Afro-Brazilians - Religion and Expressive Culture

There is no gainsaying the fact that all Brazilians now pay tribute to Afro-Brazilian cultural, religious, and artistic contributions to Brazil. Many Brazilians, irrespective of race, color, or class, partake of Afro-Brazilian culture.

Umbanda began to appear in the first decades of the twentieth century, at a time of rapid industrialization, internal migration, and urbanization. It was depicted as quintessentially Brazilian, syncretic, functionalist at its core, and providing space for upwardly mobile individuals by the 1970s. Some social scientists questioned this idealized picture and saw Umbanda more as a contested space in which members of the middle-class elite intervened to clean up or "whiten" the Black, more proletarian image of Umbanda, thus distancing it from its African and Afro-Brazilian roots.

Candomblé, as considered by both followers and observers, is the most Orthodox of Afro-Brazilian religions, with roots going back to slave life in Brazil. The term "Candomblé" refers to both the religion qua religion as well as to the ceremonies and celebrations that draw participants who might not be full members of the terreiro, which is both the space in which religious activities are conducted and the house in which the resident mãedo santo (if female) or pardo santo (if male) perfoms ceremonies, engages in divination, and supervises those who are to be initiated. Especially in Bahia, such practitioners trace their history to West Africa.

The origins of Candomblé are linked to specific ethnic groups, or nations, as they became known in Brazil. Nations came from different regions in Africa. The introduction of Catholic symbols, such as altars, into terreiros is evidence of the adaptations made by Afro-Brazilians to the dominant religious traditions of colonial and postcolonial Brazil.

What is Candomblé in Bahia becomes Macumba in Rio de Janeiro. Macumba in Rio is considered to be less orthodox than the older Candomblé terreiros in Bahia, just as even in Bahia, newer, less prestigious terreiros, which are more likely to draw upon a wider circle of influences, including Amerindian traditions and spiritist (European-derived) ones. In regard to the latter, the ideas of the French writer Allan Cardeac began permeating Brazilian spiritism at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Another notable aspect of Afro-Brazilian religious traditions and their diffusion into the broader society is the fact that such influences have become transnational. There are Afro-Brazilian-derived religious traditions in Argentina, for example.

The musical styles and personalities of three of the best-known Afro-Brazilian musicians and pop idols—Gilberto Gil, from the northeastern state of Bahia; Milton Nascimento, from Minas Gerais; and Martinho da Vila, from Rio de Janeiro—exemplify the spectrum of regional differences. The exuberance of Gil; the cooler, quasi-religious style of Nascimento; and the conversational style of da Vila reflect variously their Bahian, Mineiro, and Carioca (i.e., characteristic of Rio) contexts.

Gil and da Vila, who have visited Africa, have directly connected to continental African themes in their songs. Nascimento's composition "Missa dos Quilombos," derives its liturgical text from Brazilian liberation theologians. The title of the mass comes from the name given to communities of fugitive slaves in colonial Brazil. da Vila has organized Kizomba festivals, which have brought performers from continental Africa together with their Afro-Brazilian counterparts.

There is perhaps no Brazilian who is better known to the world than Pelé (Edson Arantes do Nascimento), the former soccer player. By his very presence, Pelé is a demonstration of both the possibilities and limitations of the Brazilian model of individual mobility. The fact that Pelé "made it" is sometimes presented as proof of limitless possibilities; this viewpoint fails to recognize the mathematical improbability of reproducing hundreds, or even scores, of Pelés among Afro-Brazilian youth. Since, according to the model, a condition of success is the avoidance of any controversy that would call it into question, Pelé has not readily taken public stances on the predicament of Afro-Brazilians.

Not unlike other Blacks in the Americas, Afro-Brazilians have utilized opportunities presented by the worlds of sport and entertainment to mediate (albeit on an individual rather than on a group basis) the difficulties of being Black—that is, being disadvantaged in education, the professions, housing, and socioeconomic mobility.

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