Once upon a time, within the dry, hot plains of an inland farm in northeast Brazil, there was a beautiful ox – the most beautiful in all the country.
Wracked with food cravings in the midst of her pregnancy, a slave on the farm, Mãe Catirina, pleads for her husband to cut off the ox’s also highly beautiful tongue so she can eat it.
While Pai Francisco isn’t very keen on the idea of killing his master’s favourite beast just to satisfy a hormonal whim of his missus, he is unfortunately compelled to carry out the task. If he doesn’t, according to lore his unborn child risks being born a hideous bull-beast itself. Which would never do.
Reluctantly, he sacrifices the prize animal and serves the dish to his hungry spouse, who gobbles it up.
But disaster strikes when the wealthy ranch owner gets wind of what’s gone on and demands his slave bring the ox to him. He asks the local Indians to seek out Pai Francisco, who is by now knocking his knees deep in the forest.
The unfortunate slave desperately calls on the local spiritual shamen to help him get out of the pickle he is in.
Together, they miraculously manage to bring the ox back to life using the power of a fervent drum beat. And all is well with the world again…
Such is the story – or at least a version of it – of one of Brazil’s most colourful folkloric festivals, Bumba-Meu-Boi (roughly, “Beat My Bull”), which takes place in June.
Each year glittering, velvet-skinned “bulls” – if you ignore the suspicious-looking legs and trainer-clad feet that poke out beneath them – take to stages around the island of São Luís and dance joyously amid bright feather-costumed native Indians and other characters to the vibrant sounds of the drum, guitar and brass-led live music that fills the heady air.
Armed with a prawn cake and caipiveja (beer mixed with caipirinha. Yes please!) Phil and I squeeze our way to the front of the sweaty, bustling crowd around the floodlit stage at the riverside Praça Maria Aragão – the main venue for the city’s festivities.
We are treated to wave after wave of different troupes whose bouncy, rhythmic dancing and toe-tapping upbeat song recount this lively legend and others. In true Brazilian style, the celebrations last for a month.
Among the best groups is Barrica, whose skilled choreography, expert music and intricate handmade costumes – including the enormous and weighty circular feather hats worn by some dancers – usually results in the crowds joining in at the end.
The following night, Phil and I duly cut some shapes at a massive out-of-town party organised by none other than the city’s lawyers. Even a typically stylish Brazilian woman who accidentally treads on my toe with her spiky stiletto can’t dampen my enthusiasm – though if I had decided to sue, I guess I was in the right place to find someone to represent me.
Another popular group brings its entire community to the main stage, armed with matracas (wooden percussion blocks) and other instruments, which creates a fantastic surround-sound musical experience whose energy is infectious.
Incredibly, this festival is free to the public, and every year the performers think up new ways to entertain the masses.
Sipping on a complimentary Amazonian fruit juice, I can’t help but think that Brazil’s variety of folkloric traditions puts dear little English Morris Dancers to shame.
Recently organisers have combined the Boi legend with another of São Luís’ famously big loves – reggae music. The crowd claps in delight when an ox sporting a rasta hat and dreds starts boinging around the stage as the singer serenades “Meu boizinho reggae” (“My little reggae ox.”)
The weekends are most popular at the square, with families enjoying typical food bought from the wealth of huts that surround the stage as it creaks under the weight of the region’s best performers.
Excited children giggle and blow bubbles as they race up and down the adjacent grassy hill, snaking between the mobile popcorn and candyfloss sellers who pass by.
I grab Phil’s hand and make for the “forró” dance tent’s jam-packed floor, to the amusement of several onlookers and the live band. Apparently forró got its name from being a simple dance that was cooked up in the melting pot that is Brazilian culture so it could be enjoyable “For All”.
A word of warning though: this does not appear to be the case for caipiveja-filled gringos.