“Boi Bumba” roughly translates as “Beat the Bull,” and relates to a popular folktole told throughout northeastern Brazil that weaves cultural threads from indigenous Amazonian peoples, Portuguese colonists, and Catholicism. During Boi Bumba, the story isn’t just simply told. In the Parintins version, it’s an elaborate stage production featuring parade floats, giant puppets, hundreds of costumed performers and lots and lots of feathers and drums.
But First the Tale
Pai Francisco and Mae Catarina are a poor married couple. Mae’s pregnancy causes her to have strong cravings for beef tongue, so to appease her appetite and bring some peace to their household, Pai Francisco steals the prized ox (boi) of a wealthy farmer to obtain the desired dish. The bull is killed, the crime is discovered by the farmer, and Pai Francisco is arrested. Enter a priest and a shaman who magically revive the bull, and a happy ending is reached.
Characters emerge from 30-foot tall parade floats designed to resemble jaguars, snakes, jungle birds, and rainforest creatures. While the main characters—the husband and wife (traditionally considered ugly, thus played by a man in drag), the bull, the farmer, the priest, and the shaman—sing their side of the story, they’re backed up by hundreds of nearly naked dancers, male and female, doffing elaborate feathered headdresses and little else.
Regionally, there are multiple festivals celebrating boi meu bumba that are akin to small street parades with players in costumes intermingled with a drum line. But in Parintins, it’s a whole different game. Here it’s a competition with two sides--the Caprichoso team versus the Garantido team—staging their own elaborate versions of the tale. The Caprichoso’s bull is black with a blue star on its forehead, the Garantido’s white with a red heart on its forehead, and those color schemes are reflected in the audience members attire as the 40,000-person audience screams and cheers for their troupe’s performances. Fierce loyalties trace family blood lines back nearly 100 years, but the competition remains friendly and boisterous.
The performances are mind-blowing in their grand spectacle. The simple Amazonian tale of desire, death, and resurrection is elevated by over-the-top production values. Characters emerge from 30-foot tall parade floats designed to resemble jaguars, snakes, jungle birds, and rainforest creatures. While the main characters—the husband and wife (traditionally considered ugly, thus played by a man in drag), the bull, the farmer, the priest, and the shaman—sing their side of the story, they’re backed up by hundreds of nearly naked dancers, male and female, doffing elaborate feathered headdresses and little else. Iguanas, armadillos, and ocelots appear on stage as well, life-sized remote controlled facsimiles painted in Day-Glo colors. Each team performs their tale one a day over the three days, with each staging bearing slight variations and themes. All involve drumming and dancing, dancing and drumming, their rhythms representing the spiritual and natural energy of the rainforest. Even the character of the Catholic priest is more animal-driven power than fusty incanted rites. (Boi Bumba takes place in the last weekend in June, nominally in honor of St. John’s Feast day.)
The Magic Mix
So many elements set this boi meu bumba apart from the others in Brazil: the riotous competition, the long and complex staging, the incessant days of drumming creating a fever pitch of heightened celebration, the tens of thousands of revelers who descend upon the town, but nothing quite elevates the mood than its physical location. Parintins is an island city deep in the heart of the Amazon rain forest, the nearest town, Manaus, lies nearly 350 miles away, reached only by river boat. Celebrants have earned their right to a party because the initial journey is not an easy one—depending on conditions, it can take between 30-50 hours to get to Parintins via boat where your bed is often a simple hammock.
Unlike other multi-day festivals that take place in larger cities (think Mardi Gras
), it’s virtually impossible to leave the celebration due to its isolation on the Amazon River. There is nowhere to go to escape Boi Bumba. Revelers spend their days engaged in street dancing and drinking capairinhas and capetas, cocktails made from local cachaca, and eating tacata, the local hearty soup. After the perfomances at night, both players and audience return to the streets, bars and restaurants and continue the party.