Celebration of N.S. Bonfim Bourian – the Burrinha of Benin

Bourian, the most popular street festival amongst the Agudas, is an adaptation of the Brazilian folk festival of Burrinha (similar to Bumba-Meu-Boi), whose focal point is a small donkey (“burrinha”). However, in the Aguda rendition, he is accompanied by other animals, like the ostrich, the dog, and the rat, as well as people wearing lion and frog masks and masks of other characters. The most important characters after the donkey are the figures over three meters in height, much like the “midnight man” and “midday woman” of the festivity in Recife, northeastern Brazil. Here, they are called Yoyo, or Papa Giganta, and Yaya, or Maman Giganta,1 and Mammywata, goddess of the seas, the African equivalent of the Brazilian goddess Yemanjá.

A band of around twenty musicians playing small drums, tambourines, agogo bells, and other simple instruments (although some groups now have electric guitars) provide the music and singing, while the characters play their roles. The songs are sung in Fon, Gun, and Nago, the languages most widely spoken by the Agudas, and also in Portuguese, albeit in a somewhat adulterated form. Each character is invited into the set by a specific song, and the musical repertoire is completed by two other types of songs called marchas (marches) and sambas, just as in Portuguese.

The festivity always takes place at the end of the celebration of Bonfim, taking place after the picnic that follows the parade after the mass. The profane nature of the Burrinha festivity, unlike other traditional festas and dances from southern Benin linked to voodoo or ancestor worship, means that it is also held during other celebrations and ceremonies held by “Brazilian” and “non-Brazilian” families, such as weddings, baptisms, birthdays, funerals, “liberations,”2 etc.

Passed on from generation to generation until the present day, the African version of the Bourian may have lost something of its power of attraction for the “Brazilians,” but it is still a core social identity marker for the Aguda community. In the late 1990s, there were several Bourian groups of varying degrees of professionalization in different towns and cities in Benin. In Ouidah there are two: one linked to the De Souza family and the other, a splinter group, called Bourian dos Neves (the Neves Bourian).3

At the same time, Cotonou had six or seven groups,4 the oldest being Société Bourian de Cotonou – Aïdjédo, also known as the D’Almeida Group from Cotonou. Another important group from this, the country’s economic hub, is Association Brésilienne de Cotonou (Brazilian Association of Cotonou), which meets at the Lawson family home. The groups traditionally meet up on Sunday afternoons to rehearse their song and dance routines in an informal setting. The children pick up the songs and learn the samba moves quite naturally, even though the rhythm and movement of the samba is quite different from the country’s traditional dances.

Although there are Bourian groups in the main towns in southern Benin and even in Bohicon, near Abomey, it is in Porto-Novo that the movement is strongest. In the 1990s, there was the Association des Ressortissants Brésiliens – Bourian (Association of Brazilian Descendants – Bourian), which met at the Amaral family house, and the Étoile d’Honneur (Star of Honor), run by Aurélien Gonzalo under the direction of Joseph Gbédji.

Association des Ressortissants Brésiliens - Bourian was the direct successor of the traditional festivity in Porto-Novo, insofar as its members came from the families who were always involved in the tradition. They came together on the initiative of Casimir and Marcelino d’Almeida in the more structured context of the Brazilian Brotherhood of Good Jesus of Bonfim of Porto-Novo (Irmandade Brasileira Bom Jesus do Bonfim de Porto Novo). The highpoint of this group’s activities was their performance during the celebration of Our Lady of Bonfim, which they were solely responsible for producing.

In 1995 and 1996, the Bourian festivities took place in the grounds of Escola Pública Central, a school in the “Brazilian” district of Ogan’la.5 As mentioned earlier, the performance began after the picnic, which succeeded the Bonfim mass and parade. A group of around twenty male and female musicians played tambourines (which they call pandeiros, the correct term in Portuguese) and wooden clappers known as atewo in Nago, or else they simply clapped the beat.6 Adolphe Amaral and Antoinette Campos introduced the songs and each verse was sung by all the musicians in perfectly intelligible Portuguese:

Bourian is on the street
Come and see, come and enjoy (repeat)
It’s dressed
Dressed Brazilian
Come out
To dance
Even you, Yaya
Even you Yaya, Yoyo (repeat)

Some people started dancing “samba” wearing a sash around their shoulders, the end of which they held in their right hand against their body. They bowed to the musicians and danced the “samba.” They were applauded loudly by the audience and were cheered on by shouts of “bravo, Yaya!” and “bravo, Yoyo!”

The first character to enter was the lion, who acted as the master of ceremonies, announcing the entrance of Yoyo, who was called in by his specific song. Yoyo bowed to the musicians and the audience then began his elegant dance, twirling and circling around.

Yoyo’s dance did not last long and was followed by the elephant, who, in the company of the rat and the dog, pretended to attack the audience, before suddenly stopping to “give birth” to a boy dressed as “Zorro,” to the onlookers’ delight.

There was a moment of suspense when the donkey (burrinha) finally came on stage, again on the invitation of his specific song. Ridden by a smiling “Jacques Chirac,” he performed the same ritual of greeting the musicians and audience, then danced in the company of the lion and the frog before making way for Yaya and Yoyo, who entered together to much applause. They circled around as they danced, repeatedly bowing to the audience.

At the end of the performance, the “Brazilian” members of the Bonfim festivity and the general public invaded the “stage” and they all danced in whatever fashion they chose, much as is seen in Brazilian carnival festivities. The musicians, as if to underline the identity of the festivity, keep repeating the main song played during the parade on the eve: “We’ve all come out / A long while ago / Brazilian society is out on the streets / The party is fun / For those, for those who like to watch on.” But the people only join in with the easiest lines: “Even you, Yaya / Even you, Yoyo!”

In 2010, the Bonfim celebrations received support from the Brazilian embassy in Benin, which provided funding and had T-shirts made for the participants. The festivity itself retained the same structure, but the costumes were more elaborate.


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  • Casa da família Amaral. Na parede, retrato de Edouard Amaral que chegou em Porto Novo em 1901 - 13 de janeiro de 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

    Casa da família Amaral. Na parede, retrato de Edouard Amaral que chegou em Porto Novo em 1901 - 13 de janeiro de 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

  • Casa da família Amaral. Preparação para o desfile de véspera da missa de celebração do N. S. do Bonfim. Na faixa esta escrito Association des Ressortissants Brésiliens - Bourian, corruptela de 'burrinha' - 21 de janeiro de 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

    Casa da família Amaral. Preparação para o desfile de véspera da missa de celebração do N. S. do Bonfim. Na faixa esta escrito Association des Ressortissants Brésiliens - Bourian, corruptela de 'burrinha' - 21 de janeiro de 1995 - Porto Novo, Benim

  • Um outro grupo importante de Cotonu é a Association Brésilienne de Cotonou. Músicos da burrinha com seus instrumentos tradicionais. No microfone, Sr. Lawson - 18 de fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

    Um outro grupo importante de Cotonu é a Association Brésilienne de Cotonou. Músicos da burrinha com seus instrumentos tradicionais. No microfone, Sr. Lawson - 18 de fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

  • Association Brésilienne de Cotonou, que  se reúne na casa da família Lawson. Músicos da bourian, tendo o Sr. Lawson no microfone - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

    Association Brésilienne de Cotonou, que se reúne na casa da família Lawson. Músicos da bourian, tendo o Sr. Lawson no microfone - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

  • Association Brésilienne de Cotonou, que se reúne na casa da família Lawson. Músicos tocam as plaquinhas de madeira chamadas “atewo” em nagô, também utilizado no boi de matraca do Maranhão - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

    Association Brésilienne de Cotonou, que se reúne na casa da família Lawson. Músicos tocam as plaquinhas de madeira chamadas “atewo” em nagô, também utilizado no boi de matraca do Maranhão - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

  • A Association Brésilienne de Cotonou, como as outras de burrinha, faz seus ensaios nas tardes de domingo, quando se canta e dança de maneira informal e descontraída. Esses ensaios, realizados nos pátios internos das concessões familiares, constituem espaços de interação e de afirmação de identidade - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim

    A Association Brésilienne de Cotonou, como as outras de burrinha, faz seus ensaios nas tardes de domingo, quando se canta e dança de maneira informal e descontraída. Esses ensaios, realizados nos pátios internos das concessões familiares, constituem espaços de interação e de afirmação de identidade - fevereiro de 1996 - Cotonu, Benim