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Brazil

Day 21: São Luís

 
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A boy stands at the door of the local Catholic church. Its one-time priest, Giovanni Gallo, helped Apolónio bring Bumba Meu Boi to Floresta.
Michael Palin - BrazilThe house is filling up. Costumes are being put on and make-up applied. Those playing indigenous peoples have stripes painted on their faces, the slaves wear bandanas, and the landowners are in sequinned waistcoats. The drummers heat their round, shallow goatskin drums around a fire in the backyard. The man playing Pai Francisco, dressed as a cowboy, laughs blearily and occasionally sends out a blast from what looks and sounds like a vuvuzela. He's had a few.

Nadir gathers them together. Apolônio, a thin but elegant ninety-two-year-old in a green jacket, pink trousers and a beret, exchanges jokes with friends and even has time to talk to me. He tells me he was eight years old when he attended his first Bumba ceremony back in 1926. He started Bumba Meu Boi here in Floresta and has never wanted to move away.

'Until,' he adds matter-of-factly, 'I have to move to the sacred place that everybody needs to go to one day.'

As it draws closer to midnight, when the Feast of Corpus Christi becomes St John's Day, more and more people crowd into the room with the altar to witness the 'baptism' of the bull. A woman in late middle age whose everyday clothes are in marked contrast to all the flamboyant outfits around her is ushered to the front and, standing by the altar, begins to intone prayers. She is the priestess, though she looks more like someone from the accounts department. Behind her is the lead singer, who turns her words into chants which are belted out to the accompaniment of two drums, a saxophone and a trumpet. The crowd chants back. After half an hour of this the jam-packed, windowless room is very hot indeed and I'm aware that there is only one small exit. Emu feather skirts brush dangerously close to lighted candles. To add to the fun, a firecracker is thrown into the open passageway outside. I flinch, but no one else seems to. Just before midnight a local man who is one of the 'godfathers' of the bull blesses it with burning sticks and flicks it with water. The bull is now baptized and the dancing begins. The various characters in the story move and weave around as best they can in the centre of the crush. The man wearing the bull's head bucks and rears as he chases after sozzled cowboys and children dressed in leopardskin and the relentless rhythm of the music is supplemented by the crack-crack beat of matracas, wooden blocks struck together. In the midst of the mayhem, Apolônio Melônio, his drawn, bony face showing quiet satisfaction, sits to one side shaking a diamond-shaped rattle in time with the music.

The chanting becomes more frenetic. A woman grasps my hand, her face suffused with ecstatic suffering, tears spilling from her eyes. Someone is calling out The Lord's Prayer. At midnight there are resounding cries of 'St John be Blessed!' A few minutes later the dancing, chanting, heaving, perspiring throng begins at last to move from this suffocating room, slowly shifting up the steps and out into the street. Rising above them are the magnificent feather headdresses, transforming their mundane, careworn wearers into gods for a night. Free from the confines of the downstairs room the parade joyfully expands to fill the streets outside, defying the pale glare of the sodium lights, and turning an ordinary evening in this run-down corner of town into a night at the theatre.

As we drive home after filming we turn a corner and find ourselves face to face with another Bumba celebration. In the dimly lit street ahead a line of children in white conical headdresses advances towards us along the cobbles. We're waved angrily away by the organizers – and it's very rare to see anyone in Brazil being angry.
 
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For a poor community, the costumes, worn by young and old, are rich and beautifully made.
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PALIN'S GUIDES

  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 21: São Luís
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 100

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