Saturday, October 4, 2008

Navigating Federação in the dark: Orixá, ure saul laxé, Orixá ure oberi o ma.

Off the bus, back in town, time = tight. I arrived at the Rodoviaria (bus station) in Iguatemi, Sunday evening at approximately 7:30 PM. The station was humming with activity and working class families. I found the information desk and asked which city bus would take me to Gantois in Federação? The agent had no idea, nor did the guard at her side. He radioed a colleague, who quickly explained where to go. I went into the public toilet and changed from my damp t-shirt and shorts into the requisite white trousers and shirt. In Salvador this was a requirement. At Gantois, I would not be able to take any photos. My eyes would be the only camera.

Magically, the guard reappeared on the sidewalk outside of the station, making sure that I understood where to go. I was hungry waiting for the bus. I had hoped to see a peanut, popcorn or cool snack vendor while I stood on the platform. Everyone was hawking candy. If I did not eat now, I wouldn’t be eating for four hours or more. I also knew that I was going to attend a ceremony for “As Aguas de Oxalá,” a ceremony that cleans and renews Axe of all initiates. Almost like our post New Year’s purge. Not wanting candy, I settled on a bottle of water.

Terreiros celebrating As Aguas would discard the water in the ceramic containers that also held a stone or other icon of power for each initiate. The water had a hot or cool charge to reflect and balance the head of each initiate. Fresh water from streams, wells and rivers would be found to refill these containers and begin a new cycle, strengthening everyone's Axé. Consequently foods prepared for Oxalá were generally white, salt free, raw or simply cooked; hominy, grapes, apples, water never wine.

I saw a Federação onibus pull up and I jumped on. I asked the contador, or money-taker to show me the stop I needed. My landmark was that it sat on one of the highest hills in town, sharing the peak with the CBS affiliate signal tower and headquarters… Karma.

He had no idea of Gantois. I had blithely assumed that this Terreiro, one of the three most important and oldest in town would be a readily identifiable locale. Luckily, after asking a few passengers we found someone who seemed to know the area. They pointed out a path through some trees across the highway, explaining that the bus would make a U-turn shortly and I could climb the white stairs.

There was an unlocked dimly lit gate at street level. I opened the gate at begin to trek up the steep hillside. I soon realized that I was hiking through the backside of the Terreiro If I could have seen in the dark, I would have been able to find the houses for each Orixa and their individual offertory sites.

It was now pitch dark and I hoped that the Orixa were on my side. I did not need to be jumped as I sought out this ceremony. Out of breathe near the top, I slowed down, stopping briefly at the last landing, now that I could see the glow of the Terreiro above. Opening the door at the top gate, I realized that I was in the backyard of Terreiro Oxumare and not Gantois. Shit. There was a carport and small parking lot ahead. Along one wall was a small desk with a female attendant and her guard. I asked her for directions. Immediately she told me to speak to the woman getting into the car up ahead. I questioned her advice, but followed her directions.

The woman getting into the backseat of the compact car was almost six feet tall without her 3 inch heels. Clad in a bugle beaded and brocade formal white suit middle-aged fashion and definitely Afro-centric. She had a matching head wrap, clunky silver and stone beads and rings. Her accent was different, southern; Paulista. Initially she did not understand my Portuguese. Once we found a shared rhythm she quickly identified as black though her skin was pale and white. Before any decisions were made I knew that she had had a black husband, 18 years and three black boys had come from her body. She had initiated in Salvador and tried to help the disadvantaged.

The driver was robust, olive skinned, 40-ish, had a satin kufi cap and a white cotton lace African suit embroidered with silk thread. He identified himself as the Babalorixa Sivanilton for Casa de Oxumare. A comely dark-skinned black woman with dreads and a silver lurex fitted woven dress and complementary headwrap was sitting upfront. I had found the Fly crew. They offered me a lift to Gantois as long as I wasn’t militant. “Was I?” I said quickly that I understood their words, but not the implication of their question. “Your hair, man. All the Americans with hair like yours are militant.” We got that through that moment, piled into the car and headed off. Tucked in the back seat were two unkempt tweens. My Paulista Dona told me that Baba had adopted one of these street kids as his own. He and his friend would come along to Gantois.

Several TV stations shared the hillsides of Engenho Velho de Federação, The Old Federated Plantation. Consequently, within minutes, we almost drove into a few hundred electioneers waving banners hoping to get on the evening news. Everyone in the car cheered on the crowd as we sped off. We drove a few miles in the dark. Seeing how far we had come, I thanked them again for the ride. Baba told me that if I had known my way, I could have walked through backyards and neighborhoods. I don’t think so.

When we finally arrived at Gantois, Baba had his “son” call the Iyalorixa of Oxumare to make sure she was coming. She was as regal as the rest, again dressed in silver and white. All of the Gantois leadership paid homage or genuflected to this crew. I left them and found a seat up in the bleacher like benches for men. I decided to pee before it all began. An attendant led me downstairs to the internal world of the Terreiro, passing the memorial room to Mae Menininha, dressing rooms and many, many Baianas waiting for their cues. On the way up the stairs I saw Regina, the Filha de Santo who had thrown cowries for me in Brooklyn. She arranged for the attendant to put me in a front row seat.

I was anxious to see the ceremony at Gantois again. My first time had been after my first three weeks in Salvador. Still trying to fill in the details, I had learned more about Candomble in these last two months. I had now been in at least half a dozen Terreiros of different types. Gantois, Opo Ofonja, Casa Branca and one or two others presented the ceremonies on the grandest of scales.

I counted 45 Bainas processing, singing, dancing; praying a welcome call to all of the Orixa once the service began. At Mae Stella’s in Itaparica there had been five in comparison. This time the room decor was all white, silver and sparse. The only constant was the area dedicated to the current Mae de Santo, Mae Menininha’s youngest daughter Carmen, my friend Zeno’s aunt. Images of Mae Menininha still hung on the wall.

The second section was marked by a procession. First came Oxumare's power oracle, painted silver, resembled a bulky bass drum with appendages. Quite heavy two large men struggled to hold it while they processed. A few men carried bundles of switch sticks. In the following section Baianas would gently beat us on the back and use their brushing stroke to wipe our spirit clean. People carrying A large roll of thick cotton fabric and two wooden stools brought up the rear.

I have always enjoyed the Atabaque drumming in all of the Terreiros. These drummers, professional musicians used both the whittled sticks and their hands to tap the intricate rhythms introduced by the graying baritone cantor. Finally, confronted by twenty four versions of Oxalá, where do I really begin to set this scene? I am assuming that these are all of his manifestations. They power of their numbers was amplified by the fact that the various people incarnating this Orixa were white, black, brown, male, female, dumpy and svelte.

The service here is generally tighter than in the homespun Terreiro’s. Today they began a little late, 8:30-ish. After that beginning section initiates began to be mounted by their Orixa as is the typical pattern. I realized that here so many people went into trance the designated mentors had to care for three and four mounted initiates, including audience members and dignitaries like the Baba I came with. In the middle of the service a beautiful thick white and silver banner was held over the center of the room by eight men, including Zeno. From what I could make out the upper echelon and those people mounted by the Orixa were served a special meal under this makeshift tent. I did not feel secure enough to barge in under the wraps and check it out.

Around midnight we were fed crisp apples, seedless green grapes, and cool unseasoned cooked hominy. Soon afterwards Zeno found me, grabbed his clothing, and called some parishioners he had offered a lift to. On ceremony weekends it seems that he may sleep in the Terreiro working to make sure everything is ready for their Sunday services. On the highway back to his house we caught up with each other. Baba Sivanilton had spoken to him about me. This world is tight. It had been a month since we had last been together, we were both glad to be back in touch.

Orixá, ure saul laxé, Orixá ure oberi o ma.
Orixá, ure saul laxé, Orixá ure oberi o ma.
Blessed Orixá, Bless with your powerful life force.
Blessed Orixá, Carry me.
Translated by: Pai Carlinhos e Augusto Soledad

" Oxala (aka as Obatala) lives on the top of a mountain, and is the creator of people. Because he got drunk on palm wine while making one of the batches, all people with birth defects fall under his special protection. The legends say he is the only Orixa who knows where Olodumare is (Exu argues with that, but Exu argues just for the fun of it). Exu and Oxala are very close. Oxala is so cool an Orixa that he would never harm any of his children, so if one of them needs a spanking, Oxala sends Exu to do it. There are few younger, more active paths, but Oxala generally comes down as an old man, sometimes so old and frail he can't walk.

The kindness that eminates from this Orixa is almost overwhelming. He is sometimes called to calm an angry or dangerous Orixa at a Bembe. All of the Orixa will defer to him. At a Bembe he is generally asked for advice or a blessing, rather than the more direct concerns of wealth and sex. If you have an addiction, however, this is an area in which he specializes, and he will be happy to help you rid yourself of it.

Technically, as the creator of people, Oxala "owns all heads", so you can never make a mistake by giving him an offering (as long as Exu gets fed first). Ileke Eight white beads. Oxalufon (his oldest path) has twenty white beads and one red bead. Offerings Never offer palm wine. It will make him angry. Clear water is the best offering, or something white like coconut milk. Some paths drink, but be careful. He does not like any spice (including salt) in his food. Hominy is a common offering. Colors and Day of the Week His color is white and his day is Sunday."--Geo Cities

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