- Searching for Africa in Brazil: Power and Tradition in Candomblé by Stefania Capone
Stefania Capone's Searching for Africa in Brazil provides a fascinating discussion of discourses of tradition and purity in Afro-Brazilian Candomblé. In it Capone engages wider debates about authenticity and African origins that have long been at the center of the anthropological study of Afro-Brazilian religions. To be sure, other scholars have challenged ideas about authenticity voiced both [End Page 253] in the scholarship on Candomblé and in communities of religious practice. In Vovó Nagô e Papai Branco: Usos e Abusos da Africa no Brasil (1988), for example, Beatriz Gois Dantas argued that the construction of the Nagô nation (an explicitly Yoruba-derived Candomblé tradition) as the most pure and authentic form of Candomblé served as a way for white elites and intellectuals to assert control over the world of Afro-Brazilian religion. Capone's major intervention, however, is to emphasize the agency of elite leaders of famous Candomblé houses in the construction of such discourses, highlighting the ways that "native and anthropological" discourses about purity and impurity overlap.
Searching for Africa in Brazil is divided into three thematically oriented parts ("The Metamorphoses of Exu," "Ritual Practice," and "The Construction of Tradition"). "The Metamorphoses of Exu" focuses on a complicated figure in Candomblé whose meaning has shifted significantly over time. In many West African religions, the orixá (Yoruba deity; orixá in Portuguese) Exu fulfills a central role of mediator, messenger and divine trickster. Christian missionaries in Africa and in Brazil, however, have tended to translate Exu as a purely diabolical character. Accordingly, Exu, along with the practice of sorcery with which is he often associated, have often been disparaged in scholarly and sacerdotal representations of what constitutes legitimate Candomblé. Particularly in the early twentieth century, Exu became a sign of degeneracy. It was only later, in the context of "re-Africanization," did he begin to be re-integrated into Candomblé.
As Capone explores in "Ritual Practice," however, the integration of Exu into Candomblé is tricky, as initiation and possession by Exu is not acceptable in "orthodox" Candomblé. This has become an issue as increasing numbers of practitioners, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, circulate between Umbanda and Candomblé. Since the 1970s all things African have gained more visibility and recognition in Brazil. As a result, today many Umbanda mediums get initiated into Candomblé - the most African of the Afro-Brazilian religions that hails from Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture - at least in part to increase their status and spiritual capital. This poses a problem for the guardians of purity, however, since Umbanda mediums channel distinctively Brazilian spirits such as exus and pombagiras that are marginalized in orthodox Candomblé. As Capone explains, these spirits have to be "Africanized" and reinterpreted - as slaves of the orixás, for example - in order to fit into the universe of orthodox Candomblé.
Capone's discussion of the discourse and practice of African purity among Afro-Brazilian religions has wide implications for how we understand the field of Afro-Brazilian studies. As she explores in "The Construction of Tradition," key figures in the history of this field - including Nina Rodriques, Édison Carneiro and Ruth Landes among others - were instrumental in the construction of the discourse of Nagô purity. Essential to this story is the classic anthropological distinction between magic and religion, from the perspective of which [End Page 254] Candomblé Nagô is understood as religion and anything mixed or derived from other traditions as magic. In this view, magic, in contrast to religion, is oriented towards individual and even anti-social ends - a distinction that gets intertwined with accusations of witchcraft and charlatanism within the competitive milieu of Candomblé. Yet Capone's most important point is that Candomblé elites in Bahia did not simply capitalize on the affinities between scholarly discourses and their own interests; instead, they played a central role in the production of anthropological discourses of purity and degeneracy in the first place.
Searching for Africa in Brazil is ambitious in scope, synthesizing the vast...