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Cluster of Excellence EXC 2052 - "Africa Multiple: reconfiguring African Studies"

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​Bembé do Mercado – Celebrating the abolishment of slavery in Santo Amaro Brazil


In their panel at this year’s Cluster Conference in July 2022, Viviane de Freitas and Jonas do Nascimento will debate with artists from African and the African diaspora about expressing yourself, memories and traditions through the body. One of their examples are the celebratory dances that mark the anniversary of the abolishment of slavery in Brazil each year on the 13 of May.

Every year, on 13 May „Bembé do Mercado” is celebrated in Santo Amaro, Bahia, Brazil. The festivity commemorates the anniversary of the date when the law abolishing slavery in Brazil was passed in 1888 making Brazil the last nation in the western hemisphere to free its enslaved people. The festivities include dancing, singing and worshiping the orixas - spirits in Yoruba tradition.

The mythology surrounding the festivities are part of the Afro-Brazilian religion Candomblé, which is derived from African ancestral cults. Enslaved captives brought these traditions from West and Central Africa to Brazil, where they evolved further. Practitioners of Candomblé – the so-called “People of Saints” - were heavily prosecuted during slavery so in the first year post-abolition they celebrated and praised the orixás in the central part of the city of Santo Amaro. The festivities publicly demonstrated that the chains of their slave owners had finally been broken, and that formerly enslaved people were free to practice their religion and own their own bodies and souls.

To this day, each year during Bembé do Mercado, Candomblé rites are still practiced under a barracão (a big tent) with religious icons and symbols set up in front of the town’s mercado (market). Musical shows, capoeira, samba de roda and maculelê are some of the highlights of the celebration. Nego Fugido, a reenactment of a slave escape attempt, is performed in the streets. At the end of the celebrations, a fireworks display is followed by a ritual offering at the beach.

During this festive period in Santo Amaro the sound of the sacred drums is omnipresent. The scent of lavender and fresh foliage lies heavily in the air and dancers are dressed in starched white and colourful skirts. By dancing in the Market Square, they celebrate their ancestors. By singing the sacred songs, they affirm their identity as people of saints. And by continuing to re-enact these rituals year after year generations continue to express their gratitude to their forebears, and their determination to continue the struggle for the abolition of all forms of inequality.

Although on 13 May the celebrations take over Santo Amaro it has to be said that many Afro-Brazilians do not commemorate this day and rather see it as the Day of “Falsa Abolição” (False Abolition). They are disappointed in the law that abolished slavery because it did not grant a better life for the large number of former slaves in Brazil. On the contrary, they feel that not providing them with education, land, or monetary grants effectively kept them from advancing and participating equally in Brazilian society. Afro-Brazilians did fight for their freedom, and continue to fight to this day: for political, social, and economic justice.

More information on Bembé do Mercado:

More info on the Panel and Conference

Photo Captions: 

  • The gift's arrival at the shed: Bembé takes place between the Wednesday and Sunday of the week of May, which coincides with the 13th of May. Saturday night is one of the most important moments of the celebration. When the gifts for Yemanjá and Oxum arrive at the shed, the population can appreciate them and take the opportunity to ask or thank them.

  • Praising the waters: before the gift is delivered in the sea waters of Itapema beach, Yalorixás and Babalorixás gather on the seashore to sing songs in gratitude.

  • Bembé do Mercado 2020, in the covid-19 pandemic situation: We have the Bembé flag hoisted every year in the market square. The bar is made in a reduced and symbolic way so that Bembé takes place in the first year of the pandemic.

  • Xiré: Daughters and sons of saints from Terreiros de Santo Amaro gather to dance the Xiré at the Bembé do Mercado.

  • Delivery of the 2020 Bembé gift: In a restricted way, the Bembé do Mercado took place, fulfilling all liturgical activities in satisfaction of the orixás. The gift delivery also took place with the beach of Itapema empty, unlike in previous years when this act concentrated hundreds of people.

Photos by Lais Lima (courtesy)

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