Hanging with Umbanda

Things that bump and grind in the night. Tom Quinn travels to Portugal to gain first hand experience

It wasn't until I was standing on a corner in Lisbon last week that I realized how little information I had about Antonio, the man supposed to pick me up five minutes earlier. I knew only that he was A. male and B. a practitioner of Umbanda, the voodoo-esque religion that originated in Brazil.

Antonio, according to the plans we made the day before, was to take me to Portugal's Sacred Temple of Umbanda, where I would see two rituals performed by its proprietor, the Babalorixa Pedro de Ogum, or Pai (father) Pedro for short.

Thanks to my two years of working with Umbandistas in Brazil, my expectation was of a country bumpkin who might suggest I ride in the bed of the truck with the chickens, but that impression went out the window when my contact pulled up in a new Fiat and introduced himself in perfect English.

Soon I learned that Antonio, an engineer who spoke eight languages, was new to Umbanda, having been introduced to it by his wife, Iara, just months before. What really intrigued me, however, was the way he spoke of a belief that would likely be dismissed as ridiculous in many circles.

"Umbanda is the most complete religion that I've found, and believe me, I've studied a lot of them," he said. "I took a lot of time to get to know the ins and outs of Umbanda before I joined, and this is what makes sense to me. It's amazing. You'll see."

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Thirty minutes later we arrived at an ordinary-looking building that could have passed for a small but comfortable bungalow. It was situated in the midst of an impressive garden with exotic plants and waterfalls, all of which, I was told, were chosen to appease entities invoked there.

We were greeted enthusiastically by Pai Pedro, a white-clad thirty something with a striking resemblance to Randy Quaid circa 1989. Determined to teach me everything there is to know about Umbanda, Pai Pedro gave me a crash course on the subject. I tried to keep up, but hours later I still barely knew the difference between an Exu and a Pomba Gira.

“Umbanda is all about helping people,” Pai Pedro explained. “We turn to spirits to find solutions to our problems. The nature of the problem determines which spirit we invoke.”

By the end of our conversation, Pai Pedro's followers, or “children,” had arrived. As I watched them greet each other like high society types at a baby shower, I again noted that these people were definitely not the stereotypical dregs of society come to sacrifice chickens in the slums of Rio. These were business owners and bankers, college professors and psychologists. I felt a bit silly being the only person present without a postgraduate degree.

The banter continued until everyone had changed from ordinary attire to white pyjamas similar to those of Pai Pedro. Once all were ready, we entered the temple and formed a semicircle around a white altar, which was surrounded by both African and Catholic artefacts and watched over by a white porcelain figure of Jesus, his arms extended as if to embrace us.

The altar illustrated, albeit unintentionally, the history of Umbanda, which started in Africa and was brought to Brazil by the slave trade. Forced to convert to Catholicism, the slaves instead incorporated the Catholic Saints into the existing hierarchy of African Spirits, thus creating a monotheistic religion that is as linked to the Vatican as it is to the Congo.

The room was pin-drop quiet initially, but then began the drumming and chanting, which reverberated off the walls and the floor of the tiny room until it seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at once. The music, combined with the dancing of the white-clad congregation, nearly had me swaying back and forth in unison.

Suddenly, one woman began to shake like a broken washing machine stuck on spin. She was a medium, I was told, a person who loaned her body to an entity in order to give supernatural advice to those present via one-on-one conversations held off to the side. I soon discovered that while incorporado, or possessed, the medium's voice, gait, and mannerisms change, presumably because the spirit is in complete control of the individual's body.

Those who aren't yet spiritually developed enough to act as mediums can also receive entities, though they generally lack the control and verbal capacity of their more developed counterparts. At one point or another almost everyone gave in, contorting his or her body into one awkward position after another, pounding incessantly on the floor, or furiously spinning with the single-mindedness of a dog determined to chase—and catch—its tail.

“The entity is trying to get a feel for the body,” explained Pai Pedro. “Think of it as trying on a new coat. You put it on, and then you want to move around to see how it feels.”

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When we where hashing out the details of my trip, Pai Pedro insisted that I visit the temple twice: first to see a “right” ritual, like the one described above, which invokes the entities who represent mankind's positive qualities, and again for a “left” ritual, which involves utilising those spirits who embody our vices to rid the congregation of negative energy.

“We need to have balance in all aspects of our lives,” said Pai Pedro. “We can't go around pretending these qualities don't exist. We have to address them, and this is how we do it.”

He waited for nightfall to begin the left-leaning ritual, which made the previous night's event seem about as strange as a sewing circle. Cellophane-covered lights bathed the room in a red glow and accented the decorative changes Pai Pedro had made since my last visit. The figurine of Jesus had been replaced by a large eight-pointed star, and the walls and windows had been covered with bright red or jet black fabric. Stylised pitchforks were plentiful, as were black candles and food offerings for the entities. The worshippers, all of whom were dressed richly yet provocatively, matched the colour scheme, which gave the event a gothic, Tim Burton-esque flavour.

“The (female spirits) on these grounds are very sexual, very sensual,” explained Pai Pedro just before the drumming and chanting began. “We're always careful to buy only the clothes the entities want. It's one of the ways of the spirits expressing themselves”

This ritual featured three mediums channelling entities, though bumping and grinding with an invisible partner had largely replaced the shaking and spinning of the night before. At one point, one fell to the ground, only to throw her head back in a fit of hysterical laughter. All three would spend the next two hours smoking cigarettes, drinking champagne, and aiming “come hither” looks at anyone who made eye contact. They also dispensed advice, often without solicitation from the party concerned. One entity, apparently sensing my chronic inability to keep a girlfriend, provided me with a red rose to help me woo “the woman I like the most.”

Once again, the other worshippers periodically loaned their bodies to the nearby spiritual entities, but rather than shaking or pounding on the floor, most of the women tended to dance seductively while their male counterparts alternated between howling and laughing maniacally. Occasionally an entity would demand a cigar or an alcoholic beverage, and there were plenty of both on hand to satisfy their cravings.

Following the Dionysian ritual, they chatted outside the temple until well after midnight as they waited for their heads to clear and their strength to return. I was exhausted when I finally made it back to my hotel around 3:00 AM, but my still-reeling mind made sleep difficult.

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Over the years, I've seen God(s) worshipped in all kinds of different ways. I've felt the burden of Catholic guilt and had the demon of Mormonism cast out of me by well-meaning but totally unhinged evangelicals. Once I even sat in on a waterlogged service of the “Surfers in Christ,” but never have I seen a group that enjoyed their religion as much as the Umbandistas.

Although I found parts of the rituals strange and even scary, the positive effects they had on the congregation were undeniable. Those who arrived tired and stressed from a long day's work left upbeat and relaxed. Whereas some religious people (myself included) actively look for excuses to skip a church service, these Umbandistas bend over backwards to avoid missing a ritual.

“I'm here every week, at least once a week,” said one member. “If I get caught up at work and I can't come, it throws everything off. It just feels like something is missing.”

Pai Pedro knows how important his temple is to those who attend his rituals, and is fully aware that for him, a mid-life career change is simply not in the cards.

“There are people counting on me to be here when they need help,” he says. “I couldn't pack up and leave if I wanted to. This is definitely a life-long calling that I've been given, but I'm okay with that. There's nothing I'd rather be doing.”

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No peace after progress

How the death of the industrial way of life gave us choice – and stoked resentment and fear.

Now that the making of useful and necessary things in Britain is only a shadow of what it once was, we can see more clearly the effects of the Manufacturing Age. The cost was high to the producers of prodigious wealth; a ten-year difference in life expectancy remains between people living in the richest areas and those in Glasgow. The (fleeting, it now seems) visitation of industrialism has made life more comfortable and its dismantling has liberated millions from choiceless occupations. The legacy is one of spectacular improvement, unequally shared.

Perhaps the most dramatic experience of the 20th century was the suddenness with which profligate plenty replaced a skinflint subsistence. Was it the speed of this that distracted us from wondering why, instead of the secure sustenance that generations of needy people had asked of an unyielding economic system, we were offered a promiscuous spillage of goods, promoted with quasi-religious zeal by the converts of a capitalism that had previously delivered to most of its captive workers a life of penury? Such a rapid reversal might have alerted us to changes beneath the surface that elided losses incurred.

The greatest of these was certainly not the extinction of the industrial way of life itself, release from which has been an unqualified blessing. But the transition from relentlessly work-driven lives (in the 1950s, two-thirds of Britain’s workers were still manual labourers) was marked by perfunctory obituaries for the disintegration of industrial communities, with no acknowledgement that, for a century and a half, they had represented the inescapable destiny of the people they sheltered.

Even less recognition was given to the fortitude with which they had borne a long, coercive labour. A way of life, buried without ceremony in the unmarked grave of progress, could not be mourned; and this has generated some social pathologies of our time: resentment over an arbitrary obliteration of industry, disengagement from a party of labour by those it called, like feudal lords, its “own people”, loss of memory of the economic migrants we also were, passing from the goad of industry into the pastures of consumption, and thence into the liberating servitude of technology.

Grief makes no judgement on the intrinsic value of what is lost. Absence of the known and familiar is the object of melancholy in its own right, even if replaced by something immeasurably better. Objectively, there was little to mourn in the vanished industrial way of life: insufficiency and humiliation, malice of overseer and manager, officiousness of poor-law administrator and means-test man. Male industrial workers exhausted in body and spirit, instead of protecting those for whom the power of their hands was the only shelter against destitution, visited similar punishment on their wives and children. There is nothing to be lamented in an end to the penitential life of women, scrubbing not only the red tiles of the kitchen floor, but even an arc of pavement outside the front door; their interception of men on payday before wages were wasted on beer and oblivion; the clenching against joyless invasion of their bodies in the boozy aftermath. But it was the only life they knew, and they adhered to it with grim stoicism and even pride.

There is much to be said for their resistance. The fragile lattice formed by women’s arms was often the only safety net against destitution. Trade unions and friendly and burial societies that shielded folk from economic violence foreshadowed the welfare state and the National Health Service.

The life of labouring people in Britain was strikingly homogeneous, despite diversity of occupation, dialect and local sensibility. There was the same collective experience: terraced house with parlour reserved for celebration or mourning; the three-piece suite, plaster figure on a stand behind the window, chenille curtain against the draught, engraving of The Stag at Bay on the wall; the deal table and Windsor chairs in the living room, the mantelpiece a domestic shrine with clock, candlesticks and pictures of soldiers smiling before they died; the music of cinders falling through the bars in the grate; cheerless bedrooms where husband and wife slept in high connubial state, more bier than bed, where sexual enjoyment was ritually sacrificed as flowers of frost formed on the inside of the window.

And everywhere photographs: wraithlike children with ringlets or in sailor suits, fated never to grow up; weddings in the back garden, a bouquet of lilies and a grandmother in boots and astrakhan hat; the smudged features of a kinsman no one can now identify. Identical memories, too: the shotgun wedding in the dingy finery of a Co-op hall; the funeral tableau around the grave, amid ominous inscriptions of “Sleeping where no shadows fall”; queues outside the ocean-going Savoy or Tivoli to watch Gone With the Wind; the pub where “Vilia” or “The Last Rose of Summer” was hammered out on a discordant piano.

The opening up of such sombre lives might have been expected to call forth cries of gratitude. Instead, a synthetic joy has emanated largely from the same sources that, until recently, offered people grudging survival only, the change of tune outsourced to producers of manufactured delight, purveyors of contrived euphoria to the people – a different order of industrial artefact from the shoes, utensils and textiles of another era.

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A more authentic popular res­ponse exists beneath the official psalmody, a persistent murmur of discontent and powerlessness. Anger and aggression swirl around like dust and waste paper in the streets of our affluent, unequal society. As long-term recipients of the contempt of our betters, we know how to despise the vulnerable – people incapable of work, the poor, the timid and the fearful, those addicted to drugs and alcohol. Sullen resentment tarnishes the wealth of the world, a conviction that somebody else is getting the advantages that ought to be “ours” by right and by merit.

Rancour appears among those “left behind” in neighbourhoods besieged by unknown tongues and foreign accents: people who never voted for unchosen change, as all political options are locked up in a consensus of elites. “Give us back our country!”
they cry; even though that country is not in the custody of those from whom they would reclaim it. There was no space for the working class to grieve over its own dissolution. If, as E P Thompson said, that class was present at its own making, it was certainly not complicit in its own undoing.

Grief denied in individuals leads to damaging psychological disorders. There is no reason to believe that this differs for those bereaved of a known way of living. The working class has been colonised, as was the peasantry in the early industrial era. When the values, beliefs and myths of indigenous peoples are laid waste, these lose meaning, and people go to grieve in city slums and die from alcohol, drugs and other forms of self-inflicted violence. Though the dominant culture’s erasure of the manufacturing way of life in Britain was less intense than the colonial ruin of ancient societies, this subculture was equally unceremoniously broken. It is a question of degree. The ravages of drugs and alcohol and self-harm in silent former pit villages and derelict factory towns show convergence with other ruined cultures elsewhere in the world.

Depression is a symptom of repressed grief: here is the connection between unfinished mourning and popular resentment at having been cheated out of our fair share, our due, our place in the world. If we are unable to discern our own possible fate in suffering people now, this is perhaps a result of estrangement from unresolved wrongs in our own past. Nothing was ever explained. Globalisation occurred under a kind of social laissez-faire: no political education made the world more comprehensible to the disaffected and disregarded, people of small account to those who take decisions on their behalf and in their name.

Anyone who protested against our passage into this changed world was criminalised, called “wrecker” and “extremist”. The miners’ strike of 1984 was the symbol of this: their doomed fight to preserve a dignity achieved in pain and violence was presented by the merchants of deliverance not only as retrograde, but also as an act of outlawry. Resistance to compulsory change was derided as a response of nostalgics protecting the indefensible, when the whole world was on the brink of a new life. Early in her tenure of Downing Street, Margaret Thatcher, that sybil and prophet who knew about these things, warned that Britain would become “a less cosy, more abrasive” place: a vision confirmed by the Battle of Orgreave – redolent of civil war – and the anguish of Hillsborough.

It is too late to grieve now. Scar tissue has healed over the untreated wound. Though no one expects the ruling classes to understand the distress of perpetual “modernisation”, the leaders of labour might have been able to recognise capitalism’s realm of freedom and a gaudy consumerism that concealed hardening competitiveness and the growth of a crueller, more bitter society.

The ills of this best of all worlds, its excessive wealth and extreme inequality, are on show in hushed thoroughfares of London, shuttered sites of “inward investment”, where the only sound is the faint melody of assets appreciating; while elsewhere, people wait for charitable tins of denutrified substances to feed their family, or sit under a grubby duvet, a Styrofoam cup beseeching the pence of passers-by.

Unresolved feelings about industrialism, enforced with great harshness and abolished with equal contempt for those who served it, are certainly related to the stylish savagery of contemporary life. The alibi that present-day evils are an expression of “human nature” is a poor apology for what is clearly the nature – restless and opportunistic – of a social and economic system that has, so far at least, outwitted its opponents at every turn.

Jeremy Seabrook’s book “The Song of the Shirt” (C Hurst & Co) won the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing 2016

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain