Memórias Afro-Atlânticas (Afro-Atlantic Legacies)

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Documentary feature, 76:00, Brazil.
Directed by Gabriela Barreto.
Research and screenplay: Xavier Vatin and Cassio Nobre

During the 1940s, Brazil, specifically Bahia, became a site of cultural interest for researchers. While E. Franklin Frazier, the most famous black sociologist at the time, and Melville Herskovits, a white Jewish sociologist, focused on and argued over the origins of the black family, African American linguist Lorenzo Dow Turner centred his gaze on African languages. Dow Turner and his work on African linguistics are the focal point of Memórias Afro-Atlânticas.

The languages in question included Fon (from the Kingdom of Dahomey, currently Benin) and Yoruba (prominently spoken in Nigeria), which were spoken and sung by Afro-Brazilian people who practise the African indigenous religion Candomblé, a foundational part of the Afro-Brazilian culture that permeates Brazilian society. Candomblé is a religion that combines elements of African as well as indigenous religious practices, while also incorporating aspects of Catholicism. Candomblé translates to mean a dance to honour the gods. The dance of the gods in this instance are ceremonies honouring African Orixás, deified ancestors who serve as a link between the spiritual world and humans in the physical world. Throughout the documentary, a few Orixás are mentioned such as Nanã, the mother of death, Oxóssi, the god of the forest, and Xangô, the god of justice.

Almost 80 years later, Memórias Afro-Atlânticas (Afro-Atlantic Legacies) follows in the footsteps of Lorenzo Turner and revisits the Candomblé terreiros recorded by him in search of memories. From seven months of intensive research conducted in Salvador and the Recôncavo da Bahia in the 1940s, Turner aimed to highlight the linguistic relationship between Gullah, a language he had studied in the 1930s and which is still spoken along the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina (USA), and the African languages spoken by Afro-Brazilian Candomblés.

Prior to Turner’s illuminating work, it was widely believed that native African languages did not survive the Middle Passage. Because African languages were passed down through oral traditions and therefore not written down, they were not considered ‘real’ languages worthy of linguistic study. Furthermore, few scholars have dedicated themselves to the study of African languages in Brazil due to oral traditions. Turner’s explorations led to the publication of his pioneering work Africanisms in the Gullah Dialect in 1949 and earned him the moniker of the Father of Gullah Studies. 

Xavier Vatin, filmmaker, ethnomusicologist and professor of anthropology, and director Gabriela Barreto, interviewed several Afro-Brazilian priests and priestesses who identify themselves as members of the Candomblé by the handmade necklaces of coloured beads around their necks, representing their spiritual guardians. The interviewees sang along with Turner’s recording and reflected on the music of their culture and spoke lovingly of the past. In these moments, they were moved by the opportunity to hear the voices of such important people in the Candomblé community and provided tremendous value to the recordings of historic religious leaders. 

Turner’s recordings and photographs preserve the legacy and memory of revered figures such as Menininha do Gantois and Joãozinho da Goméia. Mãe (mother) Menininha do Gantois (1894-1986) was initiated in Candomblé at eight years old. Vatin’s respondents fondly remember her as a kind and affectionate spiritual leader and daughter of Orixá Oxum (goddess of beauty). At a young age, she was the head of Ilê Axé Iyá Omin Iyamassê, or Terreiro do Gantois, located in Alto do Gantois in Salvador, Bahia, a role she carried out for over half a century.  In Candomblé and other traditional African religions, the terreiro is the place where the group gathers to practice their rituals. As the head of the Gantois terreiro, she earned the position, mãe de santo (mother of the saints). Up against a society that persecuted the religion, she garnered respect as she fought for Candomblé’s legal recognition and its subsequent incorporation into mainstream society. As a result, Candomblé procured the license to worship the orixás in 1930.

Perhaps the most fascinating figure discussed is Joãozinho da Goméia (1914-1971). Born João Alves Torres Filho in the state of Bahia, he was considered the most famous Brazilian pai de santo (father of the saints). Vatin proposes that Joãozinho da Goméia earned the moniker the King of Candomblé for the way he revolutionized Candomblé through his sexuality and his dances in Carnival in places like Rio de Janeiro. 

Candomblé is a religion of the chosen. While it does not discriminate on the basis of identity factors such as sexual orientation and offers gender fluidity, its initiates are still immersed in a broader homophobic social context, with certain expectations pertaining to gender presentation, sexuality, and behaviours. As a pai de santo, Joãozinho da Goméia initiated many followers in Bahia and Rio de Janeiro. This is why he is still celebrated today, as revealed in the interviewees’ reverent way of speaking about him.  

Turner left an effective and powerful legacy for people of African descent. His recordings and photographs are a challenge to Black people throughout the Diaspora to get in touch with and reconnect with one another and their roots, and move past diversity and divisiveness along colour, race, class, spiritual, national, sexuality, gender, and cultural lines.  In this context, Memórias Afro-Atlânticas is an eloquent tribute to Lorenzo Dow Turner and the spirits and legacies of Afro-Brazilians he recorded and photographed. The documentary provides an insightful discussion of African languages, cultures, and identities, serving as a major contribution to the exploration of how Africans throughout the Diaspora develop their identities, communities, and sense of self. In its combination of stories, personal interviews, archival material, music and dance, it also represents an examination of Turner’s work on African languages, which remain a neglected area of study.

In Bahia, Turner is regarded as someone who safeguarded the memory of Candomblé. Vatin articulates that when Turner wrote to Herskovits, he stated, “blacks who belong in Candomblé in Bahia have an acute awareness of their Africaneity and are proud of it”. Turner’s pioneering research elevates Candomblé as a place of preservation. It is made evident in the abundant interviews that the emblematic characters and their descendants are keepers of culture and intellect. Memórias Afro-Atlânticas gives not just a new relevance to Turner’s work in Bahia but serves as a testimony to his legacy of connecting African descendants from the United States to Brazil and back home to Africa.  

How to cite this article

Mulholland, Rebekkah. Review of Memórias Afro-Atlânticas/Afro-Atlantic Legacies, directed by Gabriela Barreto. Oral History Journal Online Reviews Section (November 2021).

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