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Day 21: São Luís

Michael Palin - BrazilIt is mid-winter in Brazil and the temperatures are down around 30 degrees Celsius. Which makes a very pleasant climate for the festivities that take place all over the country at this time under the general heading of Festas Juninas. Like so much in a predominantly Catholic country, these celebrations are all linked to saints' days. In São Luís they go under the heading of Bumba Meu Boi, which begins on St Anthony's Day and culminates on St Peter's Day. Most of the communities in the city take part in creating some variation on a 200-year-old tale which originated in the cattle farms of the interior. It involves a slave, Pai Francisco, stealing and killing one of his master's bulls to remove the tongue for which his pregnant wife, Catirina, is desperate. The slave himself is threatened with death. He hides away in the forest where a cazumbá, half-man, half-animal, comes to his rescue. 'Bumba Meu Boi' – 'Stand up my Bull' – he commands. The bull is miraculously resurrected and everyone at the farm celebrates. It's part-pageant, part-pantomime and comes in all sorts of different styles, known as sotaques. Augusto Mendes, an English teacher in his mid-thirties with very black hair, pale olive skin and a great love for his home city, has agreed to take us to see one of the most traditional of the Bumba Meu Boi groups prepare for the big night ahead, the eve of St John's Day.

We drive across the José Sarney Bridge which connects old São Luís with its modern suburbs. The bridge is named after the founder of a local dynasty and one-time President of Brazil who, some think, has done very well for himself and his family, but very little for his home state of Maranhão, which remains one of the worst-off in the country. Twenty-two of the fifty poorest communities in Brazil are in Maranhão State.

Once onto the island we turn off and away from the historic centre of the city with its recently restored mansions and elaborately tiled facades, to an area called Liberdade, which is very different. Most of the people here are descended from quilombos – settlements of freed slaves. A national magazine, dubbing it the poorest community in Brazil, revealed that seventy-eight percent of its people depend on government handouts, a mere eight percent have access to the internet and infant mortality is higher here than in Iraq.

101, Rua Tomé de Souza is a hive of activity tonight. It stands in a bairro (community) of Liberdade called Floresta (the Forest), and it belongs to a man with the delightfully melodic name of Apolônio Melônio. Apolônio is ninety-two and his wife Nadir is forty-five. Some thirty years ago Apolônio and a local priest, Padre Giovanni Gallo, came up with the idea of organizing a local contribution to the Bumba Meu Boi celebrations that would help raise the spirits and the profile of their downtrodden neighbourhood. It would be based on the performing troupe Floresta – named after their bairro – which Apolônio had created a year or two earlier. At about that time a young street kid, Nadir Olga Cruz, by her own admission a 'bad, bad girl', was being helped by Apolônio to break her drug habit and get herself an education. She proved to be both motivated and ambitious, and married the redoubtable Apolônio when he was sixty-four and she was seventeen. Nadir bore him two children, which, together with those from his other wives, made nineteen altogether.

I ask her how Bumba Meu Boi differs from Carnival.

'First of all Carnival has no religious attachments. It is a pagan celebration. The religious side is taken very seriously in Bumba Meu Boi. There was a lot of resistance from the authorities in the past. Bumba Meu Boi was considered a dance of drunken people, vagabonds, people with no goals in life. Now the elite understand that it is about art, dance, music, costumes, all in the name of devotion to St John.'
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 21: São Luís
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 97

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