Roughly a quarter of all Brazilians identify as Protestant. Christian Nationalism is on the rise, globally, and Pentecostal religions have fast-growing political power. In fact, Evangelists hold 85 of 513 seats in Brazil’s lower house of Congress. People of African descent make up more than half of Brazil’s national population, yet they account for only eight percent of the lower house of Congress and only two out of 81 senators are black.
The increase in religious hate crimes appears to coincide with the spread of Evangelical Protestantism in Brazil. Today, of the 100 faith-based organizations subcontracted to run social programs in prisons, 81 are Evangelical churches. This has led to a swell in Evangelical gang leaders who, in Favelas, wield tremendous power of conversion and demonize Afro-Brazilian religions. A hotline dedicated to tracking religious intolerance reported that more than 30 Terreiros (Candomblé places of worship) were destroyed in fewer than 20 days during September 2017. This latter-day crusade by the Evangelists has openly demonized Afro-Brazilian religions, such as Candomblé and Umbanda, citing them as devil worship. In the past, Candomblé practitioners would say they were Catholic in order to avoid persecution.
As promised in a previous post, I will attempt to give a brief overview of Candomblé – as this, to me, is where the Afro-Sonic Signifier is most exquisitely located. After three weeks in Salvador, my mapping of Afro Sonics has brought me to the firm conclusion that Candomblé, amongst other African-rooted religions, has acted as the incubator and preserver of the sonics that I am tracing. I am arguing that African religion is instrumental in the promotion of interethnic alliances, which have led to innumerable cultural exchanges. This is the case in Brazil, as well as other slave-migration regions of the Americas and the Caribbean Basin. Due to slavery, Brazil has the largest Black population outside of Africa: more than half of Brazil’s national population identifies as Preto (Black), Pardo (mixed race) or Negro (Black and mixed race). Another group consists of both Preto and Pardo.
Candomblé, like its sister Santería, which is practiced in Cuba, is a syncretic religion; many of the Orixás (Orishas, or deities) are also represented by Catholic saints. Each Orisha has a colour: red signifies fire and fury; white, peacefulness and tranquility; yellow, wealth and prosperity. The roots of Candomblé are clearly Yoruba, although it contains Congolese, Angolan and indigenous Amerindian elements, as well. These elements differ according to the type and location of the Terreiro in the country; there is Angola-Congo Ketu, Gege-Nagô, and Ketu–Nagô. Ketu, which traditionally uses Ifá – a sacred oral text – is the most prominent in Bahia. The core of the religion arrived in the 15th century with the Oba Babalawo priests on the Portuguese slave ships from Nigeria. The Nganga priests, meanwhile, came from Congo and Angola. The predominant African language used in ceremonies is Yoruba, though at times, depending on the branch, Mbundu and Kikongo words are also employed. The Yoruba believe that all life is sanctified by proximity and sacrifice to the essential emblems of the major deities: the clay pillar of Eshu-Elegba; the thunderstones of Shango; the bow and arrow of Oshosi; the irons of Ogun; the river stones of the goddesses Yemoja, Oshún and Oya; and the cowrie crown of Dada Bayonni appear on altars in Nigeria and elsewhere. Yemoja is the great mother of all the Orishas. Sometimes portrayed as a mermaid, she is responsible for fertility and procreation and is the Orisha of the sea. Candomblé seeks harmony with nature; it is a religion that has no Bible and teaches tolerance of all sexual persuasions. I met quite a few gay and queer practitioners whilst in Salvador, some very high on the initiation ladder, who had their own Terreiros. It should also be noted that there is an equal number of priestesses and priests.
Umbanda Branca is another Afro-Brazilian religion, which was created in Rio de Janeiro in the 1920s by Zélio de Moraes. Like Candomblé, it also adopts the worship of Orishas. Umbanda ceremonies are accompanied by practitioners dressed in white, chanting to Atabaque drums. Likewise, Candomblé ceremonies are also accompanied by many types of drums – played both with the palms of the hand and sticks – and instruments such as bells and claves are part of the percussion ensemble. The priest’s assistants continuously ring bells for the Orishas – some of which have four tones.
Oblations are poured and sometimes animals are used in a sacrificial ritual called Orò. The species and their mode of sacrifice are supported by beliefs and myths associated with the religion, and depend upon the preferences of the Orisha. The colour of the animal also corresponds to the colour preference of the Orisha to whom it is offered. As the myths and practices associated with Candomblé originated in Africa, some of the animal species used in sacrificial rituals either occur in parts of Africa, or are substitutes for African species. The principal reason for sacrifice is to please the Orishas in order to keep life in harmony. This is accomplished by feeding them, in a spiritual sense, through sacrifice – thereby maintaining a perfect link between mankind and the gods, and a connection between the material world (called Aiyê) and the supernatural world (called Orun). The participants, predominantly dressed in white, wear many necklaces made from materials such as glass beads, shells, mini calabashes and feathers, which correspond to the colour of their particular Orisha. The congregation continuously chants in Yoruba, escalating to otherworldly crescendos, during which the participants enter into states of ecstatic possession; in fact, possessed by their own Orisha, with whom they become one. They are then led out of the main room of the Terreiro, dressed in the garb and bedecked with paraphernalia befitting of the Orisha. At some point, Ogun’s bread, contained in a large basket, is distributed to the congregation.
*Axe is pronounced Asche. This Yoruba word meaning Soul, Light, Spirit is used in Candomblé. It is also used as a greeting, meaning Peace Be With You.