In Brazil, Oldies and Greens Can’t Agree on How to Celebrate the Queen of the Sea

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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