How the Brazilian carnival’s band Olodum became a massive social movement
The biggest carnival in the world takes place in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. During a massive street party of six days, dozens of bands on big trucks named carnival bloco’s parade through the streets. Every year, more than two million people come to Salvador to be part of Brazil’s biggest festival.
However, forty years ago most Afro-Brazilians living in Pelourinho - the historic city center of Salvador - were not allowed to participate. To guarantee them access to the festival, a group of musicians and artists founded Olodum: a bloco that aimed to highlight African heritage during the massive yearly parades, and uplift the Afro-Brazilian community of Pelourinho through music, art and dance.
In Casa do Olodum, located in one of the small alleys of the city center, we sit down with Lucas di Fiori, one of the four main singers of bloco Olodum. He explains how Olodum transformed from a local carnival’s band into a world-famous Afro-Brazilian music group and became a social movement that, until today, is fighting for the rights of marginalized people in Brazil.
From local carnival organization to most important Afro-Brazilian music group.
Every year the musicians and artists of bloco Olodum choose a theme for the coming carnival, with matching songs. Most of the lyrics are about the history of Afro-Brazilians, the beauty of their culture and the daily struggles in contemporary Brazil. Guinea-Bissau – Star of the African Revolution (1982) and Samba, Soccer and Joy – Roots of Brazil (2013) are examples of such themes. When we ask Lucas about performing at carnival, his face lights up. He can hardly describe how it feels to be on stage during the yearly Parades.
“With millions of people in the streets, there is so much energy! To perform feels like scoring a goal in the World Cup!”
Since Olodum’s first parade in 1980, this bloco quickly grew into one of the most important Afro-Brazilian music groups. They developed their own unique sound: a fusion of Brazilian samba, Jamaican reggae and African percussion. This unique sound, combined with their strong message and colorful symbol spread like a wildfire.
Global success brings attention to local circumstances.
In 1987, Olodum scored a national hit with the carnival song ‘Faraó Divindade do Egito, still one of their most popular songs. The rest of the world got to know Olodum after The Obvious Child, a musical collaboration with Paul Simon.
Their biggest international success is the feature on They Don’t Really Care About Us by Michael Jackson in 1996. In the video, Michael is surrounded by hundreds of Olodum percussionists in the streets of Salvador’s city center Pelourinho. He is shouting against police officers and addressing the bad living conditions of the residents, while wearing an Olodum t-shirt.
Lucas explains how this international fame brought a lot of attention to the local circumstances in Pelourinho. Together with a progressive mayor, the organization was able to initiate some social projects and founded a school to provide access to cultural education for the children of Pelourinho. Lucas says that without Olodum, Pelourinho would never have become the safe and successful hotspot that it is today.
“Olodum is Pelourinho and Pelourinho is Olodum: it’s impossible to separate.”
The story of Lucas di Fiori.
Up until today, an army of Olodum percussionists march through the small alleys of Pelourinho every week. The loud, colorful drums draw a lot of attention and attract many youths. Like other young kids growing up in Salvador, nine-year-old Lucas di Fiori was fascinated by the percussion sound, and dreamt of becoming a famous player. Still unaware of his vocal talents, he joined Escola Olodum, where free percussion courses were provided.
But in the Olodum School, he learned a lot more than playing the drums. Through different activities in afro dance, leadership, music and citizenship, Lucas started to feel more confident, aware of his roots and discovered his biggest talent: singing. At a rapid pace, he went from student to teacher to one of the four famous Olodum cantors (singers). Lucas has become a role-model for many young Afro-Brazilians, and is determined to bring forth more inspiring individuals.
“We need to see more Afro-Brazilians in top positions to establish a more equal country.”
The story of Lucas demonstrates the results of Olodum’s strong vision and innovative method. Using music to attract and educate young, mostly poor Afro-Brazilians and teach them about their roots. Boost their self-esteem, enhance their potential and train them into inspiring role models who can pass these ideas on to the next generation.
Expanding territory and becoming a social movement.
Although the lives of most Afro-Brazilians have improved over the last forty years, there is still a long way to go. Racial discrimination, socio-economic inequality, police brutality; in Brazil skin-color is still a major determinant for life chances. Olodum has therefore spread its wings to the suburbs of Salvador, where most social problems now tend to concentrate. They have partnerships with public schools in many of these neighborhoods. Around three hundred kids are enrolled in their programs.
While the appreciation of, and respect for Afro-Brazilian culture is still one of Olodum’s main objectives, the organization has developed a broad scope. Everybody, regardless of culture, color, religion or sexual orientation is welcome to join their activities. Next year, on their 40th anniversary, the carnival theme will be A history of women, which has been chosen due to the high rate of violence against women in Salvador and the rest of Brazil. Over the years, Olodum has evolved into a social movement that fights against racism, inequality and stands up for all marginalized people in Brazil.
The story of Olodum.
The story of Olodum is full of inspiration, which is the main reason the movement continues to grow. Due to their innovative method of mixing education with arts, Olodum was able to develop actions to combat social discrimination and uplift the Afro-Brazilian community. They changed the lives of many individuals, including that of Lucas who is now determined to inspire the next generation.
“Education is the key to a more equal and balanced society.”
According to Lucas, Olodum is a model that can change circumstances for underprivileged communities in cities all over the world. His dream is that Olodum continues to grow, spreading their ideas and developing programs for children all over the world.