March 10, 2011

During my first official lesson as an apprentice of Mestre Amen I asked him about my role as a student of the music of candomblé. Since I was not initiated into the religion, nor am I an active practitioner, I had some misgivings about taking on the serious study of the drumming of candomblé solely for the purpose of learning its rhythms. In a way, I think I was looking for some sort of approval or endorsement from Mestre Amen, telling me that it was fine for me to learn outside of the formal and devotional context of the religious space in which candomblé initiates undergo their training.

Over the years—as a student of ethnomusicology and through my own life experiences—I have learned about Afro-Brazilian music and culture, the legacy of African traditions in Brazil, the history of the slave trade, and the complexities of “race” relations in Brazil and the systematic discrimination of so-called “black” religions. I have taught and given lectures in my area of study and dedicated a significant part of my research to Afro-Brazilian culture.

Mestre Amen pointed out to me my own work as a student of Afro-Brazilian culture and told me that he felt that it was indeed just fine for me to learn the music of candomblé. He again told me the story of how he was “called” to the religion by his patron orixá (deity) Oxaguiã to become an ogan (or, ogã, a master drummer). I then recalled that I once had a “reading” by a mãe de santo (literally, mother of saints or preistess) in order to determine which orixás were my guides. During that consultation I was told almost immediately that I was a son of Oxaguiã, along with Iemanjá and Oxóssi.

Mestre Amen told me that my interest in the music, history and culture of candomblé was also a “calling” of sorts. He stated that each person finds his or her own path to determine what level of commitment he or she will dedicate to candomblé. He pointed out the importance of learning the history of struggle in order to teach people about candomblé. As more people appropriate Afro-Brazilian traditions into a globalized world culture, the more there is a need for the tradition to be faithfully represented and taught.

My goal with this apprenticeship is guided by this principle. I don’t intend to become an ogan (though I don’t rule out what may come “calling” in the future). I don’t pretend to be a practitioner or initiate of candomblé, or to superficially evoke the orixás. I hope only to be able to teach people about candomblé so that some day all manifestations of Afro-Brazilian culture will be accepted into the national consciousness of Brazil without discrimination and disdain.

For my next post, I will show some specific examples of how candomblé has been alternately discriminated and romanticized.