Architecturing about dance: or, trying to talk about our religion

A friend has invited us to talk about our religion, and while I love to talk, this is one thing where talking feels so unsatisfying. I want to describe my religion like this:

  1. Ask the nearest terreiro to join a gira.
  2. Feel the beat of the drums.
  3. Get possessed.
  4. Spin skirt.

(credits: Hell-Queen Pombagira via Bruxo Malagueta)

…as a typical folk religion: a thing you do, not a set of beliefs in your mind. Umbanda people don’t have theological discussions, we share HOWTOs, ‘this pombagira herbsbath is wild, you gotta try it!’. If you’re curious about what it’s like, what I really would love to do would be to sit with you and browse a bunch of songs, rather than intellectualising what is of the body. I want your heart to beat faster. This is our religion doing possession at its most organised and respectable, which is ‘not very’ lol:

…and this is our religion when closest to root :

(translation: this opens with invitation-chants, broken-voiced, hard for her to concentrate, ‘she drinks, smokes, does whatever… whatever she wants’… ‘woman, spin your ganga-skirt, oh…’ ‘it’s midnight, the moon… (Maria-mother, these spirits…) the moon h-hides, at the crossroads…’ – then at 1:09 you have the telltale laugh that marks a pombagira coming up into her body; she moves in possessed trance, slowly, greets the girls filming it, inviting them to salute a variety of entities.)

But most umbanda happens in Brazil, the songs are deliberately super easy and catchy but not if you don’t know street Portuguese, the nearest terreiro might be very far away and it’s all closed due to the apocalypse anyway. So let’s try and give the proselytist spiel hihihi

All over Latin America, you’ll find people making off-hand comments about these mysterious gods and spirits. Your friend might regularly pour out a little booze ‘for the saint’ at the bar, your grandma might have a funny little bracelet pouch smelling like certain specific herbs. Travesti street-workers will talk of their pombagira telling them to block such-and-such on Facebook. The Christians will draw out and exorcise these spirits in their megachurches, blame the queerness of their children on possession, rail against the Satanic corruption to elect right-wing pastors, even stone little girls for cultuating the wrong gods, in the distant medieval past of (checks notes) 2015. Many of these entities have a seedy, low-class aura, dealing in sex and money and revenge; yet if you ask around and find a priest or shaman figure, they’re invariably these absurdly generous aunties, sweetest old grandpas, protective prostitute mamas, fully embedded in the mundane life of their communities and devoting their entire lives to caring for those around them. These gods and spirits – Baron Samedi of the Cemetery and Eshu-King of the Crossroads, Ndandalunda sexy Young-Mother and furious Oyá of the thunderstorm – are seen by polite society as shadowy, dark, uncivilised. As Black.

Photo of Andréa de Mayo Andréa de Mayo, travesti pimp and crime-mama, violently protective of her girls, said to walk around with a nunchaku facing police and druglords alike for trans folk (2000†). In the background of her brothel-flat, a nude painting of Black porn actor Long Dong Silver, side-by-side with a face portrait of a Preto-velho, Ol’ Black, one of the umbanda spirit guides. Andréa was a daughter of the Orishas in Egbá-Arakê Candomblé, of Yorubá ancestry. (photo: Claudia Guimarães.)

These are folk cults brought by enslaved African peoples, oral traditions which survived the ensuing cultural genocide, changed, adapted, synchretised with folk Catholic cults in many cases, and became a safe haven for marginalised people of all sorts. These practices are Black-centred but open and welcoming to all folk, in the easygoing, melting-pot way typical of Latin America. We call them African-matrix (or diaspora) religions. They do not work the way big centralised coloniser religions work, and are distinct from the source African religions too.

In the Anglosphere, the most famous diasporic practice is probably Haitian Vodou, thanks to American horror movies. These religions, practices or beliefs, however you call them, are as oral and diverse as it gets, but not random; they’re traditionally grouped into ‘nations’ by cultural/spiritual ancestry, of which the most widespread are probably the Jeje, Ketu and Angola/Congo nations (corresponding to the Fon, Yorubá and Bantu language families, respectively). Vodou is Jeje nation. Brazil has a strong presence of Yorubá nation in the form of Ketu Candomblé, a proud religion where they invite the Orisha gods to come down and dance in the body of masked initiates. There’s also an old, quiet, deep substrate of Angola nation in street ‘macumba’ sorcery (even Brazilian Portuguese is full of Bantu vocabulary). Practitioners of this magick are called ‘(tatá) quimbandas’, and the pratice itself today often goes by Quimbanda.

Umbanda takes the Quimbanda witchery, adds the Yorubá Orisha gods, pastes Catholic saints over them, mixes in Amazonian shamanism, takes over French Spiritism séance tables, invites along the Roma for good measure, and calls itself a Brazilian religion. In many ways it is Cultural Appropriation: The Religion, for good and bad (in the same way that ‘Brazilian culture’ is Cultural Appropriation: The Culture, for good and bad). At its best it proved to be a way to give voice to the marginalised, to pay respect to their experience and worldview and amplify it, with an endgoal of re-indigenisation. At its best, it gives back concretely, it has fought for and alongside the countless traditions it draws from, supports these folk materially as a core praxis. At worst it is a whitewashing of African-matrix religions for respectability. (I as a white Latina of course don’t want to bleach the Black roots, claim ownership of them, or be respectable. We recognise this problematic issue in the history of our religion, and work to undermine it. It’s one reason we skip the whole Christian synchretism thing, and focus on the so-called ‘left’ entities. It’s also why we write ‘umbanda’ lowercase, like ‘shamanism’ or ‘witchcraft’; we align ourselves with the bewildering, kaleidoscopic, intuitive ways the folk cultuate these spirits, not specifically with Zélio Moraes’ systematic codification of the term.)

Like most African-matrix religions there is no single cosmology, unified creed or central authority. We are yet to see two umbandistas who believe the same things; even the concept of ‘belief’ feels like a category error. If you go on Wikipedia, for example, there’s some elaborate cosmology about a singular God, identified with the Christian creator and with Olorum, of whom the Orisha are emanations, corresponding to the Catholic saints in complex hierarchies etc. But if you go to Youtube and watch some umbanda mothers-of-saint, you’ll find one of the most popular happily claiming to be atheist and denying the existence of gods altogether – despite calling herself ‘Mother Bárbara of Iansã’ and basing her practice on possession. The whole cosmology thing is besides the point, really. Umbanda practice is making an offering to a spirit and getting a result you need and sharing it in joyful solidarity. The spirits couldn’t care less about which set of mental models you consciously subscribe to. (They do care about you keeping your part of the deal, mind you.)

As a living folk religion umbanda thrives in multiplicity, adaptation, change. In this Very Online Era, practitioners have spontaneously and collectively settled on emoji adornments for the traditional Yorubá greetings to the entities – Odoyá mother Iemanjá 🌊🐟🌼🧜‍♀️🐚, Laroyê lady Pombagira 🔱🔥💄💃👠.[1] There’s an anthropological report about transfeminine possession by a Lady Gaga Pombagira in the North.[2] I’ve watched an embodied eshu spirit be interrupted by a spontaneous pronouncement from Siri and happily treat it as an oracle for the rest of the meeting (‘you must unlock your device’, was Siri’s mystical wisdom).[3]

Compared to Candomblé, umbanda is less god-oriented and more spirit-oriented. We do honour the Yorubá pantheon and work with them, and in true umbanda fashion any other divinities are easy to integrate by individual practitioners (one of our Japanology professors based his career on the study of Okinawan Shamanism–umbanda synchretism by Okinawan immigrants [5]; umbanda looks at a newcomer cosmology the way I look at a new lover). We don’t call the African gods into our bodies, which I would understand as actually appropriative without the corresponding initiations (notice however that white, Native American and other ethnicities are all welcome and commonplace in Black Candomblé terreiros, as long as you don’t act like you own the place). In umbanda-type possession we deal more or less horizontally with spirits rather than gods. The following is a list of major classes of spirits that we people of umbanda talk to in person for guidance:

From this list of folk we look up to for advice and counsel, I think one can get the mood of our religion. All but the last two are social classes which would be considered low-prestige in Brazilian society, disreputable, untrustworthy. And I wouldn’t be so sure about the sailors either, tbh. (Umbanda sailor-spirits tend be rowdy and melancholic rather than military in nature, and according to a certain podcast, they’ve been showing pirate traits as of late – to the bafflement of many traditional mediums. I welcome this development with a hearty yo-ho.)

All of this is my personal relation to the religion, of course. I don’t think anybody does umbanda without having their own individual take on it. I approached it unplanned – it approached me, really, we were called – and after it did a lot of good for me I dove into the thing with a frankly worshipful attitude, only to be told by the spirits ‘ma’am if you want to light a candle for me, say, you’re doing that ~for~ what? what do you ~want~?’. It’s, not the worshippy kind of religion. As I understand it it’s empowering, life-affirming, community-building, its practice feels like a fun party at first but is secretly baiting you into the work of healing and growth. When we talk with other umbanda practitioners about whether our spirits are ‘real’ or whether we are doing it ‘right’, their diagnosis is universal: ‘look at the results, what are the contents of what the voices say, are they making your life better? In concrete terms, are they helping you to reach out, to do good things for others? If so it’s real umbanda.’ And we know we’re umbandistas because of how enthusiastically we can say ‘fuck yes they are.’ Saravá ^.^

Photo of Rosinha Malandra riding the body of Rosa Luyara mid-gira, a voluptuous travesti woman holding a glass of booze in a generously cut yellow dress while hugging another girl. Just your average umbanda religious service: Rosinha Malandra, hedonist street-smart pombagira, in signature yellow garb while riding her travesti medium Rosa Luyara, Mother Rosinha. Rosinha is a renowned priestesses and her terreiro has become something of a trans/queer spiritual locus. More about her on Aninha Moraes’ thesis.[6] Photo source: Mãe Rosinha’s Instagram.

We are especially interested in the insurrectionary potential inherent to this tradition. We’re talking here about a religion where poor, Black, queer, homeless, sex-worker, favela folk will gather at night and call Pombagira Maria-of-the-Rags singing songs like this,

Maria-Mulambo was crying~ oh-oh It wasn’t out of regret From murdering her own boss Her loud laugh is so beautiful It’s Good Friday tonight.

We don’t want to oversell this here, it’s not like every terreiro is a perfectly woke anarchist cell planning revolution. (lots of anti-bolsonarista spiritual organising going on tho!) It’s said that possession is like mixing coffee and milk, something of the medium is always present; and not always the spirits can dismantle the medium’s personal prejudices. There are terreiros which will, bafflingly for members of a religion widely derided as a ‘slavehouse half-barbaric cult’, still try to avoid association with what they see as ‘unsavoury’ people. More than one conductor forbids what they see as ‘cross-gender’ possession (though the fact it has to be explicitly suppressed should tell you something). But by and large, and especially when compared with the dominant churches of the coloniser, African-matrix sacred spaces have historically been a place of not only refuge and welcome, but active celebration and empowerment: for the very poor, for ethnic minorities, for marginal women, the excluded, the queer.

Shamanic possession as a way to give – metaphorical and literal – voice to the margins of society is not exclusive to umbanda, it’s the role of adorcism in most of the world: to open oneself to they who have no voice, to offer them your mouth to speak out, to make people listen. Conversely, exorcism, the opposite of adorcism, has always been a tool of colonisation and state control, and not just by the Christians; clerical Buddhism got its foothold in Japan by promising the Yamato emperors better exorcisms than their state priests could perform against vengeful fox-spirits, which so often took over the women they wanted to domesticate; and today in Dubai, the djinns of the Smokeless Fire are known to burn down buildings of bad landlords, angered by the ostentatious towers while their folk live in shanties.[7] Muslim patriarchs blame gayness on djinn possession much like Brazilian pastors blame pombagiras. This bond between queer people and transgressive possession goes in exactly the opposite direction of what the State religions claim: this class of spirit is attracted to queer people by virtue of our queerness, not as the cause of it.

I am far from the only trans girl to find herself (despite my fragile atheism) protected by a pombagira, and her relationship to us is the kernel of our umbanda practice. To our knowledge there’s no book or documentary about this, but if you talk at any length with Brazilian travestis – whose special argot, Pajubá, is full of Bantu terms from terreiros – it doesn’t take much digging to spot allusions to embodied pombagiras.[8] This class of spirit is proudly diverse, comes in a bewildering complexity of ‘phalanxes’ – skull-witches and sweet little girls, ex-queens and famous beggars and port-town brawlers, indigenous and Black and Gypsy, and most of all sex workers, every imaginable kind of sex worker. The word itself sounds like nonsense, it’s Portuguese for 'pidgeon-spins', though that does evoke the skirt-spinning of the cult-nights, themselves called 'spins' (giras). But the etymology traces down to Pambu-Ianzila/Mpambu-Njila/Bumba-Nzila, a Bantu Nkisi god, his name meaning literally ‘Path’, ‘Crossroad’ (similarly, the gira meetings are thought to mean ‘crossroads meetings’ originally). Like his Yorubá equivalent, Eshu, Nzilá is a sexual, fiery, animal, and decidedly male entity whose role is to open paths, to liberate what had been blocked or bound. In umbanda Eshu-god became the eshus, an entire class of myriad spirits of freedom. And Nzilá also multiplied; but, in a process whose material history isn’t documented, the crossroads-Nkisi at some point flipped gender expression to the extreme opposite of the binary, becoming the outrageously, erotically, exceedingly female spirits we call the pombagiras, notoriously protective not just of women but also femme gay men and feminine people in general.

In other words, Nzilá came to Brazil and transitioned. —a crossing, a turnabout, a gira.

[1] Machado, Alisson, and Sandra Rubia da Silva. «“O que é meu é da cigana!”: religiosidade travesti em contextos de curimba digital» [“What’s mine belongs to gypsy!”: Travesti religiosity in digital curimba contexts]. Comunicação, Mídia e Consumo 16.45 (2019): 143.

[2] Filho, Eduardo Meinberg de Albuquerque Maranhão Filho. «A Pomba-gira Lady Gaga e a travesti indígena: (Re/des) fazendo gênero no Alto Rio Negro, Amazonas.» [Lady Gaga Pombagira and the Indigenous Travesti: (Re-/de-)constructing gender in the Amazonian Native community of Alto Rio Negro]. Mouseion 22 (2015): 151-175.

My own pombagira told me “don’t be silly, of ~course~ Lady Gaga isn’t a pombagira. yet :) it’s just that this spirit-sister is a drag queen, and Lady Gaga is her stage name. she’s a huge fan.”

[3] This was Mr. 7 of the Lyre, a dance-eshu, renowned for causing the military dictatorship to ban ‘vulgar spiritism’ from TV after he led impromptu group possessions into dance on live programming, then responding to the fascist ban by conducting a full-blown ritualistic Carnival parade.

[4] I am using ‘Gypsy’ to translate the Portuguese cognate ‘cigano’. I am aware that many English-speaking Rromani folks consider the term a slur, but in Brazil it seems to be widely used for self-identification, as seen in the Embaixada Cigana website (my Gypsy Dance teacher not only calls herself and her people Gypsy but also the dance she’s teaching, as do all other dance professionals I’ve seen). In addition, Brazilian Gypsies classify themselves into three distinct groups, Calon, Roma and Sinti, so they can’t be generalised as ‘Roma’ without excluding the other two.

(The first descriptions of umbanda practices don’t mention the Gypsy spirits. There is no records of how this happened, but at some point they just… wandered in.)

[5] Mori, Koichi. «Tornando-se uma Xamã Étnica Okinawana no Brasil—A Xamanização como um Processo Subjetivo e Criativo de Reculturalização» [Becoming an ethnically Okinawan Shaman in Brazil: Shamanisation as a Subjective and Creative Re-culturalising process]. In: Diálogos interculturais: reflexões interdisciplinares e intervenções psicossociais (2012): 27–.

[6] Carvalho, Ana Claudia Moraes de. «Puta, Pistoleira, Dona de Cabaré: a espetacularidade do corpo-cavalo-travestido de Dona Rosinha Malandra no Templo de Rainha Bárbara Soeira e Toy Azaka» [Whore, Pimp, Gunslinger: The spectacle of the travesti-body-horse of Miss Rosinha Malandra at the Queen Bárbara Soeira and Toy Azaka Temple]. Doctoral thesis, Federal University of Pará, Belém, 2021.

[7] Parkhurst, Aaron Lee. «Genes and Djinn: Identity and Anxiety in Southeast Arabia.» Diss. UCL (University College London), 2014.

[8] See also the Padilha-of-the-Souls Pombagira who resided with and protected a lesbian found-family in: Medeiros, Camila Pinheiro. «Mulheres de Kêto: etnografia de uma sociedade lésbica na periferia de São Paulo» [The Keto Women: ethnography of a lesbian community in the São Paulo ghetto]. Master’s thesis in Social Anthropology. Rio de Janeiro: UFRJ/Museu Nacional, 2006.