Brazilians intrigued by papal encyclical’s use of song based on Afro-Brazilian religion

Brazilians intrigued by papal encyclical’s use of song based on Afro-Brazilian religion

Sculpture of Brazilian poet and lyricist Vinicius in Itapoan, Brazil. (Credit: Magafuzula/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).)

A quote of the Brazilian poet and composer Vinícius de Moraes in Pope Francis’s encyclical "Fratelli Tutti" was received with surprise and joy by many in the South American country.

SÃO PAULO – A quote of the Brazilian poet and composer Vinícius de Moraes in Pope Francis’s encyclical Fratelli Tutti was received with surprise and joy by many in the South American country.

An important Modernist poet whose works are part of the school curriculum in Brazil, De Moraes (1913-1980) became even more famous in the country when he began to write Samba songs in the 1950s as a musical partner of the Bossa Nova master Tom Jobim.

Bossa Nova is a type of samba. The pair’s most famous song in the United States is probably “The Girl from Ipanema” – although the English version didn’t use De Moraes’s lyrics.

In chapter 6, about Dialogue and Friendship in Society, the pope discusses the need of a “culture of encounter capable of transcending our differences and divisions.” He opens a paragraph with a De Moraes’ verse: “Life, for all its confrontations, is the art of encounter.”

Prioritizing its meaning, the official English version of Fratelli Tutti somewhat loses the lyrism of the original formulation, which contains a wordplay with encounter and its opposite in Portuguese, something like dis-encounter. Something of De Moraes wording could be partially kept in the encyclical’s Spanish and French translations. A more literal translation in English would be: “Life is the art of encounter, even though there’s so much discord (dis-encounter) throughout life.”

The verse is part of De Moraes’ song Samba da Benção (Samba of the Blessing), composed by him and his longtime musical partner Baden Powell (1937-2000) in the beginning of the 1960s. Many of their creations in that moment were gathered in the album Os Afro-Sambas, released in 1966, but Samba da Benção was left out of it, given that it had already been recorded by De Moraes and a few other singers.

“Vinicius de Moraes’s phrase which [the pope] mentioned touches a central element in his thought, the creation of a culture of encounter,” said Bishop Joaquim Mol Guimarães, auxiliary bishop of Belo Horizonte and president of the episcopal commission for communications.

“Unlike previous pontiffs, he has worked with forms of communication that correspond to a very open mind. Only with an open mind is it possible to integrate so diverse elements, including poetic texts,” the bishop told Crux.

But Samba da Benção, as the other afro-sambas, was also inspired by the ritual music of Candomblé, an Afro-Brazilian religion based on the cult of the orishas – African deities of the Yoruba tradition, similar to Santería in Cuba and Vodou in Haiti. The religion has deep historical connections with the constitution of the Samba music.

“In the beginning of his career as a poet, in the 1930s, Vinícius de Moraes was part of a group of Catholic intellectuals and artists. His poems at that phase reflect a deep religious feeling,” said Catholic scholar Paulo César Carneiro Lopes, a literary studies and theology specialist.

Over the years, De Moraes gradually broadened his interests and left the Catholic poets’ circle.

“He ceased to be a Catholic in a more traditional sense, although I can’t affirm whether he left Catholicism in a broader perspective,” said Carneiro Lopes.

According to Carneiro Lopes, De Moraes’s relevance for Brazilian culture grew enormously after he stepped into the musical scene, taking his erudite poetry to a more popular dimension of the cultural circuit.

De Moraes’s interest on Afro-Brazilian culture and religion was an integral part of his Modernist perspective and of his left-wing political views, which led him to value the popular elements of the Brazilian society. A diplomat for more than 20 years, he was “compulsorily retired” in 1968 due to his opposition to the dictatorship imposed by a military junta in 1964.

Samba da Benção is not one of his most political creations, rather focusing on themes such as poetry, Samba, and love. Amid its stanzas, there are three musicalized declarations delivered by De Moraes. In one of them, he argues that “life is for real” and “there’s only one of it.”

In order to be convinced that there can be another life, he humorously says he would require an official statement signed by God and authenticated by a notary public – making a comic reference to the Brazilian bureaucratic structure. That’s when he recites the verse mentioned in Fratelli Tutti.

In a final long declaration, he pays tribute to several Samba composers and singers – including Tom Jobim – including in his eulogy references to orishas and the Afro-Brazilian ritual salutation Saravá.

“I think it’s wonderful that Pope Francis didn’t avoid including De Moraes’s verse in the encyclical just because the song makes reference to orishas,” affirmed Carneiro Lopes.

“He has an open attitude towards other perspectives, while keeping the fundamentals of the Catholic tradition without eclecticism,” he said.

Carneiro Lopes points out that Pope Francis has mentioned other Latin American authors in past documents. Recently, when answering a letter sent by Afro-Brazilian priests who complained about ecclesiastical racism, Pope Francis thanked the group for including in their missive a few verses written by the Brazilian abolitionist poet Castro Alves in 1870.

In the scholar’s, Pope Francis has been making a “conscious effort” to establish a direct communication with Latin American culture.

“He has essentially a dialogical attitude and considers Latin America a ‘hermeneutical place’, following the perspective of the Argentinian-born philosopher Enrique Dussel and the Jesuit theologian Juan Carlos Scannone,” Carneiro Lopes said.

Mol Guimarães admits the pope is communicating his message “in an unusual way.”

“Encyclicals are official and magisterial documents of the Church and they usually mention other encyclicals, previous popes and the Scriptures, but Pope Francis mentions not only poets and writers, but also documents from episcopal conferences from several countries, some of them in the peripheries,” the bishop told Crux.

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