A very comic-dramatic dance and festival, particularly in Northern Brazil, Bumba-Meu-Boi tells the story of the death and resurrection of an ox. Beginning as a simple street festival, over time the festival has incorporated local legends, music and dances wherever it is performed. In this month of June, with different names, it is celebrated throughout Brazil.
A musician on stage blows a whistle that reverberates under the nigh-time city lights of São Luis, Brazil. A lone male voice begins singing, and dancers line up, a jumble of feathers, glitter, and satin. Rattles shake; then the music explodes, as long lines of women and men dressed as natives sweep onto the open dance area in the galloping march that includes twists of hips. The feathered crowns of their headdresses seem to burst with colour; and the yellow, white, and red feathers on the women’s hips and tops make it look as if brightly coloured Amazonian parakeets are flying around them as they dance.
The dance area is popping with an energetic, thumping rhythm, and the eye-aching colour is made more spectacular by two combative bois, or bulls, each brought to life by the man inside the costume. The two bulls whirl, leap, and shudder. No doubt about it – the Enchanted Bull has been turned loose in a spectacular celebrations known as Bumba-meu-boi. The dance of Bumba-Meu-Boi re-enacts a story called The Desire of Catherine. In the story, the pregnant Catherine craves the tongue of a bull. Her husband, a slave called Pai Francisco, kills one of his master’s bulls and gives the tongue to his wife. He then flees to escape punishment. The master enlists vaqueiros and locals to capture the runaway slave. Pai Francisco is apprehended and threatened with death if he cannot pay restitution for the dead bull, so he enlists the help of a medicine man who brings the bull back to life. Pa Francisco is forgiven and everything ends well, the reason for singing, dancing and merriment.
A bull into the room
The origins of the festival have been debated. One theory is that it originated in the 18th century when Jesuit communities created dramatic dancers to honour the cycles of life and death. Other theories hold that the dance originated with slaves who worked in the sugar and cotton fields of the northern state of Maranhão, of which São Luis is the capital.
Slaves may have seen the dance as a way to mock the power of their masters, especially with the creation of the slave hero Pai Francisco. With Northeast Brazil’s vaqueiros and cattle on the open range, it is no surprise that the dance, accompanied by the thumping African zambumba, spread throughout working class populations of the rural Northeast and grew into such a raucous celebration that in the late 1800s, attempts were made to prohibit the affair entirely. The festival continued clandestinely, however, and increased in popularity until it became the elaborate sanctioned public spectacle it is today.
Brazilian Catholicism developed relatively unsupervised by the official church. As a result, Catholic holy days turned into wild celebrations, so it is little surprise that Bumba-Meu-Boi contains elements of both the sacred and the profane.
The Bumba-Meu-Boi ‘cycle’ starts with dance rehearsals from April to June. During this time the bull is considered ‘pagan’. On the night of St. John the Baptist on June 24, however, bulls from different dance groups are baptized so they become ‘Christians’.
In any given celebration, the baptism room is decorated with coloured lanterns and small flags strung across the ceiling. A table in the centre is covered with a cloth. Participants drink, dance, and eat as they await the bull’s arrival. At 10:00 pm the ceremony begins officially with the launching of firecrackers. The mood grows solemn as participants bring a bull into the room, cover it with the tablecloth, then set it on the table so its head faces a small altar containing the statue of St. John decorated with roses and ribbons, a glass of water, a short broomstick, and white candles. For an hour, the room fills with the smell of the candle wax and murmurs of Our Fathers, Hail Marys, and prayers to St. John. At the end of the prayers, two participants who have been elected as the bull’s ‘godparents’, come forward to the altar. Each takes the small broomstick, drips it into a cup of water, and makes the sign of the cross above the bull’s head. The bull is now purified in a ‘state of grace’ and ready to go onto the streets of São Luis.
The old city section of São Luis, called Praia Grande, is a Unesco historical site. Though the French briefly occupied the city from 1612-1615, the architecture is distinctly Portuguese with its burnt sienna, blue, and yellow row houses, and the two-story buildings covered in painted tiles and dainty flowers, delft blue starbursts, daffodils, or monochrome blocks.
People look out from arched Moorish windows of upper floor apartments with wrought iron balconies and watch barefoot children playing soccer on the cobblestones. During the month of June, Praia Grande and other neighborhoods that host Bumba-Meu-Boi performances decorate their plazas into what are called arraiais, strings of small flags that are suspended overhead, attached to buildings and streets. Decorative bull heads with flowing ribbons posted high on lamp posts look down at the festivities below. The party starts when the sun goes down, the air cools, and the Praia Grande’s powerful halogen lamps illuminate two performance spaces: the larger Praca Nauro Machado for the Bumba-Meu-Boi groups; and the smaller Canto de Cultural for smaller dance presentations.
In nearby alleys, musicians make bonfires and lay the tops of their oblong drums, or tambores, next to the flames to tighten the leather in preparation for a Tambor de Crioula dance group. Then to the drummer’s African beat, a line of old women, young ladies, and girls shuffle barefoot into a circle, chanting and swirling their skirts. Dance presentations also include the European quadrille, where dancers weave in and out of line formations, and the coco, a folk dance with African roots, where the couples move forward with small stomps and kicks.
In contrast to the more intimate Praia Grande, the arraial at Praca Maria de Aragao sprawls at the foot of a hill near the beach. At night, on top of a hill, the Nossa Senhora Dos Remedios Church glows like cut blue grass against the night sky. The wide staircase descending from the Church teems with people, and even more people crowd around the single large stage in the middle of the square.
All the presentations exude youthful beauty and energy, and the young dancers’ giddiness at well deserved admiration reflect hours of rehearsal and perhaps the knowledge that the Bumba-Meu-Boi tradition is now in their hands.
The Bumba Meu Boi festival is celebrated throughout Brazil with different names – Boi-Bumba in Amazonas and in Pará, Bumba-Meu-Boi in Maranhão’, Boi Calemba in Rio Grande do Norte and Boi-Pintadinho in Rio de Janeiro.
The festival may be celebrated with myriad names, but the spirit remains the same no matter what the name is. Bumba Meu Boi is undoubtedly one of the finest jamborees of mankind and has the aroma of passionate and rhythmic Brazilian beats and their rich culture. (Pedro Santacruz)