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Day 21: São Luís

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Wood and goatskin drums are heated to tighten and improve their resonance.
Michael Palin - BrazilInspired by Apolônio and Nadir, Floresta has grown from a performing group to an umbrella organization – Projeto Floresta Criativa – for local projects and workshops, and a foundation for helping the deeply disadvantaged local children. All their funds have to be raised. They get nothing from local or national government.

Their house in Rua Tomé, just across the street from the church, looks, like most of those around it, to be a modest single-storey building, but a passageway down the side reveals a labyrinth of rooms leading off it, built into the hill behind the house. In one of these I find Nadir, her slight, girlish figure belying an apparently limitless energy. She's in a big open room, hung with balloons and bunting in the pink and green colours of Floresta. So far it looks as if it might be set for a children's party, but at one end are stacked some enormous headdresses, with beautifully embroidered centrepieces, from which spring the long exotic feathers of the ema, the South American emu. Various masks, one with green hair and a carrot nose, hang nearby, waiting for the festivities.

At the other end of the room is a small alcove, framed by pink and green balloons, in which stand plaster figures of various saints. John the Baptist, of course, for it's his day tomorrow; but also St Peter with the keys to Heaven, St Benedict (Benedito), the black saint and patron of the slaves, and various likenesses of the Virgin Mary. In front of this 'altar' of St John is the most important element of today's proceedings, the obi – the bull. It's not at all what I expected. It's little more than a headdress, resting on supports in front of the altar, a sheath along its back embroidered in exquisite detail. The way it sits before the pink-swathed 'altar' typifies this confusing – to me anyway – fusion of religion and folklore. I'm not quite sure where one ends and the other begins. Augusto tells me that the story behind Bumba Meu Boi dates back to the late eighteenth, early nineteenth centuries. Though the icons are full of the imagery of Roman Catholicism, the Catholic establishment has turned its back, finding them too unorthodox, too African.
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I bewitch one of the older residents with stories of working with John Cleese.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 21: São Luís
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: São Luís
  • Book page no: 99

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