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The bumba-meu-boi, (bumba-boi, boi-bumbá, etc.) is a very popular and widespread comic-dramatic dance, which tells the story of the death and resurrection of an ox. It started at the end of the 18th century in the coastal sugar plantations and cattle ranches of northeastern Brazil and from there it spread to the north and south. Its name comes from the verb bumbar, meaning to beat up or against, and the expression is chanted by the crowd as an invitation for the ox (the men under the ox costume) to charge against them. It's represented here by tiny clay figurines from Pernambuco.

It is a parade of human and animal characters, and fantastic creatures from Brazilian Indian mythology, such as the Caipora, to the sounds of music and singing. It takes place during the Christmas season in certain states and in June in the states of Maranhão and Amazonas - during the "festas juninas" dedicated to St. John and St. Peter. There are usually a group of singers and the "chamador" or caller, who introduces the characters with different songs. The instruments used are the acoustic guitar, Brazilian tambourine, tamborim and accordion. The bumba-meu-boi appears in northern Brazil as boi-bumbá or bumba-boi and in the island of Santa Catarina, in southern Brazil, as boi-de-mamão. Mamão is the Brazilian word for papaya. It is believed that originally a green papaya was used as the ox head, and that's where the name apparently comes from.

Children costumes, São José Market, Recife

In the city of Parintins in the Brazilian Amazon, tens of thousands take to the "bumbódromo" (Parintins' answer to the "sambódromo" of Rio de Janeiro) where they sing and dance to the music of the boi by two rival groups that parade with huge floats and fabulous costumes: the red called Garantido and the blue, Caprichoso. It's become a great destination for tourists in the Amazon.

In the city of São Luis do Maranhão and its environs there are many different groups, with elaborate costumes and different styles of music, which are called "sotaques:" "sotaque de orquestra," as the names says, uses an orchestra of saxes, clarinets, flutes, banjo, drums, etc; "sotaque de zabumba" employs primarily very large drums; and "sotaque de matraca," a percussion instrument made of two pieces of wood that you carry in your hands and hit against each other. Some matracas are very large and are carried around the neck. With these, hundreds, sometimes thousands of people, create a clacking, frenetic rhythmic beat that's extremely contagious and vibrant. To watch on YouTube, click here. This is an example of "sotaque de orquestra."

In Pernambuco, bois go out at carnaval time in a more informal way; boi costumes like the ones I photographed at the market are very popular with kids.

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Most photos on this page were taken at the fabulous Casa do Maranhão Museum in São Luis, where numerous installations depict the different phases of the bumba-boi and the different "sotaques," their instruments and costumes.

Music & Folklore