Bumba Meu Boi
It is mid-winter in Brazil and the temperatures are down around 30 degrees Celsius. Which makes a very pleasant climate for the festivities that take place all over the country at this time under the general heading of Festas Juninas. Like so much in a predominantly Catholic country, these celebrations are all linked to saints’ days. In São Luís they go under the heading of Bumba Meu Boi, which begins on St Anthony’s Day and culminates on St Peter’s Day. Most of the communities in the city take part in creating some variation on a 200-year-old tale which originated in the cattle farms of the interior. It involves a slave, Pai Francisco, stealing and killing one of his master’s bulls to remove the tongue for which his pregnant wife, Catirina, is desperate.
The slave himself is threatened with death. He hides away in the forest where a cazumbá, half-man, half-animal, comes to his rescue. ‘Bumba Meu Boi’ – ‘Stand up my Bull’ – he commands. The bull is miraculously resurrected and everyone at the farm celebrates. It’s part-pageant, part-pantomime and comes in all sorts of different styles, known as sotaques. Augusto Mendes, an English teacher in his mid-thirties with very black hair, pale olive skin and a great love for his home city, has agreed to take us to see one of the most traditional of the Bumba Meu Boi groups prepare for the big night ahead, the eve of St John’s Day.
We drive across the José Sarney Bridge which connects old São Luís with its modern suburbs. The bridge is named after the founder of a local dynasty and one-time President of Brazil who, some think, has done very well for himself and his family, but very little for his home state of Maranhão, which remains one of the worst-off in the country. Twenty-two of the fifty poorest communities in Brazil are in Maranhão State.
Once onto the island we turn off and away from the historic centre of the city with its recently restored mansions and elaborately tiled facades, to an area called Liberdade, which is very different. Most of the people here are descended from quilombos – settlements of freed slaves. A national magazine, dubbing it the poorest community in Brazil, revealed that seventy-eight percent of its people depend on government handouts, a mere eight percent have access to the internet and infant mortality is higher here than in Iraq.
101, Rua Tomé de Souza is a hive of activity tonight. It stands in a bairro (community) of Liberdade called Floresta (the Forest), and it belongs to a man with the delightfully melodic name of Apolônio Melônio. Apolônio is ninety-two and his wife Nadir is forty-five. Some thirty years ago Apolônio and a local priest, Padre Giovanni Gallo, came up with the idea of organizing a local contribution to the Bumba Meu Boi celebrations that would help raise the spirits and the profile of their downtrodden neighbourhood.
It would be based on the performing troupe Floresta – named after their bairro – which Apolônio had created a year or two earlier. At about that time a young street kid, Nadir Olga Cruz, by her own admission a ‘bad, bad girl’, was being helped by Apolônio to break her drug habit and get herself an education. She proved to be both motivated and ambitious, and married the redoubtable Apolônio when he was sixty-four and she was seventeen. Nadir bore him two children, which, together with those from his other wives, made nineteen altogether.
I ask her how Bumba Meu Boi differs from Carnival.
‘First of all Carnival has no religious attachments. It is a pagan celebration. The religious side is taken very seriously in Bumba Meu Boi. There was a lot of resistance from the authorities in the past. Bumba Meu Boi was considered a dance of drunken people, vagabonds, people with no goals in life. Now the elite understand that it is about art, dance, music, costumes, all in the name of devotion to St John.’
Inspired by Apolônio and Nadir, Floresta has grown from a performing group to an umbrella organization – Projeto Floresta Criativa – for local projects and workshops, and a foundation for helping the deeply disadvantaged local children. All their funds have to be raised. They get nothing from local or national government.
Their house in Rua Tomé, just across the street from the church, looks, like most of those around it, to be a modest single-storey building, but a passageway down the side reveals a labyrinth of rooms leading off it, built into the hill behind the house. In one of these I find Nadir, her slight, girlish figure belying an apparently limitless energy. She’s in a big open room, hung with balloons and bunting in the pink and green colours of Floresta. So far it looks as if it might be set for a children’s party, but at one end are stacked some enormous headdresses, with beautifully embroidered centrepieces, from which spring the long exotic feathers of the ema, the South American emu. Various masks, one with green hair and a carrot nose, hang nearby, waiting for the festivities.
At the other end of the room is a small alcove, framed by pink and green balloons, in which stand plaster figures of various saints. John the Baptist, of course, for it’s his day tomorrow; but also St Peter with the keys to Heaven, St Benedict (Benedito), the black saint and patron of the slaves, and various likenesses of the Virgin Mary. In front of this ‘altar’ of St John is the most important element of today’s proceedings, the obi – the bull. It’s not at all what I expected. It’s little more than a headdress, resting on supports in front of the altar, a sheath along its back embroidered in exquisite detail. The way it sits before the pink-swathed ‘altar’ typifies this confusing – to me anyway – fusion of religion and folklore. I’m not quite sure where one ends and the other begins. Augusto tells me that the story behind Bumba Meu Boi dates back to the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries. Though the icons are full of the imagery of Roman Catholicism, the Catholic establishment has turned its back, finding them too unorthodox, too African.
The 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.