Slave Songs in Brazil

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To hear samples of Brazilian music, and to watch a slideshow of photos from the article,click here.

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.

Jongo was an adults-only midnight dance. “My neighbor would have people to her house to pray to the saints. But when it came time to dance jongo, they put the children to sleep,” says Tia Maria, speaking of her childhood in a Rio slum. “We pretended to be sleeping, but we watched every little thing.”

When she was in her 60s, Tia Maria and two other jongo practitioners made a radical decision: They would teach jongo to neighborhood children. The masters worried that people were forgetting the ritual and an intervention was needed to save it from disappearance.

Brazil is full of Tia Marias, unacknowledged practitioners of an oral folkloric culture, whether it be in the urban shantytowns, the dusty interior, or the lush Amazon forests of the north. In many ways, they are what make Brazil, Brazil. Yet most Brazilians know precious little about the origins of these artistic traditions or the people who make them. Theirs is not the stuff that gets played on the radio. When carnival time comes around, television channels broadcast only the best-known, samba-dominated parades.

The cultures of people on the margins historically have been invisible to the state as well–or, when they are acknowledged, subject to outright discrimination. The Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, which is now almost as popular in San Diego as it is in Rio, was illegal until the 1930s and restricted for decades afterward. And until the 1970s, police broke up gatherings of candomblé, the popular Afro-Brazilian ancestor-worshipping religion.

Griô Action represents a marked shift in the official agenda. Its goal is to spawn a national network of elders, and the government plays an atypical role: facilitating the passage of traditional knowledge from one generation to the next.

The program was launched in 2003, the same year that lawmakers mandated that Afro-Brazilian history become part of the public school curriculum. Communities across the country nominate people who possess valuable wisdom to become what is known as a griô.

Among the nearly 250 griôs are practitioners of capoeira and jongo, medicinal healers in the Amazon, aging samba players in Rio’s slums, and a percussionist from the northeastern hinterlands who performs a medieval music that has long died out everywhere else in the world, the program’s creators say. The government plans to recruit another 250 griôs in 2008.

“People’s relationship with the state has always been so top-down in this country,” says Célio Turino, a secretary in the culture ministry who helped devise the program. “We’re so sick of download. We want upload instead.”

The roots of Griô Action stretch back 10 years, to a lush former diamond-mining region known as the Chapada Diamantina, or Diamond Plateau. Surrounded by hundreds of miles of desert-dry plains, the Chapada is an oasis of beauty as mythic as its name.

A couple of local teachers, Líllian Pacheco and her husband, Marcio Caires, noticed that life in the Chapada was full of ritual and storytelling. But the people, many of whom are descended from slaves, didn’t think much of their stories.

“Watching television, everything seemed better than what they had. They were really ashamed of their own identity,” Pacheco says.

Pacheco and Caires began inviting community elders to conduct storytelling workshops at a youth outreach program. They started to use the word griô after reading an anthropological account of Mali–where French colonizers used the word griot to describe traveling storytellers, the bearers of local lore–and “Brazilianizing” the term, Pacheco says, by dropping the t at the end.

Griô Action is built on the idea that elder knowledge can provide a counterweight to communities’ plights.

“In this globalized world, the stories give them a reference that is their own,” Pacheco says.

Griô Vo Aerson, or Aerson Luiz Costa, has lived his entire life in a jam-packed network of airtight alleys that crisscross a Rio de Janeiro slum called Rocinha. Kids risk getting hit by a speeding motor scooter or a pushcart every time they go out to play.

Working in the slum’s public schools, Vo Aerson teaches children to build toys–wooden stilts, cup-and-wire telephones, scrap metal pushcarts–that he played with when he was young.

For children whose parents are rarely home and who may never have owned a toy themselves, the griô says, the ability to build toys proves to them that television need not be their sole source of stimulation. In a place overlooked by history books, the antique toys provide a lesson in the local past.

In all the years he has lived on a mold-covered street in the bustling slum, Vo Aerson never dreamed he would be paid to share his life experiences with children.

A few years ago, the country couldn’t have imagined it either.

Pacheco pitched the program to the government in late 2002. Instead of simply funding the project, as she had hoped it would, the culture ministry decided to replicate it nationally.

“The majority of this country lives in the urban and rural periphery,” says culture minister and renowned musician Gilberto Gil, who was appointed in 2003. “We want to bring that periphery to the center.”

In keeping with the traveling storyteller concept, every elder designs a “griô trail.” The trail is an idiosyncratic footpath composed of sites the griô uses to tell the story of the community.

Dona Maura, a medicinal healer in the Amazon jungle, created a trail in the herb garden behind her home. Marcio Caires, who goes by Marcio Griô, takes tourists and schoolchildren to the miners’ wilderness camps. There groups sing songs that miners sang to stave off loneliness and retell their wild stories of fortune and loss.

Tia Maria is a griô, and the ministry provides her, like the others, with a minimum-wage salary of $175 per month to do what she has always done anyway.

But not all griôs are as strong a force in their communities as Tia Maria is. Many are isolated and profoundly impoverished, and their knowledge is at risk of dying with them. Enter the griô apprentice, a local young person who is assigned–and compensated–to both learn the master’s arts and act as a public relations director too. Mixing the old and the new, the apprentices are given digital cameras and computers, network with one another using open-source Linux-based technology, arrange for the masters to teach in local schools, and attend national conferences where they are responsible for performing the masters’ work. The griôs work with 20,000 children, Pacheco says.

A couple of years from now, officials anticipate, anyone with an Internet connection will be able to access a free database featuring self-made films of jongo or remote Amazonian dances.

 Apprentice Catarina Ribeiro directs a teen theater company in the remote Amazon. Every other weekend, when the potholed excuse for a main highway and the torrential tropical rains permit, she drives inland from her home in the city of Boa Vista along the Rio Branco, a tributary of the Amazon River. Stopping in what can only be described as the middle of nowhere–a few scattered houses set against a low-hanging, boundless sky–she sits on the porch with the aging Maria Barbosa da Silva, who is known as Dona Bié. Rising from her rocking chair in a crisp white dress, Dona Bié teaches Ribeiro the lindo, a song-and-dance game with improvised, attitude-filled verse.

Ribeiro, 46, describes Dona Bié as a little bird, “delicate and strong, very free, and always singing.” The apprentice doesn’t bring a pen and paper to these meetings, resisting what she considers a culturally ingrained urge to write everything down. She says that working with griôs is a process of “deconstructing all the closed educational models” that she has known. As a personal exercise, Ribeiro sings Bié’s songs when she wakes up every morning.

“But it’s not repetition,” she says. “You’re inventing something that comes from your own story–really, from all of our stories as Brazilians. To invent is to risk. You don’t know what will come out.”

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