The Old Ways

Candomble Ceremony
Salvador de Bahia, Brazil
June 8, 2008
Salvador is the place that most of the African slaves were brought to and to this day many of their original rituals and practices survive. Candomble is a religion that stems from those days. During the years of slavery it was practiced clandestinely and the ceremonies performed in secret. It was only as recently as the 1970s that it became an openly accepted religion.

An ancient ritual stemming from the tribal days of the African slaves is a candomble ceremony. It is a dance which is supposed to summon the orixas, or the spirits. Each dancer tries to summon his or her spirit through dancing and if successful they are said to fall into a trance. I wanted to watch one such ceremony and had been asking around in Salvador. I had found a couple of other travelers who were interested as well and we finally found an elderly man who claimed that he could take us.

We were taken to a hall set high on a hill and ushered in. The interior was one large room with benches places along three sides. On the walls were some old photographs yellowed with age. An altar was placed in the center flanked by high armchairs with intricately carved backs. From the middle of the ceiling ran streamers to every corner and sides of the room. Long strips of paper, blue and white hung from the streamers, fluttering with every breath of breeze. Women were to sit to the left of the room and men to the right. At the back of the room in a semi-closed area sat the drummers.

The women filed in varying in age from mid-twenties to their eighties. All wore hooped skirts ending at mid-calf and loose white shirts with cut-work or frills. Over it they wore a single piece of cloth draped around the back and folded over and knotted above their breasts. Something about the cloth nagged at my memory until I remembered. I had seen women in Kenya wearing this – it was meant to carry their babies on their back.

The drums started. A man called out a phrase and the women chorused in response. This theme continued throughout the evening. The women moved around the room in a counter-clockwise fashion, shuffling along in straggly rows in tune to the music. They moved their arms as well and many of the motions were easily identifiable with different kinds of work – hoeing, digging, harvesting or hunting. Each time they passed the open doorway, they paid homage. The younger women lay full length on the floor, prostrating themselves while the older ones dipped their knees and touch their hands to their foreheads. As minutes ticked by, the tempo of the music picked up as did the volume and the women too began to move faster and faster. The drums seemed to resonate my gut. The intent was to invite the orixa or the spirit to come and possess these women. Soon I could see one or two of the women who stopped in their circling, shuddered and were supposedly in a trance. With their eyes closed they seemed to convulse as they stood in place. Some other woman who was not in the ceremony stepped in, took the cloth from the woman and flipped it so it now wrapped around the front and knotted in the back. It was supposedly to keep the spirit from flying away. The women continued to dance in circles, with eyes shut, now supposedly oblivious to their surroundings. From time to time someone would step in, and wipe off the sweat that glistened and rolled down on their faces. But each time a woman approached to do so, the woman in the trance would stop, place her hands by her sides and wait before carrying on. It made me wonder at the depth of the trance. If they are truly in a trance, how can they acknowledge an external stimulus? How are they aware of someone wiping off their sweat? Why don’t they bump into the others or into furniture?

The crowd that had started with some twenty or more women had thinned out. In a couple of hours most had disappeared in a back room and five or six still dancing were in a trance.

There was a short break and the women disappeared into he back room. They appeared soon after, but now garbed in all the gaudy finery of their orixas. Brocade capes and flashy crowns with nodding plumes vied with jeweled axes and swords. Each costume described the orixa with its distinct power and spirit. They were still in a trance and continued to sway in a circle as before. This time everyone else stood to greet them and pay homage. Many threw rice on them. Trailing behind them were some more women carrying trays with wrapped balls of dough. After one circuit, when they came around, the orixas now accepted donations from the audience and handed out the dough balls to those nearest them.

Many of the audience were now leaving and so did we. There is apparently no fixed length of time and some of these ceremonies can last hours we were told. Supposedly the ceremony continued.

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