Candomblé (is it real?)

What is it?

According to Wikipedia: Candomblé is an African-originated or Afro-Brazilian religion, practised chiefly in Brazil by the “povo de santo” (people of saint).

Why do I write about it?

Last year Luca and I went to Brazil during Easter holidays. Some days ago I was looking at some pictures and I remembered that I had wanted to write a post about one experience we lived then. I never wrote it then, so I’ll do it now.

While wandering through Salvador de Bahía last year, we stopped to have some rest plus a drink at a bar. Luca reviewed a little brochure for activities to do in the city. Basically we had to offers for the evening: attending a concert or candomblé. We opted for the latter.

The brochure already warned that some foreigners found it strange that people were asked to pay to attend a religious ceremony. If I remember well we paid about 100R$ between the two of us (~30€), a perfectly payable amount.

For me the best thing of the evening was that with the mind thinking about attending the ceremony we ventured with the group into a part of the city that by ourselves we would have never dared to go. I sometimes make the comment that we don’t dare to go to places just because the noisy media has given us that fearful sense. I guess that if we had checked the guide of Brazil we had, it most probably would have discouraged us to go into the neighbourhood we went.

The room where the ceremony was held could have been any wide room of a building. It wasn’t any kind of special temple. We gathered about 40 people inside; split 50/50 between tourists and candomble practitioners (or performers). The head of the ceremony was an old woman.

Let me take the following passage from the Wikipedia to briefly describe how the ceremony goes:

“In the public part of the ceremony, children-of-saint (mediunic priests) invoke and “incorporate” Orixás, falling into a trance-like state. After having fallen into trance, the priest-spirits perform dances symbolic of the Orixá’s attributes, while the babalorixá or father of saint (leading male priest) leads songs that celebrate the spirit’s deeds. The ceremony ends with a banquet.

Candomblé music, an essential part of the ritual, derives from African music.”

What did I feel?

I think it was all fake. I don’t believe any of what it happened it was actually felt by performers. I risk that you’ll get me wrong, you may think I am not tolerant with other cultures, etc. Not the case.

I just felt that ceremony was a business show much the like flamenco shows in Granada, with the difference that with the flamenco you don’t feel cheated. You know from the beginning that you are attending a show.

The money wasn’t definitely a problem; I love to spend some cash for different experiences. E.g. sometimes we have just paid a guide to explain us a temple not caring about the accuracy of the explanation just about the curious stories he or she might tell, as the rest of the information we will have forgotten in months.

I guess there will be groups of people who do have their candomblé celebrations and believe in it. I don’t think the group we attended was one of those. At least not at that moment. When you saw them entering in trance, five minutes later smoking a cigarette and then entering in trance again it felt strange.

Believe it or not it took me time to make up my mind. Luca is way sharper than I am in those situations… I think she gave me a look of disapproval no later than the first 5 minutes had passed. During one pause, she explained me her view of it, and then, back in the room, during the following minutes of sudden trance-in/trance-out I was making my numbers in my head.

We were about 20 tourists. If each of us had paid about 50R$. The total income then was ~1,000R$. If the band (I avoid the word congregation here) performed a show every night, they would make ~30.000R$ a month. Let’s correct the figure supposing that not every day they may have a performance or that in not all performances they will be able to fill the room… say they make ~20.000R$ a month. As I said, there were about 20 performers, this would mean that each could receive ~1,000R$ (some of this would have to be deducted to pay the transportation of the tourist and the home-made drinks they offered).

The average salary in some parts of Brazil is in that order of magnitude, ~1,000R$. Then take into account that many of the performers were family, so it really makes sense for them, it’s a formidable way of making a living for the family. Probably if I had been born in that neighbourhood and I could have a supplement to my salary of 100% of my salary by faking a trance situation per night I would have been delighted to do so. And it is perfect as a business! It’s just that it leaves you with a bad flavour. It feels like cheating. We wouldn’t recommend it.

Next time we’ll go for the concert, no matter the price.


Filed under Travelling

4 responses to “Candomblé (is it real?)

  1. Miguel

    Totally agree. Sometimes we do outside the same silly things that germans do in Spain. That kind of freak-oversized “sevillanas” shows, pretending to be real.
    I can tell a lot of experiences like that: “real” beduin camp in Tunis & Morocco, “real” mayan tribe near Chichen Itzá, “real” masais performing stupid dances in the hotel…and go on.
    The only thing (and maybe i´m wrong about it) that seemed real to me, was during my honeymoon in Kenya. We visited a Masai camp inside Masai-Mara. First, be aware that Masai-Mara is huge. The nearest town, it´s about 2 hours by car. I´m sure they weren´t 100% real, but I think they actually live there. It´s impossible to pretend like that: I actually saw the “cow-shit” covering the ground and walls of the huts, flies everywhere, kids peeing around, a terrible smell, garbage all around, unidentified shits…I mean, of course they dance for the tourists, but the camp seemed 100% real to me. Maybe i´m wrong, but that´s the unique “real” experience I had during my travels.

  2. Ben Thomas

    The few always spoil it for the many. The fact that you ventured in to the wrong part of town should have been a sign.

    When next in Bahia stick to the more established and upmarket Candomblé houses.

  3. Marqués

    Awesome! Expect to feel the same if you ever go to Turkey and you decide to go to the so-called “The Mevlevi Sema Ceremony” proclaimed by UNESCO as amongst the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” in 2005. That’s the biggest tourist trap ever. Having attended that, it is not surprising I just decided not to go to the candomblé ceremony when I was at Salvador 2 weeks ago! 😉

    And that was BEFORE reading your post! =)

  4. Hi, Javier, I found your blog searching about impressions people outside Brazil have about candomble. Sorry to say that, probably the “show” you saw in Salvador was a fake cerimony, a tourist trap. Real candomble never charge any person to attend public cerimonies. Furthermore, public cerimonies usually to happen only few and specific days in the year. Next time you visit Bahia and decide to experience an original, beatiful and respectable candomble public cerimony, you must go to one of few traditional candomble houses (iles) in the city. They are always far from the city`s center. I`m a nice person 😉 and I will tell you two of them: Gantois house or Ile Axe Opo Afonja. Good luck next time!

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