Two UW-Milwaukee Professors who happen to be husband and wife will kick off The University of Wisconsin-Washington County’s Community lecture series on Brazil, on Tuesday, September 17. The Bumba-meu-boi festival has been studied closely for many years by Meredith Watts and Simone Ferro, a married research team from Milwaukee, who share their knowledge on this lively and colorful cultural practice in a lecture titled Brazil’s Cultural Traditions at 6:30 p.m. in Room 201. The presentation is part of the University’s Community Lecture Series and is free and open to the public.
In Brazil, local people hold a ritual festival to achieve spiritual health and renewal for families and communities. The Bumba-meu-boi festival features a theatrical performance in which a slave steals an ox from a slave master and kills it to satisfy the cravings of his pregnant wife. When the slave master demands the return of the ox, the ox is resurrected from the dead by an indigenous shaman and is returned to its owner. In a country created by Portuguese colonization and agriculture based on African slaves, the ritual theater is simultaneously a condemnation of slavery and inequality, an embrace of the divine, and a unification of a divided community. The lead role is played by a dancer carrying a large ox puppet. This theater of common people lasts for hours as hundreds of neighbors eat, play music, and dance through the night.
“Imagine 100 people performing in 90 degree heat, with 90 percent humidity, from 7 in the evening until 2 in the morning for a 10-day period,” says Ferro, a former professional ballerina and Professor of Dance at UW Milwaukee. “There might be 50 drummers with huge African style drums. Sometimes there is a full orchestra with banjo, guitar, and brass, played by skillful, trained musicians. Hundreds of people beat wooden blocks to a very lively, pulsing Afro beat. The lyrics talk about the beauty of the land, beautiful women, poor people, and economic justice.”
The border between viewer and performer is blurred, says Ferro. “It is impossible to not get involved. You are invited to drum. It is very uplifting.”
Ferro and Watts present vivid, colorful photographs and videos of the Bumba-meu-boi festival during their presentation.
The ox, played by a dancer carrying a large mask, is the central character, relates Watts, a professor emeritus of political science at UW Milwaukee. “The ox is a symbol of the connection to both Christian saints and African spirits. When the ox appears everything is okay again. People want to be close to the ox, get pictures, and touch it.”
Ferro and Watts pay close attention to the way the festival changes when it becomes more commercialized in the larger cities. Bigger budgets, bigger audiences and government support have caused the commercial shows to abandon the down-to-earth themes of faith, liberation, and community renewal in favor of flashier, glamorous shows with elaborate orchestras. Where rural farm communities dance through the night, urban, commercial shows perform a sequence of one-hour programs.
The researchers identify a spectrum of cultural variation with traditional folklore on one end, commercial entertainment on the other, and a hybrid middle ground they call “cultura popular,” or popular culture.
The way old forms of folk art, and the values they embody, are changed by modern markets is one the grand questions in the scholarly study of culture.
Ferro explains that some festival groups have created two different festivals, one local and private, and the other commercialized for outsiders, as a strategy to preserve the past. While Ferro and Watts understand that popular art is not static, or fixed in time, they have built a massive archive of photographs, videos, and interviews to preserve knowledge of the music, choreography, and costume making involved in the traditional, popular festival.
“There is an inevitable mutation of folk culture toward the popular, and toward a modern, commercial form. It is a natural evolution. This is the power of the popular culture,” argues Ferro, a native of Brazil. “But without strong documentation of the past, it is really a loss.”
The presentation by Ferro and Watts is sponsored by the Matt Zillig Global Citizenship Project, a group of local professionals who honor the memory of their friend, the late Matt Zillig of West Bend, who championed the importance of world travel and knowledge of world cultures. The group holds an annual golf fundraiser to help support the Community Lecture Series and will soon begin offering academic scholarships at the University.
After the presentation, the members of the Matt Zillig Global Citizenship Project invite the public to a social gathering featuring samples of Brazilian food and drink in the University café. In the Art Gallery adjacent to the University Café the public can enjoy photographs of Brazil and the festival by Watts.
The University of Wisconsin Washington County is located at 400 University Drive in West Bend. (exit Hwy. 33 East). Visitors should use the main entrance and follow the interior directional signs to Room 201 on the second floor. Free parking is available.
More information is available on the campus website at washington.uwc.edu.