The cultural and artistic traditions of Candomblé, Umbanda
and Carnival in Brazil have all utilized African traditions to a
certain extent in their own practices.
The expression of these traditions varies widely in these New World traditions and reflects as H. Drewal calls it, the "memory" and "agency" of Afro-Brazilians to "re-member" traditions brought with them from Africa. From a serious religion that draws heavily on Yoruba ritual to a festive free-for-all, the diaspora has given way to fascinating and dynamic cultural traditions.
Brazilian Candomblé is often considered an 'African religion transplanted,' and many Yoruba traditions are retained in the Bahian religious practice.Deities are referred to by their Yoruba title orisaand are worshipped using similar divination, possession dance and sacrifice rituals. In spite of this strong African continuum, the misjudgment is often made that Candomblé is a syncriatic religion, as Barnes (1997) claims, having "blended" with Catholicism. Other scholars claim that the two belief systems were practiced simultaneously but separately and that the followers are in fact bi-religious. Orisas were often assigned to Catholic saints who shared powers or attributes of the Yoruba deities to "subvert or confront the dominant society [i.e. slaveholders imposing Catholicism] (H. Drewal 2000: 252)." However, a New World innovation that integrates a western ideal is seen in the Candomblé manner of ritual dress. Women deck themselves out in outlandish European-style gowns, far removed in style from the simple Yoruba women's wraps. However, some then sport beaded face masks—clearly an allusion to the beaded mask of the Yoruba oba— and will carry the traditional implements of the orisa that will possess them. Candomblé sculptural conventions follow the Yoruba canon of large heads and eyes, giving these objects what H. Drewal (1996:264) calls "[their] evocative quality" and in Candomblé possession dances, the orisa "mounts" the head of the devotee, as in Yoruba dance. M. Drewal explains that "through ritual performance, people tap and use power that is appropriate for meeting life's demands (1997:229)." An interesting aesthetic difference between Yoruba and Bahian dances is the Candomblé practice of pausing the ceremony to dress the possessed medium in clothes appropriate for the deity. Also, since "the Yoruba language is no longer well understood, the dances are mimetic, representing [for example] Ogún in a literal way (225)." The removal of traditions to a new geographic and cultural context thus contributes to changes in their New World expression.
Umbanda, a "synthesized" Brazilian religion, retains some of the "Africanness" of Candomblé, but as Oritz explains, "Umbanda is a synthetic and not syncretic religion. It makes use of the African elements but it is not defined by it (1997:91)." Instead of traditions being "re-membered," they are deliberately selected and codified, unlike the emergence of a collective African memory. Important in the difference between Umbanda and Candomblé, which both utilize the possession trance as an essential ritual, is the conscious reinventing of Umbanda to appear less "savage" or "primitive" than Candomblé:
The concept of science is used to justify the modernity of the Umbandista cult, which opposes, in principle, the traditionalism of Candomblé and what are considered to be its "backward" practices (94).
The use of objects to invoke spirits seems to be minimized, and
when objects are mentioned, their scientific value, i.e. explaining
the "magic" of a steel point as "[a] principle found in physics, and
therefore it is a scientific function (Mango 1952, cited in Oritz
1997:94)." The creators of Umbanda seem to have integrated African
elements with European and Indian beliefs to create the "only
authentically national religion (99)," and to synthesize as large a
cross-section of Brazil's people as possible. The Yoruba and
Bahian Carnaval uses African elements in a completely different way then either Candomblé or Umbanda. In this traditionally Catholic ritual, devotion and ritual give way to theatricality and camp to express themes surrounding black consciousness and solidarity. African motifs and traditions in song, dance and dress permeate the event. Great liberty is taken in incorporating African themes into the performance. Decisions to incorporate motifs are made without much regard for the traditions the produced them. For example, a woman pictured on the front of African Myth and Black Reality in Bahian Carnaval wears a wrap printed with an African-looking motif and the text "Zimbabwe." Since no slaves came from Zimbabwe to Brazil, it can probably be assumed that her garment is intended to express a general African aesthetic and associate her with her performance group. Candomblé possession rituals are impersonated by nonbelievers; deities are chosen by who is represented by the most festive costume, with Omolu (cowerie-adorned raffia, covering the head) and Xango (copper crown, axe-shaped wand) being popular (Crowley 1984: 13). The participation of a Candomblé house in Carnaval influences the performance, "depending in large part on how closely linked the Carnaval group is to a Candomblé temple. More conservative Candomblé members object to any public display of their religion and especially to people impersonating devotees or gods (14)." Crowley surmises that the lack of "authenticity" is not so bad:
Their current information [about African tradition] is hazy and fragmentary at best, often a maze of stereotypes, misinformation and half-truths. But even this serves them well in constructing their ethnic statements in the streets of Salvador at Carnaval; African myths servicing a prouder, richer, more powerful, Blacker Brazil (44)."
Afro-Brazilian artforms and traditions influence more than the religion of the slave-descended peoples of Bahia to be incorporated in a significantly different religious practice adopted as a "national" religion which utilizes African themes to bolster a sense of national identity and to a secular performance ritual which takes the broader essence of Brazilian Africa to celebrate the Afro-Brazilian experience. These traditions are not defined or constrained by their African roots, but rather show remarkable vitality and ingenuity to make them traditions that represent both the Old World and New.