Dancing with the Orixás

Music, Body and the Circulation of African Candomblé Symbols in Germany

In: African Diaspora
Joana Bahia State University of Rio de Janeiro

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This article explores how the body and dance play a central role in the transnationalization of Candomblé among Afro-descendant people and increasingly for white Europeans by creating a platform for negotiating a transatlantic black heritage. It examines how an Afro-Brazilian artist and Candomblé priest in Berlin disseminate religious practices and worldviews through the transnational Afro-Brazilian dance and music scene, such as during the annual presence of Afoxé – also known as ‘Candomblé performed on the streets’ – during the Carnival of Cultures in Berlin. It is an example of how an Afro-Brazilian religion has become a central element in re-creating an idea of “Africa” in Europe that is part of a longer history of the circulation of black artists and practitioners of Candomblé between West Africa, Europe and Latin America, and the resulting creation of transnational artistic-religious networks.


In this contribution I aim to examine how the artistic performances of Afro-Brazilian migrants in Germany are inevitably intertwined with religious performances and what the consequences are for the transnationalization of Candomblé1 and the negotiation of ‘blackness’ among Brazilian and German followers in Berlin. The relationship between artistic performance and Candomblé has a long history. Music and dance have always been constitutive elements found in different moments of the history of Candomblé, either in its practices or in its interconnections with the artistic domain (Amaral and Silva 2006; Moura 1995; Nascimento 2002; Lody and Silva 2002; Vieira 2010). Such interconnections are also present in the transnational expansion of Candomblé and other religions of African descent (Gilroy 2001; Matory 1999, 2005).2 Several cultural spaces – dance and music schools, universities, cultural centers, social activities in the temples, music and dance scenes – are part of the trajectories of mothers- and fathers-of-saint,3 either as a result of their professionalization in the artistic and cultural fields, or as a strategy for expanding religions of African descent.

At the same time, the case of Candomblé in Germany constitutes a new case and a new dimension in the ongoing discussions about the formation of an Afro-Atlantic space, the so-called Black Atlantic (Matory 1999), and its expansion through the construction of transnational networks. The idea of the Black Atlantic as a cultural and political system – understood as a transatlantic circuit of ideas, people and histories comprising the New World, Europe and Africa – brings to light ways in which processes of modernization and globalization create new spaces for the interchange of ideas and new representations of “blackness” (Gilroy 2001). Diasporic communities’ construction of a “mythic” Africa has allowed the recreation of black cultures in different spaces and times (Capone 2011; Gilroy 2001; Matory 2005). The circulation of artists, politicians and intellectuals between the social and artistic domains, promotes new and creative ways of living the black heritage in its diversity (Décoret-Ahiha 2004). This includes the religious domain (Capone 2015).4 Religions such as Afro-Cuban Santeria and Candomblé, brought by Cubans and Brazilians respectively to Germany during the seventies and eighties of the former century, became established in Europe through the participation of fathers- and mothers-of-saint in the artistic and cultural fields. Moreover, these religions have expanded through local and international events such as dance courses and workshops undertaken in several European countries.

A contemporary example of the transnationalization of Candomblé through the artistic and cultural fields in Germany, is the Interkulturelle Zentrum Forum Brasil in the neighborhood of Kreuzberg, Berlin, which is also the Ilê Obá Silekê terreiro or temple directed by father-of-saint Murah (Bahia 2013; Bonilla 2011). Germans, Brazilians and people of other nationalities, such as Americans, Cubans and Italians, have been participating in the activities of the Forum. Murah is widely known in the city and country for having been one of the first people to institute Candomblé on German soil, as well as for having worked as an Afro-Brazilian dancer all over Europe for more than twenty years. Forum Brasil is a cultural institution and Ilê Obá Sileké is a religious one (terreiro). Although the Forum Brasil and the temple are based at the same location and are related, they are not the same institution; rather, they are inter-connected. Many of the Capoeira5 and Portuguese language teachers of the Forum, as well as teachers of other activities, also participate in the rituals and the religious life of Ilê, and symbols circulate from one institution to the other. This Candomblé temple (terreiro) includes Brazilian migrants ranging from middle-class workers to those married to lower-class German men and women, as well as an increasing number of white Germans.6 Afro-Brazilian artists, musicians and dancers are predominant in the group, including the father-of-saint himself.

As I will explore below, selected performative practices offered by the father-of-saint Murah in the context of the cultural forum in Berlin, are attractive for both Brazilian migrants and German visitors as they communicate the ‘true power of nature’, a process that relates to what Meyer and De Witte (2013: 277) have termed a “heritagization of the sacred” or “how selected objects and performative practices are made to appear as truthful incarnations of cultural heritage” and in this case of a black cultural heritage. At the same time, a “sacralization of heritage” (Ibid.) is taking place because “certain heritage forms become imbued with a sacrality that makes them appear powerful, authentic, or even incontestable.” The latter happens when participants of Murah’s courses start to feel and accept the orixás (orishas or African gods)7 in their bodies, which can be a very painful process. In short, by exploring the central role of the body and dance in the transnationalization of Candomblé, I elaborate on the interchanges of the transnational heritagization of Candomblé and the re-sacralization of Afro-Brazilian performances as different forms of living the black heritage in Berlin.

I carried out a multi-sited ethnography (Marcus 1995) that encompassed the physical and virtual mobility of social actors, objects and signs, and included the study of discourses and relocation processes from Brazil to Europe. Most of the fieldwork in Europe took place between 2010 and 2012, when I lived in Lisbon and Berlin, both cities with a marked Candomblé presence, and were followed up by different short fieldwork trips between 2013 and 2015. I attended dance performances and workshops held in the terreiro in Berlin, an exhibition about orixás at the Berlin City Hall during Afro-culture month in which Brazil was selected as the focus, and the Afoxé parade during the Carnival of Cultures (see below). I also met Murah in the countries where he offered his workshops. In the city of Rio de Janeiro, I met with Murah and his sons-of-saint in mother Beata’s terreiro8 in order to observe the performance of their religious duties in Brazil.

I chose the Candomblé temple in Berlin as my case study. The father-of-saint Murah speaks fluent German and French, worked as a butler in Brazil, and lived doing odd jobs while finishing his training as a dancer in São Paulo. Because of his family, his religion, and – later – his work engagements, he lived in and between Bahia and São Paulo. Murah dances in Germany and travels around the world, working with different dance groups and in numerous Brazilian dances (Salsa, Samba and Afro-dance)9 and Capoeira communities. He teaches Afro-dance in the many cities and countries he visits and in his own terreiro. All these aspects point towards the importance of music and dance for the religious transnationalization of Candomblé. They are not only central parts of the life and work of Afro-Brazilian migrant artists, but they constitute the modus operandi of the transnationalization of Candomblé.

In the following, I present aspects of the history of migration and Candomblé in Germany. I also explain the initiation of both Germans and Brazilians into Candomblé, before entering into a more detailed description of Afoxé and the Carnival of Cultures in Berlin. Finally, I delve into the challenges of embodied experience that are inherent in Candomblé by showing how the negotiation of different forms of blackness at the Forum Brasil also reveals tensions between the “heritagization of the sacred” and the “sacralization of heritage.”

Migration and Candomblé in Germany

The German religious field has undergone great transformations created by the migratory flow of Turks, Arabic peoples, Africans, and – most recently – Cubans and Brazilians (Bahia 2013). The majority of the Turks arrived in the 1960s, when Germany established temporary work programs to address the country’s labor shortage. In the case of Brazilian migration, Sales (1999) asserts that both migration to the USA and to Europe involved workers coming from the middle classes who started working in non-specialized services. However, several Brazilians in Berlin work expressing their own art and culture. Schools and freelance professionals teaching Brazilian dance (Forró, Samba), music and Capoeira, for example, have spread throughout Germany.10

Brazilians do not immigrate as isolated individuals, however. They also bring their social networks and relationships to the countries where they settle and, in so doing, change the social and religious fields of these countries (Dias 2006; Martes 1999; Pordeus Jr. 2000). Among the Brazilian religions that have been growing in Germany over the last ten years are Kardecist11 centers, Umbanda12 and Candomblé temples, and Santo Daime,13 all founded by Brazilians in Berlin, Hamburg, Munich and other German cities (Spliesgart 2010). One also finds fathers- and mothers-of-saint in Germany without established terreiros and there are also several apprentices who have no affiliation to any one house-of-saint. Afro-Brazilian religious practices can be found all over Germany, which is an indicator of the presence of their practitioners.14

According to Gruner-Domic (1996) and Rossbach de Olmos (2009), the “faith of the orixás” arrived in Germany in the 1970s, brought over by Cuban students and workers. The orixás’ first stop was in communist Germany. Bilateral agreements between Cuba and the German Democratic Republic favored the arrival of Cuban professionals and workers in the 1970s. Many Cubans brought along their religious objects, especially when returning from vacation in Cuba, at a moment when German control over migration was less strict. Moreover, despite the limitations for expressing religion openly in a communist regime, the orixás could travel freely through music and dance in particular. After reunification in the 1990s, a great number of Cubans remained in the country. At present, the reasons for the diffusion of Afro-Cuban Santeria have changed. In the last few years, according to Rossbach de Olmos (2009: 484–485), mixed marriages, touristic trips to Cuba and an increasing interest in Afro-Cuban music have led Germans to have more contact with Afro-religions, triggering German interest in the Brazilian culture of Candomblé (see also Bahia 2014). In addition, the Germans I met in Murah’s temple practice meditation, Buddhism and different New Age techniques, which brings them closer to Afro-Brazilian bodily practices (see further below).

The Brazilian father-of-saint Murah cooperates with the Afro-Cuban father-of-saint Joaquim. They are long-time friends and collaborate in the local and European religious scene and in the sphere of dance, in which they work as professionals, carrying elements from both religions (Santeria and Candomblé) into the artistic sphere.15 Joaquim and his children-of-saint participate in Candomblé celebrations and rituals, including the parading of the Afoxé in the Carnival of Cultures in Berlin (see below). However, none of the Cubans I met had a terreiro in Germany, and many of Joaquim’s children went to Cuba for their initiation rituals. Cuban and Brazilian sons- and daughters-of-saint from several temples and cults coming from different parts of Brazil and living in Germany and Europe have collaborated to ensure the maintenance and support of the Ilê in Berlin. The difficulties in adapting Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Cuban religious rituals to local mores are very similar, especially with regard to sacrifices. In Germany, sacrifices are prohibited by law and anyone can be arrested if an animal is killed. Both Santeria and Candomblé share this and other problems in their ritual practices, whenever they require this kind of blood offering.

The terreiro Ilê Obá Silekê (house of king Xangô Aganju)16 – the Candomblé temple that I studied – had been present in Salvador, Brazil, when Murah emigrated. Born in 1961 in São Paulo, Murah went to live in Salvador when he was six, being initiated into the religion at age nine. His biological grandmother, Dona Coleta de Oxossi, raised him. His relationship with the religion dates from his conception and he idealizes the terreiro due to its centrality during his migration history. Murah emigrated to Germany in 1989 in order to work in schools as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, especially of Brazilian dances, in which he specialized in the Greater São Paulo region. In linking Candomblé to his life story and his biological family, we find the orixás as the forces pushing migration in his narrative. As Murah himself states, “If the orixá opened the doors of the Frankfurt airport for me, it is because he wanted me to stay in Germany and take his teachings with me.” Murah’s narrative is infused with and inseparable from his religion.

The proximity father-of-saint Murah has with Brazil is important for his artistic and religious work. For example, the relation of his own mother-of-saint Beata (see note 8) with his terreiro in Berlin is crucial for two reasons: besides settling Xangô (the god of fire) in the temple and enabling axê17 to circulate, institutionalizing the Ilê and initiating Murah’s followers, she guarantees the legitimacy of Afro-Brazilian religion, situating Brazil as the place for the exchange of knowledge. Moreover, the connection Murah has with Brazil can be noted by the frequency of his trips and those of his sons-of-saint, as well as by the presence of other fathers- and mothers-of-saint in cults in his terreiro. His connection to other terreiros in the world is a sign that indicates his prestige as a leader in the religious market. His presence on German soil is diffused by German radios and footage of his rituals is present on social networks. In these broadcasts, Candomblé is not only presented as a religion that is tolerant to women, homosexuals and blacks, but also and mainly as a strong symbol of Brazilian and black identity.

The Forum Brasil is a company, registered under German law and directed towards cultural activities related to Brazil, especially ones that value black culture. In order to establish the company, its headquarters and the activities of the terreiro, Murah studied Cultural Management. The Forum Brasil is a respected institution in the city and cannot be separated from the role of Candomblé in Germany, and nor from a more general strategy to expand the religion throughout Europe. In his culture management course, Murah learned how to represent Brazil, situating aspects of Brazilian culture as things that could be marketed by a company.18 The presence of activities that highlight the importance of music, dance and the arts and the several ways in which a body can be used, such as Capoeria, place emphasis on elements that delimit the idea of Brazil as mainly black in the Forum.

The temple is open every day, but most of the rituals are closed to the public and take place when there are no other activities at the cultural forum. There is a schedule of festivities and rituals, some of which are public and others private.19 Due to restrictions established by the Berlin municipal authorities, the festivities can only be held every two months and the beating of the drums can only last four hours. In Brazil, there is no limit on the drums: normally, people can stay the whole night dancing and singing for the orixás. When drums are allowed to be played, tribute is paid to the orixás and the celebrations are open to the community. In order to participate, one only needs to be dressed in white and women need to wear skirts.

Of the public festivities,20 the winter festivities draw the largest crowds, including large numbers of Germans. The period with the least public participation (in which most participants are Brazilians and are associated with the Ilê) are the Xangô21 festivities, because they take place close to the German holiday season. The father-of-saint seek to make those celebrations that in Brazilian Candomblé would be public a more private affair, principally because of the restrictions on drumming. Only the children-of-saint or abiãs are permitted to participate in these events, as they are, respectively, those who are learning the religion or have some years of experience of it.

Music is one of the most fundamental elements of Candomblé, along with dancing and the offering of food to the orixás. These practices call the orixás down to Earth and set off the processes of trance and possession (Rouget 1980). Music and dance thus mix with Afro-Brazilian religious practices and are the means by which Germans and other nationalities are attracted to Afro-Brazilian religion, as will be examined below.

The Attraction of Candomblé for Brazilians and Germans

Visitors to the Candomblé temple in Berlin mentioned several types of motivations behind their entry into the religion. Entry into the religion, however, does not mean that the person will be initiated into it. Initiation is a learning process that takes time. Initiation in Candomblé means giving birth to a new orixá in the initiate’s body, seating its energy in the head of the novice. The person needs to follow rituals in stages in order to become part of the community and must take time in order to learn how to take care of him- or herself and the orixá, as well as how to participate in the ritual life of the terreiro. Most of the people initiated in the terreiro are Brazilians. Some Germans are trying hard to do so, but they are not yet there. In Murah’s words, “for Germans and Europeans to be initiated into the religion, they have to become more Brazilian.” This means they have to live the religion as an actual practice and not only think or read about it. They need to “accept the religion in their bodies and not only in their brains.” According to Murah, the more a person lives in rhythm, releasing their body to movements without thinking about coordinating their steps, the more he or she incorporates the senses and movements of the orixás.

My Brazilian interlocutors all converted during the migratory process. Many have been deeply imprinted by the migratory experience and have developed a new perception of their original identity. The majority of Murah’s followers in the terreiro and his initiates are lower middle class blacks (some hailing from the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro) who perceive religion as a place to live their black and, more specifically, their black Brazilian identities. To some, ‘Candomblé is a black man’s thing.’ This is how they see and feel it, reliving their blackness outside Brazil and reaffirming their identity links with the religion of black Brazilian former slaves. Others use the religion to not only express the idea of being black, but also to express a family heritage marked by Afro-Brazilian religiousness.22

Other Brazilians in the temple are expressing a relationship with popular religion that was already present in the daily lives they led in Brazil and that can now only be felt in proximity with things from Brazil. The Forum provides this proximity for those who take part in it, by working with elements that define Brazilian culture – rhythms such as Forró, Afoxé and Capoeira. Still other Brazilians manifest their mediumship by becoming ill. This is what happened to Dofono (the first person to be initiated in the temple), who suffered from open wounds on his legs until he discovered he had a spiritual problem and needed to be initiated. He was not unaware of Candomblé when he lived in Brazil, but he only became active in the religion after he emigrated.

Many Brazilians initiated in the saint say that the religion allows for an individual expression of emotions and also makes them feel that they belong to a community or (better yet) a family of saint.23 Other initiates are attracted by Afro-Brazilian religions’ tolerance of the presence of homosexuals – this in frank contrast to Brazilian evangelical churches in Germany that condemn homosexuality.

The Germans I met in the Berlin temple were interested in Candomblé for several reasons. One is that the power of the religion can be found in its natural elements (Bahia 2012; 2013).24 In Candomblé, the intertwining between the sacred and the profane is embedded in the belief that the orixás are entities with powers, just like humans and gods. The orixás are not defined in an opposition of good and evil. The relationship of the person to his orixá connects him to nature because most orixás are related to forces of nature (wind, fire, water, earth). Most spirits of nature are worshipped as African gods, as these deities are believed to have the power to control nature.

Another idea that attracts Germans is the realization that the power of nature is not only in nature, but can be experienced through bodily practices. In Candomblé, the body is seen as becoming closer to nature and moving according to it. Moreover, the body is sexualized in a very different manner from the conception of the body in the German construction of identity.25 Sexuality and happiness are fundamental elements in the dance of the orixá which attract both Brazilians and Germans. It appears that the exotic side of these practices attracts German participants in particular, especially the closeness of the body to nature.

As said, the Germans I met in the temple practice meditation, Buddhism and different New Age techniques, yet they believe there is a great power in Afro-Brazilian bodily practices that offers something beyond their previous spiritual experiences and brings them closer to Candomblé. Being in touch with and gaining some knowledge about musical experiences in the Forum and the temple may signify spiritual gains for them. They experience a strong process of de-rationalization, meaning that it is necessary for them to learn how to deal with their senses and with values that are strongly connected to the idea of mystery (see further below) and which are not verbalized but literally “incorporated” – being expressed in the relationship between nature and the body. When participants simultaneously incorporate music and dance, they can be initiated and are ready to understand the meaning of Candomblé. How do Germans become attracted towards Candomblé in the first place?

Carnival of Cultures and Afoxé in Berlin

The dance classes and the Afoxé Loni group in the Carnival of Cultures are the means by which Germans are seduced into Candomblé. The Carnival of Cultures was created in 1996 by Werkstatt der Kulturen (WdK) in the neighborhood of Neukölln, Berlin. It is one of the biggest cultural events in Berlin. It showcases floats and folkloric costumes and unites around 4.5 thousand people, representing seventy nations, including Latin American ones such as Amazonia, Aya-Huma Ecuador, Boi da Caipora Doida, Bloco Explosão, Casa Latinoamericana, Furiosa, Grupo Peru and Tangará Tanzstudio. The different groups parade from the Hermannplatz metro station to the Yorckstraße station.

Afoxés are cultural-artistic groups based on Afro-Brazilian religious doctrines (Souza 2010: 8). In their relationship with the temples, the Afoxé groups pay their devotion to orixás who are their guides and receive religious care from Babalorixás and/or Yalorixás (the highest rank of Candomblé priests: he or she who takes care of the orixás).26 Carnivals are an opportunity to give visibility to the social aspects and values that comprise the basis of African culture in Brazil, and the Afoxés are part of this. Particular reference is made to music, dance, vocabulary, symbols, gestures, clothing and other elements that circumscribe these groups, making them a representation of street Candomblé – the religious practice represented in an artistic performance on the street.

Murah’s Afoxé group is fourteen years old and is composed of Brazilians, Germans and Africans, totaling three hundred members who wear white – the central color in Candomblé – and yellow – related to the African god of fresh waters, fertility and beauty, Oxum, who stands central during the Afoxé performances (Figure 1). The Afoxé is headed by one Berliner and two Paulistanos (Brazilians from São Paulo), among them Murah. Many Brazilians travel from other (European) countries and other parts of Germany to the Carnival to take part in the group’s activities.

Before the Afoxé begins, there are ebós (sacrificial offerings) to Exu, Oxum and Obaluaiê (an African god of health who has been syncretized with Saint Lazarus) in order for everything to work out well. These offerings ensure positive energy, good health and good omens for all who are present, including, of course, the greater space of Berlin itself. Thus, the father-of-saint bathes all who are present with popcorn which is the food for the African god Obaluaiê through which participants receive good health. Then, the Afoxé Loni percussion group begins to play and the parade starts. Afro-Brazilian rhythm and musicality are quite important components of the event. The Afoxé plays the rhythm ijexá, which is a rhythm played for Oxum.


Figure 1

Afoxé in Berlin

Citation: African Diaspora 9, 1-2 (2016) ; 10.1163/18725465-00901005

The participation of Murah’s Afoxé group in the Carnival in Berlin is an important example of the importance of the production of the Afro-Brazilian religious field in the city of Berlin, not only in the religious sphere, but also in the symbolic and cultural ones. Particularly crucial here is the construction of references for ethnic self-identification processes. The production of Afro-Brazilian religious symbols in the cultural and political events that go beyond the religious field and define places and events that are considered to be Brazilian emphasize black Brazilianess by uniting body, music and Afro-dance. The colors of the garments, the offerings to the orixás and the specific ijexá rhythms refer directly to Candomblé because they serve as symbols of blackness by relating religion to an African origin. For many black Brazilians in particular, dancing the ijexá rhythm is commemorative of a Yoruba tradition. Moreover, the participation of black artists in the Afoxé during the Carnival of Cultures, but also in drumming and dancing workshops and in various performative spectacles at the Forum Brasil connect dance and movement to popular perceptions of African culture. These events evoke an idea of appreciation for the blackness related to Afro-Brazilian religion, seeking the insertion of this blackness in society at large. The role of the father-of saint in these processes can be thought of as that of an ethnicity producer, that is, a builder of stories and ideologies regarding the group. Murah selects certain cultural elements such as specific rhythms in order to create a positive appreciation of the reconstruction of the ethnic identity of black immigrants.

The performance of black Brazilian artistic culture as immigrant markers of identity ends up promoting Afro-Brazilian notions of religiosity, given the deep intertwining between black religious and artistic cultures in Brazilian thought. Europeans, drawn to black dance, music and theater, become automatically exposed to black religious/philosophical ideas, which can resonate with certain counter-hegemonic, largely romantic, European worldviews, such as those related to New Age. ‘Exoticism,’ ‘tropical exuberance,’ and the idea of an ‘essential primitiveness’ all become added to a rereading of one’s sense of being in the world (see below), creating new significance for Afro-Brazilian religiousness. Fathers- and mothers-of-saint, working in Europe, consciously modify Afro-Brazilian traditions in order to strengthen these resonances (respect for nature, bodily care, etc.) and reduce the impact of alterities that are difficult for Europeans to assimilate (possession, blood sacrifice).

But more than a religious extension of dance and music, Candomblé is also a reading of the body and of diseases. Dancing for the orixá is understood to be a way of expelling physical ailments from the body and it is also presented as a form of sacred body care to those people who were originally attracted to the religion via Afro-dance. The Germans who attend the dance workshops gradually begin to acquire a deeper understanding of dance, seeing it as something that goes beyond simple bodily movement. In Afro-dance, body, mind and spirit are portrayed as moving as one and as inevitably pushing the individual into the more complex world of the African gods.

Dance, Myths and the Orixás

In the Afro-Brazilian dance courses and workshops at the cultural forum the father-of-saint Murah creatively mixes information from Candomblé and his families of saint, referring to the myths of the orixás collected by anthropologists Reginaldo Prandi (2007) and Pierre Verger (2009, in cooperation with Carybé) that are read both by himself and by his sons-of-saint. To this, he adds his knowledge about dance, his relations with other Brazilian folk rhythms, and ideas of great importance rooted in Yoruba thought and language, such as the concept/word Oriki (see below). The father-of-saint appropriates dance and music based on an idea of African cultural heritage as being original and fixed. Such heritage has actually been mixed and is hybrid, with elements connected to the life-experience and trajectories of the faithful restoring fragmented collective memories that have been traveling between Africa, Latin-America and Europe, giving them a new meaning (Feldman 2005: 210–212).

Since 2015, many of the ‘African’ myths presented in the workshop have begun to be represented in short theatrical presentations for a small group of attendees. One of the last presentations, named Oriki, tells about the deeds of orixás, such as Xangô, Oxalá and Exu,27 their confrontations and ambiguities. These were selected from different myths but became endowed with a certain unity in the play. More Germans than Brazilians attended these plays and some people who joined the religion but then gave it up (attending only workshops) were also present. The plays were seen as a way of bringing the religion closer to the participants’ daily lives, however, reaching beyond rituals and daily duties.

The Oriki (from Yoruba, orí = head, kì = salute) are verses, sentences or poems created to salute the orixás, referring to their origins, qualities and ancestry. More than a salute however, in Yoruba philosophy this praise poetry is meant to remind each person that everything in nature has consciousness and that every force in nature can communicate with human beings through altered states of consciousness, such as possession (Fatunmbi 2014). Whereas such states can be reached through the power of words and prayers, Murah created a wordless play, carried out through the rhythm of the drums. Even though this theatrical play evokes strong emotions in the actors when they are on stage, the rhythms of the orixás that trigger possession are not sung, as would be the case in rituals. Although no trance is involved, contact with this theatrical scene sets off a powerful bodily experience in the actors which visibly affects the audience that exhibits emotions through cries and laughter.

Murah explained that the theatrical piece is an attempt to introduce the orixás to an audience that has had little contact with the religion’s practices and also to those who are being initiated. To mediate religion in his teachings, Murah chooses dance, theater, drumming and dramatic elements that communicate in powerful ways. It appears that what attracts people to his presentations is more than simply dance: people are interested in the special movements that refer to the steps of the orixás. The moments when the father-of-saint talks about the details of orixá Iansã’s hand or foot when she dances, and the little rituals he performs before he starts teaching are the moments that draw students’ attention to the religion. Mysteries, in other words, Murah insinuates; he speaks, but does not draw open conclusions and this somehow draws the attention of European spectators in particular. They will need to attend the rituals if they want to know more about the orixás.

Those who pass from the dance workshops to the terreiro begin to perceive pains, ailments and other sensations as manifestations of the orixás in their body: ‘headaches,’ ‘the world became a bit gray’ and ‘I feel a sense of wellbeing when I dance for the orixás’ are some descriptions given to me of these physical changes by one of Murah’s German daughters-of-saint. In her testimony, one can observe a progressive shift in her body’s reactions and her worldview with regard to pain. What could have been seen as an illness when strong headaches appeared, became interpreted as a connection with her main orixá and also as a shift in life. She said that colors and African dance healed her pain: when she danced for the orixá in the Afro-Brazilian dance course, she did not have headaches but instead experienced an urge to move her body and change her life. She switched cities, jobs and social circles; she started having more Brazilian and fewer German friends. In Candomblé, one has to learn to think not only about pain, but also about everything that sets the body in movement (Barros and Teixeira 2000). Spiritual possession not only resolves situations, it also elongates them, creating or introducing new agencies, relationships and perspectives (Masquelier 2002: 49–75).

Not only dance, but also pain (which precedes initiation) gives meaning to the relationship between the individual and the world, guiding the initiate to learn (Le Breton 2007). And this is not only about pain, but also about how pain manifests. The pain that is present before initiation and bodily alterations is not only present in the existential instability of the orixá, but is also reflected in the acts of those who receive them. “The orixá makes us migrate,” said many children- and fathers-of-saint whom I interviewed, “they move their stiffer and heavier bodies.” This causes pain, discomfort, pleasure, and an emotional flow that results in social learning.

In all cases studied, movement – moving in the steps of Xangô – became central to initiates. Through the movement of their bodies, the orixás revealed their identity and position in the world, such as in the case of an “Afrodeutscher” or Afro-German male interviewee, a son of Murah. He found it difficult to identify with German culture, in spite of being inserted in it. He started participating in Candomblé when feeling increasingly distressed and searching for an Africa he could belong to.28 He said that after all his discomforts he is now more centered in his life while his body goes on changing through the dances in the temple. While he continues to move in the footsteps of his Xangô, the movements of his body uncover his relations to Africa, Brazil and Europe, in other words: his being in the world.

Yet, I witnessed that especially in the case of Germans who start participating in the terreiro, possession becomes a breaking point with Candomblé. As some of them said, “Candomblé is not New Age,” meaning that Candomblé is more religious than they thought it would be. They participated in the Candomblé rituals as a way to rethink their self through orixás that represent the forces of nature. But when their body becomes possessed, they come to realize that Candomblé is more than a culture that valorizes the nature of African gods through dance and music as the orixás appear to be ‘real’ gods who are part of a religious hierarchy with many rules they need to obey. As soon as they perceive that unlike their experiences with New Age and Buddhism, the spirituality of Candomblé is more than meditation and self-reflection, and includes possession, animal sacrifices and obedience to the father- or mother-of-saint, most of them stop participating in the rituals of the terreiro (cf. Hagedorn 2006: 489).


Watching the steps of Xangô, or any other orixá in the bodies of its sons- or daughters-of-saint, demonstrates the importance of the body and its movements in the process of religious circulation, especially in the re-creation of the so-called Black Atlantic (Matory 1999). Movement is present in Candomblé in many ways and is expressed in attitudes and bodily positioning such as dancing. In Candomblé, dance is an expression of man’s eternal nature. It is a mirror of the cosmos that celebrates the continuity of all its components by bringing together the history of the orixás, their relationship to nature and the movements that relate them to the different parts of the body. These aspects awaken the senses of attendants of the Afro-dance workshops to the idea of a body that dances not only to itself, but also for the gods. The Afro-descendant heritage, as witnessed in Berlin, is constantly reconfigured by dance and other art forms that make bodies move in public spaces such as workshops, Afoxés and art exhibitions regarding the orixás. When one teaches Afro-dance, or how to sing songs that reference Candomblé, or how to cook for the gods, many aspects of the modus operandi of Candomblé are also taught (Bahia 2013).

In the cases presented above, dancing allows for different forms of mobility, since it does not depend on migratory flows alone. Afro-dance in the context of Forum Brasil, is not only related to Germany and Brazil or to the flows of people from these countries who come to the terreiro. Moreover, there are multi-scale transits in many directions across the world map and within Berlin itself, in terms of the new relationships that are shaped by Afro-Brazilian courses and events. The participation in the temple and in Forum Brasil allow for a new understanding of one’s relations to nature, to other people in the city and in the world, and of one’s identity and being.

If, on the one hand, the movement of one’s body can lead to religious involvement, creating ways for orixás to circulate, showing the importance of the body for the mobility of African-Brazilian religions, on the other hand, there are also conflicts and limits to its transnationalization, especially when the body needs to be initiated into Candomblé. In African-Brazilian religions, the body is situated in the realm of nature and should be polished as the initiate advances in his or her priestly life. The body is shaped as it approaches sacredness, moving from a raw to a divine state. The body in African-Brazilian religions is constructed as it receives different forms of trance. In this sense, people are considered to be fragmented and all efforts are directed to merging each person into a single unit (Goldman Silva 2007: 226). Initiation and the amount of time people have remained in the religion build this unit. It is a never-ending construction, an eternal continuum. The time when this body leaves the realm of dance and enters into an uncontrolled possession (presuming the person has not been initiated into the religion) is the moment that marks the beginning of problems in the transnationalization of some of Candomblé’s practices, because participants, in this case German participants, often find going into a trance a frightening experience.

The bodily practices of Candomblé betray some similarities to those found in the German New Age universe. At first, this contributes to the positive reception of Afro-Brazilian religions in Germany by acknowledging the power of the body within a different modus operandi. Yet, limits arise when the gods who bring many followers to Candomblé are also the orixás who make their children-of-saint fall and feel pain whenever they are not controlled by a trance, transforming the body into something unknown. Only a trance (after religious initiation) can restore the relationship between men, their gods and the body. If the body allows for more circulation of the orixás, it also imposes limits to the expansion of the religion in the transnational sphere.

Thus, in short, by exploring the central role of the body and dance in the transnationalization of Candomblé, the multiple layers of the circulation of an Afro-Brazilian religion become visible. The participation in Afro-Brazilian drumming and dancing workshops and in various performative spectacles such as Oriki shape the perceptions of African culture as a form of going back to ‘nature’ and one’s ‘origins,’ a “heritagization of the sacred” (Meyer and de Witte 2013). At the same time, the dances and movements communicate particular religious/philosophical ideas that open participants’ bodies for the orixás, a “sacralization of heritage” (Ibid.). This process exposes the multiple layers of embodied religious performances. Various levels of circulation – transnational, local, African, Afro-Brazilian – become embodied experiences leading to wellbeing and/or pain, shaping the experiences of transnational lives. Hence, not only the portability of religious forms (Csordas 2009) through dance are visible in the transnationalization of Candomblé, but also how and to which extent transnational connections, and history and heritage, become real through the body.


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Although some authors have referred to the Afro-Brazilian Candomblé as a “spirit-possession cult” (Van de Port 2005), in accordance with Nina Rodrigues (1935), Prandi (2004) and Parés (2006), I approach Candomblé in this article as the religion of the orishas (African gods) – in short, the religion constituted in the XIX century in the Brazilian state Bahia, drawing upon the Yoruba tradition. It was influenced by the habits brought over by Fon groups (called jejes in Brazil) and by African minority groups who were brought by the Portuguese as slaves to Brazil. Candomblé is divided into nations. Since the beginning, Yoruba Candomblé and other jeje-nagô traditions have brought together cultural aspects from different Yoruba cities, from which originate different rites or Candomblé nations. In each nation, the traditions of the city or the region which gives the nation its name predominate: queto, ijexá and efã. This concept of nation lost its original ethnic meaning and has become more political than theological over the years (Capone 2009). Today’s nations are the ketu, ijexá, efon, angola, congo and caboclo. Thus, even if I adopt the term Afro-Brazilian religion or speak of Candombé as a religion, like my interlocutors do, it refers to a very heterogeneous reality and a diversity of practices. The term Afro-Brazilian is associated with the idea of legitimating Africa as the place of birth of this religious tradition and with establishing the tradition as a symbol of black resistance to slavery.


In Brazil, the link between the various artistic scenes and Candomblé has been contested and criticized (see e.g. van de Port 2009), but in the context of migration this appears to be different. Unlike in Brazil, many Brazilians in Europe depend on work as dancers and musicians to make a living and dance becomes a point of entry into religion, as I explore in the present paper.


A high priest or priestess in a terreiro or temple: pai or mãe de santo, meaning father- or mother-of-saint, where saint is the synonym of orisha, due to Afro-Brazilian syncretism in Candomblé.


For example, the Harlem Renaissance movement, an Afro-American cultural renaissance, changed the role of black American artistic life in the 1920s (Capone 2011:84–85; 2015:238–265). In spite of showing an appreciation of blackness from an artistic perspective, challenging the modus operandi of Jim Crow (laws that institutionalized racism in American society and made black artists perform in blackface), the influence of Franz Boas and German anthropologist Frobenius inspired the concept of “a certain African paganism”, in which blacks were seen as the embodiment of an “exotic primitivism”, “a man governed by his feelings and hence naturally biased towards artistic activities (Ibid.: 87)”. The Harlem Renaissance thus ended up promoting a passage to religious initiation through the diffusion of music and dance.


Capoeira is an Afro-Brazilian martial art. It developed in Brazil among male slaves. After the abolition of slavery, it continued on in an urban context as a form of street fighting. Since the 1970s, Capoeira has spread throughout the world and has been transforming accordingly (see e.g. Brito 2016; Domínguez and Frigério 2002; Vassalo 2003).


When I speak of Germans, I refer to white German native citizens. When I speak of Brazilians, I refer to people who have migrated from Brazil, some of whom may have acquired a German passport. There have been various forms and histories of Brazilian migration to Germany (e.g. Bahia 2014; Lidola 2009; Oliveira Assis 2013; Sales 1999). Since the 2000s there is a clear pattern of feminization, whereby 70 % of the Brazilian migrants have been women and they either marry before migrating or end up marrying in Germany (Bahia 2014; Lidola 2009). I met these women and their German partners in the Afro-Brazilian settings where I did my fieldwork.


Orixás are African gods venerated in Candomblé as mediators between Olorun (the supreme god) and mankind. In Candomblé and Umbanda (the Brazilian religion that blends African religions with Catholicism, Spiritism, and considerable indigenous knowledge), orixás and spirits respectively are treated differently. The Umbanda spirits do not require an initiation process as in Candomblé and can be baptized and partake in the confirmation ritual. Many of the Candomblé followers cultivate their gods and prepare celebrations for them, because they are part of their life history.


Mother Beata of Yemanjá. Her Ilê (temple) is located in Miguel Couto, Nova Iguaçu, Rio de Janeiro, the place where Murah’s sons-of-saint are initiated. Beata is not only considered to be a mother-of-saint, but also a grandmother-of-saints. Her father-of-saint, Badu de Oxossi, passed away and it thus became necessary to inaugurate another spiritual guide: Mother Beata was chosen. However, it was first necessary to perform a ritual to “remove the hand of Vumbe.” When the mourning had passed, Murah looked for an older person to take over the leadership role in order to let go of this hand of Vumbe (the deceased).


Afro-dance is the name given to a set of dances originating in African or Afro-American traditions, such as contemporary Afro-dance, Afro-jazz, and many popular rhythms (Rodriguez 2012: 238–239). It is part of a web of popular expressions that has been influenced by different manifestations of the numerous African diasporas. In the Afro-Brazilian cultural universe, Capoeira, Candomblé, Samba, Jongo, Lundu, Afoxé and other expressions are intertwined. Extending beyond physical movement, Afro-dance also is tuned to cultural and spiritual elements – especially when it comes to the dances of the orixás. It also creates an experience that connects distinct perceptions of a wider African heritage that influenced and has been influenced by other rhythms (as is the case of Samba in Brazil). This allows for cultural exchange between different fields. The dance of the orixás explores the movements associated with the orixás, their rhythms and songs. It is taught at workshops taking place after the rituals held at the terreiro studied here.


I met various of these professionals in Murah’s temple in Berlin.


This is a doctrine created in the late 19th century by Hippolyte Léon Denizard Rivail, using the pseudonym Allan Kardec. It combines science, philosophy and religion, seeking to understand not only the tangible (scientific) universe, but also the transcendent (religious) universe. It is thus understood as a doctrine of scientific-philosophical-religious slant, aimed at the edification of man and believing in the possibility of communication with spirits via mediums.


A Brazilian religion that blends African religions with Catholicism, Spiritism, and considerable indigenous knowledge.


A syncretic spiritual practice founded in the 1930s in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Acre. Santo Daime is syncretic in that it incorporates elements of several religious or spiritual traditions including folk Catholicism, Kardecist spiritualism, African animism and indigenous South American shamanism, including vegetalismo.


One of the first Brazilians who arrived to work with Afro-Brazilian religion was Mother Dalva (Bahia 2013). As she puts it: “Nowadays when you go online there are several Dalvas de Exu, Dalva de Pomba Gira … In the old days there was only one Dalva in Germany: that was me. Today there are many.”


In the 1990s, Joaquim and Murah met during a concert about Cuba and Brazil for the Asociacion Solidariedad Cuba/Berlin Ocidental (Freundschaftsgesellsschaft BRD-Kuba and V). Joaquim had met some Brazilians through the husband of a dancer from Pina Bausch, who studied the Yoruba language at the Ethnology Museum in Dahlem, Berlin. It is in precisely such cultural environments that the exchange of artistic and religious experiences takes place.


Xangô Aganju means the center of the volcano.


Axé is the sacred force concentrated in objects and initiates. Axé is also a religious tradition transmitted via spiritual kin from the Yoruba àse (order, command, authority).


The Forum offers such activities as the Transart Salon (the first Brazilian art salon), theater, Capoeira courses for children from three to six years old, Capoeira summer camps, sports, games, music, Brazilian cooking, yoga, and Brazilian Portuguese language courses.


The private rituals include: the Ebó for the new year (in January), the waters of Oxalá (January), Obaluaiê celebrations (August), the Caboclo festivities which only take place in September, and there are monthly sessions with Caboclo Ventania. Caboclo Ventania is incorporated by the father-of-saint (who is related to Iansã – the orixá of the wind, storms, wars and thunder, one of Xangô’s wives). Caboclos are the spirits of the old Indians who lived in Brazilian territory and were chosen by the Bantu slaves as the real “owners of the land.” In Candomblé, Caboclos and orixás are treated as different entities, although there is a correlation between Caboclos (male) and Caboclas (female) and their respective orixá. Many Candomblé followers cultivate their spirits and prepare celebrations for them because they are part of their life history. The rituals follow the Umbanda format in Candomblé temples. Iansã is the head orixá of the father-of-saint and is also the orixá chosen when the topic of discussion at the temple is Germany, because it is considered to be a country of war – with regard to World War II, and Iansã is thus the best entity to represent it. In Portugal, Iemanjá (the Queen of the Ocean) is the main orixá, as she is seen as being associated with the country’s past of colonial conquests.


Iemanjá (in February, at the height of winter), Oxóssi and Ogum (April), Xangô (in June, because July is a holiday period and many children-of-saint travel at this time), Cosme and Damian (when the Ilê is well organized, this ritual takes place in September, as it does in Rio de Janeiro, or at the beginning of October) and Iansã (December). In the homages to Saint Cosme and Saint Damian, some activities for children are carried out, but there is no drumming.


Xangô is the god of fire, lightning and thunder.


One example of this is the terreiro’s Ekedi (a woman consecrated to an orixá who does not experience a trance and normally takes care of initiates when they are in a trance). She told me how the experience of migration, together with the experience of initiation, reconnected her to her family heritage and how important this was to her understanding of her own trajectory.


Religious kindship within the cult group. Complex ritual genealogies link the initiate to different terreiros (temples) of the same axé (religious tradition transmitted via spiritual kin and also a force concentrated in objects and people).


Iansã, for example, controls the wind while Xangô controls fire. Many spirits of the rivers are worshipped in Africa as well as in Brazil (Prandi 2005). Many things bring the orixá to his/her children-of-saint. Music, dance, prayers, the smell of offerings (food or animals), bodily expressions and gestures not only attract their presence but also are expressions of Candomblé’s logic and represent the identity of the person and his family of saints. In this sense, the orixás connect nature (wind, fire etc.) to the bodies of their children-of-saint.


Some aspects of German culture that demonstrate the way the body is constructed can be seen in the Lebensreform movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which propagated a back-to-nature lifestyle (Buchholz et al. 2001; see also Bahia 2014).


A nagô term for father-of-saint. The female counterpart is yalorixá, from the Yoruba babalóòrìsà/father of the orixá.


As said, Xangô is the god of fire, lightning and thunder. Oxalá is linked to the creation of the world and the human species. Exu is considered the orixá of movement and communication, mediating between Orun (the spiritual world) and Aiye (the material world).


When asked about Africa today, Afro-German followers of Candomblé often said they found many African societies more Christian and Islamic and that little is left from its original culture. Candomblé offered a connection to their ‘origins.’


In the 1990s, Joaquim and Murah met during a concert about Cuba and Brazil for the Asociacion Solidariedad Cuba/Berlin Ocidental (Freundschaftsgesellsschaft BRD-Kuba and V). Joaquim had met some Brazilians through the husband of a dancer from Pina Bausch, who studied the Yoruba language at the Ethnology Museum in Dahlem, Berlin. It is in precisely such cultural environments that the exchange of artistic and religious experiences takes place.

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