PERFORMANCES OF SPIRAL
It has been said that, for a long time, African slaves in the Americas drew cosmograms of their original cultures on turtle shells and bird feathers, so as to indicate to their ancestors, who were buried in Africa, the location of their exile in the far away American landscape.
sem lugar perdido.
Casam-se além as falas de um lugar
no encontro da memória
com a matriz.
There is no place
without a place lost
The tongues of a place unite beyond
in the meeting of memory
with the origin.
In the backyard
of a chapel, along the suburbs of a present-day Brazilian metropolis, the sounds
of drums give rhythm to the choreography of the dances around a mast that slowly
rises into the air, lifting the flag of Our Lady of the Rosary, who is also
Undamba Berê Berê, the African lady of the waters, queen of the
earth and the air. Candles and lanterns light the foot of the mast stuck in
the ground, celebrating also those who have long gone. The ancestors have located
their families and engrave the invisible face of Zumbi aside the face of the
Christian divinity. The performers of the rite sing and dance the memory of
Africa, a landscape both lost and found, evoked by reminiscence on the atmosphere
of the rituals. Time bends together the gestures, the delicate movements of
the bodies, the plays, the numinous emblems of the song, the curves of the rhythm
and choreographies that flaires up the night on fire, flooding it with melody
The Body, Site of Memory
Africa prints her
marks, traces and styles on the American territories, inscribing herself on
the palimpsests that, by means of countless processes of cognition, assertion
and metamorphosis, both conceptual and formal, transcreate and perform her presence
and heritage. The arts and cultural creations colored by the African knowledge
ostensibly reveal the ingenious and arduous means of survival of the African
memory transplanted to the Americas by the diasporic Atlantic slave-trade and
by other transcultural and transnational routes.
Among several other forms of expression, the ritual performances, in all their apparatus, offer us a rich field of investigation and knowledge, turning visible the processes of displacement and surrogation which, acting as supplements, seek to make up for the lacks and gaps of the cultures and of the subjects that reinvented themselves in new territories, dramatizing the pendular relation between memory and oblivion, origin and loss. Within this operation, displacement, metamorphosis and recovery are some of the basic principles that the afro-descendents' performative practices reveal and reiterate. As Soyinka affirms (1996:342), under adverse conditions, cultural forms must change in order to survive. Or, as Roach argues (1966:2),
In the life of a community, the process of surrogation does not begin or end but continues as actual or perceived vacancies occur in the network of relations that constitute the social fabric. Into the cavities created by loss through death or other forms of departure survivors attempt to fit satisfactory alternates.
The ritual performances
associated with the sacred, for example, are fertile occasions to re-create
the vast domain of reminiscence given the multiple repertoires of mnemonics,
patterns, techniques and residual cultural procedures expressed by the body
and through the body, the site of memory for many cultural backgrounds. The
rites transmit and institute aesthetic, philosophical, metaphysical, and other
forms and modes of knowledge, through their frames, their apparatuses and conventions
that shape the performance. In this perspective, the ritual performative act
not only alludes to the semantic and symbolic universe of the re-presented action
(the "twice-behaved behavior" of Schechner), but also constitutes
and builds in, and by it, the action and its means. For Schechner (1994:28),
the ritual performative acts "...are not only about time and space but
also about extensions across various cultural and personal boundaries."
These considerations on the significance of ritual performances for the African diaspora will help us discuss one of the richest and most expressive ceremonies of one Afro-Brazilian religious system: the rituals of the Congados, which are a reminiscence of Brazilian bantu footprints. First, I intend to present a brief descriptive and interpretative "musical score" of the mythopoetic narrative that guides the symbolic acts of the festivities and the liturgy of the rites. Then, I will concentrate on the forms of reterritorialization and re-creation, in the New World, of two of the most important African philosophic and cognitive notions associated to the rites: the concepts of spiral time and of ancestry lineage.
Black culture is the reign of crossroads. The Brazilian cultural fabric, for example, derives from the intersection of different cultures and symbolic systems: African, European, Native American and, more recently, Oriental. From these processes of transnational crossings of ethnicities and languages, various vernaculars emerge, some wearing new faces, others resembling old styles, with subtle differences. In the attempt to better understand the dynamic variety of those processes of significations, interactions and intersections, I use the term crossroads as a theoretical clef that allows us to locate, as it were on a musical staff, the hybrid forms that emerge thereof. (Cf. Martins, 1995) The notion of crossroads, used as conceptual tool/instrument, offers the possibility of systemic and epistemic interpretation of the exchange that results from the inter- and transcultural processes, in which performative practices, conceptions and worldviews, philosophical and metaphysical principles, diverse forms of knowledge confront and intersect.
In the Nago/Yoruba cosmology, as wells as in the worldview of the Bantu cultures, the crossroads is a place of intermediation between systems and instances of various forms of knowledge, and it is often illustrated by a cosmogram that indicates the circular movement of the cosmos and of the human spirit, which gravitate in the circumference of its intersecting lines. (cf. Thompson, 1984; Martins, 1997)
As a tangential locus and a dwelling site, the crossroad is here marked as a symbolic and metonymical instance, in which several ways of performative elaboration, motivated by the very discourses, styles and symbolic forms that dwell within it, been also expressed and derive from it. From the same sphere of the rites and, therefore, of the performances, the crossroads is the radial point of centrality and de-centrality, intersections and deviations, text and translations, junction and alterations, influences and divergences, fusions and ruptures, multiplicity and convergence, unity and plurality, origin and dissemination. Producer of languages and discourses, the crossroads, like a third place, generate diversified meaning production and therefore various senses. In this conception of crossroads, as a performative and discursive locus, we may stress its kinetic and slippery nature as an enunciation/enunciatory instance and site. (Cf. Martins, 1997: 25-26)
In the scope of the crossroads, the very notion of the center becomes so disseminated that it moves, or better, is moved by improvisation, like the jazz musician, who re-weaves the secular rhythms, trans-creating them dialectically in a dynamic pattern that evolves simultaneously forwards and backwards. Likewise the black cultures that, in their varied methods of assertion, emerged dialogically in relation to the archives and repertoires of the African, European and Native American traditions, crossed by many means of assurence, among them the performative ones.
Brazil is a land of many gods, of many deities, of many beliefs, of many prayers. We praise the various names of the divine in our daily and common language, in the food we eat, in our necklaces and ornaments. We celebrate the divine in a variety of rites, whether they are portrayed in the waters of the Amazon, in the dry lands of the Northeast, in the interior of the forest lands, or even in the cosmopolitan landscapes of our modern cities. The baroque style of Brazilian eighteenth-century cathedrals visually testifies to this diversity of heritages that gave birth to Brazilian cultural and religious formation. Throughout the country, in a variety of religious paradigmatic ceremonies, the divine face multiplies Herself by taking different shapes, names, colors and attributes, as a metaphor of the nations' plurality.
Among all, the female deities occupy a very special site in Brazilian religiosity. Emerging from the waters, She may preside over the rites of the Círio de Nazaré, in the Amazon region; however, She may be Our Lady of Aparecida, the saintly mother of the whole country. From the African waters She may also come as Iemanjá, Oxum and Nanã. Or She may be Our Lady of the Rosary, the divine lady for whom the drums beat at the Congado celebrations.
The Congados, or Reinados, are an alternative religious system that has instituted itself in the very realm of the Catholic religion, in which the devotion to certain saints (Our Lady of the Rosary, Saint Benedict, Santa Iphigenia, and Our Lady of the Mercies) is accomplished by means of African-style performance rituals, with their metaphysical symbolic system, customs, choreography, organization, values, aesthetic conceptions, and particular worldview on which they are based. Performed by means of a complex symbolic and liturgical structure, the rites include the participation of distinct groups, called guards, and the founding of a black Kingdom, in the context of which solemn and dramatic dances, kings and queens coronations, liturgical, ceremonial and theatrical acts create a mythopoetic performance that reinterprets the Middle Passage crossings of the Black people from Africa to the Americas. Travelers' reports and other historical documents trace the rituals back to seventeenth-century Recife, and relate its spread to other regions of the Brazilian territory, in many cases linked to Black Sisterhoods.
All of the ritual
acts emerge from an original narrative, which recounts how the image of Our
Lady of the Rosary was rescued from the waters. A summary of one of its versions
tells us that:
In the time of slavery an image Our Lady of the Rosary appeared in the sea. The slaves saw a saint in the water, with a crown that outshone the sun. They called the owner of the plantation and asked him to let them take her from the water. The owner didn't allow it, but ordered them to build a chapel for the image and to decorate it very well. After the chapel was built, the master gathered his white comrades, pulled the image from the sea and placed in the altar. The next day, the chapel was empty and the saint floating again in the water. After several frustrated attempts at keeping the divinity in the chapel, the white man allowed the slaves to rescue her. The first slaves to enter the sea were a group from the Congo. They were decorated with eye-catching colors and, dancing swiftly and slightly, they tried to take the saint from the waters. She found their songs and dances very beautiful, and she rose out of the water, but didn't follow them. Then, the oldest and poorest slaves went into the forest, cut trees, formed their trunks into drums, and covered them with leaves of yam bushes. They formed a group of Candombe and entered the water. With syncopated rhythm, deep-sounding drums, with their dance echoing the Earth's own rhythms and songs on African themes, they captured the saint. She sat down on one of their drums and accompanied them to the chapel, where all people sang and danced to celebrate her.
During the Congado celebrations, this founding myth is re-created and referred to in the retinues, speeches, songs, dances and fables, in a multifaceted plot, in whose development the mystic and the mythical are hybridized with other themes and narratives that recreate the history of the Middle Passage crossings of the African slaves and the struggles and achievements of their Brazilian descendants. Many are the protagonists of the event, depending on the region and the communities. The ritual festivities present a complex structure, which includes dramatizations, raising of masts, retinues, dramatic dances, banquets, execution of promises, all under the rule of Congo kings.
In its structure, the celebrations of Congados are rites of affliction and reconnection, founded by a cosmogonic plot that is developed through an elaborate symbolic structure; a theater of the sacred, whose celebratory performance refers to the setting of the ritual, conceived by Turner (1982:109) as an orchestration of actions, symbolic objects and sensory codes: visual, auditory, kinetic, olfactory, gustatory, filled with music and dance. As such they carry with them aesthetic and cognitive values, trans-created by means of strategies of concealment and visibility, procedures and techniques of expression that, kinetically and dynamically, modify, amplify and remake the cultural codes intertwined in the performance and realm of the rite, in whose context the everyday reality, as oppressive as it may be, undergoes a change in its symbolic order and even in the social-historical sequence.
In Minas Gerais, the diversity of groups [FOOTNOTE] encompasses, among others, Congos. Mozambiques, Marujos, Catopés, Vilões e Caboclos. Among these, two groups stand out: the Congos and the Mozambiques. Both dress pants and white shirts. The Congos, however, besides their over-wrap skirt, generally pink or blue, wear eye-catching helmets decorated with flowers, mirrors and colored ribbons. They move in two rows in the middle of which are the captains (the soloists), and perform choreographies of fast movements and jumps, sometimes with warlike staging and accelerated rhythm. They sing in deep and marching rhythms, representing the vanguard: those who begin the retinues and blaze the trail, breaking the obstacles before them with their swords or long colored staffs. One of their songs conveys this warring spirit:
Essa gunga é que não bambeia
Essa gunga é que não bambeia
Ô, que não bambeia!
Ô, que não bambeia!
The Mozambiques, on the other hand, lords of the crowns, cover themselves, generally, in blue, white, or pink over-wrap skirts on top of all white clothes, turbans on their heads, gungas (rattles) tied to their ankles. They play large drums, with deep and low sounds, and dance all together, without any choreography or defined steps. Their movement is slow and their drums echo a vibrant and syncopated rhythm. The feet of the Mozambique never rise far from the ground and their dance vibrates through the whole body, expressing itself notably through half-curved shoulders, torso and feet. The function of the Mozambique is to be guardian of the majesties, because they restitue the greatest spiritual power and earth-bound force of the ancestors, whose energies and blessings emanate from the sacred drums that set the communal rhythm. Their songs emphasize, in their lyrical and rhythmic expression, the slow pulsation of their movements and the mysteries of the sacred:
lá no meio do mar.
É o canto da sereia
faz a gente entristecer.
Parece que ela adivinha
o que vai acontecer.
Ajudai-me, rainha do mar
ajudai-me, rainha do ma
que manda na terra
que manda no ar
ajudai-me, rainha do mar.
Zum, zum, zum
É o canto da sereia
e seu prantos muito mais
naquele mar profundo
adeus minas gerais.
Zum, zum, zum
There in the middle of the sea.
It's the song of the mermaid
that makes us sad.
It seems that she guesses
what will happen.
Help me, Queen of the Sea
help me. Queen of the Sea
who commands on the Earth
who commands in the air
help me, Queen of the Sea
It's song of the mermaid
and even more so her weeping
in that deep ocean
farewell minas gerais.
(Hymn of the Congados)
All the Congadeiros wear prayer-beads as a necklace as well as a rosary of black beads crossed over their chest.
During the celebrations, the kings and the queens are the highest leaders of the ceremonies, within a power structure based on rigid hierarchical functions, in which King and Queen Congo are the most important majesties, wearing the most ritually sacred crowns. With the exception of the annual kings, who offer the banquets, and who are substituted each year, all the kings and queens will hold their positions throughout their lives, and in general, belong to traditional lineages of their own kingdom. The kings represent Our Lady of the Rosary, Saint Benedict, Saint Iphigenia, and Our Lady of the Mercies; however, the Congo kings also symbolize the black African nations and that ancestry is translated by the distinct role they perform in the liturgical rituals and by the power that is invested in them. So, according to one of the Congadeiro leaders, Captain João Lopes, "...other kings and queens could even be whites, but the Congo kings must be black."(In: Martins, 1997:17). Ms. Leonor Galdino, Congo Queen of Our Lady of the Rosary Sisterhood in Jatobá, in the state of Minas Gerais, summarizes that function in this way: "The crown represents power. Majesty! Authority! With the crown on my head I am the highest authority." (In: Martins, 1997:61) This re-creation of the traces and reminiscences of an ancestral social organization reminds us of the role and function of royal power in the African societies transplanted to the Americas, whose kings, in their supreme authority, represented the larger links of connection and of mediation among the community, the ancestors and the divinities. (Cf. Thompson, 1984:109)
The groups' flags
(that portray the face of the saints), the masts, the cross in the churchyard
of the chapels and churches of the Rosary, the candombes drums, the rosary,
the crowns and body ornaments are all sacred elements of the rites's liturgy,
invested with the force and energy that ensures the completion of the rites.
Thus, for the Mozambiques, the baton (staff) is the greatest symbol of command
of the principal masters, whereas for the Congos a small drum and/or the sword
carry out the same function.
In the many regions of Brazil, all the versions of the legend allow one to trace the common narrative, through which the re-engineering of ways of knowing and power in the structure of the black kingdoms takes effect. In such narratives, there are, basically, three elements that consist in a net of expressions and in the construction of its basic statement: first, the description of the conditions of repression in which the black slave lived; second, the symbolic reversal of that situation with the rescue of the saint from the water, by virtue of her attraction to the drums; third, the establishment of a political and religious hierarchy that empower Black people.
The two initial elements set forth the centrifugal movement of the mythical narrative, from the interior to the exterior, placing in opposition the white oppressors and the oppressed blacks, slavery and the struggle for freedom, dehumanization and rehumanization, fragmentation and restoration. By taking the saint from the water, conferring it with movement, the black slaves perform an act of appropriation and reconfiguration, inverting, in the diction of the sacred, the positions of power among whites and blacks. The language of the drums, invested with a divine ethos, operates the songs and the dance, and, as an oracle, foreshadows a subversion of the slavery order, of the slaveholder's hierarchies, and of the hegemonic understanding. This reversal interferes with the syntax of the Catholic text, now influenced by an alternative language that, as a style and as a stiletto, writes itself and beats in the joining of the drumbeats, the song and the dance, intertwined in the articulation of speech, voice and body movements. The very foundation of the mythic Catholic text is overshadowed, and, as a palimpsest, reprinted with African gnosis:
to the policy of the Church, the myth of Our Lady of the Rosary maintains its
validity as long as the divinity remains outside of human reach. [...] The Catholic
myth is fed by the presence and absence of divinity, using them for the statue
that cannot be broken: the Saint visited the men, but soon distanced herself
The blacks through the Candombe songs, pulled the Saint from the sea, and placed her in a grotto, or chapel. In the carrying of divinity near to man, they followed the statue of the Catholic myth, emptying it of its primordial tension. This allowed the placing over the vestiges of the catholic the re-inauguration of the great ctonic Mothers, the Mother Earth coming from a violated Africa. (GOMES e PEREIRA, 1988: 101-102)
In a perspective that transcends the symbolic-religious context, that act of displacement and repossession brings to light the possibility of reversal and transformation of the power relations in an adverse socio-historical context. There is an increasing significance, therefore, in the fact that the narratives enhance the grouping of different nations and African ethnicities, overcoming historical divergences, ethnic rivalries, and language differences. The collective prevails over the individual, as an operator of forms of cultural and social resistance that reactivate, restore and reterritorialize, by ingenous metamorphoses, an alternative knowledge, incarnated in the memory of the body and the voice. Both in the expression of the mythical narration as well as in the dramatic performance that stages it, the partial overcoming of ethnic diversities recreates the common ethos and the black collective act as an surrogation strategie that helps to reorganize the most inner, personnal, and cultural identity, redesigning the fractures of knowledge into new forms of self and social recognition. As Moraes reminds us (1979:226), when describing the retinue and entourage of the black kings in 1748:
[...] Saint Domingo's field, near the chapel, displayed itself in an opulent and strange show in which Mozambiques, Cabundás, Benguelas, Rebolos, Congos, Cassanges, Minas, reaching at last a plurality of the nations of Africa, slaves in Brazil, authentically exhibited, each one with its own particular characteristics, its private aesthetic.
Men, women and children, enjoying the deep satisfaction and great pleasure of freedom for one day, forgot for a moment the palm trees of their land, earth, the fetishes of their country, awaiting the sovereign's coronation.
One can, thus, notice a pendular gesture between the lines of the enunciation of the fable: it is sung in favor of the divinity and celebrates the black majesties and, simultaneously, it is sung and it is danced against oppression and in opposition to the shackling of freedom.
From this gesture emerges the second movement dramatized in the narratives: the establishment of an alternative power structure that reorganizes the black ethnic relationships and the strategic positions overlapping therein. The Congo guards start the retinues and clear out the roads, like vanguard warriors. The Mozambique, appointed as the highest of the sacred rites and guardian of the crown that represents the African nations and the Lady of the Rosary, leads the kings and queens. In a specular relationship engendered by the fable, the sound of their drums represents a voice more genuinely African, a reminiscence of an imaginary origin that, iconically, translates the memory of Africa. Lord of the crowns and guardian of the sacred mysteries, the Mozambique is the telluric force and also the kinetic energy that spreads power over all, giving movement to the African continuum. Therefore, in the parallel structures of political and religious relations stablished by the black kingdoms, new hierarchies and social micro-systems are powerfully embodied, which puts into operation the secret nets of communication among blacks. The institution of that parallel power, that still today affects the daily life of many black communities, contributed in the past to the uniting of the slaves of different nations and ethnicities, many of them old enemies in Africa, stimuling strugles and resistence against slavery, in a much more intensive and continuous ways, than the official history would admit. The texts, after all, "may obscure what performance tends to reveal: memory challenges history in the construction of circum-Atlantic cultures, and revises the yet unwritten epic of their fabulous co-creation" (Roach, 1995:61).
In the narratives there is an obvious play with meanings involving the acts of looking and seeing, submission and resistance, passivity and transgression, transparency and concealment. In the telling of the tale, to see, to be able to, to resist, to persist, and to fight are attributes of the black in opposition to the white, who looks, wants, attacks and is beaten. The whites look at the statue, but it is the blacks who see her. The whites wish to enthrone the saint, but she chooses to sit on the blacks' drum. Representing the black as agent of positive actions that transgress the order of the oppressing system, the speech narrated by the tradition, and performed by the transmission, reverses the social positions of slavery, not only in the transgression of the dominant religious symbolism, but also in the registration of a change in perspective on the positions of power for the black in the historical sequence, social and political order.
The fable also
reveals to us a substitution process in the production of objects and liturgical
ornaments and the reassignment of meaning to the geographical and symbolic atmosphere.
Thus the slaves make their sacred drums from logs, leaves and lianas, and they
use beads and other readily available materials, instead of those precious materials
of their homelands. We must remember that, in Africa, as in African-American
cultures, one of the ways of writing the body is by using shells, seeds, and
other concave objects of various sizes and colors, and by the making of necklaces,
bracelets, and other ornaments that redress the human body, besides the other
arabesque designs that adorn the skin and hair. Aligned in a certain position
and in a contiguous order, the beads, seeds and shells, as well as certain drawings,
work as morphemes forming words, words forming sentences and sentences making
up texts, which turn the body's surface, literally, into a text, and the subject
into sign, interpreter and interpreted, simultaneously. Written in the ornaments
and through them, "the person emerges from such readings, made of memory
and making memory (
). As mnemonic devices, then, beads and shells themselves
become the memory of that they have signified". (Roberts, 1996:86) The
whole history of the creation of the Congados (violently repressed and persecuted
from the second half of the nineteenth century until the middle of the twentieth)
and of the black cultures in general, seems to reveal the primary importance
of those processes of displacement, substitution and re-semantization, suturing
the emptiness and the gaps originated by the losses. They foreshadow the strategies
of cultural and social resistance that incited the slave revolts, the effective
participation of the Quilombolas and of several other black organizations against
the slave-owning system. As the popular aphorism has it, "the beads of
my rosary are artillery bullets."
In the description of the feasts that took place in Rio de Janeiro in 1748, Moraes (1979:228) highlights, in several passages, the power of agency that black sovereignty instituted:
[...] the blacks of the Jesuits' plantations, the slaves of the noble houses, having all agreed, joined in ever larger bands in Saint Domingo's field, in cheerful racket, gathering in the vicinity of the wide square, to the beats of the war drums in the distance. [...] And the tambourines, the drums, the macumbas, the canzás, the marimbas, preceding the crowd, sonorously announced the triumphant entrance of the Congos at the profane feasts of the coronation of a black King.
One song of the Congo performers translates, densely and minimalistically, not only this reminiscence, but also the sense of value given to the crown of the kings, a symbol of authority that decentralizes, at various levels, the hegemonic institutional power:
Lá na rua
lá no fundo da horta
a polícia me prende
sá rainha me solta! There in the street down below
There in the back
of the orchard
the police caught me
the queen can set me free!
The text of the
original fable gives form, therefore, to the whole liturgy of the rituals, through
which the Congadeiro experiences, in a unique way, his rhizomatic identity.
Through the symbolic representation and the ritual performance, channels of
negotiation are established among distinct cultural repertoires and arkhés.
The devotion to the Catholic saints, and, simultaneously, the celebration of
African ritual traditions, cosmology and metaphysics, translates an ingenious
operation that links and interprets the most human differences and experiences.
In the mythopoetic narrative, in the songs, gestures, dances, and liturgical
derivations of the ceremonies of the Coronation, the Congadeiro praises the
Catholic divinities and also the vestigies of unnamed African deities; Zambi,
one of the names of the Bantu supreme God; the ancestors and the whole range
of a sophisticated Bantu gnosis. In its realm and cultural gestus we may recognize
a telluric philosophy and a metaphisic concept that acknowledge in Nature a
certain measure of Humanity, not in an animistic way, but as the expression
of a necessary complementarity and boundary that sense the divine breath in
all the forms and elements of the cosmic matter and physis. It is as an effect
of this complex gnosis that the Congadeiros celebrate Our Lady of the Rosary,
praising her as a great orisha, a ctonic principle who rules over and moves
water, air and earth.
of African-Brazilian rituals also offer and give access to a poiesis performed
by the sacred chants and dances. The study of this textuality and rituals enables
us to enhance the inscription of the African memory in Brazil in several domains:
in the cluster of poetic and rhythmic forms as well as in the aesthetic and
cognitive procedures founded on other modulations of the creative experience;
in the techniques and genres of textual composition; in the methods and processes
of the preservation and transmission of knowledge; in the instrumental attributes
and properties of the performances, where the embodied memories fulfill and
create a sign-body that expands itself as cultural corpus. In the textual and
performative landscape, in the acts of bodily reminiscence, other poetic forms
not only thematically re-create the memory of the African Diasporic movements
in Brazil, but they also inscribe it, as responses, in the techniques of several
narrative and performative genres, in the trellises of the creative enunciation
of the vocal word and of the poetic oral languages. And by all these means they
restitute numerous other forms of knowledge, been them displayed by the dictions
and phraseologies of new discursive forms and textures, or in the aesthetic
trends of the embodied performances.
As was highlighted so far, the narrative of the origin of the Congados constitutes an exemplary mythopoetic text in whose expression the plot of the black epic poem is founded. The removal of the saint from the water is the structural leitmotif of a basic displacement: the action in itself moves from divinity to humanity, as the slaves become agents of the mediating gesture that re-links the human with the divine, rescuinng the principles of a worldview that stablishes the African arkhé in the Americas. In the fable, thus, the power of the narration configures the rite of passage from a situation of affliction, fragmentation and disorder into a new social, political, artistic and philosophical order that reconfigures the cultural corpus, subverting the dominator/dominated relationship and inserting into the Catholic religious system the telluric African theology.
The ritual act that refers us indirectly to the narrative creates a unique syntax, the syntax of the performance, in which the new order is enacted, is transmitted and disseminated in a rhizome-like fashion. Through the performance, the black spatially appropriates symbolic geographical territories, semanticizing Brazilian cartography with African aesthetic, religious, expressive, philosophical and cognitive meanings. While the narrative fable, in its elements of textual economy, expresses and institutes the rites of passage and the metamorphoses that are acted thereof, the performance festival of the Congados liminarlly and theatrically creates a liturgical syntax that pluralizes the transit and the dimension of the cultural crossings. In the performative gestus, in its theatrical frame, the narration transforms itself into dramatization. In the sphere of the performance, in its elements - songs, dances, clothes, ornaments, ceremonial objects, settings, retinues and feasts - and in its philosophical and religious worldview, the textual, historical, sensorial, organic, and conceptual repertoires from far-away Africa are reorganized as an alternate cultural corpus. The rites thus accomplish a pedagogical function as a paradigmatic example, as a model and index of change and displacement.
This process of intervention in the environment and the potential for formal and conceptual reconfiguration make the rituals an effective way of transmission and of reterritorialization of a complex plethora of knowledge. In the Brazilian case, the rites of African origin, both religious and secular, occupy a unique place as one of the vehicles of transmission of one of the most important aspects of the African worldview: the notion of ancestry lineage, a channel in whose eccos "...the living and the dead, the natural and the supernatural, the cosmic and the social elements interact, forming the links of a in dissolvable chain of meaning..." (Padilha, 1995:10) From the African point of view, the ancestors lineages include, in the same phenomenological circuit, the divinities, cosmic nature, fauna, flora, the physical elements, the dead, the living and those who have yet to be born, bounded together in a complementary chain of aspirations, in a continuous process of transformation and of becoming. According to Ngugi wa Thiong'o (1997: 138-139), in African cosmology,
...we who are present are all potential mothers and fathers of those who will come after us. Reverence for the ancestors is actually a reverence for life, for continuity and change. We are the children of those who were here before us but we are not identical twins with them even as we shall not produce complete identicals with ourselves. (...) Here the past becomes the source of inspiration; the present, the arena of perspiration, and the future, our collective aspiration.
This cosmic and philosophical perception intertwines, in the same circuit of meaning, time, ancestry and death. The primacy of the ancestral movement, the source of inspiration, shades the curves of a spiral temporality, in which the events, stripped of a linear chronology, are in the process of a perennial transformation. Birth, maturity, and death become then natural events, necessary for the mutational and regenerative dynamic of all the vital and existential cycles. In the spirals of time, all things go forth and all things return. For Fu-Kiau Bunseki (1994:33), in the Kikongo societies, to experience time means to inhabit a curvilinear temporality, conceived as a parchment roll that veils and unveils, rolls and unrolls, simultaneously, the temporal instances that constitute the subject. The Kicongo phorism, "Ma'kwenda! Ma'kwisa! what goes on now will come back later" colorfully translates the idea that "what flows in a cyclical motion will remain in the motion". The same idea is present in one of most important African engravings, trans-created in several ways in the Afro-Brazilian religions, the cosmogram yowa, the sign of the cosmos and of the continuity of life, reproduced and translated by Thompson (1984:109):
The horizontal line divides the mountain of the living world from its mirrored counterpart in the kingdom of the dead. The mountain of the living is described as "earth"(ntoto). The mountain of the dead is called "white clay"(mpemba). The bottom half of the Kongo cosmogram was also called kalunga, referring, literally, to the world of the dead as complete (lunga) within itself and to the wholeness that comes to a person who understands the ways and powers of both worlds. (...) The four disks at the points of the cross stand for the four moments of the sun, and the circumference of the cross the certainty of reincarnation...
This system of thought configures the subject as a synecdoche of the cosmos; one of the rings of a curvilinear temporal dynamo that produces a movement simultaneously retrospective and prospective, vertical and horizontal, still linking in the same sphere time and space as images mirrored reciprocally. In this synchrony, the past can be defined as the place both of knowledge and of cumulative experience, in which the present and the future inhabit, being also inhabited by them.
The mediation of the ancestors, manifested in the Congados through the force (axé) of the candombes (the sacred drums), is the clef of the rites, as this force brings forth the potency of the spoken word and of the corporal gestus, instruments of inscription and of retransmission of the ancestral legacy. In the performance ritual, the Congadeiro, simultaneously, mirrors himself in the traces linking him to the ancestors, reinforcing the links, but he also distances himself from them, superimposing, as in the improvisation of a melody, his own tones and footprints. In the rituals, then, "each repetition is in some measure original, just as it is at the same time never totally novel" (Drewal, 1992:1). This pendular process between tradition and its transmission institutes a curvilinear movement, reactive and predictive, that integrates synchronically, at the time of the performed act, a present enacting of the past and of the future. As a logos that moves from the ancestor to the performer and from the performer to the ancestor and to the infants, each ritual performance re-creates, restores and revises a phenomenological circle in which pulses, contemporaneously, the act of a continuous past, synchronized in a present temporality that attracts to itself the past and the future, abolishing not time, but its linear and consecutive conception. Thus, the idea of temporary succession is already obliterated by the reactivation and modernization of the action, simultaneously similar and different, done as much before as after in the instant that restores it, in the form of an event.
In the performative genealogy of the rites, the vocalized word resonates as an effect of a pulsational language of the body, enrolling the issuing subject in a certain cycle of expression, potency and power. Like blowing, breath, diction and event, the uttered word writes itself in the performance of the body, the place of wisdom. Therefore, the word, an index of the knowledge, does not petrify in storage or solid archive, but is conceived kinetically. As such, the word echoes in the performative reminiscence of the body, resonating like a voice singing and dancing in an expressive contiguous syntax, which fertilizes the relationship among the living, the ancestors and those who are not yet born. For Zumthor (1993:244), "the spoken word does not exist (such as a written word) in a purely verbal context; it necessarily participates in an amplified process, operating in an existential situation that somehow alters it in some way, and whose totality engages the bodies of the participants". Dynamic force and principle, the ritualistic word becomes language "because it expresses and exteriorizes a process of synthesis in which all the elements that constitute the subject interact." (Santos, 1988: 49) In this conception the meanings of the word can't be achieved without music, dance, rhythms, and colors that perform it. The whole performance constitutes the emotional locus in which the vocalized text becomes art giving birth to many clefs of signification. For the Congados the adaptation of the gestus and the song is fundamental: there are specific song for walks, raising of masts, greetings, evocations, crossings, passages through doors and intersections. In each situation the soloist must know the appropriate tune for the time and place, because the effectiveness of the word and its power as an accomplished gesture depends on how it is acted out. Thus, it is by the numinous nature of the voice and by the audible power of the body that the Afro-Brazilian religions resonate.
For the Congadeiro,
this knowledge expresses itself spatially as well. A space once visited is a
consecrated site. The retinues and walks, revisited as recognized places, rebuild
the circles around the masts, crosses and churches, through the same routes
as the ancestors, and blaze new highways. The choreography of the dances imitates
the circularity of the spiral, both in the dance of the body, and in the use
of space that the body, in its flight, designs on itself. Thus, "to travel
roads already traveled by the ancestors is to revive the force of communication
with the visible world, it is to participate in the mystery of those who have
already gone before us. Space visited and time lived are great sources of rebirth,
or the return to the Unity, since those who came before left the inheritance
of what they had experienced"
By means of that
constituent evocation, the gesture and the voice of the ancestors embody the
event that is performed, prefiguring that which will happen in a curvilinear
genealogical conception, articulated by performance. In it, the choreographic
movement occupies the space in unfolding circles, marking the ex-centric notion
of time. In other words: time, in its dynamic spiraling, curvilinear, can only
be conceived by the space or in the space of the hiatus that the body in flight
occupies. Time and space become, then, mutually mirrored images. That expressive
temporality does not conceive of the present as the present of one's own being
that is limited, by internal reference, among what will become present and what
no longer is. On the contrary, in the ritual performances the body is the site
of the curvilinear "not yet" and of the "already",
of what can and cannot come to be, resembling the simultaneity of the presence
and of belonging. The event enacted in and by the body fulfills a space and
a temporality that are both continuous and discontinuous, compact and fluid,
cumulative and accumulative. As such, the performance modernizes the pitches
of the memory, remembering tinged by forgetfulness, braids twirled in the improvisation
that embroiders the African remains and residues into new expressive art forms.
Thus, the representation dramatized by the ritual performance, in its ingenious
craftsmanship, can be read as a supplement that recovers the many hiatuses and
gaps created by the oceanic and territorial diaspora of the blacks, a creation
to replace something inexorably submerged in the crossings, but perennially
trans-created, re-incorporated and reconstituted, under the sign of reminiscence.
As knowledge and wisdom.
those overwritings and performative palimpsests, written by the voice and the
body, I have named oralitura, shadowing with this term the notion of
a unique cultural inscription, which as a graphen, a trace, (littera), reveals
itself as an style, highlighting also its value as litura, an significant alteration,
constituent of the alterity of the subjects, of the cultures and of their symbolic
representations. (Cf. Martins, 1997:21)
Other theorists use the term orature. Ngugi (1997:23) has given the term several nuances, referring to orature as the abundant repertoire of the "oral arts" and "their consecutive performances".
signifier oralitura, in the way I introduce it, is not intended to refer
only to the universal repertoire of methods and cultural procedures of the verbal
tradition; it aims to characterize the presence of residual, stylistic, mnemonic
traces and cultural devices echoed and inscribed in and by the body in motion.
As a probe, those kinetic traces inscribe ways of knowing, as well as values,
concepts, worldview and styles. While orature carries a verbal corpus, indirectly
evoking its transmission, oralitura is related to the sphere or performance,
which is its anchor; a graph, a language, be it drawn in performative letters
of the paper or in the flights of the body. In one of the Bantu languages of
the Congo, the same verb, tanga, designates the acts of writing and dancing,
from whose root the noun ntangu, one of the designations of time, also derives;
a correlation with many significances, implying that the memory of knowledge
is inscribed, without illusory hierarchies, as much in words on paper as in
the body in performance. From this perspective, we can finally consider that
"unwritten" cultures do not exist, because, not all societies confine
their knowledge to books, archives, museums and libraries, but preserve, nurture
and transmit their vast repertoires through other means of remembering , their
performative practices (Cf. also Taylor:2002).
the Brazilian ritual dances, be they of Bantu or Nago-Yoruba origin, the concave
and convex choreographies that create a space of circumscription of the subject
and the cosmos not only bring us to the semantic and symbolic universe of the
action re-presented, but they constitute in themselves the very actions instituted
and constituted by embodied performances. To dance is to perform, to inscribe.
The ritual performance is, therefore, an act of inscription. The body in performance,
the body that is the performance, is the site of memory par excellence. As such
it does not only repeat a habit, but it also institutes, interprets and revises
the act reenacted. As a result, we must not underestimate the meta-constituent
nature of performative traditions, in which the making does not suppress the
act of reflecting; content is intertwined with form, memory writes itself in/on
the body, which registers it, transmits it and modifies it dynamically. The
body, in those traditions, is not, therefore, just the extension of a reintroduced
knowledge, and or an archive of a static crystallization. It is, in fact, the
site of knowledge in a continuous movement of re-creation, remission, revision
and transformation of the cultural corpus. In the Afro-Brazilian ritual traditions,
turned harlequins by their several constituent symbolic crossings, the body
is a corpus or ornamentation: movements, voice, choreographies, language
properties, clothes, drawings on the skin and on the hair, decorations and ornaments
design this body/corpus, stylistically and metonymically as a locus of knowledge
and memory. The subjects and their artistic forms emerging thereof are tapestries
of memory, writing history.
word religion comes from a latin root, religare, to link again. Africa-Brazilian
religious systems, in all their diversity, testify that memory and knowledge
are disseminated by countless performance acts, through which the selective
memory of previous knowledge is instituted and maintained in the social and
the oralitura of the Congados, the body is a threshhod that, simultaneously,
inscribes and interprets, signifies and is signified, being projected as content
and that which contains, location and vehicle of memory. The body, as surface
and interior, content and that which contains, is a place of transference, "a
mirror that limns the observer's gaze and the object of that gaze, reflecting
one back upon the other."(Roberts, 1996:86)
The Congados witness to the fact that, just as there is no such thing as complete, absolute nor eternal memory, forgetfulness is always incomplete. In the genealogy of their performance, the Congadeiros refresh the parchments of their History and restore the memory of many cultural footprints that design their harlequin bodies and Brazilian cultural cartography.
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