Slave Songs in Brazil

A country’s elders preserve its cultural past

| Mar.-Apr. 2008

Tia Maria, an 87-year-old Brazilian woman, wears a homemade jungle-print cloth dress, a matching head wrap in the style of her African ancestors, and a necklace of thick wooden beads. She lives in a tidy turquoise house, unique in her Rio de Janeiro neighborhood of unpainted cement-block dwellings, most of which are covered in the graffiti that tattoo the historic, violence-weary city’s buildings like a single, furiously written sentence.

On this afternoon, Tia Maria sits barefoot, surrounded by 25 children in her courtyard a two-hour drive away from the tourist-filled beaches of Ipanema. She begins to sing, in Portuguese, in a rough, startlingly strong voice:

This jongo ain’t no fighting song!
But its rhythm holds us until the end!

The children follow suit, playing drums in perfect time and echoing the rhyming refrain in squeakily pitched voices. With hands spread apart as if they’re flying, pairs of children as young as 6 tap out a two-four rhythm with their feet and lunge into the circle to dance. This continues for the next couple of hours, until the sun begins to set on the overhanging star fruit trees and Tia Maria grows tired.

Tia Maria, whose full name is Maria de Lourdes Mendes, is one of the oldest living practitioners of jongo, a ritual preserved by escaped African slaves and their descendents in Rio de Janeiro and its neighboring states. Afro-Brazilians used jongo to honor their ancestors, to sing of the pangs of slavery, and even, researchers say, to communicate with one another in a code their overseers couldn’t understand. With its innuendo-inflected storytelling, its call-and-response lyrics, and its competitive yet playful pairings of encircled dancers, jongo is seen by folklorists as a great-grandparent of the treasured samba. A few years ago, it was in danger of dying out, but with the help of a Brazilian government program called Griô Action, jongo and other cultural practices are being rerouted away from history’s dustbin and into the 21st century.


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