By late evening firecrackers were popping continuously and
the smoke in the street was thick enough to choke an electric elephant.
Once in awhile an especially loud explosion produced
a concussion that startled the senses. It was time to break out
the light swords, which can be very dangerous.
By Phillip Wagner
The several hundred kilometers bus trip from Salvador to Senhor do Bonfim should
normally take about six hours. But this was late June, and all of Salvador was on the
move. Festa de São João was about to be celebrated and the need to consummate carefully
arranged plans had triggered a biblical exodus from the bustling, chaotic state capital,
and coastal city.
Danielle Valim, her daughter Lua and I were headed for the usually sleepy little
colonial village of Bonfim. Our bus slipped helplessly into a paralyzing morass of decades
old automobiles, SUVs, micro vans, dusty pickups, motorcycles, "big rigs" and
other buses that merged and converged on a singular main artery. The "choke
point" spawned gridlock and, for a time, we were unable to progress at all. Favela,
or slum, dominated urban sprawl obscured the view on each flank as seasonally predictable
drizzle drifted monotonously from an overcast sky. Our driver and one passenger passed
time in a futile attempt to lock in a signal on the radio. No music to lift the spirits.
Finally, the vehicles ahead of us began to inch forward until we were moving again.
As darkness settled in we gained momentum and the urban landscape gradually gave way to
a transitional environment characterized by small, improvised, communities. Intersecting
arteries siphoned away some of the pressure on traffic and the road extended itself into
the semi-arid, sparsely populated caatinga. I found myself wishing I’d brought
along a windbreaker from the States. The seasons of the Southern Hemisphere are reversed
and the region of Bonfim is at an elevation sufficient to consistently produce cool winter
nights. Lua pointed excitedly as the lights of Bonfim came into view.
Jairo Sá met us at the rodoviária, or bus station, after our exasperating
8-hour journey. Jairo escorted us to the inauspicious, but comfortable residence he shares
with wife Jacira, son Bruno and daughter Luíza. I found their two-story house to be
consistent with the rustic architectural personality of Bonfim. It was reasonably large
with stucco walls, clapboard covered windows, and open airy rooms with stone floors.
Bonfim has retained the charm of its heritage, and feels inviting. Rooftops are
predominantly red, orange or yellow tiled. There are many poor in and around the town, but
class distinctions are fuzzy and there’s no insidious favela-sprawl, no
"social cancer". I realized that the people of Bonfim seemed to trust each
other, something that contrasted sharply with the ever-present suspicion between educated
masses and "marginals" in bigger cities of Brazil. As if reading my mind, Dani
pointed out that in this harsh, unforgiving region people have to be able to rely on one
The rua on which Jairo and his family live is cobble stoned and uneven. Most of
the streets in Bonfim are like that. A few are hardened earth or paved. Some buildings are
constructed so that their exteriors belly up to the street. Others, like Jairo’s, do not,
but are protected by high walls that run the length of their property lines. Wooden gates
open into driveways or what would approximate a front yard.
At Jairo’s home we were greeted by a gathering of celebratory zealots preparing for the
anticipated festivities. Orange and jenipapo (a fruit of Brazil) liquor, cerveja
(beer), carne de bode (goat meat) and pão (snack breads) were passed around
the room. I unexpectedly encountered a frog in the downstairs banheiro (bathroom)
and my reaction triggered ripples of laughter. Late in the evening we all dispersed and
reassembled at the praça, or Town Square.
Most of the residents of Bonfim still prefer to communicate by word-of-mouth rather
than by telephone. So we went to the square to find friends and fellow members of Jairo’s bloco
to make arrangements for the following day. The blocos of Bonfim are community
groups characterized by a particular philosophy regarding how the festival should be
celebrated. Jairo’s bloco is named Caruá, after a caatinga plant producing
fibers stronger than sisal. Bloco Caruá is especially dedicated to traditional cultural
practices and the distinct original forms of the forró music specific to the
region and to Festa de São João. The kind of forró Caruá plays is called Pé de
Serra, or "foot of the mountains", which traditionally employs only accordions,
triangles, and a special kind of large drum known as the zabumba. This is the
original form of forró, so named because it was born in the foothills of Brazil’s
rugged northeast. But Jairo’s Caruá bloco also incorporates six stringed acoustic guitars
and four stringed scaled down versions equating to something like a ukulele.
According to legend the word forró is a bastardization of "for all".
The legend sugggests that an English speaking man referred to the music now associated
with the quadrilhas of Festa do São João as music "for all". Quadrilhas
themselves appear to be troupes of Brazilian "square dancers". The most
beaautiffully costumed quadrilhas I’ve seen are in the city of Maceió in the state
of Alagoas, northeast of Bahia.
The praça that first night was filled beyond capacity. A performing stage was
constructed adjacent to vendor stalls and food booths. Great arrays of powerful speakers
sent shock waves rolling through our chest cavities as we passed by. Large quantities of
hot dogs, beer, guaraná soda, candied apples, strawberries and limp water-soaked
peanuts were distributed and consumed. The crowd was full of Latin looking slender young
girls and muscular young men. Cowboy hats and short skirts were the order of the day. I
watched in fascination as hours of lively socializing, flirting, dancing, chatter and
laughter melted away. We departed sometime after 3 AM.
Our second day in Bonfim began at the breakfast table where, as everywhere in Brazil, cafezinho
(exceptionally strong coffee served in demitasse cups) was accompanied by several
varieties of pão (bread), frutas (fruit) and queijo (cheese).
Conversation flowed like an old river with a lazy sense of manifest destiny. Green
carpeted morros (hills) were visible through a back door, the beneficiaries of a
significantly greater than normal rainfall in recent months. After breakfast we adjourned
to the living room where the conversation continued. Jairo played Gilberto Gil’s latest
CD, the sound track to a critically acclaimed film, Eu, Tu, Eles, which reflects
the culture, and features the forró music of northeastern Brazil. The lyrics of
the unofficial forró anthem "Asa Branca" (White Wing) written by Luiz
Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira sounded out:
Quando oiei a terra ardendo
… … … …
Hoje longe muitas léguas
Quando o verde dos teus olhos
When I saw my earth on fire
like a Saint John’s bonfire
I asked God in heaven
why so much suffering?
Today I am many leagues away
When the green of your eyes
A short while after relocating to a table outside an adjacent home that doubled as a
small grocery we were approached by a banda de pífanos. The band consisted of four
men, formerly landless peasants of the Movimento dos Sem Terra, or MST, Movement of those
without land. They serenaded us with homemade instruments, two drums and two flutes. The
music they played had been passed down through generations of Brazilian peasants. We
shared pleasantries, then provided food, beer and a small donation before they moved on. A
little while later we received a similar, larger group, comprised only of flutists. Once
again, the instruments were all homemade.
By late afternoon it was time to prepare for the night to come, so we all showered and
changed. As evening approached the Caruá Bloco gathered at the home of one of its members
and we joined in a nightlong procession of singing and dancing. The bloco passed
through the home of each member, stopping only long enough to fully consume the
considerable quantities of food and drink that had been prepared and left out. Sometime
between 3 and 5 AM we wandered back to bed.
On the third day, café da manhã, or breakfast, was followed by a shopping
spree. It was time to complete the purchase of firewood and fogos, or fireworks.
The growing sense of excitement was palpable; you could really feel it in the air. Chatter
began to focus on the impending tradition of igniting "light swords", and the
associated dangers of doing so. The Bonfim hospital staffed up. It stocked additional
provisions for treating burns and, in some cases, fractures. A Brazilian form of sparkler,
firecrackers and assorted other fogos were also purchased, but everyone’s focus was
on the "light swords".
In late afternoon we assembled with a bloco known as Jegue Elétrico, or
Electric Donkey, on a small lot where churrasco and beer were being served. Jairo’s
wife, Jacira, works at Banco do Brasil, which co-sponsors this bloco. Entry to the
lot was allowed only for people wearing the official Electric Donkey Bloco T-shirt with
sponsor advertising on the back. On the lot was a large, very tall, and colorful donkey
drawn wagon. The wagon was mounted with numerous speakers, and a microphone activated
speaker hung from the neck of the donkey; thus the "electric" donkey. People
milled about excitedly as a band struck up some music.
I initially concluded that this signaled the onset of our next activity, but I was
wrong. It was only something to "get the juices flowing". In this particular
case the bloco included the children of members as well as the adults. Talking,
dancing, eating and singing continued unabated as emotions continued to rise. Finally, as
if by silent command, the bloco moved off the lot and into the street. It was time
for the bloco parade. We slowly wound our way through Bonfim accompanied at the
rear by an enterprising entrepreneur driving a beer truck of sorts. Revelers periodically
fell back to refurbish beverage stocks as locals gathered along the route to smile and
wave. At one point we passed a caravan of horse drawn wagons transporting period piece
costumed actors and actresses in the opposite direction. Automobile traffic was halted as
we crossed side streets. Parents struggled to keep track of their children. Eventually we
all safely arrived at the square.
By the time we returned, the festive music, dancing and drinking on Jairo’s street were
well underway. Jairo built a fire outside his home using firewood that had been purchased
for that purpose. So did pretty much every other neighbor. The air began to fill with
clouds of smoke that rolled up and down the street. Jairo cut some beef, chicken and goat
meat, which he skewered on long rods and laid over the fire. Children lit firecrackers and
tossed them about indiscriminately. A few lit sparklers and waved them excitedly while
chattering in animated Portuguese. Occasionally someone ignited a fogo that
produced a "fountain" of sparks generating "ooohs" and
"aaahs" from the crowd.
Tables were erected and plates, silverware and beverages were set out, along with side
dishes to accompany the meat. A feast ensued. By late evening firecrackers were popping
continuously and the smoke in the street was thick enough to choke an electric elephant.
Once in awhile an especially loud explosion produced a concussion that startled the
senses. By now, the eyes of some of the revelers were glazed over. This seemed to signal
that it was time to break out the light swords. Light swords are basically tubes filled
with gunpowder. The type, and size, of the tube determines how dangerous it can be.
The standard commercial light sword is encased in something like stiff, durable
cardboard with a clay liner to force the fire outward and prevent an explosion. A more
serious, and larger, version is encased in hardened, glazed, clay like the tiles of which
the roofs of many homes in Bonfim are constructed. Handling either of these fogos
can be very difficult, and residents of the city understand the risks involved. Windows
and doors that border the streets must be closed, locked, covered and/or boarded up before
the light swords are ignited. Celebrants drift into the relative safety of driveways or
yards, or indoors, as the night wears on.
Temporarily controlling, and then throwing, a light sword is considered a rite of
passage for young men. Particular skill and bravado are exhibited by managing to
"write" messages with the light swords on the walls along the street. The
"toss" is generally preceded by the kind of running start employed by javelin
throwers. Once released, the firework cartwheels, caroms and careens wildly about the
street, occasionally bouncing off walls or anything else it comes into contact with. The
larger clay-tile-tube light swords can easily snap an arm or a leg on contact, and the
threat of being seriously burned is always present, no matter which of the two types is
A neighbor of Jairo’s forgot to close the gate at the front of his property. A light
sword found its way into the house and burned the couch there. But Bonfim residents are
stoic in the face of these "assaults by fogos". Each time a light sword
was lit people seemed to simply make a mental note, or turn to enjoy the show. When one
was actually released nearby crowds scattered with the speed and precision of silver-sided
prey-fish at the sight of a predator. But the crowds just as quickly, and efficiently,
reassembled once the danger had passed. No matter how irresponsible a light sword handler
appeared to be, there were never any looks of disapproval or expressions of concern, other
than from myself.
The perpetrators were always wordlessly accepted back into the group as if nothing had
happened. Bonfim is on the edge of the caatinga, a harsh environment that serves to
toughen its inhabitants. The atmosphere of Bonfim at this time of year reminded me of a
frontier town in the old west of the United States.
Bruno, the son of Jairo, was now 13 and ached for an opportunity to wield the
"weapon of Festa de São João". It seemed, on the surface, like a great
opportunity for a photograph. Bruno positioned himself several dozen meters from my
location and dipping his light sword into one of the bonfires along the rua,
ignited it. For a moment it seemed that Bruno would lose control, but then he gathered his
hands more firmly about the tube and began to wave it wildly, as if in triumph. There were
cheers of approval. Possibly now overconfident, Bruno marked a nearby wall and began his
"run up to the toss".
Having gained sufficient momentum Bruno prepared to release the sword; but my
perception was that the sword had finally gained the upper hand and released itself. I
gaped in horror with my feet frozen uncomfortably to the uneven cobbled stones as the
deadly tube cartwheeled in a direct line toward me. "How can this be?", I
wondered, but my lips could only utter the expletive "Oh shit!". Did this
particular tube have something against me? Was it being guided by the vengeance of an evil
spirit? Incredibly, it died out only a scant few centimeters from my still locked, but now
considerably weakened legs. I’d survived another night of Festa de São João in Senhor do
The final day of Bonfim festivities was almost anti-climatic. No binge drinking
processions or death defying pyrotechnics. But all the positives remained. The ongoing
hospitality was, as always, exceeded only by the personal affection that I’d begun to feel
connected everyone in Bonfim. A young girl appeared at the gate to Jairo’s home. After
conversing briefly with her in soft tones he reentered the house and returned to the gate
with a small pão, or bread. The girl was hungry and no one in Bonfim would refuse
to help alleviate someone’s hunger.
Our intention that day was to visit a nearby fazenda, or ranch, after stopping
at the residence of more friends of Jairo. The informality of life in Bonfim was reflected
by the fact that our unexpected appearance failed to disrupt a family gathering. We were
treated to beer, goat ribs and "flying biscuits" in an open-air patio while the
children played in the street. The biscuits are so named because they’re so light it seems
they could take to the air.
In a far corner of the patio was a small stone grotto, over the entrance to which a
plain white cloth had been draped. At Jacira’s urging, the man of the house explained that
there was a statue of the Virgin Mary in the grotto and the cloth was intended to shield
its eyes from the debauchery of drinking that accompanied Festa de São João. After
forewarning everyone to shield their drinks, he proudly lifted the veil to reveal the
statue and encouraged me to take a photograph. Not wanting to offend, I did so.
We never found our way to the fazenda, but we did stop at another home where a churrasco
(barbecue) was underway. A small three-man band played more forró. Couples danced
and friends were reunited. Cool temperatures and intermittent light rain failed to dampen
spirits. All that remained was the concert in the praça that night given by
Flávio José, one of the most beloved cantadores, or singers, of forró
music in northeastern Brazil.
José’s accordion heavy concert was magical. It opened to an audience so tightly
pressed together that the planned circulating of police for managing crowd control nearly
precipitated the panic it was there to prevent. With literally nowhere to go, the crowd
began to collapse outward in its attempt to part before the police patrol. The pressure
seemed to magnify as it radiated, and there were some tense moments when we all had doubt
as to what might happen next. Jairo calmly counseled "calma, amigos, calma".
His reassuring voice contributed to a restoration of the peace and tranquility that
reverted to boundless excitement over the romance of Flavio’s crooning the lyrics of
Nanado Alves and Ilmar Cavalcante .
Amo você, já dá pra ver
And in a later song . . . .
Ah! Esse meu coração de novo
Ah esse meu coração, menino
Arrisca tudo outra vez
Already anyone can see that I love you
That my glance reveals everything
My heart doesn’t speak, it remains mute
It seems my heart doesn’t know me
Ah! Here comes my heart again
Ah! This, my heart, is a child
Go my heart
Risk everything once more
Phillip Wagner is a free-lance photojournalist, a frequent traveler to
Brazil and a regular contributor to Brazzil. Phillip is a graduate of Indiana
University and hopes to pursue a post graduate degree focusing on Brazilian studies at
some point in the future. Visit Phillip’s Brazil web-sites at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm
. Phillip may be contacted at email@example.com