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Brazil has always been a party

Book shows how celebration have evolved and influenced our history

With the objective of deepening the understanding about the unique experience of the festivities in Brazil and their implications in shaping the national identity and culture, historians István Jancsó, from the University of São Paulo (USP), and Iris Kantor, who has a grant for a doctorate from FAPESP and is a teacher on leave from the School of Sociology and Politics, have organized two volumes that bring together 49 articles by Brazilian researchers and a contribution from Portuguese authors, on the theme: Festival – Culture and Sociability in Portuguese America (FAPESP, Hucitec, Edusp and Imprensa Oficial, 990 pages, R$ 115). The work is the fruit of a six-day international seminar organized two years ago at USP, which had the same title as the work. Both, the seminar and the book, received finance from FAPESP.

The articles brought together in the almost one thousand pages of the volumes provide an wide kaleidoscope of themes, and, according to the organizers, contribute towards lessening the immense bibliographical gap in the historiography on the period. The idea that gave origin to the seminar was precisely to draw up a balance of matters connected with festivals, from their more detailed aspects, of micro-history, to exercises in comparative history and interdisciplinary approaches to festive phenomena, including looking at other branches of knowledge, like anthropology, literature, philosophy, music and dance.

Enhancing the aspect of dialog between the various looks into festivals, the book comes with a CD, with 26 musical compositions from the 13th to the 18th centuries. Under the care of Maurício Monteiro and the artistic direction of Anna Maria Kieffer, besides the participation of over 50 persons, the CD is a sound track for the reading. The musical research groups has given a different mood to the seminar, by making a presentation after the talks.

As festivals are one of the main points in the image that Brazilians have of themselves, and foreigners have of the country, it is undeniable that these collective manifestations have an influence on the construction of the national identity. For Professor Jancsó, the root of the fact lies in the significance that the festivities used to have, and still do. “Festivals mean an instrument for escaping from the control of a State with which we have always had a relationship of suffering and antagonism, unlike the European and western paradigm, in which identity is structured by the State, which represents an instrument for emancipation. In Brazil, the State, created by the elite, was never an instrument for liberation and identification, but rather for cohesion”, he explains.

Internal enemy
The State, for Jancsó, used to be, and still is, an instrument for the control of the “internal enemy”, the major part of the population. In the light of this, the occasions on which Brazilians manage to see themselves as a group of people that share common ideals, values and senses take on greater importance. “This happens in the festive situations, not because they are a party, but because they belong to all”, Jancsó explains. He continues: “People say that our identity is poorly finished, a festive identity.

This is nonsense, because it stands for a uncritical acceptance of the paradigm of the European countries.” Iris, the teacher, states that the two volumes seek to encompass basically the three periods that she calls the “pre-history of carnival”. She explains that, right at the beginning of the colonial period, the main rites of sociability were the catechism festivals, dominated basically by the Jesuits, who were the main constructors of the festive imagery of those times. “They understood the importance of making use of music and theater to captivate, evangelize and indoctrinate the Indians, using these instruments as a pedagogical resource. This, though, is not something specific to Brazil and to Portuguese America, but also Peru, Mexico and other Andean peoples.”

According to the historian, this transcultural strategy of the Jesuits was part of their missionary vocation, of their objectives for evangelizing the recently discovered territories. “The Jesuits went so far as to be condemned for an excess of dialog. They acted as anthropologists, since they tried to do translations between European culture and the different Amerindian cultures”, she points out. In the period that runs from the end of the 17th century and the beginning of the 18th century, with the discovery of gold, urban centers started to be formed, with considerable demographic density, in particular in the cities of Minas Gerais.

At this second moment, when the urban society became consolidated, there came to be a need for establishing traditions for festivals. And it was the Minas model that was exported to the rest of the country. “The festivals of those days followed a model dictated by the metropolis, which was called “Christian triumph”, similar to today’s Corpus Christi”, says Iris. “They were processional festivals, in which the more subaltern populations would go to the fore, the slaves and the Indians. In the case of Portugal, it would be the Moors and the Jews. More to the center of the procession, there would go the higher layers, in a sort of order that went up from the lower to the higher. In general, they would use the resource of allegorical floats and choreography.”

Classical and popular
Both the periods were also differentiated by what was revered in the festivities. While the Jesuits’ model was more devotional, the baroque festival would revere the king. Iris explains: “The festival was a reinforcement of the royal presence with the absence and distance of the monarch. How to obey at the distance to be seen between the colony and the metropolis? The festivals would work as a kind of colonization of imagery”. Another interesting fact is that this moment precedes the division between classical culture and popular culture that still persists today. The poor would be present at the same festivals as the elite. Collective commemorations had the function of bringing order, of delimiting hierarchies. The party does not always belong to anyone who wants it.