A Brazilian Dance of Life to Honor Death – Boa Morte

By Guest Contributor JOAN CHATFIELD-TAYLOR of the NEW YORK TIMES 

I DID not expect to be doing a solo samba in the middle of a circle surrounded by hundreds of Brazilians, but the Festival of the Good Death turned out to be more fun than its name would suggest.

The festival takes place in the pretty Bahian town of Cachoeira, in an area called the Recôncavo, some of Brazil’s most fertile, productive land. Five hundred years ago, the Portuguese colonists cleared the land to grow sugar cane and, later, tobacco on these rolling hills. After an unsuccessful attempt at enslaving the local Indians, they imported vast numbers of slaves from Africa to work their fields. Cachoeira flourished as a river port, linking inland agriculture to the ships waiting 70 miles southeast in the Salvador harbor. By 1878, the town’s population was 7,000 — 2,000 of them slaves.

A decade later, Brazil’s monopoly of the world’s sugar production had ended and new roads were replacing river transport. The town stopped in its tracks, its colonial architecture left to crumble.

Today, Cachoeira’s biggest tourist attraction is the Festival of the Boa Morte, the good death. Each year, from Aug. 13 to 15, the Boa Morte sisterhood, a group of mostly elderly women descended from African slaves, put on their finest ceremonial clothes and jewelry to participate in three days of Masses, parades, public feasts and dancing in honor of the Virgin Mary.

On the surface, the festival is purely, ardently Catholic, but the reality is more complicated. The name of the festival refers not only to the good death of Mary, who, according to scripture, ascended into heaven, but to slaves who managed to become free during their lifetimes. The Catholic rites are only part of the celebration; there are other religious, social and political subtexts.

After spending a week enjoying the big city restaurants and music of Salvador, I headed to the small town of Cachoeira with a friend, Paola Gianturco, a writer-photographer who wanted to include the Boa Morte rituals in her book on festivals that celebrate women. We were joined by her interpreter, Carlos Scorpião, a professional guide with an intense interest in African-Brazilian culture. After the bustle and noise of Salvador, it was fascinating to observe the rhythms of life in a town that is usually as quiet and slow-paced as the Paraguacú River that flows beside it.

Cachoeira’s cobblestoned streets are lined with colonial buildings with tile roofs and walls painted in brilliant colors, embellished with white trim as supple and curvaceous as cake frosting. The buildings are in various stages of decay and rejuvenation. A number of restoration projects have been undertaken recently with the help of the state government, which has recognized the tourist potential of the town’s colonial architecture and riverside setting. Some artists, mainly woodcarvers and painters, have taken up residence and opened small galleries.

A few days before the festival officially began, we wandered into one of the sisterhood’s three headquarters buildings in the center of town. Several of the sisters, dressed in ruffled white blouses and ample skirts, greeted Carlos fondly and happily answered our questions with the help of his translations. When we asked them about the festival, they were quick to say, ”It is all to worship the Virgin.”

A few seconds later, however, they were talking with equal fervor about orixás, the deities of Candomblé, the African-Brazilian religion that invokes spirituality through ritual dancing and trances. Candomblé and Catholicism have coexisted in the minds and hearts of many black Brazilians since the days when the Portuguese colonists required slaves to be baptized Catholic and to attend weekly Mass on their plantations. The slaves maintained their African traditions in secret ceremonies, disguising their orixás as Catholic saints.

The Boa Morte sisterhood was founded in the early 19th century, ostensibly with purely religious intentions to pray for the dead and to provide decent funerals for its members. In fact, the members also intended to preserve African traditions and to free slaves, either by helping them escape or by earning money to buy their freedom. Although the group was the female equivalent of Catholic lay brotherhoods, the Boa Morte’s relationship to the church was never formalized. In the 1980’s a priest in Cachoeira confiscated the sisterhood’s property, including precious jewelry, religious statues and a sandal bearing the image of the Virgin. A young lawyer, Celina Maria Sala, came to their aid, pursuing the case through several appeals and finally finding 19th-century paperwork proving that the sisters, not the church, owned the items. The case was resolved in 1998, but Ms. Sala continues to take a lively interest — now functioning as a festival organizer and liaison with the growing number of curious outsiders who come to the celebration.

After such a bitter conflict, one might wonder if the Boa Morte sisters would continue to stage celebrations in honor of the Virgin Mary. But their sincerity and enthusiasm was clear as the festival began. On the first night, each of the 24 sisters was splendidly turned out in the traditional Bahian garb: ruffled eyelet overblouse, huge ankle-length skirt, lacy turban, white cotton shawl and yards of necklaces made of gold chains, cowrie shells, and beads whose colors signify their personal orixás.

The sisters posed graciously for photographs before shouldering a magnificently dressed and bejeweled recumbent figure of the Virgin, carrying it through the streets, followed by a small crowd of photographers, tourists and local citizens. After the parade, they attended Mass in their chapel. Then it was time for the ritual white meal — a feast of fried fish, onions, potatoes, rice and wine — that the women served to anyone who appeared.

The Mass and procession on the second night marked the death of the Virgin Mary. The sisters eschewed jewelry and wore long black pleated skirts, white blouses, white eyelet scarves and black shawls carefully arranged not to reveal their red silk linings. They did not smile as they filed into the chapel for the Mass, and the procession through the streets afterward was funereal rather than festive.

The next morning, however, the sisters, the chapel and the town itself were transformed. A new statue of the Virgin stood at the altar, surrounded by huge arrangements of tuberoses, chrysanthemums, birds of paradise and wheat. The sisters were resplendent in black skirts and shawls turned to the bright red side — the same clothes the sisters have traditionally worn at their own funerals — and jewelry.

No fewer than five Catholic priests officiated at the morning Mass. The news media presence was almost overwhelming, with a young anchorwoman from a São Paulo station doing commentary inside the church, and television cameramen and photographers from as far away as Paris and San Francisco jostling for clear views. Bodyguards protected the sisters as they proceeded through town, followed by bands, large groups of women in Bahian dress and proud family members.

The streets were teeming with people, and the distinctive smell of palm oil rose from sidewalk stands where white-clad women were frying acaraje (bean fritters), and men were selling popcorn and crushing sugar cane to make syrup. Many in the crowd were tourists — visitors from other parts of Brazil and a number of African-American tourists. Some were wearing African robes, or T-shirts declaring ”Free Mumia” or ”We Love to Be Africans.” A banner announced the support of a local politician for the Boa Morte sisters, and a rumor swept through the crowd that the singer Gilberto Gil, now Brazil’s minister of culture, might turn up. In the main square, a group of women piled out of a bus to parade in flashy costumes made of recycled materials like coffee packaging and plastic cups.

At the largest hotel in town, the Pousada do Convento, long tables had been set up in the courtyard, each marked with the name of a tour group that had arrived from Salvador that morning.

The T-shirts and the political signs help to explain why so many people care about the activities of 24 elderly women who have led lives of poverty and anonymity, raising children and working in minimum-wage jobs in the tobacco industry. The Boa Morte has become a symbol for Brazil’s black advocates, whose message is that Brazil is not a racial democracy but a country branded by slavery, in which the darkest-skinned people are usually the poorest and whose families sometimes prefer that their descendants marry lighter-skinned people.

Part of their advocacy is urging Brazilians to take pride in their African heritage and to treasure their unique history, language and religion. In the 1990’s, they got a boost from the renowned novelist Jorge Amado, who drew attention to the cultural significance of the sisterhood by writing articles about them in two prominent Brazilian newspapers. In addition, Mr. Amado gave the sisters financial aid — health insurance and one of their buildings in Cachoeira. Further aid came from the state government and donations from African-American tourists, who helped buy the building that now houses the sisterhood’s museum and cultural activities such as dance and art classes.

According to Carlos and others close to the sisterhood, the sisters are comfortable with the political subtext of their festival. However, when we asked which part of the festival they enjoy most, they responded with smiles, ”The samba.”

The dancing came on the third evening of the festival, when, after the Mass and the parade and yet another public feast, a band — mainly drums and guitars — set up next to the Boa Morte’s headquarters. The sisters formed a circle to perform the samba de roda, a Bahian variation on Brazil’s national dance. Each one took a solo turn in the middle of the circle, some with their canes.

After each had performed her solo, the sisters invited a few people in the crowd to take a turn in the circle. And this was the moment when I found myself doing a few untutored samba steps. Soon, however, the circle broke up as the more elderly sisters slipped away through the crowd. Spiritual and political concerns seemed forgotten as the crowd poured onto the dance floor to samba into the night.

Masses, feasts and the samba

The Festival

The principal day of the Festival of the Boa Morte, or Good Death, with a Mass, a parade and the samba de roda, is Aug. 15, Feast of the Assumption, with lesser events on Aug. 13 and 14. All activities begin at the Boa Morte headquarters, at Rua 13 de Maio, in the center of town. We saw schedules for the ceremonies in our hotel, but start times are flexible.

Check out our 6 night package to the Boa Morte Festival 

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