Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Why Saints Love Samba: A Historical Perspective on Black Agency and the Rearticulation of Catholicism in Bahia, Brazil

Academic journal article Black Music Research Journal

Why Saints Love Samba: A Historical Perspective on Black Agency and the Rearticulation of Catholicism in Bahia, Brazil

Article excerpt

In the sociohistorically important Reconcavo region of Bahia, in Brazil's northeast, the local majority African descendent population regularly celebrates its patron saints not only with masses and processions but also with samba song and dance. As such, samba is found at Catholic pilgrimages, ritual cleansings (lavagens), and, most prominently, saints' feasts. The last of these is perhaps most famously exemplified in the large three-day Festival of Our Lady of Good Death, held annually in the city of Cachoeira, which culminates in hours of celebratory samba dancing (see A. Castro 2006; Marques 2008). Less publicly, samba caps off rollicking patron saint house parties known as rezas, each moment of which is marked by ritual music. Standing in front of the home altar, attendees first intone a series of Catholic hymns before gathering in a ring to dance and responsorially sing their saint-saluting sambas (Fig. 1). On occasion, this samba can even prompt Catholic saints (and other entities) to possess the host and other guests for a divine dancing and singing distinct from the types of possession rituals characteristic of Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomble and Umbanda (Iyanaga 2013, 313-359).

People typically see this samba for Catholic saints as an expression of their Catholic faith. In fact, with its church-inspired contexts and choreographies (e.g., the Sign of the Cross, bowing before the altar, etc.), saint-extolling texts, and capacity to instigate possession by Christian martyrs, this type of samba might best be described (in analytical, etic terms) as a "Catholic samba." But why is samba--by which I mean a local Afro-Brazilian dance, song, and rhythm--a fundamental facet of both public and private Catholic patron saint celebrations in Bahia? After many years of fieldwork in the Bahian Reconcavo (2008-2014), I can offer a fairly straightforward, ethnographic answer: People believe their saints adore samba. In the enthusiastic words of one Bahian woman I met in 2011, "What Saint Anthony likes is parties ... He likes samba!" (1) And Saint Anthony is no oddball. In fact, Saint Roch, Saints Cosmas and Damian, Saints Crispin and Crispinian, Saint Barbara, and Our Lady of the Conception--all of whom can be counted among the region's most popular saints--are believed to share Saint Anthony's predilection for the Afro-Brazilian art form. Yet this local, "native" perspective only provides a partial response to the question; an investigation of macrohistorical processes reveals another explanation for why saints love samba. In the present article, I insist on asking why, in a diachronic sense, people perform samba for their saints.

By interpreting more than three centuries of devotional black musical practices in Bahia, this article posits that saints enjoy samba because Africans and their descendants effectively reinvented and transformed their Catholic saints, "converting," so to speak, the Christian martyrs into samba-loving gods. And while my argument that samba is historically linked to Catholicism revises the secular frame through which scholars have traditionally studied samba, my focus here is less on samba itself than on saints and Catholicism in this Afro-diasporic Brazilian context. Indeed, my overarching goal is to reframe Catholic practices as integral to the African diaspora in Bahia as well as, by implication, in the Americas more generally. After all, scholars interested in African-American religious practices have, over the past century or so, turned primarily to religions in which (West) African gods figure prominently (such as Candomble, Regla-de-Ocha, Vodou, etc.), while relegating Afro-Catholic practices to the margins, either by treating them as a form of passive assimilation (e.g., Karasch 1987, 254) or by dismissing them as a creative sham that allowed Africans to resist colonization by veiling their beliefs and rituals in Catholicism (e.g., Bastide 1971, 183; Pollak-Eltz 1977, 243). …

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