Interview: Mirla Riomar – Weaving Joyful Resistance: Afro-Brazilian Beats from Salvador de Bahía to Barcelona (October 2023)

Words by: Marco Canepari

Born in Salvador de Bahía, a city pulsating with Afro-Brazilian rhythms, Mirla Riomar‘s connection to her heritage forms the rhythmic heartbeat of her creative expression. Her ancestry is a complex tapestry, with indigenous roots on her mother’s side and the haunting echoes of African slavery in Brazil on her father’s. So much so, Mirla’s art becomes a rhythmic resonance of a complex historical reality often left unspoken.

A few weeks ago, we had the pleasure of meeting her and her band in Setúbal as part of the vibrant EXIB Música, where Ibero-American music and music professionals converged for four days of chats, meetings, conferences, and, of course…inspiring gigs.

On one of those rainy autumn afternoons in Portugal, just hours before her evening showcase, we sat down with Mirla in the scenic cloister of the Convento de Jesus. There, we explored her story, discussed her new life in Barcelona, and delved into her rich musical experiences.

My project began with my birth; it’s deeply rooted in my ancestry,” she debuted, her voice resonating with the intricate layers of her heritage. From indigenous roots on her mother’s side to the echoes of African slavery in Brazil on her father’s side, Mirla paints a vivid mural of her personal journey, shaped by the vibrant rhythms of Salvador de Bahía and the diverse sounds that surrounded her upbringing.

“I’ve always had a strong desire to tell my own story and the story of my ancestors. In Brazil, we have a very complex history of slavery and colonisation. I’m a descendant of indigenous peoples on my mother’s side and Africans brought to Brazil during the era of slavery on my father’s side. It’s a harsh and complex historical reality that isn’t talked about much. Rooted in oral traditions, those of us raised in communities like favelas or quilombos have a closer connection to our ancestors. From a young age, I’ve heard many stories from my ancestors, things that made me sad and filled me with suffering. Childhood dreams fuelled my desire to use art to share the hidden stories.”

Her immersion in popular culture, entwined with Bahía’s cultural richness, shaped her musical identity. “I used to listen to groups like Ile Aie, performing in the streets with Afro-Brazilian outfits and stories about indigenous peoples,” she recalls. Salvador de Bahía’s cultural background of street music left a lasting impact. “That’s what I grew up with. I also heard the music my parents played, like Chicoans, a very old Afro-Brazilian group. I listened to Dorival Caymmi, especially from Bahía, and Gerónimo, among others. All of that influenced me until I was able to express it in my music.”

A significant turning point unfolded when Mirla, at the age of 12, felt a compelling urge to narrate the untold stories of her ancestors. “At 12, I began composing and writing songs that speak of my ancestry and growing up in a favela. Drawing from oral traditions and the stories passed down to me, I’ve crafted many songs that address the social context I was born into—some of which are featured on my album today,” she shared.

The narrative sails across continents, exploring Mirla’s journey to Spain. “I left Brazil with a purpose—to share my music and make a living through art,” she explained. Catalonia’s cosmopolitan environment seeped into her sound, transforming her music into a captivating fusion of Afro-Brazilian roots and global openness. “In Brazil, it was challenging for me coming from a poor family. But, when I arrived in Catalonia, it reinforced the need to tell my story. In Europe, there was little discussion about colonisation and slavery, a history that belongs to all of Europe. Being in Spain reinforced my commitment to using music for awareness. I speak from the perspective of a Black Brazilian woman who understands both the Indigenous and African sides of the colonisation story. My grandmother was the daughter of an Indigenous woman taken from her land at 12, and these stories were passed on to me.”

As a matter of fact, her move to Barcelona did not dilute Mirla’s commitment to raising awareness about colonisation and slavery. Her lyrics, born from a dual perspective of Indigenous and African heritage, reflect the need to bridge historical gaps. In response to how she introduces serious topics in her music, given its often joyful and energetic tone, Mirla passionately shares, “I use music as a form of resistance. It’s an approach that allows me to express myself and my culture. Music is powerful because it connects people and is capable of carrying heavy themes. We can make people dance while also telling them about the suffering of colonisation and slavery. It’s a form of resistance, and it’s the way I can communicate with people. Music has a great ability to touch hearts and raise awareness.

“I believe that the energy of joy is connected to the strength of our ancestors. We carry the energy of our ancestors, and they had an energy that’s full of joy. That’s why we dance, and that’s why we express ourselves through music. This energy allows us to resist and continue moving forward. For me, it’s a way to make people reflect on the importance of these topics and on the suffering of those who came before us.”

The influence of Barcelona on her music extends to the sonic realm. “Barcelona has influenced my music, but not just in terms of sound,” Mirla notes. The cosmopolitan city provided her with the opportunity to collaborate with musicians from various backgrounds, enriching her music with diverse sounds. As she performed with artists from Europe, Africa, and beyond, each collaboration brought a unique perspective and feeling to her music. “It’s a cosmopolitan city, and I’ve had the chance to meet people from various places I might not have encountered in Brazil. Working with different musicians, we’ve incorporated diverse sounds. My music is Afro-Brazilian, but it’s open to the world. We’ve played with people from different countries like France, Mozambique, Portugal, Italy, and more. Each person brings their own perspective and feeling to the music, enriching it. The lyrics I write for my music also reflect this experience, focusing more on raising awareness about these issues.”

Her eclectic taste is evident as she expresses her love for music from around the world. “I feel like a global music listener,” she smiles, citing influences from the Afro-Luso world to jazz. This global outlook permeates her music, “I love music from around the world. I really enjoy music from Angola, Cape Verde, Mozambique, as well as flamenco. I also like rock, and jazz plays a significant role in my music. In the end, I listen to a bit of everything, including Far East cultures. I listen to a wide variety of music.

The interview concludes against the backdrop of the EXIB Música and Setúbal, where Mirla shares her positive experience. “It’s my first time here in Portugal and EXIB Música , and I’ve had the opportunity to meet wonderful people,” she expresses. “It’s been a very positive experience for me as I believe that music and art have the ability to connect me with people who have beautiful hearts and who are more sensitive. So, these days have been great for getting to know lovely people and incredible musicians. I think it’s been an amazing experience!” This marks a new chapter in her musical journey, continuing to expand her reach and share her unique sound.