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Day 34: Salvador

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Children play in the street near the terreiro, the temple where the Candomblé ceremony will take place. It is a religion that thrives in poorer neighbourhoods.
Michael Palin - BrazilWhen it comes to my turn to ask the gods something, Pai João does display a sense of humour. The comic timing of his reply to my question as to whether England will ever win the football World Cup again is spot on. The gods are invoked, the shells are thrown and he looks at them for some time, occasionally rearranging them in front of him. After much study he takes a deep breath, exhales slowly and looks up at me.


Having been given a relatively clean bill of health by the gods, I'm taken back into the main room, which to my eyes is looking more and more like a boudoir and less and less like a temple. I'm shown to a heavily varnished wooden armchair, facing the door and next to where the drummers stand. João's mother was a much respected Mãe de Santo who had died only recently. Her photograph is on the wall and her sister sits beside me, impassive behind a pair of thick-rimmed glasses which, together with her age and status, make her look awfully like the Queen. Meanwhile the various participants in the ceremony gather in the doorway of the kitchen. I catch one young man quickly lifting up his tunic and applying a furtive squirt of deodorant.

Then the drum beats begin, loud and fast and insistent, their rhythm pounding off the low ceiling. The twenty celebrants begin circling the column and summoning up the orixás, moving ever faster, spurred on by chants from Pai João. After a few exhausting minutes the rhythm changes and a new dance begins, each one reflecting the different part of Africa from which it originates. After almost an hour of sustained frenetic movement, one or two of the dancers show signs of falling into something between trance and hysteria. A young man shakes and shudders as if possessed. Through the open door I can see children playing football in the street.

The orixás are now deemed to have been summoned, and in the second part of the ceremony individual dancers reappear dressed as gods in elaborate and complex costumes. They remind me of the similarly ornate, and vigorous, African-inspired ceremony of Bumba Meu Boi up in São Luís. A man is dressed to represent the forest, another wears the swirling red robes and headdress that I'd seen on the figures in the lake. After two hours everyone needs a break and quite suddenly this highly charged ritual turns into a pleasant late-afternoon party.

The Candomblé ceremony is at times powerful and at times mystifying, but the complexity and richness of quite a commonplace event struck me as another instance of the passion and vitality with which black Brazilians approach their religion. The act of worship has to move and involve the participants in something special. What impresses me is that it also has to be fresh each time. In Candomblé no one quite knows exactly what will happen when the drums begin.
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Leaves and water are scattered across the entrance to the terreiro to propitiate the gods.
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  • Series: Brazil
  • Chapter: Day 34: Salvador
  • Country/sea: Brazil
  • Place: Salvador
  • Book page no: 148

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  • Sightseeing
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