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Abstract

This dissertation explores how Afro-Brazilian practitioners of popular Catholicism known as congadeiros exercise agency through sacred song to counteract a history of oppression and to create a sense of belonging as people with a shared history. Against a backdrop of historical, racial, and religious struggle, congadeiros engender dignity and belonging through the musico-religious rituals of congado. Living on urban and rural peripheries of the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais, congadeiros typically come from a poor, semi-educated class and work as farmers, housekeepers, instrument makers, and hairdressers, among other trades. Music making is one of the most efficacious tools that congadeiros have to counteract social and political exclusion. From vibrant drumming and spirited dancing to introspective polyphony, congadeiros shape music in diverse ways to sound emotions, to redress oppression, and to negotiate their place in the world. Congado as song enunciates survival. In the past as well as in the twenty-first century, congadeiros have used song as a way to stake claims to belonging in local, national, and global spheres. Based on ten months of fieldwork with congadeiros across Minas Gerais in 2014, I explore how congadeiros cultivate particular rituals in purposeful and cohesive ways to not only say something about what it means to be poor, black, and marginalized, but also to say something profound about what it means to be religious, secular, and resilient. Congadeiros often sound their grievances and triumphs in loud, boisterous parades because they desire to engage in a process of religious, cultural, and musical translation. In many respects, congado as drumming, movement, prayer, and ecstatic song does the work of translation—of turning sensibilities into sound so that it recasts oppression as resiliency and myth as history. It is, furthermore, a process of translation that continues to reproduce congadeiros’ sense of worth at a profound level. We witness this process of translation through movement, particularly with regard to their processions. Congadeiros not only translate their devotion into song through processional music, they also translate their desire to belong in society by occupying space through parading.

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