It's a festival celebrated throughout Brazil under a host of names -- boi-bumbá, boi calemba, boi surubim, boi zumbi -- but locals insist that Maranhão is Brazil's leading stronghold of bumba-meu-boi. Through music, costume, and drumming, the festival tells the story of the life and death and rebirth of a magical Brazilian bull.

The bull belongs to a wealthy rancher. A peasant working for the rancher named Pai Chico steals the bull, kills it, and feeds its tongue to his pregnant girlfriend, Catirina, to satisfy her cravings. Discovering the deed, the rancher condemns Pai Chico and Catirina to death. It looks dark for the pair, but St. John warns the rancher in a dream not to kill the couple. Pai Chico and Catirina go to the curandeiros, the community's traditional healers, and with the help of everyone in the village, they magically drum the bull to life again.


In Maranhão, bumba-meu-boi has evolved into a kind of competition. Dozens of different groups -- normally organized by neighborhood -- hold their own bumba-meu-boi celebrations, competing with each other to see who can put together the best costumes and put on the best party. The music played by each group belongs to one of about five rhythms, or sotaques (accents), each of which has its own set of instruments. The matraca sotaque uses wooden blocks that musicians rap together to create complicated percussion rhythms. The zabumba sotaque uses only long wooden drums covered in snakeskin. Each sotaque also has its own elaborate costumes, and each group has its own magic bull.

Though made of a wire frame and papier-mâché (a dancer goes inside to act out the part of the bull) the bull is an important creature. A new bull is created each year, and the parties held by each bumba-meu-boi group mark the milestones in the magic bull's existence.

Rehearsals begin on the Saturday before Easter (these are open to the public). In early June, the bull is taken to the church to be baptized (after which there is a party). Different groups choose different dates for the christening. The most popular date is June 23, the day of São João (there is usually a party on this day). On June 29, all the bumba-meu-boi groups bring their bulls to the church of São Pedro in the Madre Deus neighborhood. And on June 30, all of São Luis comes to a halt as 200 or more bumba-meu-boi groups bring their bulls out to celebrate the feast of São Marçal, mostly in the João Paulo neighborhood.


The last step in the bull's life is the Morte do Boi, the Death of the Bull, which each group holds on a different day, anytime between June 30 and the end of December. For those who want to take part in the festivities, local papers publish the dates and locations where the different groups are celebrating the birth, blessing, life, and death of their bull.

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