Monday, July 15, 2013

Bulls, Drums, and a Triangle

Dancing and screaming, they bring the bull back to life...
The brief time I spent in Maranhão was packed full of incredible cultural festivals. As I mentioned in a previous post, I was lucky enough to be there during the junina festivals. From the word junho, meaning "June," the festivals unsurprisingly span the entire month of June every year, as there are such a high concentration of saints' feast days within this one month. The festivities kick-off with the feast of São João (St. John the Baptist) and continue until St. Martial's feast day on the last day of the month.

The tradition of performing bumba meu boi coincides with the junina festivals and, in Maranhão, those performances are more popular and anticipated than carnival celebrations in February. In this northeastern state, there are schools for bumba meu boi-- like there are schools for samba/carnival-- that bring together communities to make costumes, write songs, and choreograph dances. I got the chance to see several different schools perform (there are multiple performances every single night in June in every different neighborhood). There were no two schools who expressed the bumba meu boi tradition in the same way; each school had a unique interpretation of this centuries-old cultural practice. 

The basic story stays the same throughout all the performances, however, and is the story of Pai Francisco and his wife, Mai Catirina. Pai Francisco is a slave working on a large hacienda. His very pregnant wife Catirina decides that she wants to eat the tongue of the hacienda's most prized bull. She cajoles and nags and finally convinces Pai Francisco to kill the precious bull so that she can eat his tongue. When the patron of the hacienda discovers that Pai Francisco has killed his favorite bull, he threatens to kill him...unless he can somehow bring the bull back to life. Pai Francisco implores an indigenous tribe ("indios") living nearby to help him by using their magic medicine to revive the bull. They come to his assistance, dancing in elaborate patterns around the bull until he comes magically back to life and joins in the dance.

Pai Francisco always carries a machete as he dances, and Mai Catirina is often (though not always) played by a man in pregnant drag. The rhythm and melody to which this dance is performed is provided by a huge section of people either behind or to the side of the dancers, the majority of them playing matracas (wooden blocks hit together) and large, handheld drums. The lyrics of the songs are written by the singers of each school, and so they tend to reflect current relevant events (my favorite song lyric was "Foi no instagrã que te conheci..." which means, "I met you on Instagram...").

Towards the end of June and the junina festivities, St. Peter's feast day is celebrated, which is a big deal in the state of Maranhão and especially on the island of São Luís, as St. Peter is the patron saint of fisherman. The celebration for this feast day is special, and in fact goes all night. The event is referred to as the encontro dos bois (the meeting of the bulls) in which all of the bumba meu boi schools from all around the state make a pilgrimage to St. Peter's small chapel in São Luís. The chapel sits at the top of a steep hill looking out over the ocean. It's roof is made of sails, stretching out towards the sea, appearing as if at any moment it would sail off, through the sky, down into the sea.

St. Peter in his boat
The open basket sits at the foot of St. Peter's statue and is where people could drop off offerings such as the ex voto arms pictured here. The basket frequently filled up throughout the night and a volunteer would store the offerings in a back room and replace the basket, ready once more to be filled. 
Hundreds of bulls and their musicians and their Pai Franciscos and their Mai Catirinas and their "indian" dancers arrive throughout the night and into the morning. They begin by dancing and singing at the foot of the hill, where large stages have been set up. Slowly, each school makes their way up the hundreds of steps towards the chapel, where they dance and sing for the statue of St. Peter, who has been placed in a small boat filled with flowers.

Community members from the surrounding neighborhoods, as well as from the farthest corners of the state, make the pilgrimage. They come to make petitions to the saint in the form of ex votos, they come to fulfill promises (such as dancing all night) as thanks for miracles in their lives that they attribute to the saint, and some even come to shake their fists in anger, shouting at the saint and berating him for not having granted some petition.

Many come, many dance, many weep - from the sheer intensity of the tremendous sound of throbbing drums pulsing through the small chapel, the fervency of the prayer, the neverendingness of the night, the elbow-to-elbow crowds dancing there in the extreme heat of an island two degrees off the equator.

Sunrise from the heights of the ship-like chapel. 
From inside the chapel, I saw the sun rise over the ocean. At about 10:30am, four men hoisted the statue of St. Peter in his boat on their shoulders, and slowly made their way down the harrowingly steep stairs. When they reached the street, they loaded the saint onto the top of a big truck which carried him to the shore, where he was placed on a boat, to continue the procession in the water.

Here is a video I made of one of the bumba meu boi performances I saw and the encontro dos bois: 

While this event was, without a doubt, the culminating experience of my time there, I was fortunate enough to witness other smaller cultural traditions as well. In São Luís' historic city center, many bumba meu boi performances were celebrated in the streets, alongside music and dance traditions such as tambor crioula and forrô. One could simply walk around that neighborhood, find something delicious to eat at a small stand, purchase a cocktail or a beer from another small stand, and discover a different live music performance waiting for them around almost every corner.

The tambor crioula was beautiful to watch. A group of men sang call-and-response songs and played drums while a circle of women wearing long, floral skirts and head-scarves twirled and danced and improvised steps. This tradition was brought by African slaves to Brazil and continues to be danced today by their decedents. What I didn't know at first about this tradition is that the women dancing the tambor crioula will sometimes pull female bystanders into their circle to dance with them for a little while, greeting them by putting their arms up into the air and bumping bellybutton-to-bellybutton. I saw several women get close to the circle when they were watching and, sure enough, bump-twirl-twirl....

When we arrived at the band playing forrô music, we all started dancing. Forrô is an incredibly fun dance music, native of Brazil's northeast. I love that one of the driving forces behind this music is the triangle- it is such a wonderful (and underused!) percussion instrument.

For some inexplicable reason, there were a couple of clowns hanging out in front of the forrô stage... they weren't singing or dancing really, but there they were in full clown regalia and face paint. Just one of those creepy delightfully unpredictable details of the junina festivities!

Here is a video I made of what it was like walking around the historic center at night, finding tambor crioula and forrô performances, tucked away on each corner...

What are your favorite yearly festivals?? What new festivals and cultural traditions have you experienced recently? Until next time, fair petticoat rustlers-- keep rustling!

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