Rains had briefly interrupted last night's Samba de Roda at the Irmandade. An unrelenting downpour began in between the sets of two of the bands. The refectory quickly recalled a steamy club or college Ratskellar, sweat streaming on faces and bodies. Like damp tinned sardines we were trapped inside. The smokers and beer drinkers stood huddled outside under the eaves or encircling old trees trunks for the protection of their canopies. I had chosen the blue bubble of an Oi! telephone booth. A perfect venue until the winds rose. When the music resumed I shot some photos. I was shaking my booty on my own until a woman's hand grabbed mine and pulled me into the strut yo' stuff circle. The crowd had created two small circles on either side of the room. Each one barely four feet in diameter was encircled by gyrating bodies ogling whoever jumped into the zone to exhibit their wares and their rhythms. We held our own for a few moments before I pulled out, tired and weak of knee. After the next batch of rain, I decided to head back to the "ousada" Wanting to decompress a bit, I walked down a few side streets to enjoy the evening air before bed. Light spilled out of the Cultural Center's massive wooden doors in front of me. I walked into the lobby, briefly eyeing an exhibit of abstract sculpture mimicking architectural models of skyscrapers. I heard music above me, so I followed the sounds to the main hall on the second floor. I found an adhoc party of advanced Capoeira students and their masters, lounging playing Capoeira and berimbaus. Several women were off to the side, chatting and smoking. Feeling like an uninvited guest, I listened briefly and then sought refuge in a nearby exhibit of Public School children's art and poetry in homage to the Boa Morte. It was honest and tender as children can often be. Twenty minutes later, I was back on the street walking towards the praca. The scene was pop rockish, so I gave up.
Entering the house, "Mom" was getting ready for her Saturday night, brushing out her hair, primping, painting eyeliner and posing in the mirror. Equally absorbed in his telenovela and his Mom's transformation Gito switched between the two from his makeshift bed/sofa. "Voce vai ir com nos agora? What, I thought-uh.., "Que?" " Vai ir: no Candomble! Esta cansado, voce? Sim, parece cansado." I responded, " Pois nao muito. Pode deixar me fazer algo, e eu posso ir com voces." She was right. I was exhausted. But, I realized that the opportunity was now. Then she began insisting that I bring my camera too. "Pode tirar fotos, certo! Nao e; pode. Deve. I was conflicted because I had dedicated the remaining photos on my card to the Caruru. "No", I replied in Portuguese. "I will use my eyes as my camera. Esta bom."
Fuimos desde um ratinho caminando comjunto entre as ruas obcuras. We walked quietly and quickly, trying to beat the next rain. We had elected to leave the umbrella at home, but brought a light jacket for Gito. We crested the hill across town and entered the park adjacent to the Igreja do Monte. In September I would return for another festa that would bless the church now undergoing renovations and celebrate Sao Cosme e Damiao. "Voce pode ouvir os tambores?" At first I heard nothing, and then suddenly the still night was shattered by thundering drums, their volume increased as we descended down the cobblestone street into another neighborhood. A crowd had gathered outside the terreiro as we walked up. Mom found us seats inside, I was placed next to two blonde German women, with their cameras ready. I was getting my Candomble 101 course. Last night's observation of the teen devotees engaged in their rituals in the town's square, had been a good precursor to this ceremony enacted by their elders.
The room square and white, was well lit with bare bulbs and fluorescents. A glazed golden tile with a large star was cemented in the middle of the floor. Coconut palm frond hung like streamers spilled down from the ceiling, interspersed with strings of popcorn. Several rows of white plastic chairs, thirty or so, lined two walls, a makeshift bandstand sat opposite the entryway, and a two throne-like wooden chairs opposed each other with symbolic objects mounted on the wall above them. A large window opened out to the street allowing standees to observe the ceremony. Faded iconic photos of black Brazilians, images of mermaids, Wonder Woman, Saint George slaying the dragon, a few inspirational messages and painted coconuts adorned the walls.
Initially the scene was measured by loping drum rhythms on three Atabaqui drums beaten with freshly whittled sticks, tinkling cowbells and hammered triangles. As the chairs filled, three middle aged men positioned in different areas began to chant and sing. Each new song instigated a new melody, slowly bringing half a dozen people mostly in light colored street clothes forward to processing around the starred tile. I knew that one man, dressed all in white with a white cap was a new initiate. All of the women had tied white fabric wrappers around their torsos and street clothes. A few women in Baianan white dresses and head scarves joined the circle. I recognized one of the Senhoras da Boa Morte in this group. Gazing around at the crowd, I realized that another Senhora sat in one of the throne chairs and two more flanked her. As each one approached these chairs, they hugged their elders, prostrated themselves, kissed their hands and moved on. Hips swayed and arms seemed to gestured rowing, hoeing, and offered thanks toward the sky. I imagined samba footwork at one quarter time. Subtly, in a whisper one, two then a third person became possessed. Each one had a mentor who rolled up pants legs, removed their shoes and any jewelry that might break or harm the wearer. Hands were grasped to guide the devotees, change their direction or occasionally leading them off to another room. A few people received their host hunched over uttering gutteral growls and shouts, spastically shaking their extremities. Loud, staccato drumming, heralded the arrival of Iemanja bearing a large tray of popcorn and shaved coconut draped in white lace. Setting on top of the popcorn was a small ceramic dish holding a few bills. The tray easily four feet in length was set down on a stool, and various people around the room were showered with popcorn. Everyone present was given a handful to eat.
Now the pace quickened. Others dressed as Orixa appeared chanting, barking and trembling as they performed their ritual and manifested a possession that vacillated between conscious and unconscious behaviors. Four hours had gone by, when an elderly woman touched my sleeve and beckoned me to the room behind the door. Across the floor, "Mom" rose and mouthed, "Vai voce, ela tem comida." They both led a small group of us through the door, down a short flight of stairs past a sanctuary emanating a soft blue light. The stair ended at a small anteroom, with a low ceiling, wooden slat walls a few closed doors and a counter where a woman was placing huge plates of food. I sat in silence next to my host eating a mixture of rice, black eyed peas, caruru, chicken, beef, vatapa and abbara. Everything was quite redolent of palm and dried shrimp. I was led back into the main room, stopping at the open doorway, at the top of the stair. The room seemed undersea with mermaids, plants and sea imagery. The soft blue light was comforting. She asked me to kneel for a blessing and to leave one real as a symbolic gift to the terreiro and as good luck for me.
Back inside the room, now fever pitched, I watched as visitors came and went, some who were "parishioners" would process briefly, embrace their elders or be embraced by the Orixas. An intoxicated man came in from the street, tried to process, bobbed and weaved and was led out quietly, while rounds of fireworks and sheets of rain resounded in the street. Often like a jazz or contact improv, people moved around, got up, sat down, looked for the toilet, yet nothing interrupted the flow of the service. The cantors slowly moved to new positions in the room, made eye contact with each other when trying to decide on the order of songs. A new man, older than the others began to add his baritone to their chorus.
The Orixa figures and a few of the possessed individuals began to embrace everyone in the front row of chairs as they completed their practice. From the street came a catterwall. The majority of attendees quickly turned to find the source of the screams. I caught myself dozing off, shocked into wakefulness from the shouts I turned from the warrior Orixa figure in the room to see this bystander become possessed in the street just outside the terreiro. A portly ebony woman with straightened hair, she ran in and out of the room, alone or with help from one of the mentors. In the opposite corner one of the Baianas began sweeping at the corners with a straw broom. This new woman did not cease her wailing and running to and fro. Accidentally I grazed Gito's arm, sitting next to me. His body slack, his breathing heavy he was in full REM sleep and could not be awakened. We were reaching the six hour mark of the service. Now the Senhora-Orixa who seemed to embody Iemenja carefully embraced each congregant, grunting and breathing like an animal on the prowl. As she came to me and the two Germans she pulled us up to standing hugged each cheek, took her right hand and motioned with two fingers that our eyes must look directly into hers, as she lifted our torsos and bear hugged us in a way that seemed carnal, almost sensuous. This Mae de Santo was also one of the Senhoras da Boa Morte. I learned later that they were all Maes de Santo. I had guessed that the woman who had been in the street was signaling that the service was coming to a close. Her possession seemed to have brought in a new spirit which shooed the others away.
Mom realized that we needed to get Gito home, It was now close to 4:00 AM. It took both of us prodding, shaking, calling his name and squeezing his cheeks to awaken Gito. Once he lost some of his sleep drunkedness we made our way to the street, after giving thanks to the elders seated in the throne chairs. The cobblestones were shining from the rain and the full moonlight. Hearing his calm measured voice, I realized that "Mom" was fully engaged with the last cantor, the older gentleman. He started walking with us as we climbed the hill towards the Igreja. It sounded like he was a Pae de Santo, it seemed like he was from this community but had moved away. Based on snippets of conversation that I caught, he had come back for the festa and possibly this ceremony. They were catching up on old business. Listening to Gito's mom speak, I realized how simple her Portuguese was. Her tone was syrupy, like Delta women in Mississippi; though clipped and halting, pausing often to find her words. Images flooded my consciousness, interrupting this reverie. I was trying to process all that I had seen. I reached for context, subtext or rationale, yet in the moment it seemed irrelevant. We walked quickly through the vacant streets, spying an errant couple or two who had no safe zone for their intimacy. He came home with us, this Babalow. Of course he took "Mom's" bed and she took the last couch. Sleep came quickly for me; not a truly restful sleep, so pregnant with dreams of the Candomble service.