This is what happens when a complete outsider tries to explain a distinctly local religious tradition:
Candomblé is a syncretic religion, meaning that it blends elements of a variety of other traditions. In this case, it mixes the beliefs of a number of traditional African religions, which were brought to Brazil with African slaves. There is a main god, Oludumaré, who is approached via lesser deities known as orixas. These orixas are channelled, appeased, contacted and instructed through music and dance; there is a “vast repertoire of complex drum patterns that are connected to Candomblé ritualism.” Music is absolutely fundamental to these rituals. The drums themselves are sacred, being subjected to ceremonies involving animal sacrifice during their construction. Candomblé is centred in the state of Bahia in Brazil however there are practitioners worldwide – a total of approximately two million, according to some estimates. They represent a small minority in Catholic (and increasingly Pentecostal) Brazil.
Afoxé “is basically Candomblé with the religion taken out.” Put more precisely, it is a secular manifestation of Candomblé, which takes its rhythms and music and uses them in non-religious settings like Carnivals and dances. Some practitioners of Candomblé frown upon the practice, however it has been very popular since the nineteenth century. An afoxé can also refer to a group of people who play this music in a Carnival. The Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi, having been inspired by the Indian political agitator) are the most famous afoxé, having begun in 1949. They were part of the early 1970s resurgence of Carnival and African culture in Brazil, which is when Gilberto Gil – a musician and now politician – joined the movement. He released the song ‘Patuscada de Gandhi’ for the group in 1977.
Virginia Rodrigues is a Brazilian singer who draws on the rhythms of Candomblé and the choral traditions of Catholicism, producing a distinctly Brazilian sound. She is an initiate of Candomblé and some of her songs invoke the orishas. I found one article which railed against Western critics paternalistically being appealed to her religion as “ethnic flavour.” We mustn’t contribute, following the argument of this article, to the transformation of Candomblé into a quirky cultural product which can be sold to tourists and the mass media by a Brazilian government attempting to construct an ‘authentic’ national culture. It is worth remembering that this is a uniquely local phenomenon that is sincerely held by its practitioners.
Next week’s sincerely and openly approached cultural manifestation is taqwacore – Islamic punk – which has its own fascinating genesis. I can’t wait.