identity" (132). Having personally experienced racial discrimination and grown aware of systemic racial exclusion and inequality as a student at the University of São Paulo, Afolabi was inspired by the group and its use of culture to foment black pride and combat racism. The book engages an exhaustive bibliography including the most obscure publications and features illustrations of a splendid [End Page E14] collection of textiles from carnival costumes dating back to the 1970s. Readers learn about the group's organizational structure, its educational project, its creative process, its carnival themes, its awesome drum corps ("bateria"), its leading singers, and the composers who compete each year to place their songs in the carnival repertoire. He devotes an entire chapter to its songs, from its well-known hits, such as "Que bloco é esse" and "O mais belo dos belos" to its carnival themes devoted to African countries (especially in the group's early years), other nations of the African Diaspora, and Afro-Brazilian history from several regions (165).

Afolabi provides a useful introduction to carnival in the Afro-Atlantic world with insightful comments on a wide range of traditions from Brazil, Cuba, Haiti, Trinidad, and the United States, particularly in New Orleans, as well as masking traditions from West Africa. Although rooted in European Catholic pre-Lenten festivals, he makes a powerful case for what he calls a "postcolonial, postabolitionist, and global emergence of...


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