I still vividly remember those nights from my childhood in Udupi. It is a town on the coast of the southern Indian state of Karnataka. Sitting at the inner edge of a human circle, surrounded by family members and acquaintances, I would marvel at the spectacle unfolding in front of my eyes. A bare chested man with a colourful headgear, smeared in vermillion and with blood red eyes would slowly get possessed by a spirit to the beat of drums. I’d feel the thrill of fear running down my spine slowly, like a caress. But this benevolent spirit, known as Panjoor-lee, was the guardian ghost of my extended family. We met him once every year in human form to express our gratitude, but also to discuss our problems.
Back then, little did I know that two decades later I would be experiencing something similar. This time though, I was not in Udupi but half way across the world, in Brazil. It was in Salvador, the first capital of Brazil and beautiful city on its northern coast, that I got introduced to Candomble and Umbanda. It was a pleasant October evening when I was at the festa, similar to the others I had been attending in those weeks. 8-10 people dressed in what resembled cow-boy outfits were dancing in a circle. The evening grew into night, and the music and dancing kept pace. The dancers were in a trance, almost as if they were connected to a higher energy. Some of them sang loudly with their eyes closed.
What was this festa? Who were these dancers? And, what was this religion?
I went to Brazil as a part of 12 challenges
I wanted to take around the world. The challenge in Salvador was to learn to play drums. Most of Brazil’s afro-brasilian music comes from this city. Interestingly, closer to the trip I stumbled upon Candomble, a syncretic religion with elements of catholicism and pan-African faiths. Some people said that a lot of the music Brazil is famous for finds its roots in Candomble terreiros
(houses of Candomble) of Salvador. I decided then, that I would not learn drums at a music school but at a Candomble terreiro.
It was my attempt to understand not just the music but also its roots.
But to learn to play drums at these religious ceremonies was more challenging than anticipated. Most musicians grow up learning to play in their neighbourhood terreiro, and there is no formal process. Despite that I was lucky to find one terreiro where the head musician was happy to teach me. The next four weeks were filled with frustration and exhilaration. I would show up at the terreiro every evening and walk back couple of hours later hoping that the next day I’d be able to play the drums better.
Festas or parties at Candomble terreiros meant time for the community to get together and praise their gods. The house would be decorated, mostly in white, after a thorough wash. Food, drink and beer would be kept ready. Closer to the evening the festa would begin, and slowly one after another priests would get possessed by spirits of their gods. They would then spend the rest of the evening singing, dancing and drinking. People would line up to seek blessings in way of hugs from the priests.
But if you are wondering who the spirits were, then you are like me. I had similar questions, and this is what I learnt.
Candomble came to Brazil through the Atlantic slave trade as the slaves brought their culture and religion along. Despite forced conversions into Christianity and persecutions, the faith has managed to survive. In Candomble, gods are known as Orixas(pronounced as ori-sha), each one of them having specific characteristics, likes and dislikes. Essentially, these Orixas are ancestors who have been deified. The dance, music, singing, alcohol and other rituals come from the religion’s African roots. And when the priests are possessed, they are manifestations of these ancestral spirits or Orixas. They have the place of pride in every Candomble festa, and they must not be disrespected in any way. So if they ask, you oblige. If they ask you to dance, well, you dance.
Back to what I was up to at the festa. It was my last evening in Salvador and I was to play drums, along with a few others. It would be my first time in front of an audience. The nervousness, chaos and everything else got to me and I played worse than even my own expectations which were to be honest, quite modest. You can read about how I felt that very moment in one of my earlier posts.
The evening would have turned out to be pretty depressing, had it not been for the Orixas. Just as I left the drums, hoping that I would make a quick and quiet exit, one of the Orixas caught hold of my hand. She wanted me to dance. Like I said before when an Orixa makes a request, you oblige.
A few minutes later, I was still smiling and dancing, surrounded by gods in Brazil, and with beats from Africa. I learnt then that there is no misery that music, dance and friendship cannot attempt to heal. And also that life can be more magical than your childhood dreams were, you just need to have the courage to chase them.
Fascinated by Candomble? Want to know how to experience more of this religion? Read here.