Salvador is typical of modern Brazil in its adherence to Catholicism. But move out of the city centre, and voodoo goddesses still hold sway

She came towards me across the dance floor, swaying slightly and carrying a knife. It wasn't the time to practice my Brazilian chat-up lines. Instead, I followed the lead from those around me, bowing my head and holding up my hands, thereby forming a protective shield and showing a sign of respect. "She is Oxum," whispered my companion, Joao. It was reassuring to know the name of the voodoo goddess I'd just had a brush with - and a relief to know the knife was just part of the tradition.

She came towards me across the dance floor, swaying slightly and carrying a knife. It wasn't the time to practice my Brazilian chat-up lines. Instead, I followed the lead from those around me, bowing my head and holding up my hands, thereby forming a protective shield and showing a sign of respect. "She is Oxum," whispered my companion, Joao. It was reassuring to know the name of the voodoo goddess I'd just had a brush with - and a relief to know the knife was just part of the tradition.

It was another steamy night in northern Brazil and I understood why Jorge Amado, one of Brazil's leading novelists, named one of his Salvador novels Suor (Sweat). The place had warmed up nicely in the three hours since I'd been driven to a gleaming white building in a part of town I would otherwise never have visited. These terreiros, or spirit houses, were once rural sites, their locations chosen to deter the prying eyes of the authorities. But even ancestral spirits can't stop urban expansion, and now most terreiros have been embraced by the tentacles of Salvador's suburbia.

Inside the building I'd witnessed ancestral spirits called orixas, the kingpins of the Afro-Brazilian religion candomble that's been part of life here ever since the first African slaves set foot in Bahia, 450 years ago. Salvador is Brazil's most African city, and the legacy of slavery can be seen almost everywhere here.

The colourful colonial heart of the old town, Pelourinho, takes its name from the whipping post (now removed) where slaves were once punished. African ingredients such as palm oil underpin the local cuisine. And capoeira, the martial art brought to Brazil from Angola and disguised by the slaves as a form of acrobatics set to music (it was banned by suspicious authorities until the 1920s), is practised everywhere.

Amongst this heritage, candomble holds a special place. This is no dry, ritual worship; at its heart is possession. The orixas are drawn to the terreiro by non-stop drumming and ancient songs sung in the Yoruba language of West Africa. There, they take over the bodies of the devotees chosen by the Mae do Santo, or Saint Mother, who heads every terreiro. The spirit world is not altogether sacred, however. About two hours into the proceedings, a woman fell, writhing and crying out as she rolled in the dirt. Joao explained calmly that unwelcome spirits had come to gatecrash the ceremony, maybe voodoo loas from Haiti. Onlookers stepped aside as priests and priestesses rushed here and there, carrying out on-the-spot exorcisms.

But there is more to the spiritual makeup of Salvador than candomble. Catholicism and silence have their places too in a city of over 300 churches. Nowhere is this clearer than at the Igreja do Nosso Senhor do Bonfim, perched on the top of a hill in the city's western suburbs. It was built more than 250 years ago, but is neither the oldest nor the prettiest church in Salvador. Yet it is the most powerful embodiment of the city's faith in miracles. The railings outside the church are decorated by thousands of little coloured ribbons, tied there by pilgrims who come to ask for the Senhor's intercession in their affairs.

Wander through the church and you come to the Room of Miracles, a place that might have you thinking you'd stumbled onto the set of a horror movie. Under dull yellow lighting, hundreds of plastic body parts dangle from the ceiling and sad, graphic portraits peer down from the walls. As a visitor, I half expected Hannibal Lecter to offer his services as guide.

The body parts are votive offerings. Empress Teresa Christina brought the first to Salvador in the 18th century, and these concrete reminders of people's pleas to the Almighty are a poignant snapshot of modern hopes, whether for a daughter's life or simply success in a business venture.

What links these two religions, and most other aspects of Salvadorian life, is music. The city has been home to many of Brazil's musical greats: among them brother and sister Caetano Veloso and Maria Bethania; Astrud Gilberto who sung about Rio's Ipanema beach; and "Tom" Jobim, who invented bossa nova. Local musician Gilberto Gil even served as Secretary of Culture.

On any night in Salvador you are likely to hear pounding rhythms echoing through the city's streets. The most famous of the drumming groups is Olodum, whose Tuesday night open-air rehearsals are legendary: a seething street party.

As the night and the noise imprint themselves on your senses, it's easy to imagine that in the darkness above you Oxum and her cohorts are roaming, listening to the drums beating out the heartbeat of their city.

* Through a specialist agent such as South American Experience (020-7976 5511, www.southamericanexperience.co.uk) or Journey Latin America (020-8747 3108, www.journeylatinamerica.co.uk), current fares to Salvador are £500-£600 return.

* Starting next year, Airtours (0800 028 8001, www.airtours.co.uk) is offering package holidays to Brazil from Gatwick, mostly based at beach resorts in Salvador.

*For more information contact the Brazilian Tourist Office at 32 Green Street, London W1Y 4AT (020-7399 9000)

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