PRINT Summer 1990


One - and - Hump

ESHU-ELEGBA, the Nigerian Yoruba trickster god extraordinaire, entered the world with a calabash full of stones. Immediately he visited the houses of the rich, saying, Come to the crossroads and leave money there so the poor can get something to eat.

Those who ignored him watched their houses strangely burn, for the stones in Eshu’s calabash caused combustion wherever they fell. Those who were generous were saved. From their monies—in those days handsome cowrie shells served as currency—the poor were rescued and markets began. Henceforth Eshu strung spoons sometimes upon his dress, as emblems of giving, or strands of white cowries, made up of sacrificial offerings at the crossroads.1

The Atlantic trade brought Eshu’s moral sanction to certain cities of the Americas, particularly Rio de Janeiro and Bahia. Under creole pressure, Eshu became Exu in Rio, further transformed into Zé Pilintra, barefoot dandy dressed in a suit of white silk with a crimson tie. Where Eshu was linked with cowries, Zé Pilintra moves with playing cards, another sign of winning or restoring fortunes. Zé’s business, too, is provocation, hanging out at the crossroads. The favelas sing of him with humorous affection: “Just when I’m getting up to leave for work/Zé’s coming back from an all-night blast,/ Deck of cards thrust in his pants,/ Wearing his white silk shirt and his straw hat (with crimson band).”2

Kongo ideas about propitiating ancestors at the crossroads also filtered into Rio, and blended there with the serving of Exu and Pilintra. In the process, the Kongo term for crossroads, mpamba nzila, became the basis for a kind of personified intersection of two or more streets, an intensely liminal woman-Exu called Pomba Gira. Many were her avatars: Pomba Gira the Gypsy, Maria Padilha, and others. In March 1990 I found tenets of this lore in Buenos Aires, in a white barrio called Floresta.3 There, in a spartan room off a patio on Luis Belaustegui street, Exu came down, together with myriad Pomba Giras and Marias. All were dancing, laughing in code, sharing meat and whiskey with excited servitors. From time to time Exu/Zé sat to dispense advice on love and business. He turned his consultations with would-be lovers into a kind of never-never all-night talk show, run by the gods and attended by the faithful.

Zé Pilintra, the “sovereign of roguery,” is one of the more liberating of the spirits who crossed over to South America from western Africa. Artistic, good-looking, smooth, zooted to a T, Zé combines the insights and the power of the street person, card shark, hipster, popular guitarist, womanizer, and connoisseur of hash or grass.4 Prince when he’s Zé, Madonna when Pomba Gira, he is an attractive, down-to-earth spirit one can banter with, barter with, joke around with, while seeking the sacraments hidden in his provocation. For instance, Zé may dance with your wife in gafieira (Rio ballroom) style, his leg between hers, to test her fidelity and yours. His probes can be athletic, too. And mythographers ascribe to Zé actions called rasteiras—where you stick your foot out and deliberately trip someone. Either they guard their balance or they don’t but Zé'll find out. Exu and Zé test us at the crossroads.

How can we know of such things in contemporary North America? Because of the presence of myriad Brazilian tutors, come since the ’60s in search of opportunity, work, and escape from severe economic dislocation. Increasingly, Brazilians in North America make their artistic presence felt, not as essential parody, like Carmen Miranda in the ’40s, nor as an overworked single vein of music, as in ’60s bossa nova, but as something multipart and strong. A vast field of mutually reinforcing influences links the recently emergent lambada dance craze to the rhythmized states of ecstatic being called samba, and to the powers characterizing the Afro-Brazilian martial art capoeira, and to the Afro-Brazilian religions. Thus one of the leading teachers of capoeira in New York guards his flat with a thinly disguised altar to Exu. The apartment of a major samba performer conceals an altar to Oxossi, Yoruba-Brazilian deity of the hunt. In 1988 I watched a capoeirista from Rio place cigars for Ogúm, patron of athletes, at the crossroads of 48th Street and Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. He also traced there a cosmogram in liquid circles of poured cachaça, Brazilian white rum, in honor of Exu.5 Finally, an instructor of lambada in New York, who also teaches Brazilian literature at university level, sacrifices to the goddess of the seas, Yemanjá. Lambada, then, is not an isolated happening in American “entertainment.” Lambada forms part of a much larger realm of lived and practiced spiritual and artistic discourse.

So what is lambada and what does it mean? Lambada is a dance, so intimate, so sexy, that it was said in Bahia around 1988, whenever a woman announced her pregnancy, “levou uma lambada”—she must have been dancing lambada.6 The name relates to sexual thrust. And it rhymes conceptually with striking your belly against another dancer’s belly (umbigada), in one of the oldest and purest forms of Kongo-influenced samba; with striking your hand against a drum (batucada); with striking your head against your opponent’s head in capoeira (cabeçada). The combination of lamba with the suffix -ada indicates a hit with a whip, a lashing. And this explains, folk etymologically speaking, the basic step, two quick steps to the right, two quick steps to the left, as if fleeing an invisible whip. Quickly you turn, on the balls of your feet, right-right, left-left. Avoidance patterns—esquivas, in the idiom of capoeira. Avoiding the whip.

Another folk etymology was shared by a Carioca playwright, Zeca Ligiero, who kindly took me on a lambada prowl in Rio this spring. By Zeca’s argument, the metaphoric lashing in the lambada is purely internal and erotic. For if the feet are moving right-right, left-left, the hips are too, pelvisto-pelvis. And surely the lashing also refers to taking advantage of your partner’s amiability. Say a young woman startles a shy hunk into action by inserting her thigh between his legs. Or a man on the prowl announces his intentions by inviting his partner to ride upon his thigh like a hobbyhorse from a Freudian hell.

In a sense, lambada sets the Kongo grind (tiénga) within the ironic framework of Western ballroom elegance, her left hand on his shoulder, his left hand fixed in her right. But at the same time the feet lash joyously, the hips duly copy, and all the while you erotically take advantage of your partner, causing him or her to straddle your thigh, moving moreover to a covert count of one-and-hump, and two-and-hump. This is the lambada they claim first emerged in the ’70s in Belém, near the mouth of the Amazon, or in Porto Seguro, south of Bahia, or in Bahia itself, or in the old-fashioned gafieiras of Rio de Janeiro. The lambada return to ballroom embrace position is a hint that there is something to this gafieira argument. There the Zé Pilintras of the dance floor subtly use knee penetration like an engraved invitation to an orgy. In defense, women may avail themselves of “antilambada” (my term), as Zeca Ligiero told me: “One of the secrets of dancing in the gafieira idiom involves the woman placing both her legs between the legs of her partner.” At a fast tempo this double wedge would block rather than invite impropriety. And this is appropriate to a world where Roman Catholic altars to the Virgin and the Saints still stare down from the walls at the historic Gafieira Estudiantina, on the Praca Tiradentes in downtown Rio. When I asked a few habitués what the altars served I was told they “remind us who we are,” a touch of decency and devotion anchoring sexuality in substance. Hence the argument that lambada is really only for husband and wife, or for lovers—not because it’s vulgar but, au contraire, “because it’s so purely and simply intimate.”7

In any event, the story goes, protolambada flourished in the Rio gafieiras from the ’50s on. In the ’80s, the addition of Dominican black percussion, the beat of the merengue, confirmed, in its unremitting drive, a shift toward intensity and flair. Yet in the hill-girt barrio of Santa Teresa in Rio recently I watched enthusiastic couples dance lambada not only to merengue but also to jazz, reggae, mambo, samba, anything. Nothing could stop the flash of hips and shoulders and the merry grinding.

It is easy to see how this compact little dance, whipped by pleasure this way and that, conquered Latin America in the past two years. In Venezuela the caraqueños call it pule-bragueta, meaning something that adds flash to the man’s zipper, that grinds a sheen upon his fly. But beyond the obvious sensuality, lambada washes over us, however subliminally, a renewal of the pleasures and the perils of bi- and tri-cultural living. The New Mexico Chicano poet Jimmy Santiago Baca took one look at youths executing lambada on TV recently and composed a poem around the phrase lambada lengua, meaning “linguistic lambada, the body participating once again in language.”8 Caught in his own Nahuatl/Spanish/English maelstrom, Santiago Baca cut through to lambada’s subliminal transnationality.

Recently I went to New York’s Palladium to see a black instructress of lambada, Michelle Summers, teach her way through an incoming mass of males, passing the pelvic spark, priming them for the corresponding line of women analogously ignited by Sergio Barbosa, a Carioca. The basic step was identical to what I’d seen in Rio, though spins and tango dips were added. Later, farther downtown at S.O.B.’s, I saw them teach a whirling, head-back variation called maxixe, the name of an old Brazilian late-19th-century dance that I’d never before even heard mentioned in North America. Something is happening, I thought, in spite of the abundant hype. And then, to coin a phrase, it hit me: lambada is Pilintra, is Exu/Pomba Gira, taunting us at the crossroads leading from one decade into the ’90s. The spirits are dilating North America with lambada lengua, forcing us to choose, to recognize, give to, and give in to Latin American cultural forces, crashing into our greatest cities with ever increasing strength.

For instance, the night I was at the Palladium, lambada distinctly was preparing the nation for the Brazilian samba. The most exciting moment of the evening occurred when Guilherme Franco and Marcia Sapel took over the bandstand with their “samba school in miniature,” Pé de Boi. The name means, in Rio slang, the beat of the hoof of a well-built ox, a vaunting metaphor for percussive command. The title is not hollow. Pé de Boi’s core pulsed with two waist-high drums called surdos, which called and responded, responded and called, forming the pistons of the samba. And over these pistons other cycles of propulsive sound were richly elaborated, just as a witness described them at S.O.B.’s in 1983: “the spaces between these deep bass notes are filled by sharp, fast rolls on . . . snare and by the fuller tone of the repinique, a drum that Franco plays with one stick and one bare hand. . . . punctuating and structuring the songs.”9 And Sapel’s cuica, an Angolan-derived friction drum, cut through the false cool of certain Palladiumniks while igniting the righteous and the enthusiastic. Hundreds were converted to samba that night, brought by the promise of lambada.

Knopf has just published a book called Samba, by Alma Guillermoprieto. It is superb. She gives you terminology: bamba: “a person wise in the ways of the samba world”; escola de samba: “an association of individuals who unite for the exclusive purpose of parading together during carnival, wearing costumes in the school’s official colors”; carnavalesco: “creates the parade’s ‘look’ . . . the single most important member of every samba school”; passista: “school soloists chosen not for their looks but for their samba ability”; empolgação: samba fervor.10 You catch that fervor as she takes you through essential samba history, back to the recording, by Donga and a man nicknamed Cold-Feet Turkey in 1916, of “Pelo Telefone,” the first recorded samba hit, which also struck a blow against Brazilian racism: “the lyrics of ‘On The Telephone’ say a great deal about the new age of détente between the black community and the law, and for sambistas the recording itself was something of a political triumph.”11 Guillermoprieto also shows us exactly what it feels like to wear a fantasia, the poetic Portuguese word for a samba festival costume. Describing a nine-year-old black favela boy in an “immaculate cotton-candy-pink suit . . . with silver-edged lapels, buttons that buttoned, a vest pocket with a handkerchief tucked in, all of it tailored over a pink-and-green-striped T-shirt with bands of green embroidered sequins,” she writes, “In the absence of any mirror, he could look on himself and see his body clothed in the costume of a dream world-that is, of the Real World, where events happen and are remembered, where lives move forward rather than repetitively around themselves, where things look the way they’re supposed to and actions have consequences.”12 Clearly, Guillermoprieto understands the samba as a central expression of culture and thought. It is easy to understand why she actually apologizes for her native Mexico because it doesn’t have samba, “meaning that it completely lacks the capacity for sustained episodes of intense unambivalent joy.”13

In Rio last November, in a vast open hangar hung with banners, I saw a dancer let the samba take his legs and feet, but only that portion of his body, as if to study it, display it, but never to surrender to its force. Black Atlantic cool, quintessence of. But there are other steps for other moods. There is, for example, samba duro, hard samba, when you’re on your muscle and feeling feisty, or feeling affronted, when dance blurs into martial art. As Luis “Boneco” Simas, one of the finest capoeiristas of Rio, recently observed, “Say I’m dancing with my girlfriend when suddenly I’m cut in. I cut back in . . . when once again he contravenes my dance. At this point I get irritated and begin to samba duro—samba armed with various rasteiras or tripping moves. I sweep him from the floor and leave him lying on his back.”14 Samba duro symbolizes the toughness of the black Brazilian male, but it also relates to capoeira, where the gender bar has long since disappeared, especially as taught by Jelon Vieira in New York, who only demands “that his pupils be human beings.”15 The attraction of these moves from Bahia has resulted in the emergence of capoeira schools here that open up the North American body to cultural three-dimensionality, for capoeira too traces back through Brazil to Kongo.

Recently I observed Jelon Vieira demonstrating banda traçada, a move of the modern capoeirista that combines a blow to the thigh with one of Zé Pilintra’s tripping rasteiras. Watching Jelon compose this move on North American soil reveals him as a master of intensity, making his place in the United States in an idiom that combines athletics, faith, and art. Soon Jelon’s art may be as well known in this country as lambada. Little does mainstream America know that the smash hip-hop film House Party was made in part to gain the clout to make the capoeira movies that Reginald and Warrington Hudlin really want to do—both are students of Jelon Vieira. Soon, perhaps, whole screens will be filled with negativas and bandas traçadas and rasteiras as well as parade samba and samba duro and a better lambada than the travesties I’ve thus far seen on screen. Something is happening, Senhor Jones, e vôce não sabe o que é. This is part of Zé Pilintra’s lambada message and he is laughing.

Robert Farris Thompson is professor of the history of African-American art at Yale University. He is working on book about African-American New York.



1. From interviews with Araba Ekó, the late senior priest of the Yoruba deity of divination, Logos, Nigeria, January 1983.
2. See Maria Helena Farelli, Zé Pilintra: O Rei da Malandragem, Rio de Janeiro: Editora Catedra, 1987, p. 26. Patricia Berman, in O Que É Umbanda, São Paulo: Editora Brasiliense, 1985, sheds light on the role of Zé Pilintra as Exu in Umbanda, the Africanizing fusion faith of Brazil. One might also cite Liana Trindade’s “Exu: reinterpretaços individualizadas de um moo,” Religião e Sociedade no. 8, 1982, p. 34. Trindade defines Zé Pilintra as a Brazilianized Eshu, an unemployed hipster, “a social type token from the urban situation of the 1930’s, the hustler solution as a form of social adaptiveness.” She concludes that Exu in Brazil can symbolize proletarian avenues of freedom and the possibility of action vis-à-vis a structured system.
3. Professor Alejandro Frigerio led me to this ceremony at the Fraternidad Pai Joaquim, Floresto, 17 March 1990.
4. Farelli, p. 13. To her list of attributes I add Zé’s notorious womanizing. He is a lover on a heroic scale, even as Eshu in Nigeria and Legba in Benin.
5. Itabora Ferreira kindly repeated this ceremony for a BBC broadcast in the United Kingdom, 10 February 1989.
6. I am indebted for this phrase to Professor Barbara Browning of Princeton University. Descriptions of the basic lamboda step were shared by a number of New York–area lambadistas, notably Nem Brito of Bahia and Sergio A. Barbosa of Rio de Janeiro.
7. Browning, personal communication, January 1990.
8. Jimmy Santiago Boca, in a poetry reading, with subsequent discussion, at Yale University, 2 April 1990.
9. David Frankel, “Saturday Night Samba,” New York 16 no. 20, 10 May 1983, p. 15.
10. Alma Guillermoprieto, Samba, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1990, pp. 15, 66, 139, 181.
11. Ibid., p. 27.
12. Ibid., p. 201.
13. Ibid., p. 195.
14. Luis “Boneco” Simas, interview with the author at the Pomodoro Restaurant, Barra de Tijuca, Brazil, March 1990.
15. L. A. Small, “At Play with the Ancestors,” The Village Voice, 17 April 1990, p. 102.