A Holy War Through Sound


What comprises an extreme sound situation? Are we only talking about situations when bombs explode close enough to deafen, sirens warn of an attack, gunshots fly inches away from us, or heavy and armored vehicles pass nearby? Or can a whole range of hyper-stimulating situations of everyday life in big cities, such as exposure to music at high levels; traffic noise from motor vehicles; or the buzz of incessantly resounding voices, street cries or slogans be included? A tradition of studies on modern urbanity, dating back to the pioneering work of the German sociologist Georg Simmel (2005), allows us to answer our second question affirmatively. After all, the city is a place where multiple actors, economic, social, and cultural forces meet in the urban space, their presences reverberating through sounds that harmonize, synchronize or oppose and thus share, allot or dispute streets, avenues, sidewalks, and squares. The result of this myriad of simultaneous sounds is a noisy and loud environment capable of producing considerable levels of physical and mental stress.


One of the spheres in which we notice the use of sound in dynamics of territorialization, dispute, and occupation of space is within the practice of Afro-Brazilian religions. Conflict and violence become even clearer in a context in which these religious practices not only face prejudice stemming from structural racism (Gomes and Pereira 1988; Santos 2006; Souza 2006; Moura 1983) but also suffer attacks from other religions, especially certain neo-Pentecostal churches. Throughout the country there are reports of fires in Candomblé and Umbanda houses, physical assaults on their leading figures, and evangelical proselytizing at Afro-religious events and festivals held in public spaces, including the use of amplified sound systems (Silva 2007). These accounts chronicle scenarios that could be cumulatively described as a “Holy War” that takes place through sonic battles.[1]


In another article (Madeira and Marra 2019), we discuss a related episode involving the community around the Banda de Congo Amores da Lua, a religious collective or congregation based in the Santa Martha neighborhood in Vitória, the capital of the state of Espírito Santo. Congo is considered a manifestation of popular religiosity (Poel 2013) expressed, among other practices, through dances, songs, parades, and performances that allude to the religious rites performed since colonial times in Brazil by enslaved people. In this state, where it is considered an important cultural reference and intangible heritage since the 1980s, the history of a sinking slave ship is the founding myth of the Congo festivals. The survivors, calling upon Saint Benedict the Moor to save their lives, clung to the mast of the ship and reached the shore. Since then Congo groups have held a procession, singing, dancing, and guiding a mast that is set up in a place holding symbolic meaning for the community to honor this Saint.


The Banda de Congo Amores da Lua recently underwent a process of renewal, as reported by Master Ricardo Sales: “When my father’s family met this priest from another non-Roman Catholic religion […] this person was just focusing on my old grandfather’s head to break the Congo tradition in our community” (Sales 2017: 7). In a very colloquial and vernacular contemporary Portuguese, Ricardo Sales, current master of Banda de Congo Amores da Lua, explains that a neopentecostal preacher convinced his father’s family to stop Congo Parades in their neighborhood. For one year there were no rites or Congo music in that place. Eventually, he reclaimed the tradition himself and retook the Parades. Silencing the Congo was the strategy to gain time and finally shut down the group’s activities. The silenced voice, here, is the voice of the songs, the instruments, the ancestors. In 2013, Ricardo Sales reunited the Banda de Congo Amores da Lua and organized a parade at Santa Martha, against his grandfather’s will. At the end of all the festival rituals, the patriarch, accompanied by the “priest of another religion,” as Ricardo calls him, went to his grandson’s house and broke the boat, a sacred object of the rituals used in the parade. A new boat was built, and Ricardo, accompanied by the band that now recognized him as a Master, passed by his grandfather’s door, taking the parade with him. Since then, the Banda de Congo Amores da Lua has continued to take place, even though it faces many sonic battles fought in its territory daily. The “Holy War” becomes evident not only when strategies of negotiation or imposition, as those described, are established but also when there are direct attacks among parties.


In his study of the relations between sonority and violence in the context of the Iraq War, Daughtry offers a model based on three concepts to understand the dynamics of sonic colonization in warfare situations. The first one, auditory regimes refer to listening protocols that are learned by subjects who experience daily life in an environment “that is already shaped and coursing with power” (Daughtry 2015: 123).


The dynamics of sonic colonization can be re-thought through the festival territories of the Congo. For the Santa Martha community, for example, an auditory regime was already in place, enabling the territory to be identified as a place of Amores da Lua. Congo music establishes temporalities that mark the festive seasonality of the neighborhood. Those who live there learn – by listening to the drums over time – when the time has come for the festivals and its preparations. The parades also assign a symbolic dimension to certain places on their path: street corners where the parade stops to play music and dance or the place where the mast is set become meaningful for people living in Santa Martha, becoming place references for the ones who live in the neighborhood to remember. Thus, one is allowed to “listen to a hierarchy” of importance of spaces for the community. Through this process the parades establish the significant landmarks of the territory, through the rituals and sounds. Hence, Congo is one of the fundamental components for the constitution of rhythms – “regulated time, governed by rational laws, but in contact with what is least rational in the human being: the lived, the carnal, the body” (Lefebvre 2013: 18) – of the place. Henri Lefebvre argues that social changes occur through changes in their rhythms. According to Ricardo, this is what the “priest of a non-Catholic religion” aims to accomplish by infiltrating Banda de Congo Amores da Lua and forming alliances with its older members: convincing them not to hold the festivals anymore. The priest’s success would change the local sonority, making room for the establishment of a new auditory regime that, perhaps, would allow for the entry and consolidation of this “other Church.” In line with the above, we observe an opposition between the transversality of the community organization of Congo and the hierarchical structure of the Christian church. On the one hand, the first uses public audibility when holding festivals on the streets or inside closed spaces that lack acoustic insulation: thus, the sound leaks into the neighborhood. On the other hand, the second holds services in temples, mostly private. This shifting from public to private, from Congo to neopentecostal religion demands learning and incorporating different modes of listening that align with to different forms of distributing power relations within a place.


Daughtry’s second concept, Sonic campaign is a term used to designate a set of actions that employs sounds to achieve a certain goal and that are “implemented with the help of technologies and training. They involve struggle and even conflict, and as such they necessarily involve the exercise of power” (Daughtry 2015: 124). These actions are, therefore, sonic techniques – protocols of sound usage taking into account their acoustic parameters (intensity, frequency, and spatiality) to perform a certain agency – in which the social and cultural dynamics operative within power relations become explicit.


We observed sonic campaigns in the account of Banda de Congo Amores da Lua in several instances. First, we call attention to the vibratory characteristics of a great deal of the sounds used in Afro-Brazilian religious practices: they are loud, heavy with bass frequencies, and make use of counter-metric rhythms; therefore they are intrusive of both space and body, exhibiting a great ability to colonize place by making it difficult to hear other sounds. In contrast, the priest’s conversations with the Congo elders operates within other parameters. A private, intimate sonority was created and used in an insidious fashion to seduce those who were considered the “festival owners” to change the acoustic regime in a strategy depending on malicious oratory, backstage acting, gossip, and intrigue. In this operation we notice the use of a subdued sonority to silence a much louder one, so that new sounds – perhaps also noisy at times – can emerge. Fortunately, the priest was not successful: it is not because the elders are understood by the community as local authorities that they are able to determine the community’s spirituality on their own, in contrast to what is often observed within hierarchical religious institutions.


Silencing here has an ambiguous character, acting as a practice within both the “non-Catholic priest’s” and the Congo’s sonic campaigns. For the former it could have meant victory and the ideal conditions for implementing its sonority. For the latter it served as a moment of community re-articulation, for regrouping in order to hold the parade again in Amores da Lua. The destruction of the ship by the elder, accompanied by the priest, was a counterattack whose sonic dimension amplifies the impact of the symbolic gesture in the context of the “Holy War.” This destruction also produced sound and is, therefore, part of the sonic battle fought between the community and the “priest of another religion.” Similarly, the construction of another boat and the routing of the parade to pass in front of the former Master’s house configure the social and cultural dynamics of the sonic campaigns that engaged the community during the battle for the affirmation of Congo. The experiences lived within the festivals are important for the neighborhood social articulation.