The Amazonian Ox Dance festival: an anthropological account (1).

Author:Cavalcanti, Maria-Laura


The Ox Dance (Boi-Bumba) festival, held yearly during the last three evenings of June in the town of Parintins, Amazonas, is the most spectacular folk festival staged in Northern Brazil. In recent decades, it has assumed massive proportions, combining traditional cultural themes with spectacular visual qualities, thematic innovations, and many sociological changes.

This paper analyzes the festival from an anthropological perspective, suggesting its interpretation as a contemporary cultural movement that, while enhancing regional indigenous roots, expresses a positive statement of a Brazilian caboclo, or mestizo, cultural identity.

The festival is a peculiar development of a folk play that has existed in Brazil since the 19th century and is based on the motif of the death and resurrection of a precious ox. An historical examination of the early records and studies of this play is undertaken in order to position the Parintins Ox Dance in this wider context. A brief ethnography focuses on its evolution from a small group of street players to the spectacular arena presentations of today's festival and on the basic structure of the current performances.



Parintins is a small town on the island of Tupinambarana, in the Northern state of Amazonas, close to the border of the state of Para. Every year the spectacular Ox Dance festival (Festival dos Bois-Bumbas in Portuguese), held in the last three evenings of June, transforms the quiet town. The festival is organized around a contest between two Ox groups: Garantido [Secure], represented by a white ox with a red heart on its forehead, and Caprichoso [Capricious], represented by a black ox with a blue star on its forehead. The performances are basically free sequences of danced dramatic actions, enacted by a set of characters, loosely related to a traditional motif of the death and resurrection of a precious ox.

In the past few years, this festival has grown to massive proportions, exhibiting an unexpected and creative blend of traditional cultural themes with spectacular visual qualities, thematic innovations, and other changes of sociological significance. Today, it attracts tens of thousands of fans, coming not only from Manaus (the state capital) and nearby towns, but from all over the country. As the most spectacular folklore festival in Northern Brazil, it has also become a badge of regional cultural identity. The taut relationship between permanence and change, as well as the beauty of the festival, draws attention to the celebration's deep-rooted cultural meanings.

The analysis of this festival also raises wide-ranging questions concerning the study of folklore and popular culture. In the Ox Dance's recent development, the Brazilian national media, the culture industry, tourism, government agencies, and different social groups have all participated in an expansion that, until now, has managed to preserve strong traditional characteristics. From a romantic standpoint, folk culture is often seen as the lost haven of a harmonious universe, threatened by the modern world. From this nostalgic perspective, widely publicized shows tend to be regarded as deviations from an original authenticity. In this analysis, on the contrary, I examine the evolution of the Ox Dance festival as an extraordinary example of the capacity of Brazilian folk culture to transform and update itself, not unlike the Carnival parade of the Rio de Janeiro samba teams (Cavalcanti 1994, 1999).

I argue that the Parintins Ox Dance is an integral part of a single ritual cycle that encompasses different forms of a very traditional and widespread Brazilian folk play. This play, designated as ox-play in what follows, is based on the mythical motif of the death and resurrection of a precious ox, and has been enacted in different regions of the country since the beginning of the nineteenth century. Although fragmentation and diversity pervade this universe, a considerable unity derives from the always-present allusion to the same mythical motif. I propose an understanding of the Parintins Ox Dance having as background this ample horizon open to comparative analysis.

My aim is to understand the festival as it appears today, with an intense capacity for cultural integration but also with problems and contradictions inherent in its growth. My starting point is an anthropological perspective based on studies of symbolism and rituals (Durkheim 1968; Turner 1967, 1974; Bateson 1965; Da Matta 1979; Gennep 1960; Peacock 1974; Tambiah 1985). The festival is considered as a total fact (fait total), that mingles different dimensions of social life in a process that must be grasped in its entirety (Mauss 1978). As such, the Parintins Ox Dance is a diffuse ritual process that interconnects popular and elite cultural realms (Bakhtin 1987), as different artistic forms and social groups are all part of it, and it keeps pace with the historical evolution of its social context. Like carnival, soccer, music, and religious festivals, it is a fascinating forum for the tense and intense cultural exchanges characteristic of Brazilian culture.

In the first section, I consider briefly the history, early records, and study of the ox-play in Brazil, sketching its main features and defining some important research guidelines. I also review the available literature on its Northern version, called Boi-Bumba, that is, the Ox Dance. In the second section, I present a brief ethnography of the Ox Dance held in the town of Parintins, focusing on its evolution from a small group of street players to the spectacular arena performances of today's festival. Sketching the basic structure of the Parintins contemporary performances, I propose lastly an interpretation of the Parintins Ox Dance as a cultural movement that, while enhancing its regional indigenous roots, expresses a positive statement of Brazilian caboclo, or mestizo, cultural identity.

  1. The Brincadeira do Boi in Brazil

    Brincadeira do boi, or the merrymaking of the ox, is the Brazilian term that designates different forms of the widespread ox-play. This expression illuminates the dual meaning of the English word "play." The participants of a brincadeira not only perform and appreciate a play (the theatrical performance) but all of them--performers and spectators--play a lot, that is, they enjoy themselves singing and dancing throughout the performance.

    The brincadeira do boi has fascinated and challenged generations of scholars. It has been called by many different names, roughly corresponding to existing regional variations, (2) and its insertion in the annual calendar of Catholic festivities varies. In the Northern states, it occurs by the end of June, continuing through July, in the context of the celebrations of Saints Peter, John, Anthony and Marcal. In the Northeast, it happens more frequently during the Nativity celebrations, in December and January. In the Southeast, especially in Rio de Janeiro, it tends to occur during Carnival.

    In the plays, the ox is represented by a carcass of bamboo or similar material, covered with fabric and with an ox-mask as its head, animated by a player, and accompanied by other characters. The Portuguese words bumba or bumbar (sometimes corrupted to bumba), which appear frequently in the regional names of the ox-play, have different suggestive interpretations. Borba Filho (1966, 10) offers two meanings: one is bumba as derived from the expression Zabumba meu boi, that is, the ox dancing to the beat of the zabumba drum (a large drum in an upright position played with only one drumstick). Thus, bumba-meu-boi would mean Dance-my-Ox. However, we also have the verb bumbar in Portuguese, which means to hit or beat something strongly. Borba Filho prefers the second meaning, owing to certain slapstick scenes in the farce. The great folklorist Camara Cascudo adopts a similar interpretation: Bumba would be the same as an interjection giving the idea of a clash or brawl. To say bumba-meu-boi would be like exclaiming: "Strike! Gore them, my ox!" An excited refrain repeated in the dance (1984, 150). The relative merits of these arguments notwithstanding, it is unnecessary to resolve the question here; as Freud (1965) has suggested, ambivalence and over-determination are characteristic of this kind of symbolic processes.

    The variety of names indicates many different developments as well as changes in context and meaning that are important issues in the research. Despite this diversity, all forms of the merrymaking display a certain unity. All of them allude to the mythical motif of the death and resurrection of a precious ox.

    Mythmaking activity is everywhere associated with the brincadeira. In many cases, oral narratives have developed around the basic motif of the death and resurrection of the ox. This theme, sung in many songs, is also enacted and danced in the performances. However, the relationship between myth and rite is not a mechanical one. The numerous variations of the legend are not necessarily present as explicit verbal narratives in the different forms of the merrymaking. But the action of the main characters always suggests the core of a plot that alludes to the legend.

    In one abridged Northern version, taken here as my main reference, the legend goes as follows: A rich farmer gave a favorite ox as a gift to his beloved daughter, entrusting it to the care of a faithful ranch hand (Pai Francisco--Pa Frank--represented by a black man). Pai Francisco, however, kills the ox to satisfy his pregnant wife's (Mae Catirina--Ma Katie's) craving for the ox tongue. The farmer notes the disappearance of the ox and sends the ranch foreman to investigate. The crime is discovered and, after some adventures, local Indians are called to help capture Pai Francisco, who has hidden in the forest. He is brought in before the farmer and threatened with severe punishment. In despair, he tries to resuscitate the ox...

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