Spirit Song

Afro-Brazilian Religious Music and Boundaries

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Marc Gidal
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , March
     240 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Spirit Song, a revised version of a 2010 PhD dissertation in Music at Harvard, draws on ten months of ethnomusicological fieldwork to argue that “musical boundary-work performs politics of difference” (173). Most of the practitioners and worship houses described in Spirit Song work with all three of the religions—Batuque, Umbanda, and Quimbanda—which author Marc Gidal studied in Porto Alegre, the capital of Brazil’s southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. The book argues three main claims: Batuque values preservation and hierarchy, whereas Umbanda/Quimbanda promotes innovation and egalitarianism; leaders and musicians carefully prevent elements of one religion from affecting the others; and members use music to “cross and purify” the three religions (5).

The book’s rich ethnographic description and extended, expert attention to music make it a unique and valuable contribution to the literature on Afro-Brazilian religions. This is especially so given the paucity of work on Batuque and Quimbanda, and the fact that even Umbanda receives much less attention than Candomblé. My commentary on this book is from a study of religions perspective; because Spirit Song is a work of ethnomusicology, my few critical comments may seem wide of the mark.

Gidal frames his discussion using symbolic boundary theory/studies, according to which “ethnic groups define themselves socially through competitive differentiation, rather than by having inherent and autonomous characteristics … Instead of trying to understand a group’s core identity, an elusive essence, boundary theorists analyze group differentiation and the ideological motivations behind their construction and maintenance” (15).

As Gidal notes, sociologists using boundary theory tend to center their analyses on class relations, often using the work of Pierre Bourdieu. Having left behind a focus on class—a term seldom used in the book and not found in the index—Gidal’s concept of “boundary-work” becomes quite diffuse. Musical boundary-work is defined as “the use of music to reinforce, bridge, or blur boundaries, whether for personal, social, spiritual, or political purposes” (5). Types of boundary-work include theological and cosmological (beliefs), semantic (naming conventions), visible (artefacts and spaces), physical (movement as well as “feeling sound vibrations and emotional changes”), audible (e.g., altered speech and musical sounds), and musical (rhythm, singing, lyrics, etc.) (16–17).

With so many modes of difference, most related to music, all of which are defined as boundaries to be worked, the conclusion that music plays a role in constructing and maintaining boundaries loses some of its punch. This expansion of “boundary” leaves the analysis largely locked in a descriptive mode, portraying a complex set of distinctions internal to the individual religions under study. This is important and solid work, but the term “boundary,” when defined so diffusely, lacks the leverage to support more general, socially-grounded explanatory work. The attempt to contribute to symbolic boundary studies by moving away from class-based analysis ironically downplays intersecting issues of race and class within and among Afro-Brazilian traditions, as are raised by other prominent scholars: see many of the chapters in Bettina E. Schmidt and Steven Engler’s edited volume, Handbook of Contemporary Religions in Brazil (Brill, 2016).

Gidal discusses race primarily in terms of “Afrocentric identity” (133), for example, how these religions at times “bolster solidarity within an Afro-Brazilian community that struggled to achieve social equality and religious tolerance” (148). There is little discussion of how the boundaries within and between these religions reflect current Brazilian class-based and racialized discourses. One of many strengths of this book is its attention to cigano (Roma/gypsy) spirits in Umbanda/Quimbanda, but the conclusion that this is a case of romanticized appropriation rather than authentic Roma culture is not pressed for its significance; nor is a potential, comparable claim regarding indigenous caboclo spirits developed. Gidal recognizes that “pure/white” Umbanda rejects African elements (32–34, 41, 80–81, 168), but he limits his analysis to boundaries at the Afro-centric end of Brazil’s spectrum of Umbandas. This obscures aspects of the polarity between Afro-Brazilian religions such as Batuque and Candomblé, with their discourses of the purity of African traditions, and Umbanda/Quimbanda, which offers a spectrum of forms best characterized not as “Afro-Brazilian” but in terms of complex relations to race and class.

Recourse to the literature on Brazilian religions could be stronger at points, though most of the key works in English and Portuguese are cited. One notable absence is Yvonne Maggie’s Guerra de Orixá (“Orisha War,” Zahar, 2001 [1975]) which analyzes tensions between modes of authority in an Afro-Brazilian worship house. Maggie’s other important book, Medo do Feitiço (“Fear of Spells,” Arquivo Nacional, 1992) appears twice in the bibliography under variants of the author’s surname. There are only two references to works dated after 2010, despite the fact that important work has been published since then.

The book includes maps, photographs, and musical scores (the latter showing percussion rhythms, often with the accompanying melodies), but there are no lists of these features. A five-page glossary defines Portuguese and religion-specific terms. Online access to the Oxford University Press’s (OUP) site, with audio and video examples of music and rituals, is provided via a passcode in the book, and this adds greatly to Spirit Song’s value. When the online clips are discussed in the text, they are identified with prominent symbols. However, OUP’s website lacks cross references to these same pages and the book lacks a list to help readers find where in the text each example is discussed.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Engler is Professor of Religious Studies at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada.

Date of Review: 
September 8, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Marc Gidal, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Music (Musicology) at Ramapo College of New Jersey. He holds degrees in ethnomusicology and religious studies.

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