Terreiro: Word, Space, Action

“Terreiro” is a word from the Portuguese language that means: a large, open space, square or yard, and also refers to the houses of worship that are fundamental to the practice of Candomblé and other African religions in Brazil. The Brazilian “terreiro” is also referred to as “Ilê” (from the Yoruba word that means ‘home’), and “Axé” (from the Yoruba word that signifies ‘power’ or ‘creative energy force’). In a New World context, the term “terreiro” denotes a space of resistance and unity that has been central to the survival, retention, and perseverence of African Brazilian culture. The use of the “terreiro” in popular musical lyrics is, among other things, an affirmation of African Brazilian identity and a direct reference to the central role that African religions and cultures continue to play in the transformation of modern Brazilian society.

The mentioned symbolism inherent in the word “terreiro” has been appropriated by countless musicians and music groups such as Caetano Veloso, Clara Nunes, Jorge Aragão, Ilê Aiyê, Filhos de Gandhi, and Olodum, to mention only a few. In the lyrics of the latter group, the “terreiro” (and also the “quilombo”) is seen as a site of revolution, freedom, hope, and cultivation of the conscious mind:

Mas a luta continua irmão
jamais perderemos a esperança
de cultuar seus deuses negros
Mais se o negro parar e pensar
De tudo devemos cultivar
Salve Zumbi Rei Olodum
Grande líder dos quilombolas
Salve Zumbi Rei Olodum
Consciência Negra Olodum

These verses from Olodum’s hit, “Zumbi Rei”, describe the importance of African religions in the struggle towards equality and the mission of raising social consciousness in Brazil. Importantly, the themes of revolution, resistance and African Brazilian pride that the musical lyrics address are not limited to the text. These themes are engaged in community-based education projects created and directed by the same music groups that employ them in their art.

In 2002, Olodum and several other of the “blocos-afro” organized a city-wide education project for African Brazilian youth that was hosted at “terreiros” throughout the city of Salvador da Bahia. This project (Projeto Tocar e Criar) is an example of only one of many projects based at the “terreiro” and geared towards education and the advancement of Afro-descendents in Brazilian society.

In this particular project, I volunteered as an English instructor at the Terrerio de Oxumaré (Sociedade São Salvador Ilê Oxumaré). Meeting daily for a period of four months, the “terreiro” offered intensive English, Spanish, Dance, Music, and Computer Science courses to members of the religious community and residents from neighboring sections of the city. Directly affecting the lives of over 1,000 African Brazilian youth, the project exemplifies how Olodum has taken the metaphor of the “terrerio” and turned it into both the site of – and the spiritual force behind – social activism.

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