Note from BW of Brazil: Well, it’s officially on! Bring the noise, bring the song, dance, drums, costumes and revelry, because it’s that time once again: CARNAVAL! It’s another of those times of the year in which Brazil is basically in shutdown mode in comparison to everyday life. While there will millions who live for every moment of the nearly week long celebrations, millions more will be packing the freeways to high tail it out of whatever city they live in, usually for some peace, relaxation, tranquility, sun and beach. But for those of you who have at least a passing curiosity in the history of how Brazil’s Carnaval came to be what it is and what role black people played in this, today I am presenting one of the country’s most celebrated cultural manifestations. Whether you know it or not, cultura negra (black culture) and Afro-Brazilian religious practices play a prominent role in the week long celebration, particularly in the northeast. How so? Well, first, have you ever heard of Afoxé? Check it…
Also known as the Candomblé de rua, or Candomblé of the street, it is a street procession during Carnaval and a manifestation of Afro–Brazilian heritage with roots in the Yoruba people. Its members are linked to Candomblé temples of worship known as terreiros. The term“Afoxé” comes from the Yoruba language. It consists of three terms: “a”, the nominal prefix, “fo”, to say or pronounce, and “xé” which means to realize. According to Antonio Risério, afoxé means that ‘what is stated does happen.‘
You will recognize an afoxé by the clothing and the colors of the Orixás (Orishas, African deities), the songs in the Yoruba language, the usage of percussion instruments, atabaques, agogôs, afoxés and xequerês. The rhythm of the street dance is the equal to those found in the terreiros, accompanied by a sang or chanted melody. The songs are led by a prominent member of the group, with all participants repeating the lyrics, including those playing the instruments. Before the beginning of the street procession, there is a religious ritual (such as the ceremony of “padê of Eshu” rites performed before the deities in celebration in the terreiro). Quando o Carnaval Chegar, or when Carnaval arrives, you can witness Afoxés in cities such as Salvador, Fortaleza, Recife, Olinda, Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Ribeirão Preto.
But this is just scratching the surface…Understanding afoxés, like the Candomblé religion, the blocos afros, capoeira and samba, is fundamental to understanding the struggle of black people in Brazil. Read on to learn more…
Afoxé, a symbol of African culture, is resistance against racism, Maracatu goes beyond religion
Afoxé is of African origin and is featured in the Northeastern Carnival, is one of the main symbols of its culture and is expressed in manifestations linked to religion, music, and behavior. According to historical records, the afoxé Embaixada da África (Embassy of Africa) was the primeira manifestação negra (first black demonstration) to parade through the streets of Bahia in 1885. It is believed to be an art form originating from the same roots as another African cultural symbol, maracatu.
Representation of afoxé
To represent afoxé, it is necessary to have three instruments: agbê, atabaques and the agogô. Check out what each one of them is and its importance in the cultural manifestation of African origin:
Also known as xequerê, it is widely used in demonstrations. Working like rattle, they are produced with a gourd covered by a braid of stones made of clay or beads, allowing it to have a unique sound.
It is a percussion instrument widely used in carnival. For lay people, it looks like a drum. In the manifestations of afoxé, three types of atabaques of different sizes are necessary. The ensemble translates the sound of ijexá (slaves brought to Brazil), currently played on the avenues.
The agogô is usually regarded as the most important instrument in the manifestations of afoxé, because it is the one that dictates the rhythm of the others. It is formed by two metal bells – similar to horns attached to each other – with different sonorities and sizes.
Afoxé on the avenue
Besides the typical instruments, in the carnival the afoxé has behaviors and characteristics that stand out against other manifestations. All the revelers are linked to one or more candomblé terreiros. Their clothes are chosen in the colors of the orixás (orishas or African deities) and their songs are sung in the Yoruba language (secular African language), which reinforces historical ties.
Their melodies and dances are practically the same as those interpreted in the terreiros. The songs are drawn on ground by someone of prominence in the group, and are repeated by all, including the instrumentalists. Before leaving the group, a religious ritual takes place.
More than a carnival street bloco, afoxé is a manifestation that has deep connection with the religious traditions of candomblé. It allows the perpetuation of a rich culture, which is at the origin of the country’s development, although not always valued.
Afoxé: The oldest manifestation of black culture in Bahian Carnaval
Carnaval may look like just an enormous street party, but for many, it is not just play time. For minorities, the streets during the momesque period can become a field of resistance. Political and cultural issues arise side by side and form a tessitura of struggle and leisure, in which it is difficult to define when one begins and the other ends.
The Movimento Negro (MN or Black Movement) is perhaps the best example. It was from this that the Afoxés of Pernambuco began to emerge in the late 1970s. They appear from the re-articulation of the MN in the bulge of the re-democratization of the Country, and appear as an anti-racist form of the foliage.
“Culture there was not only a decorative element for political ends. The cultural and political elements organized the fight against racism, understood as a war with different trenches. It was thus that the policy in some moments was to act in Maracatu Leão Coroado, to found and participate in afoxés and afro bands, to create a fashion label, to denounce the fallacy of the myth of democracy in all spaces,” explained historian Martha Rosa, who studied the subject in a doctorate defended at the University of Brasília (UnB).
In her research, she shows that the creation of Afoxés is the realization of the MN’s belief in a transforming role of culture. “Therefore, it appears in Recife (capital of Pernambuco state) as a discursive practice of the MN in the field of culture, even more so in the carnival scene, in the sense of expressing racial inequalities in Brazilian society, even in the momesque period.”
Names such as Zumbi Bahia and the Balé Primitivo de Arte Negra (Primitive Ballet of Black Art), Ubiracy Ferreira and the Balé de Cultura Negra (Ballet of Black Culture) of Recife (Bacnaré), the “auntie” of the Terço and the night of the silent drums already dynamized the black cultural scene of Recife and were fundamental for the construction and reception of the proposal to create the first afoxés. She quotes a song from Ilê de África, the first afoxé from Recife: “I’m going to go out from the afoxé this year. I go to the street to show the value that the black has. Braided hair and African clothing. An earring is fine. My black one dancing. Singing in Nagô, for you to understand.”
From the early 1980s with the creation of the Ilê de África, the first Afoxé, to this day, has changed little in relation to the political strength of this type of group. Rivaldo Pessoa experienced that era and is the partner number 001 of Afoxé Alafin Oyó, of 1985, the fourth afoxé to be created in Pernambuco according to the doctorate of Martha. “There is not a vision of a folklore without conscience. We know that the state is racist and that we are as important as the other side. So, in the afoxé, we shout out our value”, says Pessoa.
According to Rivaldo Pessoa, the worship of the orixás is the main way to express black culture politically. “This is because there is a portion of society that marginalizes our religion. It says it’s a thing of devil or hell. When we are actually worshiping nature. They do this to break our self-esteem. The afoxé fights directly against that.” Alafin Oyó rehearses every second Saturday of the month in front of the old Xinxim of Bahia, in the square of the Carmo, in Olinda. In Carnival, it comes out the Palácio de Iemanjá (Palace of Iemanja), in Alto da Sé, at 7pm.
Even for Rivaldo, the most politically conscious afoxé is that of the master Dario Junior, aka Omô Nilê Ogunjá. For Dario, afoxé is expressed in three ways: clothing, music, and involvement with the community. “Candomblé is our space of resistance and struggle,” he commented. “It is the place where personal encounters take place, but also with our ancestors. And where you are reborn when you discover yourself as black and you understand how society sees you. We discover together our strength and how to deal with this society,” he concludes. Omô Nilê Ogunjá rehearses every Sunday in Praça do Arsenal, in the neighborhood of Recife, downtown, at 5pm. The official exit will take place this year on February 26, in a route that goes from the Praça (Square) where they rehearse to the Marco Zero of Recife.
Maracatu Nação (Maracatu Nation) is following the religion
The relationship between maracatus and African origin religions narrowed sharply at the beginning of the last century, according to Isabel Guillen, postdoctoral fellow in history at the Universidade Federal Fluminense (UFF). “There was a very strong persecution of the houses of orixás and catimbó at that time. But the maracatus were allowed by society and the police to come out, play and parade. What happened was that pais de santos (holy priests of Candomblé) requested permission for maracatu and played for the orixás, they performed their rituals,” explained the teacher.
When the police intervened in the rituals, the candomblecist (practicioner of camdomble) claimed to be playing “only” maracatu, and that he had the license to do so. This trick is much passed on by oral tradition in Recife. Guillen, however, obtained evidence that it is true, from documents of the Public Archive of Pernambuco that show pais de santos asking for permission, but that never had a maracatu. “Thus was the relationship between religion and culture constructed.”
For the ogã responsible for the Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos (Night of the Silent Drums), Paulo Sérgio, every maracatu of nation is the continuation, the religious follow-up of a house of religion of African matrix. “It emerges inside of them, like most black expressions. The coco, for example, emerged at the end of the candomblé party, when people played samba and this samba changed until it became a response coco, the one with quick metrics, with short verses,” he explains.
The Night, held on Monday of Carnival since 1968 in the Pátio do Terço, is when the nation maracatus meet to revere the ancestors’ drums. “The maracatus arrive at the Pátio do Terço touching, bringing their calungas and their religious apparatuses. At midnight, the drums are silent, just as the lights go out, as well. The babalorixá of the Roça de Oxum Opará house and Oxóssi Ibualama, Raminho de Oxóssi, does a ceremony in reverence to the eguns, who are our ancestors,” he details. They are songs of the nação Oyá (Oyá nation), in adoration of Iansã and the aunties of the Pátio do Terço: Sinhá, Iaiá and Badia, symbols of identidade negra (black identity) in Recife. “At the end of the ritual, white doves are released.”
The calungas quoted by Paulo Sérgio are like dolls, that represent the godmothers of the maracatus and all their ancestrality. To get an idea, it takes preparation to carry it. And not everyone can. Alcohol, sex and cigarette protection is mandatory. Only women initiated into religion are fit. “It’s something very strong. It brings all our religion that was imprisoned when we could not express it.”