Sacred Afro-Brazilian music faces resistance from evangelical students at Federal University of Rio de Janeiro School of Music
When people say with a straight face that Brazil has no race problems or racist practices and ideals, I don’t think that people really know just how deep the rejection of so many things that have a connection to Africa is. In a culture in which Afro-Brazilian religions are consistently targets of negative stereotypes, oppression and violent attacks on not only its temples and sacred objects, but also people, what type of reaction should we expect when the topic is sacred Afro-Brazilian music?
Andrea Adour is a professor at the UFRJ (Federal University of School of Rio de Janeiro) School of Music, and recenty revealed how, when she proposed the study of the work “Toadas de Xangô” by composer Guerra Peixe for her class, an evangelical student responded by asking:
“What if I receive some entity?”
Andrea explains that the university is not a space of rite, of religious practice, and that music enters there as art, seen from a lay perspective, of knowledge. The student understands and agrees to sing the piece – and other sacred character of Afro-Brazilian matrix presented throughout the course. But the hesitance on the student’s part is equal to that that one finds when the subject of African origin religions such as Candomblé or Umbanda come up.
Conflicts of the kind have been common there — but not always with the same contemporization. Professors and students at the School of Music report that studying the sacred repertoire today faces this challenge – there are students who manifest and resist in their own classroom and others who simply lock up enrollment in certain subjects to avoid encountering a repertoire that is against their religious beliefs (sought out for this report, none of these students wanted to be interviewed).
“It is common for students of more closed religious formation to question, refuse to sing, when we present some work that uses Afro terms, referring to entities such as Oxalá, Oxum,” says Valéria Matos, professor of choral conducting at UFRJ.
The list of songs that provoke reactions includes works by famed composers such as Francisco Mignone and Villa-Lobos, both of whom are white composers it should be pointed out.
“We had controversy with “Cânticos de Obaluayê”, by Francisco Mignone, “Abalogun”, by Waldemar Henrique, “Xangô”, by Villa-Lobos. And even with songs that don’t speak of orixás, but that have words like “macumba”, such as Villa-Lobos’s “Estrela é nova lua”, by Villa-Lobos – lists Andrea, who coordinates Africanias, a Brazilian repertoire research group , with an emphasis on black and indigenous influences. In Brazil, the term “macumba” conjures up similar imagery as when some Americans think of the terms “voodoo” or “black magic”.
The issue has been so clearly stated that the II International Congress of Sacred Music – organized by the UFRJ and held in July, with Valéria as general coordinator – had as its theme precisely “The University and the Religions in Dialogue”.
“Given the situation in Brazil today, when religious tolerance goes through critical moments, it is part of the university’s role to educate so that this tolerance becomes more effective. The congress had this goal. We brought professors from various places of Brazil who are doing research that shows the importance given to the academy of sacred music in all directions: Catholic, Protestant, Afro-Brazilian, Jewish, indigenous…” explains Valeria, who runs Sacravox, an extension project dedicated to Brazilian music sacred music.
The phenomenon of resistance to a certain sacred repertoire of the School of Music is recent. At a time when academic knowledge is questioned by theories that do not have any scientific basis – terraplanismo (flatearthism) is only the most obvious example – it is understandable that this is reflected there. Valeria identifies another reason:
“Due to inclusion policies, the university expanded its enrollment, which brought more diversity, groups that were not previously in the academic environment. This is wonderful, but obviously new questions arise. The professor has to understand that singing deals with the sensitive universe of the individual, which can touch their personal, religious environment. But you need the clarification to explain that artistic and cultural practice is not religious practice.
“One culture cannot be allowed to destroy another, incluing the neo-Pentecostal culture must be preserved. It is not a matter of propagating a particular religion. I myself am Catholic. But when a student chooses only one knowledge, he closes himself off to knowledge.
Robson Lemos, a master’s student at the School of Music, also an evangelical, sees the issue in a similar way. He reports that they have already witnessed not only students refusing to play Afro-Brazilian-themed songs, but also a school pianist. Lemos says that he has heard arguments that show “the desire to subdue other cultures.”
“I once saw a student refuse to sing, the teacher asked why he accepted songs that mentioned other religions, other mythologies, but did not accept the orixás (orishas). He replied that he only sings a repertoire of religions that they have already eliminated.
Paulo Maria – student of the School of Music, evangelical and member of Africanias – identifies structural racism on the basis of the question:
“Singing these songs does not affect my religiosity. When I sing pieces that refer to Afro-Brazilian religions, I sing as an artist. But this situation is part of Brazilian history. The black was made a slave, Afro culture was thrown aside by Europeans. This is our historical background.
With the escalation of attacks on Afro-Brazilian religious temples, it is pretty clear how propaganda influences the thoughts, beliefs and actions of millions of people, as we’ve seen with the struggle of religious leaders of African-oriented religions with powerful forces such as the Rede Record television network, whose depictions of Afro-Brazilian religions were declared religious prejudice. They are shameful displays of a rejection of Brazil’s very roots. I’ve asked this question in a number of previous posts and I ask again: Which do you think is a more reaction to this? Continuing to integrate with people who repeatedly show they don’t you, or find ways to construct your own?
I think you know where I stand…
With information from Bem Blogado
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