Africanisms in Action: Essentialism and Agency in the Musical Performance of Africa in Bahia, Brazil

Juan Diego Diaz
UC Davis

The state of Bahia in Brazil was one of the main entry points of Africans to the Americas during the transatlantic slave trade and over time has become a cultural reference in the African diaspora. Real and idealized notions of Africa have been fundamental in the creation of this culture in Bahia. “Africanisms in Action” discusses how Bahian musicians create and perform music when they use Africa as a source of inspiration. I argue that black musicians from Bahia assert Afro-Brazilian identities and connect to the African continent and other diasporic locales by creatively engaging essentialized tropes about African music and culture. Instead of robotically reproducing these notions, Bahian musicians emphasize them or downplay them. My project analyzes four commonly-encountered tropes of African music: the first two are the notions that African music is dominated by rhythm and percussion; third, that African music is meant to be danced, not intellectualized; and last, the idea that African music always touches on the sacred. Through four case studies, I demonstrate the nuances of musical creation in the African diaspora, acknowledging the genuine impact that essentialisms have on Bahian music without suggesting that they are an essential part of the musicians’ African roots.