Candomblé: African Deities and Brazil’s National Ethos

It’s night in Salvador and you hear drumming. It may be coming from one of the numerous terreiros de candomblé scattered throughout the city. Most terreiros will permit visitors to attend their ceremonies. Should you go, dress respectfully. Trousers for men, and women should wear longer skirts. White is best because it is respectful to all the orixás (o-ree-SHAHS).

(“Orixá” is commonly translated as “god”. A more accurate representation would perhaps be “saint”. Candomblé posits a monotheistic supreme being — usually referred to as Olodumaré or Olorum (in candomblé ketu) — with the orixás being called upon as intermediaries between earthbound humans and the all-powerful, much as a Christian will pray for a saint’s intercession on someone’s behalf.

Orixá is by far the most common term in Bahia for these entities (the ketu term), although they are also referred to as Nkisi in candomblé angola and Voduns in candomblé jeje.)

It’s said that Salvador has a (Catholic) church for every day of the year, they’re all over the place. But this number — or whatever the true number is — pales in comparison to the number of terreiros de candomblé in Salvador. An amazing project, the Mapeamento dos Terreiros de Salvador truly and literally puts this into perspective, detailing 1,155 terreiros (and this doesn’t include Itaparica!), with maps, satellite and other photos, leaders’ names, addresses and contact and other information.

Salvador’s immense quantity of terreiros (houses & grounds) de candomblé, mapped.

The practice of candomblé was at one time prohibited in Brazil (unofficially for centuries, and then officially by law between 1937 and 1945, during the Estado Novo of dictator Getúlio Vargas, who at the same time ironically, as part of his plan for the manipulation of the popular consciousness as a means for the further consolidation of his power, promoted Brazilian music and music which promoted Brazil, e.g. Ary Barroso’s Aquarela do Brasil), and thereafter in Bahia a licence was required, the same that was required by nightclubs and gambling establishments. After a personal appeal by Mãe Stella of Ilê Axé Opô Afonjá to the governor of Bahia (Roberto Santos, in office from 1975 to 1979), this requirement was lifted, and new terreiros sprouted — for the most part among the more humble neighborhoods — like singing flowers weaving to the lovely melodies and gloriously complicated rhythms calling down to Salvador Iansã and Yemanjá, Dandalunda, Oxossi and Xangô…

Above you see candomblé angola (the candomblé of the Bantus) on the beach in Rio Vermelho during the great yearly (February 2nd) Festa de Yemanjá. This group is from the small town of Irará in the Bahian interior (also known to some as the hometown of Tom Zé). The similarities to samba are no accident.

Without the resources to build cathedrals, their temples of worship simple houses within the means of runaway or freed slaves, African-Brazilians reached inward for what they could project out, and the result of their soul-searching was soul-lifting & stirring music and dance.

And this soul-lifting & stirring music and dance wasn’t limited to houses of candomblé. Samba came straight out of candomblé angola, a rhythm called “cabila” or “cabula”, or “samba de caboclo”. This and ijexá and a panoply of other rhythms power Brazilian popular music, making it live and move and polyrhythmically groove like only the bountiful collective genius of the monstrously dispossessed could.

I want to tell you of the suffering I endured for nothing
My lament was created in slavery
I suffered the deep pain of humiliation
But I won
Because I carried Nanã within my heart

Above find a song of Mateus Aleluia’s taken straight from candomblé (and elaborated upon). The first singer is Thalma de Freitas, accompanied on piano by her father, Maestro Laércio de Freitas. Second voice is Mateus’ daughter Fabiana, and Mateus himself plays guitar.

The deities which are the subjects of the song are both mother figures, the first being Yemanjá, and the second Nanã. Saravá!

As for Mateus himself, he was brought up in the terreiro Roça do Ventura, a Jêje candomblé in Cachoeira. The Jêje house in Salvador is Bogum, in the neighborhood of Engenho Velho de Federação.

Mas Que Nada was sung and written by Jorge Ben, Rio-born son of a Brazilian father and an Ethiopian mother. This is, along with The Girl from Ipanema, probably the best known Brazilian song outside of The Musical Country. Less known is that the opening lyrics, Ô ária raiô! Obá! Obá! Obá! Ô ária raiô! Obá! Obá! Obá!, are from candomblé, Obá being an orixá and Xangô’s first wife (there’s a beautiful carving of Obá, and other orixás, by Carybé in the Museu Afro-Brasileiro in the Terreiro de Jesus).

Below is the penultimate source of the famous opening to Jorge Ben’s song, itself a reworking of traditional candomblé music by José Prates:

And below is a clip of Jorge Ben (left) singing his Mas Que Nada with Sérgio Mendes center and Gilberto Gil right.

The pandeiro (tambourine) player, briefly glimpsed above (3:02), is none other than Carlinhos Pandeiro de Ouro! Below a much younger Carlinhos dances (guitar in hands) in what has to be one of the greatest final scenes of cinema ever (from Orfeu Negro, Black Orpheus; the song is Samba de Orfeu, by Luiz Bonfá):