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In Brazil, Oldies and Greens Can't Agree on How to Celebrate the Queen of the Sea PDF Print E-mail
2011 - February 2011
Written by Paul H. Mason   
Tuesday, 01 February 2011 00:57

Capoeira group from Salvador, Bahia Preparations for the Festival of the Queen of the Sea have already begun in Grupo Nzinga, a capoeira academy located on Mermaid's peak (Alta Sereia) in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. Small blue and white flags in tribute to the Queen of the Sea line the ceiling. A woven basket full of biodegradable gifts has been prepared.

Next to the basket is a figure of an African woman dressed in white and blue, and a clay statue of a beautiful mermaid. Both figures represent the Queen of the Sea, Iemanjá.

Prior to the festival of Iemanjá, the capoeira academy is a hive of activity with local cuisine and drinks on sale for a modest profit. The Grupo (group) is busy decorating their academy, painting festive T-shirts, and tuning their musical instruments for a gala capoeira performance to be held on the day of the festival.

Around Salvador worshippers of Iemanjá are preparing gifts, including baskets of flowers, perfumes, coins, small mirrors, combs, cosmetic tools, dishes of carefully prepared foods, soap wrapped in cellophane, letters of supplication, dolls, pieces of fabric, necklaces and bracelets.

Festivals of Iemanjá are found along the Bahian coastline and are celebrated every year around the beginning of the Gregorian calendar. In a suburb of Salvador called Rio Vermelho, the Candomblé-inspired Festival of Iemanjá is celebrated on February 2. The worship of Iemanjá is observed on other dates at Lagoa do Abaeté, Dique and Itapagipe.

In the Northeast of Brazil, Iemanjá is one among many Orishas (deities) worshipped by the followers of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. Iemanjá is a nature spirit; a divinized African ancestor; the Goddess of the sea. She is the archetypal symbol of motherhood, a fecund symbol of fertility, and the patron saint of fishermen. The stories about her are many and she can be depicted as a seductive mermaid, a buxom African woman, or even the Mother Mary.

In Rio Vermelho, the festival of Iemanjá has been commercialized since 1910 and was originally an outgrowth of various West African beliefs and customs that were brought to Brazil by forcefully expatriated slaves from the early seventeenth century to 1851. Performances of indigenous fight-dancing, known as Capoeira, have provided auxiliary entertainment to the festival of Iemanjá since at least the 1940s.

For the outsider, it is hard to discern any formal planning of the event other than a location, a date and a police presence. The streets are a frenzy of activity with market-stalls, musicians and tourists filling every conceivable space throughout the entire day. The festival is largely fueled by the local people and mediated by a heavy presence of police. There is no visible organizing authority, but business, religious and arts communities devise their own ways of joining in the bustle, celebrating the occasion, and making themselves known.

Since 2005, Grupo Nzinga has held a capoeira performance during the Festival of Iemanjá featuring songs dedicated especially to the Queen of the Sea. One popular song contains the verses "Minha sereia, Rainha do mar, não deixe meu barco virar" (My Mermaid, Queen of the Sea, do not let my boat tip over). The songs are a reflection of the group's coastal location, their religious affiliation, and their cultural identity.

After the capoeira performance, a small party of capoeira practitioners carry a basket of bio-degradable offerings and make the pilgrimage from their training academy to the beach of Rio Vermelho. They are accompanied by a small berimbau orchestra playing candomblé-related ijéxa rhythms as they sing songs to Iemanjá.

They try to stay together as a group but they are often easily separated by the obstructing crowds of people, the haphazard street stalls, and the ever-present control of police blockades. Those that reach the beach deliver the basket to the flotilla of fishermen and sing more songs before returning to the academy for more drinks, dancing and revelry.

Concerned about water pollution, Grupo Nzinga have developed a slogan for their participation in the Iemanjá festivities: "Iemanjá protege a quem protege o mar: escolha bem seu presente" (Iemanjá protects those who protect the sea: choose your present well). This slogan is part of an incentive campaign to promote biodegradable gifts to Iemanjá instead of items that pollute the sea. For example, plastic flowers, soap, and cellophane can all have a detrimental effect on marine life. Real flowers, paper replacements, and biodegradable wrapping are preferable.

Nzinga's anti-pollution campaign meets with some disagreement among various traditionalist communities who observe the celebrations. Opponents claim that it is wrong to stray from tradition. Those traditionalists consider that the ceremonies should remain unchanged. They consider that replacing the gifts that Iemanjá enjoys is out of the question, tradition must be maintained and religion should be respected.

Lígia Vilas Boas, the pedagogical coordinator of Grupo Nzinga, explains that "the academy's objectives are to introduce a preoccupation with combating marine pollution but that they could not predict the impact that their campaign would have on more than 100 years of tradition."

Can there be a middle ground between traditionalists and environmentalists? Some argue that Candomblé exists to protect nature and that people can offer fried fish, fruits of the season, remove plastic from gifts, and replace non-biodegradable objects with paper replicas. For these people, the importance is on the symbol and not the object.

The veneration of Iemanjá is an opportunity to express Afro-Brazilian heritage and to educate people about the respect for nature. For Grupo Nzinga, the festival is also an opportunity to promote their academy, their culture, and their social mission. Capoeira and candomblé festivals are expressions of cultural patrimony, social identity, and national heritage.

Paul H. Mason is a PhD candidate in the Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University. He has performed fieldwork in Indonesia and Brazil and his research has been published in "Inside Indonesia" and "Brolga - an Australian journal about dance" among other academic journals. His archive research has been supported by the Australian Netherlands Research Collaboration as well as the Macquarie University Postgraduate Research Fund.

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Comments (18)Add Comment
Great news!
written by Luciana Domingues, February 02, 2011

Thank you for the beautifully written article, I was looking for something on Iemanjá to send my foreign friends, and I loved yours (even sent it to Brazilian friends).
My guess is it will take some time, but things will evolve into a greener consciousness, eventually.
Tudo de bom, Luciana.
obrigado :-)
written by Paul Mason, February 02, 2011
Muito obrigado Luciana. Voce é muito sympatico! Eu espero que seus amigos gostam a historia sobre a Festa de Iemanjá tambem smilies/smiley.gif
i enjoyed it , also
written by asp, February 02, 2011
its nice to see an anthopologist acknowledge the african traditions that came over to brazil...

ive been arguing with an anthropologist who , for some reason i cant really understand , doesnt want to acknowledge the cultural relevance of sub sahara influence on brazilian culture.

he wouldnt even acknowledge , that , inspite various migrations of peoples around africa , and , inspite of differant languages and other cultural differances, that, there is a common drumming and dancing concept that runs throughout sub sahara doesnt represent all the cultures in sub sahara africa, but, there are similarities in some of these drumming dancing concepts.

i proceeded to demonstrate youtubes of sub sahara african drumming and dancing , from west africa, east africa and south africa , and even youtubes of pygmies, that all had similar pollyrythmic , duple and triple meter , somtimes against each other , call responce , shuffle step concepts.these concepts arnt found in european music, middle eastern music (except for the influences of the african slaves they had also), or japanese drumming or chinese culture or native american indian drumming and dancing etc

i equated it to the fact that , inspite of different cultures and languages throughout europe, there is a common thread in european classical music, with composers coming from germany, austria, russia, france , italy , hungary etc. even though they have differant cultural backgrounds , they had a common thread of expresion unique to europe and classical music that used advanced harmonic concepts.

and , i beleive these african drumming and dancing concepts go back , and were developed many centuries before , and came over to the americas (to be sure , in their developement from west africa) and were expressed and became backbones of the developing popular musics from various slave owning countries in the americas. of course , mixed with influences from the colonizers and native indians.
written by Paul Mason, February 02, 2011
Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

While in Brazil, i did find an article by a pair of scholars who traced the Festa de Iemanjá back to the ancient Greek worship of the Goddess Aphrodite, where offerings of flowers, perfumes, and prayers were taken out to sea by boats. Those two scholars suggested that the candomblé deity, Iemanjá, in Jungian terms, is a reanimation of the Great Mother archetype. There are lots of different interpretations. Undoubtedly, any historical enquiry into the Festa de Iemanjá should take into account the backgrounds of the African, European, and Indigenous people who have participated in this festival.

Festivals by the sea are not uncommon and can be found even in places with a completely different social and cultural background:

Festivals by the sea certainly have an unparalleled charm and ability to captivate.
for sure there could be differant origins of this festival...
written by asp, February 03, 2011
but, im reffering to the parts of these celibrations in brazil that have recognisable sub saharan african roots.

carnival has european roots , but, the drumming and dancing of the escolas da samba has serious roots in the sub saharan african origins i was talking about.the drums , like the snare drums , come from europe (even though there is a drum in the congo that has one snare across the top), but the concept of the syncopated beat is unmistakingly sub sahara african.

condomble hides behind european catholic saints , but the customs , dances and beats, can be traced back to sub sahara africa.

its not that im saying that carnival, or candomble are pure forms of african expresion, im saying you can easily recognise ( if a person has done any kind of research on african drumming and dancing) the origins of the beats and dance steps .

there are people in brazil who are saying the description "cultura afro brasileira" is invalid, as though it has no place in brazilian culture. mind you,brazilian experts in music and dance i have reseached say no such thing and freely ackowledge the huge contribution of "cultura afro brasileira" to brazilian music and dance.

you even state :

"In the Northeast of Brazil, Iemanjá is one among many Orishas (deities) worshipped by the followers of the Afro-Brazilian religion of Candomblé. Iemanjá is a nature spirit; a divinized African ancestor; the Goddess of the sea"

putting yourself at odds with these , bordering on racist, positions of people trying to deny terms like "cultura afro brasileira ".

these are the people who are against racial quotas in the universities because they say there is no way to identify "black" brazilians.

where i have no argument against the new biological studies that say that there are no races , i do say racism many places in the world , especialy places that brought slaves over from sub sahara africa, and that definitly includes brazil.

and i do suggest that all scientists and anthropologists make sure to take in consideration music and dance origins, because many theories ive seen coming from some scholars ( not including you , since i see you use terms like "afro brazilian" and that was my main point in my initial post) seem to fly in the face of obvious realities you can find by studying music and dance. like how you can identify harmonies in popular musics that obviously came from european classical music.and surly you can itentify how certain pollyrythmic , call responce , duple against triple meter , syncopated rythmic concepts in popular musics in the americas , have serious origins in sub sahara africa.
So "You found a pair of scholars(?)"
written by adrianerik, February 03, 2011
Am I misunderstanding something? Iemanja came from Afrodite? But Yoruba society considers its orgins from Egypt/Nubia where the 'mother archetype' of the Egyptian Neith gave rise to an almost exact imitation - Athena.

As a matter of fact, the very name of the Greek's 'great mother' Athena is derived from Neith (Neith = Ht in Greek pronounced Ath) and Greeks referred to the the egyptian diety as "Athenait".

Here in Bahia, there is almost constant 'scholarship' by 'scholars' to place Europe as the 'source' of popular traditions, including samba.

Obviously, there are cultural 'expressions' that have multiple roots but 'european source' seems to be the main implication. Even Greek scholars, trying to give authenticity to their theories, brag of their Egyptian instruction.
Perhaps i should clarify...
written by Paul Mason, February 03, 2011
My comment earlier was in agreement with asp who stated that certain practices of music, dance and religion in Brazil find their origins in West Africa but have been "mixed with influences from the colonizers and native indians."

The Festa de Iemanjá is most strongly related to African inspirations, but also resonates with the worship of the Mother Mary. Iemanjá, for various reasons, is often referred to as Dona Maria. I think people from many societies are predisposed to honouring a Nurturing Female Goddess. If Ancient Greek festivals resembled the contemporary Festa de Iemanjá, then i think it only serves to show the potency of the Mother archetype in cultures around the world. If you are interested in the Egyptian influence on European culture, then you might be interested in the writings of Gerard Massey. Such influences certainly give credence to adrianerik's spelling of 'Afrodite' which somehow now makes me imagine the spelling 'Afro-deity' smilies/smiley.gif
I would be interested to learn more about the exchange between Nubian and Yoruban societies. I recently read a fantastic historical fiction novel about Pianky, the Nubian pharoah, called "Le Pharaon Noir" by Christian Jacq.

Thank you for pointing out the debate that lurks in Brazil about race and culture. From my own experiences in other places, I certainly understand why adrianerik writes the word 'scholars' in inverted commas in the comment above. I am pleased that asp feels that my article puts me " odds with these , bordering on racist, positions of people trying to deny terms like 'cultura afro brasileira'."

You may be interested to learn that, two of the Capoeira teachers of Grupo Nzinga are lecturers at UFBA and, together with a third Capoeira teacher in the Grupo, they play an active role in community education and empowerment in Alta Sereia. They acknowledge the Bantu influences on Afro-Bahian culture and even sing songs that are influenced by an interest in cultural heritage.
paul, yes , i do think you expressed it differantly than the ....
written by asp, February 03, 2011
anthropologist i had a pretty vehoment argument with, who was an american who lived in brazil for a long time...almost as long as me (another american).

and the reason i wanted to address that , since you are an anthropologist, is to ask (and state) that , isnt it posible for anthropologists to read many of the same books, do similar research , study in universities and do similar feild work, to come to differant conclusions ?

nothing is written in stone...right ?

you have to understand, that in brazil and on this forum, we have had some heated debates about some of these issues.

when i see people , and, especialy scholars , make statements that try to diminuate ( for sure not speaking about you ) what the origins of sub sahara africa are in brazil , it seems to me that they are actualy trying to deny people their origins , or , origins that are in their mix. and its funny in brazil, these people will rail against "afro awareness" , but, in the south, they have huge fests that celibrate german culture and italian culture and they are allowed to feel extremly proud of those origins (except in world war 2) and refer to them selves as "german", or "italian". but, a brazilian who wants to call himself "afrobrasileiro", it is met with great criticism by some people down here .

for sure, other areas of brazilian society are trying to draw attention to racism and origins of afro heritage...even more mind blowing to then hear of people in brazil protesting against this attention to racism and references of "cultura afro brasileira".

for me, these people who get uptight about this, relates to the reason that televison down in brazil looks like it was filmed in blumenau (which you probably know ).

your fine , innocent article , which is very welcome compared to some of the subjects we get all the time on here, may be accompanied by a wild crazy comments section on this thread. dont hesitate to fasten your seat belt....
written by José Samaro, February 03, 2011
Brazilians are not proud of their African roots, that's why they will always claim Europeans gave us everything.
Focussing on the constructive accounts of cultural heritage
written by Paul Mason, February 04, 2011
I'm sad that life experiences have led José Samaro to feel that way. i'm glad asp provided the context of such sentiments.

The vast numbers of people in attendance at the Festa de Iemanjá in Bahia is testament to great pride in Afro-Brazilian identity, and i hope my article reflects that.
written by asp, February 04, 2011
im glad you said that for jose , and, i would want him to know that also, as well as adrian erick, im sure....

there are people in brazil who love and respect the "cultura afro brasileira " roots and origins in brazil in spite of very real states of mind that jose notes around him and refers to . ive seen these states of mind also but i even see that the government is active in helping brazilians become aware of various cultural roots and origins.

and that is again one of the questions i want to ask you , paul, as an anthropologist.

isnt it posible the anthropologist i had the argument with, is just coming from his agenda ? isnt he just bending facts and scientific discoveries, mixing it with semantical smoke and mirrors to try to portray things the way he would like to beleive it to be ?
...meaning adrian would want jose to know that also...
written by asp, February 04, 2011
adrian lives up in bahia and has a very good finger on the pulse of some of the people up there and how they feel
written by Triple-Dot, February 04, 2011

adrian lives up in bahia and has a very good finger on the pulse of some of the people up there and how they feel

Is this Adrian some kind of witch doctor?
Re: asp's comment on February 04, 2011
written by Paul Mason, February 05, 2011
Asp, everyone has their own biases. Anthropologists are trained to be self-relexive and factor in their own subjectivity into their observations. I don't know the anthropologist you spoke with, but you should be able to ask him what his biases are and he should be able to answer. You seem like someone who is able to see through the "semantical smoke and mirrors" and I'm sure that there are local academics at the Centro de Estudos Afro-Orientais who have genuine insight into the diverse origins and socio-historical dynamics that have shaped the various facets of Afro-Bahian culture.
Amazing Festival!
written by Melanie, February 05, 2011
Makes me wanna learn Capoeira in Brazil!! Thank u 4 writing this story.
Flowers for Her Majesty :)
written by Bister, February 05, 2011
The festa sounds gorgeous! I've alwayz wanted to go to Carnavale but this festa looks intimate, spiritual & much more low key. Just my kinda thing...
written by Washington, March 02, 2011
Legal! Muito axe!
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