Wednesday, 23 February 2011

Understanding Brazil – Farra do Boi

Crawling along the roads of Santa Catarina at Easter time, there were a couple of roadside signs that caught my attention. The first one said ‘Atençao – Comunidade Indigena´. Now your guess is as good as mine why Brazilian motorists might need a sign warning them of native people in the area. Perhaps old tribal hunting routes are still used that cross the BR101, or it has taken centuries for these groups to adapt to the ways of the Europeans and their metal horses. Absolute rubbish, I know, but I really can´t think of a good reason.

The second sign very prevalent at this time of year says ´Farra do Boi nao é tradiçao. É crime.´ I asked what Farra do Boi involved and the answer took me a little by surprise. Knowing a little about Brazil´s two main Boi-based folkloric festivals, Bumba Meu Boi and Boi Bumbá, I couldn´t understand why another of those might be a crime.

Bumba Meu Boi takes place in Sao Luis, capital of Maranhao, as well as throughout the North East. The parades are re-enactments of a story that involved a man killing the best bull because his pregnant wife had a vontade to eat the tongue. This was a crime and the man responsible was in big trouble until the bull was resuscitated by magic and he was pardoned. Lucky him and so far so good.

Boi Bumbá is the craziest festival in Brazil bar none, more so than Carnaval in Rio. I´ve only seen it on the film of someone who provides the costume material but that was enough to leave me with a feeling that this is one party I need to see. The setting is the island of Parintins, a few hours downstream from Manaus. With a similar idea to Carnaval, two sides of the island, the reds and the blues, compete with costumes and dances to tell the story of the kidnap, death and resurrection of the ox. I haven´t enough room here to describe the craziness of 40,000 people sitting in a purpose-built stadium that is only used once a year to watch enormous dancing bulls on an isolated island sitting in the middle of the Amazon River. You really need to see it with your own eyes and so do I.

These festivals may be competitive but are generally a fun celebration for everybody, which even the losers can enjoy.

Farra do Boi on the other hand is something that you probably don´t want to see. It takes place around Easter time in various villages around the south. The poor boi is confined and starved, sometimes with food and water left tantalisingly within reach. After a few days, the celebration begins with the bull chased from his pen and basically beaten up by the villagers. There isn´t any point dressing it up. This isn´t the running of the bulls at Pamplona, or even bullfighting. No matter your opinions on those, at least you can sometimes enjoy watching the bull do some damage.

Farra do Boi appears to have the same pain but with none of the artistic merit, and is plain old-fashioned cruelty from the stories I heard. After a little run around, the frightened boi gets tired quickly, which is when the fun starts. A group of people walk alongside the weakened beast, kicking and punching it, beating it with sticks and whatever else comes to hand. It seems to be mostly a male past-time so I guess some proving of masculinity is the basic reasoning behind it.

Or perhaps it does relate to Easter in ways too tangential for me to understand. When the children ask why their daddies spent their day tortured a fairly dumb, totally defenceless animal, the men reply ´That´s the story of Jesus´

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