Translating the Double-Codes

The 1977 musical documentary, Os Doces Bárbaros (Jom Tub Azulay), featuring Caetano Veloso, Maria Bethânia, and Giberto Gil, is just one of many examples of Yoruba religion in Brazilian Popular Music (MPB). It is also one example of fluid–like the waters that the song honors in the last few minutes of this live recording–code-sliding between Brazilian-Portuguese and Yoruba languages.

The atabaque drum rhythms come from the Yoruba religions practiced in Brazil (Candomblé, Macumba, Xangô) and specific chants to the three Orixás (Yoruba: “deities”) that the singers give honor to in this recording. There is Yoruba musical language, then, and the actually chant moves between praise-poetry for the Orixás–Oba, Ewa, and Oxum–in Yoruba and Brazilian-Portuguese. The movement of code is seamless. Brazilian-Portuguese, especially in Bahia, the northeastern region of Brazil, and in the major cities where workers from the northeast emigrated to find work, is already a hybrid code. Rhythmically and in terms of lexicon and syntax, linguists have shown Brazilian-Portuguese to be heavily influenced by especially the Yoruba language. Thus, the Brazilian-Portuguese “code” is already open to work alongside Yoruba, a language and culture profoundly translated into Brazilian language and culture.

What I am leading to, based on this double-voiced language that slides between Portuguese and Yoruba, is a question: how does one translate the dynamic movement (movement that itself carries history and meaning) between Portuguese and Yoruba, between Brazilian-Portuguese and Yoruba, in this song? The languages exist side-by-side, superimposed on one another, in Brazil. Not only do they cross organically in Brazil, the ability to code-slide between Brazilian-Portuguese and Yoruba reflects core aspects of life in northeastern Brazil and its diaspora.

The song is “As Ayabás”–Yoruba for the initiates into the religion of Candomblé, the next generation that carries the tradition of honor and respect to the forces of nature and natural principles. The bodies of continuity. The phase in which the person surrenders to the will of their guiding forces to be re-born. In African Brazil, the word is both Yoruba and Portuguese. There is no line separating the two idioms. How does one translate that symbolic relationship? How does one translate that symbolic relationship and the meaning behind the word when the target cultural system does not have a similar relationship between language groups and cultural codes?

African Brazilian religions translated into Brazil and took root. They remain profoundly tied to West, Central West, Southern, and even East Africa partly because of their ability to be translated and to enter any system. There were adaptations, shifts, changes, modifications, additions, crossings with other religious systems, but the religious systems are in-tact, continuities flowing across space and time. The religious system of the Yoruba people and their descendants in the Americas is a superior model for what translation should be. This song is a testament to that “translation”–a translation that is not a replica or copy but the transfer of meaning from one space to another.


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