But We Survived

    But We Survived

    By late evening firecrackers were popping continuously and
    the smoke in the street was thick enough to choke an electric elephant.
    Once in awhile an especially loud explosion produced
    a concussion that startled the senses. It was time to break out
    the light swords, which can be very dangerous.
    By Phillip Wagner

    The several hundred kilometers bus trip from Salvador to Senhor do Bonfim should
    normally take about six hours. But this was late June, and all of Salvador was on the
    move. Festa de São João was about to be celebrated and the need to consummate carefully
    arranged plans had triggered a biblical exodus from the bustling, chaotic state capital,
    and coastal city.

    Danielle Valim, her daughter Lua and I were headed for the usually sleepy little
    colonial village of Bonfim. Our bus slipped helplessly into a paralyzing morass of decades
    old automobiles, SUVs, micro vans, dusty pickups, motorcycles, "big rigs" and
    other buses that merged and converged on a singular main artery. The "choke
    point" spawned gridlock and, for a time, we were unable to progress at all. Favela,
    or slum, dominated urban sprawl obscured the view on each flank as seasonally predictable
    drizzle drifted monotonously from an overcast sky. Our driver and one passenger passed
    time in a futile attempt to lock in a signal on the radio. No music to lift the spirits.
    Finally, the vehicles ahead of us began to inch forward until we were moving again.

    As darkness settled in we gained momentum and the urban landscape gradually gave way to
    a transitional environment characterized by small, improvised, communities. Intersecting
    arteries siphoned away some of the pressure on traffic and the road extended itself into
    the semi-arid, sparsely populated caatinga. I found myself wishing I’d brought
    along a windbreaker from the States. The seasons of the Southern Hemisphere are reversed
    and the region of Bonfim is at an elevation sufficient to consistently produce cool winter
    nights. Lua pointed excitedly as the lights of Bonfim came into view.

    Jairo Sá met us at the rodoviária, or bus station, after our exasperating
    8-hour journey. Jairo escorted us to the inauspicious, but comfortable residence he shares
    with wife Jacira, son Bruno and daughter Luíza. I found their two-story house to be
    consistent with the rustic architectural personality of Bonfim. It was reasonably large
    with stucco walls, clapboard covered windows, and open airy rooms with stone floors.

    Bonfim has retained the charm of its heritage, and feels inviting. Rooftops are
    predominantly red, orange or yellow tiled. There are many poor in and around the town, but
    class distinctions are fuzzy and there’s no insidious favela-sprawl, no
    "social cancer". I realized that the people of Bonfim seemed to trust each
    other, something that contrasted sharply with the ever-present suspicion between educated
    masses and "marginals" in bigger cities of Brazil. As if reading my mind, Dani
    pointed out that in this harsh, unforgiving region people have to be able to rely on one

    The rua on which Jairo and his family live is cobble stoned and uneven. Most of
    the streets in Bonfim are like that. A few are hardened earth or paved. Some buildings are
    constructed so that their exteriors belly up to the street. Others, like Jairo’s, do not,
    but are protected by high walls that run the length of their property lines. Wooden gates
    open into driveways or what would approximate a front yard.

    At Jairo’s home we were greeted by a gathering of celebratory zealots preparing for the
    anticipated festivities. Orange and jenipapo (a fruit of Brazil) liquor, cerveja
    (beer), carne de bode (goat meat) and pão (snack breads) were passed around
    the room. I unexpectedly encountered a frog in the downstairs banheiro (bathroom)
    and my reaction triggered ripples of laughter. Late in the evening we all dispersed and
    reassembled at the praça, or Town Square.

    Most of the residents of Bonfim still prefer to communicate by word-of-mouth rather
    than by telephone. So we went to the square to find friends and fellow members of Jairo’s bloco
    to make arrangements for the following day. The blocos of Bonfim are community
    groups characterized by a particular philosophy regarding how the festival should be
    celebrated. Jairo’s bloco is named Caruá, after a caatinga plant producing
    fibers stronger than sisal. Bloco Caruá is especially dedicated to traditional cultural
    practices and the distinct original forms of the forró music specific to the
    region and to Festa de São João. The kind of forró Caruá plays is called Pé de
    Serra, or "foot of the mountains", which traditionally employs only accordions,
    triangles, and a special kind of large drum known as the zabumba. This is the
    original form of forró, so named because it was born in the foothills of Brazil’s
    rugged northeast. But Jairo’s Caruá bloco also incorporates six stringed acoustic guitars
    and four stringed scaled down versions equating to something like a ukulele.

    According to legend the word forró is a bastardization of "for all".
    The legend sugggests that an English speaking man referred to the music now associated
    with the quadrilhas of Festa do São João as music "for all". Quadrilhas
    themselves appear to be troupes of Brazilian "square dancers". The most
    beaautiffully costumed quadrilhas I’ve seen are in the city of Maceió in the state
    of Alagoas, northeast of Bahia.

    The praça that first night was filled beyond capacity. A performing stage was
    constructed adjacent to vendor stalls and food booths. Great arrays of powerful speakers
    sent shock waves rolling through our chest cavities as we passed by. Large quantities of
    hot dogs, beer, guaraná soda, candied apples, strawberries and limp water-soaked
    peanuts were distributed and consumed. The crowd was full of Latin looking slender young
    girls and muscular young men. Cowboy hats and short skirts were the order of the day. I
    watched in fascination as hours of lively socializing, flirting, dancing, chatter and
    laughter melted away. We departed sometime after 3 AM.

    Our second day in Bonfim began at the breakfast table where, as everywhere in Brazil, cafezinho
    (exceptionally strong coffee served in demitasse cups) was accompanied by several
    varieties of pão (bread), frutas (fruit) and queijo (cheese).
    Conversation flowed like an old river with a lazy sense of manifest destiny. Green
    carpeted morros (hills) were visible through a back door, the beneficiaries of a
    significantly greater than normal rainfall in recent months. After breakfast we adjourned
    to the living room where the conversation continued. Jairo played Gilberto Gil’s latest
    CD, the sound track to a critically acclaimed film, Eu, Tu, Eles, which reflects
    the culture, and features the forró music of northeastern Brazil. The lyrics of
    the unofficial forró anthem "Asa Branca" (White Wing) written by Luiz
    Gonzaga and Humberto Teixeira sounded out:

    Quando oiei a terra ardendo
    qual fogueira de São João
    Eu perguntei a Deus do céu, ai
    pra que tamanha judiação

    … … … …

    Hoje longe muitas léguas
    numa triste solidão
    Espero a chuva cair de novo
    pra mim vortá pro meu sertão

    Quando o verde dos teus olhos
    se espaiá na prantação
    Eu te asseguro, não chore não, viu
    eu vortarei, viu, meu coração

    When I saw my earth on fire
    like a Saint John’s bonfire
    I asked God in heaven
    why so much suffering?

    … … … …

    Today I am many leagues away
    in a sad solitude
    I wait for another rain
    for me to return to my sertão

    When the green of your eyes
    spreads over the plantation
    I reassure you, so don’t cry
    I will return, you will see, my sweetheart

    A short while after relocating to a table outside an adjacent home that doubled as a
    small grocery we were approached by a banda de pífanos. The band consisted of four
    men, formerly landless peasants of the Movimento dos Sem Terra, or MST, Movement of those
    without land. They serenaded us with homemade instruments, two drums and two flutes. The
    music they played had been passed down through generations of Brazilian peasants. We
    shared pleasantries, then provided food, beer and a small donation before they moved on. A
    little while later we received a similar, larger group, comprised only of flutists. Once
    again, the instruments were all homemade.

    By late afternoon it was time to prepare for the night to come, so we all showered and
    changed. As evening approached the Caruá Bloco gathered at the home of one of its members
    and we joined in a nightlong procession of singing and dancing. The bloco passed
    through the home of each member, stopping only long enough to fully consume the
    considerable quantities of food and drink that had been prepared and left out. Sometime
    between 3 and 5 AM we wandered back to bed.

    On the third day, café da manhã, or breakfast, was followed by a shopping
    spree. It was time to complete the purchase of firewood and fogos, or fireworks.
    The growing sense of excitement was palpable; you could really feel it in the air. Chatter
    began to focus on the impending tradition of igniting "light swords", and the
    associated dangers of doing so. The Bonfim hospital staffed up. It stocked additional
    provisions for treating burns and, in some cases, fractures. A Brazilian form of sparkler,
    firecrackers and assorted other fogos were also purchased, but everyone’s focus was
    on the "light swords".

    In late afternoon we assembled with a bloco known as Jegue Elétrico, or
    Electric Donkey, on a small lot where churrasco and beer were being served. Jairo’s
    wife, Jacira, works at Banco do Brasil, which co-sponsors this bloco. Entry to the
    lot was allowed only for people wearing the official Electric Donkey Bloco T-shirt with
    sponsor advertising on the back. On the lot was a large, very tall, and colorful donkey
    drawn wagon. The wagon was mounted with numerous speakers, and a microphone activated
    speaker hung from the neck of the donkey; thus the "electric" donkey. People
    milled about excitedly as a band struck up some music.

    I initially concluded that this signaled the onset of our next activity, but I was
    wrong. It was only something to "get the juices flowing". In this particular
    case the bloco included the children of members as well as the adults. Talking,
    dancing, eating and singing continued unabated as emotions continued to rise. Finally, as
    if by silent command, the bloco moved off the lot and into the street. It was time
    for the bloco parade. We slowly wound our way through Bonfim accompanied at the
    rear by an enterprising entrepreneur driving a beer truck of sorts. Revelers periodically
    fell back to refurbish beverage stocks as locals gathered along the route to smile and
    wave. At one point we passed a caravan of horse drawn wagons transporting period piece
    costumed actors and actresses in the opposite direction. Automobile traffic was halted as
    we crossed side streets. Parents struggled to keep track of their children. Eventually we
    all safely arrived at the square.

    By the time we returned, the festive music, dancing and drinking on Jairo’s street were
    well underway. Jairo built a fire outside his home using firewood that had been purchased
    for that purpose. So did pretty much every other neighbor. The air began to fill with
    clouds of smoke that rolled up and down the street. Jairo cut some beef, chicken and goat
    meat, which he skewered on long rods and laid over the fire. Children lit firecrackers and
    tossed them about indiscriminately. A few lit sparklers and waved them excitedly while
    chattering in animated Portuguese. Occasionally someone ignited a fogo that
    produced a "fountain" of sparks generating "ooohs" and
    "aaahs" from the crowd.

    Tables were erected and plates, silverware and beverages were set out, along with side
    dishes to accompany the meat. A feast ensued. By late evening firecrackers were popping
    continuously and the smoke in the street was thick enough to choke an electric elephant.
    Once in awhile an especially loud explosion produced a concussion that startled the
    senses. By now, the eyes of some of the revelers were glazed over. This seemed to signal
    that it was time to break out the light swords. Light swords are basically tubes filled
    with gunpowder. The type, and size, of the tube determines how dangerous it can be.

    The standard commercial light sword is encased in something like stiff, durable
    cardboard with a clay liner to force the fire outward and prevent an explosion. A more
    serious, and larger, version is encased in hardened, glazed, clay like the tiles of which
    the roofs of many homes in Bonfim are constructed. Handling either of these fogos
    can be very difficult, and residents of the city understand the risks involved. Windows
    and doors that border the streets must be closed, locked, covered and/or boarded up before
    the light swords are ignited. Celebrants drift into the relative safety of driveways or
    yards, or indoors, as the night wears on.

    Temporarily controlling, and then throwing, a light sword is considered a rite of
    passage for young men. Particular skill and bravado are exhibited by managing to
    "write" messages with the light swords on the walls along the street. The
    "toss" is generally preceded by the kind of running start employed by javelin
    throwers. Once released, the firework cartwheels, caroms and careens wildly about the
    street, occasionally bouncing off walls or anything else it comes into contact with. The
    larger clay-tile-tube light swords can easily snap an arm or a leg on contact, and the
    threat of being seriously burned is always present, no matter which of the two types is

    A neighbor of Jairo’s forgot to close the gate at the front of his property. A light
    sword found its way into the house and burned the couch there. But Bonfim residents are
    stoic in the face of these "assaults by fogos". Each time a light sword
    was lit people seemed to simply make a mental note, or turn to enjoy the show. When one
    was actually released nearby crowds scattered with the speed and precision of silver-sided
    prey-fish at the sight of a predator. But the crowds just as quickly, and efficiently,
    reassembled once the danger had passed. No matter how irresponsible a light sword handler
    appeared to be, there were never any looks of disapproval or expressions of concern, other
    than from myself.

    The perpetrators were always wordlessly accepted back into the group as if nothing had
    happened. Bonfim is on the edge of the caatinga, a harsh environment that serves to
    toughen its inhabitants. The atmosphere of Bonfim at this time of year reminded me of a
    frontier town in the old west of the United States.

    Bruno, the son of Jairo, was now 13 and ached for an opportunity to wield the
    "weapon of Festa de São João". It seemed, on the surface, like a great
    opportunity for a photograph. Bruno positioned himself several dozen meters from my
    location and dipping his light sword into one of the bonfires along the rua,
    ignited it. For a moment it seemed that Bruno would lose control, but then he gathered his
    hands more firmly about the tube and began to wave it wildly, as if in triumph. There were
    cheers of approval. Possibly now overconfident, Bruno marked a nearby wall and began his
    "run up to the toss".

    Having gained sufficient momentum Bruno prepared to release the sword; but my
    perception was that the sword had finally gained the upper hand and released itself. I
    gaped in horror with my feet frozen uncomfortably to the uneven cobbled stones as the
    deadly tube cartwheeled in a direct line toward me. "How can this be?", I
    wondered, but my lips could only utter the expletive "Oh shit!". Did this
    particular tube have something against me? Was it being guided by the vengeance of an evil
    spirit? Incredibly, it died out only a scant few centimeters from my still locked, but now
    considerably weakened legs. I’d survived another night of Festa de São João in Senhor do

    The final day of Bonfim festivities was almost anti-climatic. No binge drinking
    processions or death defying pyrotechnics. But all the positives remained. The ongoing
    hospitality was, as always, exceeded only by the personal affection that I’d begun to feel
    connected everyone in Bonfim. A young girl appeared at the gate to Jairo’s home. After
    conversing briefly with her in soft tones he reentered the house and returned to the gate
    with a small pão, or bread. The girl was hungry and no one in Bonfim would refuse
    to help alleviate someone’s hunger.

    Our intention that day was to visit a nearby fazenda, or ranch, after stopping
    at the residence of more friends of Jairo. The informality of life in Bonfim was reflected
    by the fact that our unexpected appearance failed to disrupt a family gathering. We were
    treated to beer, goat ribs and "flying biscuits" in an open-air patio while the
    children played in the street. The biscuits are so named because they’re so light it seems
    they could take to the air.

    In a far corner of the patio was a small stone grotto, over the entrance to which a
    plain white cloth had been draped. At Jacira’s urging, the man of the house explained that
    there was a statue of the Virgin Mary in the grotto and the cloth was intended to shield
    its eyes from the debauchery of drinking that accompanied Festa de São João. After
    forewarning everyone to shield their drinks, he proudly lifted the veil to reveal the
    statue and encouraged me to take a photograph. Not wanting to offend, I did so.

    We never found our way to the fazenda, but we did stop at another home where a churrasco
    (barbecue) was underway. A small three-man band played more forró. Couples danced
    and friends were reunited. Cool temperatures and intermittent light rain failed to dampen
    spirits. All that remained was the concert in the praça that night given by
    Flávio José, one of the most beloved cantadores, or singers, of forró
    music in northeastern Brazil.

    José’s accordion heavy concert was magical. It opened to an audience so tightly
    pressed together that the planned circulating of police for managing crowd control nearly
    precipitated the panic it was there to prevent. With literally nowhere to go, the crowd
    began to collapse outward in its attempt to part before the police patrol. The pressure
    seemed to magnify as it radiated, and there were some tense moments when we all had doubt
    as to what might happen next. Jairo calmly counseled "calma, amigos, calma".
    His reassuring voice contributed to a restoration of the peace and tranquility that
    reverted to boundless excitement over the romance of Flavio’s crooning the lyrics of
    Nanado Alves and Ilmar Cavalcante….

    Amo você, já dá pra ver
    Que meu olhar diz tudo
    Meu coração não fala, fica mudo
    Até parece nem me conhecer

    And in a later song . . . .

    Ah! Esse meu coração de novo
    Sabe Deus onde
    me levará
    Apostando tudo nesse amor
    Pôs a mão no fogo
    E se me queimo hoje
    Sem um pingo de vergonha
    Quer voltar

    Ah esse meu coração, menino
    Não se conforma, em te perder
    Vive num banzo de
    fazer dó
    Mesmo sabendo que amou só
    Morre de saudade
    De ciúmes de você

    Vai coração
    Te entrega todo
    Toda paixão só tem gosto
    Se sangrar

    Arrisca tudo outra vez
    Tenta de novo
    Nas asas da ilusão
    Volta a voar

    Already anyone can see that I love you
    That my glance reveals everything
    My heart doesn’t speak, it remains mute
    It seems my heart doesn’t know me

    Ah! Here comes my heart again
    Only God knows where
    it will take me
    Gambling everything in this love
    Puts my hand in the fire
    And if I should burn today
    Without a drop of shame
    My heart will yearn to return

    Ah! This, my heart, is a child
    It doesn’t accept losing you
    It lives in a sad place that makes
    one feel pity
    Even knowing it loved alone
    It dies of longing
    And feeling jealous of you

    Go my heart
    Surrender yourself
    Every passion only tastes sweetly
    If it bleeds

    Risk everything once more
    Try again
    In the wings of illusion
    Fly again

    Phillip Wagner is a free-lance photojournalist, a frequent traveler to
    Brazil and a regular contributor to Brazzil. Phillip is a graduate of Indiana
    University and hopes to pursue a post graduate degree focusing on Brazilian studies at
    some point in the future. Visit Phillip’s Brazil web-sites at http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm
    . Phillip may be contacted at pwagner@iei.net

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