The rich aroma of acarajé fritters sold by Baiana vendors mixed with the rhythmic drumming of Salvador’s street bands. Tourists and locals flooded the bars of the Pelourinho neighbourhood to watch Brazil’s first game in the 2022 World Cup, and crowds erupted as they scored against Serbia. This joyous celebration, set against the blue skies and pastel-coloured colonial-era buildings of the Terreiro de Jesus square, is typical of the capital of the Brazilian state of Bahia, Salvador de Bahia (better known as Salvador). I quickly learned that celebration is the norm rather than the exception in Salvador, a city located along Brazil’s north-eastern coast near some of the country’s best beaches, which is considered by many to be the birthplace of modern Brazil. Locals have a saying, “Sem pressa, olha para o céu, fala com Deus, você tá na Bahia” (Take your time, look at the sky, talk to God, you’re in Bahia), which, as Salvador-born Alicé Nascimento points out, embodies the relaxed and feel-good atmosphere unique to this region. It is no wonder then that this Unesco World Heritage city is unofficially known as Brazil’s “capital of happiness”. When you ask locals (known as Soteropolitanos) what makes Salvador so jubilant, they all seem to mention the same thing: axé, a Yoruba West African term that loosely translates to “energy”. Jair Dantas Dos Santos, a Salvador local, describes Salvador’s axé as a “powerful presence in the air, which is something to be felt rather than explained”. Indeed, Soteropolitanos say axé is an energy woven into the fabric of Bahian culture, and it imbues everything from Salvador’s music to its laid-back attitude towards life. It is impossible to describe Bahian axé without first considering the region’s layered and tumultuous history. Salvador was settled in 1549 by Portuguese colonialists and served as Portuguese America’s first capital until 1763. It was a major seaport during the transatlantic slave trade and is considered the New World’s first slave market, with enslaved Africans brought to work on the region’s sugar plantations. Local teacher and poet Antônio Barreto says that to understand Salvador’s complex history, you need look only at the name given to the city’s historical centre: Pelourinho (pillory), the wooden device used to subject individuals to public abuse. During colonial times, enslaved individuals were publicly punished on pelourinhos for alleged infractions. Today, its name lingers on as a reminder of Salvador’s dark past. During the slave trade era, the Portuguese enslaved more Africans than any other country, transporting nearly five million of them to Brazil. Most of these enslaved individuals came from Angola, another Portuguese colony, and other western African countries. Slavery persisted in Brazil until 1888, yet Barreto explained that enslaved Africans and their descendants continued to fight for their freedom and traditions for many years. The Bahian coat of arms illustrates the strength of its people through the Latin phrase “Per ardua surgo” (I rise through the difficulty). Today, Salvador is considered the Afro-Brazilian capital, with roughly 80% of residents tracing their roots to Africa. The city’s unique culture is a testament to the strength and courage of its people who relish the axé of the present and proudly celebrate their rich, Bahian traditions drawn from Portuguese, African and Amerindian peoples. Walking through the streets, it is easy to see these diverse musical, culinary and religious practices melding together. As Barreto and I strolled through the centre of Pelourinho, we approached the Terreiro de Jesus square, notable for its colonial-era churches and monuments dating to the 17th Century. The blend of stucco buildings and African-inspired art found throughout the Terreiro de Jesus highlights the cultural fusion and resilience so unique to this city. Once a place where enslaved Africans were beaten, the square now serves as the backdrop of Bahian festivals celebrating capoeira and samba, two practices born in Bahia. In front of the São Francisco Church, notable for its golden-sculpted interior and illusionistic, Baroque-era painting, we stumbled upon an energized capoeira roda (circle) performed as part of the Festival de Cultural Popular, which celebrates Bahian traditions. Capoeira performers moved fluidly to the beat of atabaque drums and the berimbau, a single-stringed, bow-shaped percussion instrument originating in western Africa. Like the atabaque and the berimbau, capoeira also traces its roots to Africa. Historians believe that capoeira, a unique blend of martial art and dance, was developed in Brazil by enslaved Africans as a means of self-defence under Portuguese control. Today, capoeira is a staple of Salvador street entertainment and represents both liberation and freedom. Practitioners say their agile movements embody the spirit of vadiação, which loosely translates to loitering, and exemplifies the region’s easy-going energy. Across the Terreiro de Jesus, Barreto and I found a samba performance, where the dancers’ movements synchronised to the beat of guitars, drums and pandeiros (tambourines). Like capoeira, samba was born in Bahia by enslaved Africans and is now considered Brazil’s national dance. Different forms of samba developed throughout Brazil during the colonial era, with the Samba de Roda hailing from Salvador. This form is a collective performance combining dancing, musical instruments, singing and poetry drawn from both African and Portuguese traditions. Today, samba is danced widely throughout Brazil, with Salvador’s Balé Folclórica da Bahia home to professional performances celebrating the Bahian-born dance. Bahian traditions like capoeira and samba are celebrated with great regional pride. In fact, Salvador’s main festive season, which runs from December to March, begins with Samba Day and ends with Carnaval.