Bumba Meu Boi Unidos de Santa Fé


Bumba-Meu-Boi Unidos de Santa Fé. Zé Olhinho. São Luís. State of Maranhão. Since the1800s. Over 100 groups in the city of São Luís

Bumba Meu Boi Unidos de Santa Fé


Bumba-Meu-Boi Unidos de Santa Fé. Zé Olhinho. São Luís. State of Maranhão. Since the1800s. Over 100 groups in the city of São Luís


Bumba-Meu-Boi Unidos de Santa Fé

Heads carry Saint George or Iemanjá or the image of an enchanted bull; hats that can be spotted from afar display the embroidered name of the captain leading the singing. Before heading into the streets, they join hands in a Catholic prayer for the saint to whom they are devoted. Then they hold on tight to the pandeirões that will lead the beat all night long. Made from goat hide, these instruments are tuned when in contact with heat: the hide is stretched so it can last along the way. From night fall to day rise, many are the stops for the bus driving through the city in the Northeast of Brazil during Saint John’s celebratory months, turning the streets into pages of pure fantasy.

“I am the Saint Faith

I am I am

Saint Faith

I know I am”

Song performed during Bumba-meu-boi celebrations in São Luís do Maranhão

São Luís, the only Brazilian city founded by the French, sports façades covered with tiles from all over the world and is known for being home to one of the greatest festive populations in the country: playful women and men who indulge in, even if for a moment, fantastic and mysterious role play with the invisible. This is because the capital of Maranhão state celebrates many folkloric festivities, processions, and rituals: Brazilians playfully evoke their African ancestors, European history, and indigenous enchantments.

Among those is the story of the bull that resurrected thanks to the healers’ prayers. This is said to have happened in Pernambuco state, while others say it was further North. Catirina, an enslaved black woman, was pregnant and craving for beef tongue. Her husband, Francisco (in some places, known instead as Mateus), sacrificed the animal to answer his wife’s plea. Disconcerted by the animal’s death, the farm owner had Francisco arrested and summoned healers to bring the bull back to life.

“Ê boi!”

Salute to Bumba-meu-boi

The celebration is a full staging of the tale and all the characters take over the streets to act out the story. The farm owner, Catirina, Chico (Francisco), cowboys, indigenous people and caboclos: they all dance and sing around the bull. Commanding the singing of the story is the captain: he leads the songs and coordinates the instruments. Along the streets, they write the narratives of the simple local people on the air: singing wisdom, Brazil’s intangible heritage.

“Hey, Brazilian people

Take notice: the times have changed

Some lands are washed with rain

And others are torn by draught"

Song led by Captain Zé Olhinho during the Bumba-meu-boi festivities

There are over 100 Bumba-meu-boi groups in São Luís, and each has its own accent: its own way of telling the story through dances and songs. In 1965, Zé Olhinho got started on the bull role playing game. Today, he’s one of nine people who lead the singing for Unidos de Santa Fé’s bumba-meu-boi presentations. These nights out may be a game, but they’re also about responsibility and giving. Each element plays an important role in the story and the cadence is crucial.

“It’s in our blood, this bull role playing thing"

Captain Zé Olhinho

On the night of the 28th, stretching into the 29th of July, the party proves itself so beautiful that all the labor put into costumes and instruments is justified by the magic. The staging of the bull’s death is watched by neighbors standing by their doors, tourists, and more and more researchers. In Maranhão, as in many other areas of the country: it’s the faith, it’s the art, it’s the therapy; and everything multiplies with every person added to the circle. In their enchanted eyes, in their clapping hands: simple workers, fishermen, men and women of the country… common Brazilians who understand that their histories are also sacred.

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