Re-enactments of slavery folk tale reflect grim realities in Brazil

A folk tale from Brazil about slavery is popular entertainment.
A folk tale from Brazil about slavery is popular entertainment. Jack Chang/MCT

SAO LUIS, Brazil — In this desperately poor corner of northeast Brazil, one story has so captured the grim realities of daily life that people have repeated it in countless ways for nearly a century.

The tale's protagonist is Father Francisco, a black slave who cuts out the tongue of his boss's favorite bull so that his pregnant wife can eat it, ensuring a healthy baby. The plantation's white manager discovers the dead bull and sends his indigenous henchmen to hunt down Francisco, who's sentenced to death unless he can revive the animal.

Revelers re-enact the brutal story in an explosion of song and costumes known as bumba-meu-boi festivals. They dance around a bull made from black velvet and sequins, while scantily clad women improbably play the henchmen sent out to look for the slave.

Yet not far below the festive surface, the ancient story retains its primal power, especially here in the state of Maranhao, Brazil's poorest.

The violence of rural life, the gaping social inequalities and the uneasy relations among white, black and indigenous Brazilians are all brought vividly to life.

"Bumba-meu-boi, like other popular culture, is connected to the concrete, objective conditions that everybody lives with," said Maria Michol de Carvalho, director of a Maranhao state cultural center. "Who does bumba-meu-boi? It comes from the popular classes, and they live with this oppression."

For Dino Santos, from the farming city of Timon, re-enacting the story every year reminds people of their cultural roots. Like many in the region, Santos claims black, white and indigenous ancestors. His great-great-grandfather had toiled as a slave here.

Santos, 25, traveled hundreds of miles by bus last month with his group, The Laugh of Youth, to perform in Sao Luis, the state's capital.

"It tells the story of our people, and really the story of all of Brazil," Santos said. "We live with all these problems in the story."

The story's origins date as far back as the 18th century, although the performances started around the turn of the 20th century. Bumba-meu-boi translates roughly as "beat the bull."

In Sao Luis, the festival starts with the mock bull's "baptism" in late June and ends with a ceremony marking the bull's "death" at the end of July. Festival days for various Catholic saints, especially St. John, who is especially revered in northern Brazil, are woven into the folklore.

About 250 groups in all perform bumba-meu-boi around Maranhao, with hundreds more re-enacting the tale across a swath of the Brazilian north.

That the festivals are most popular in Maranhao is no coincidence, de Carvalho said.

Social rebellion and institutional violence resonate in a state where the average wage is about $200 a month, the lowest in Brazil. Many in Maranhao's parched interior barely survive by subsistence farming on land often controlled by powerful families.

For decades, governments cracked down on the performances, which were considered subversive.

"The drama of the story is always about the struggle between the dominators and the dominated," de Carvalho said. "It's a fight for land and a fight between the classes."

Jose Carlos Lobato, who manages one performance group, said the story's appeal is also its unexpectedly happy ending.

After a Portuguese doctor fails to revive the bull, the story goes, the ranch owner calls for an indigenous shaman, who brings the beast back to life. Francisco is then set free, everybody on the plantation rejoices and social harmony is restored.

"We are telling a story about hunger and about the lack of land, but also about unity in the end," Lobato said. "We want to say that we are all brothers among all the races."

Lobato's group has been a pioneer in playing up the story's happy resolution and giving the old yarn a lighter, more show-business spin. The group's performances, which feature fireworks, elaborate props and buff, half-naked dancers, draw crowds of shrieking teenagers.

Other groups mix the percussive music with dialogue. Still others ditch the story altogether and turn the event into an orgy of elaborate costumes and drumming. The story can be told with an African, indigenous or entirely fantastical bent, depending on the group.

Some aficionados, such as public servant Evandro Bandeira, complain that the story's strength has been diluted by groups trying to turn the festivals into glitzy spectacles akin to Rio de Janeiro's annual Carnaval parades.

"I prefer the original approach," Bandeira said. "Modernizing it has covered up its story."

Antonio Gomes dos Santos, the father of Dino Santos, said his family has for generations told the story every year in pretty much the same, time-honored way.

The 66-year-old runs an academy in Timon teaching people how to put on the performances, including doing the bull's whirling dervish dances or pounding out the propulsive beat on wide, goat skin drums.

"Bumba-meu-boi is something we've done since as far as we can remember," dos Santos said. "It doesn't just talk about our roots. It is our cultural roots."

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