Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Enchanted Bull of Bumba-Meu-Boi

Magazine article Americas (English Edition)

The Enchanted Bull of Bumba-Meu-Boi

Article excerpt

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

A musician on stage blows a whistle that reverberates under the nighttime city lights of Sao Luis, Brazil. A lone male voice begins singing, and dancers from the performance group Boi Encanto do Sao Cristovao line up, a jumble of feathers, glitter, and satin. Rattles shake; then the music explodes, as long lines of women and men dressed as natives sweep onto the open dance area in a galloping march that includes a twist of hips. The feathered crowns of their headdresses seem to burst with color; and the yellow, white, and red feathers on the women's hips and tops make it look as if brightly colored Amazonian parakeets are flying around them as they dance. Men flex the muscles on their bare arms as they draw bows and arrows and make sweeping synchronized movements. The singer cries out with enthusiasm: "Eita, que belleza!" [What beauty!]

A chorus of vaqueiros, or cowboys, streams into the mix in satin pants and sequined vests. The wide ribbons adorning their hats hang almost to the floor, making them look a bit like dancing circus tents. The lead vaqueiro, in white satin, snaps a whip of silver tassels. Next, fantastical creatures crowd in: a leopard; a cluster of supernatural beings in long robes and glittering monkey masks; a white dreamy-featured ghost; and a rider half-buried in a horse costume with doll legs straddling the saddle. A campy man in drag as a pregnant woman and another man wearing a blackface stocking mask and a straw hat play--believe it or not--the romantic couple.

By now the dance area is popping with an energetic, thumping rhythm, and the eye-aching color is made more spectacular by two combative bois, or bulls, each brought to life by the man inside the costume. The male dancers manipulating the bull are literally called a miolo or "entrails," and the large costumed body is called the couro, or leather. The couros are heavily embroidered with a long flowing satin curtain that runs along the edge of the costumes, hides the male dancers, and makes the animals appear to float. The two bulls whirl, leap, and shudder. No doubt about it--the Enchanted Bull has been turned loose in a spectacular celebration known as Bumba-meu-boi.

The dance of Bumba-meu-boi reenacts a story called The Desire of Catherine. In the story, the pregnant Catherine craves the tongue of a bull. Her husband, a slave called Pal Francisco, kills one of his master's bulls and gives the tongue to his wife. He then flees to escape punishment. The master enlists vaqueiros and locals to capture the runaway slave. Pal Francisco is apprehended and threatened with death if he cannot pay restitution for the dead bull, so he enlists the help of a medicine man who brings the bull back to life and vindicates the captured slave.

The Bumba-meu-boi dance groups are classified according into various sotaques, which are determined by their musical instrumentation, rhythms, choreography, and general "look." For example, in the Sotaque de Matraca, performers in huge ostrich plume hats dance to music dominated by large tambourines and the matraca, large flat sticks beaten together. The more traditional Sotaque de Zambumba, is driven by the African beat of large drums called zambumbas. The Sotaque de Orchestra, which has the largest dance ensemble, mixes woodwinds and trumpets in with percussion instruments for a full, lyrical, and brassy sound. In any given locale, as many as five different groups will perform, each dancing non-stop for an hour, each with fantastical dancers weaving in and out, creating a giant kaleidoscope.

The origins of the festival have been debated. One theory is that it originated in the eighteenth century when Jesuit communities created dramatic dances to honor the cycles of life and death. Other theories hold that the dance originated with slaves who worked in the sugar and cotton fields of the northern state of Maranhao, of which Sao Luis is the capital. Slaves may have seen the dance as a way to mock the power of their masters, especially with the creation of the slave hero Pal Francisco. …

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