Meet Jongo – Capoeira’s Party Loving Cousin…

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Ponto de Jongo

Jongo (also known as caxambu or tabu), like Capoeira, is an Afro-Brazilian folkloric tradition that originated in the coffee plantations in the Paraíba Valley, between Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

It’s roots can be traced even further back to the Bantu people of the Congo-Angola regions of Africa, who were captured and brought to work as slaves in huge numbers.

Like Capoeira, Jongo is characterised by a circle of people gathered in a roda, who all clap and sing songs accompanied by drums, while two people enter at a time to dance.

The Jongo Dance

Jongo is a partner dance between a man and a woman. A couple enters the roda, and circles anti-clockwise towards the centre of the circle.

The Jongo dance is a very respectful dance, the partners don’t touch each other. This meant that everyone could dance with everyone else with no risk of misunderstandings or causing offence, it was a dance for the whole community.

A very characteristic feature of Jongo is the umbigada – The belly button salute. Unlike in Samba, however, the umbigada is between the man and the woman, and there is no physical contact.

When another couple want to enter the roda, they shout “Dá uma beirada compadre” or “Bota fora ioiô” to signal to the dancing couple it’s time to change.

Curiosity: Samba is a direct descendent of Jongo. It developed in Río de Janeiro in the early 20th century when Jongueiros mixed and played with musicians from other styles. The name “Samba” comes from the word “Semba” with in the Quimbundo language means “Umbigada”.

The Jongo Drums

The traditional instruments of Jongo are drums made from hollowed out tree trunks with a leather skin stretched across the opening. The caxambu or tambu with a deeper, lower pitch, and the candongueiro with a higher pitch. The drums would often also be accompanied by shakers and other small percussive instruments.

FOTO ALEXANDRE KISMIMOTO/ASSOCIAÇÃO CULTURAL DE CACHOERA

The Party

As the traditional drums had no tuning mechanism, the first job of the night was to build a bonfire, the heat of which would tighten the animal skin on the drums. While the skins were tightening, the party goers would drink, chat and play other instruments. At midnight, when the drums were tuned, the jongo could begin.

The oldest, most experienced elder of the Jongo would start the festivities – blessing the drums, and asking permission from the ancestors and spirits to start the dance.

They would open the roda with an improvised song, then a traditional opening song (Similar to the format of Ladainha and Louvação in Capoeira), and then the first couple would enter the circle and start to dance.

The party would last all night. The revellers would roast sweet potatoes, corn on the cob, and almonds on the fire, and drink cachaça, coffee or sugar cane broth.

The Jongo would last until the sunrise, at which point they would perform a “sun salutation” dance, the “Saravá a Barra do Dia“.

The Jongo songs, or Pontos

Jongo songs, also called pontos, are sung in Portuguese but may include words of African origin.

There is usually one main singer who leads the jongo and sings the verses, to which all the rest of the party goers respond by singing the chorus.

Like Capoeira, there are many famous and well known songs within Jongo, but there is also a great tradition of improvisation – The best Jongo singers are those who can think on their feet and respond to any situation.

There are various different types of songs in Jongo:

  • Pontos de louvação – These songs are used to pay respect to the hosts of the Jongo, ancestors, and the orixas.
  • Pontos de visaria – These are fun, very lively songs intended to get the dancers worked up, often full of satire.
  • Pontos de demanda – These were challenge songs to test the singers capabilities of freestyle improvisation. One singer would improvise a line, the other has to respond. This would go back and forth until one was left without an answer.

Mandinga in the Jongo

Legend has it that there was more at stake in these Jongo battles than mere pride.

The Jongo songs were traditionally only sung by the oldest and wisest members of the Afro-Brazilian community, many of whom were said to have powers bordering on the supernatural.

A powerful ponto de demanda could leave an unprepared opponent literally speechless – so tongue tied that they could not utter another word until the spell was broken. Stories even tell of defeated singers dropping to the ground unconscious from the power of the ponto of a particularly powerful elder.

Hidden Meanings

Jongo songs are traditionally sung in Portuguese, but also with some words of African origin.

Enslaved plantation workers would use the songs to communicate between each other in secret.

For example, a woman heard that the master was going to take a trip. At that time the trips were long because they were on horseback, with wagon… she learned he’ll be away for a while. Then in the form of music she sang it, the guys outside got the idea, and passed on the news to the senzala.

Because she sang using imagery and metaphors, the masters did not understand anything. They sang of animals, of nature, of things that appeared to bare no relation. For example, “the fork will fly” – the master will leave, understood? “The animals can do what they want” – It was a time for them to plan an escape, things like that.

Mestre Zé Antonio

Jongo and Umbanda

Jongo is first and foremost a party, but it does have very deep ties to the Afro-Brazilian religion Umbanda, and many of the pontos sing about religious themes and characters.

This is partly because the jongueiros themselves practiced Umbanda so it was natural for them to sing about what was important to them.

During much of Brazil’s history, however, African religions were prohibited and their followers persecuted. It is very likely that Jongo was an important outlet for enslaved people to practice their religions in secret, while hiding the fact from their European captors by disguising it as a simple dance party.

Trees and Rivers

As urbanisation occurred and people began to move from the Paraíba Valley to the nearby major cities of São Paulo and Río de Janeiro, Jongo went with them.

Over the years, the Jongos of Paraíba and Río diverged into two distinct styles, with different dance steps, conventions and rituals.

Mestre Zé Antonio told us of one particularly interesting difference:

For the Paraíba Valley, the Jongo Song is a water source. It springs, the song, it springs from the earth and it grows, becomes a stream and it is gaining tributaries, it is turning into a big river, and then, what is it that breaks the river, the “Cachoeira” (Waterfall).

For the people of Rio de Janeiro, it is a plant, it is a tree. Then it is born and grows, the Jongo song, so to bring down the tree: “Machado” (Axe). This is one of the differences.

Mestre Zé Antonio

Jongo Today

Traditionally Jongo was only sung and danced by the elders of the community.

Sadly, in the 1960s many of the great Jongueiros had passed away or were too old to sing and dance any more, and the Jongo rodas were getting smaller and smaller and less frequent.

Thankfully, Mestre Darcy Monteiro and his family worked very hard to preserve the tradition. They called together the remaining great Jongueiros, formed a cultural association “Jongo da Serrinha“, and managed to persuade the old guard to break the taboo that only the elders could sing and dance Jongo.

With the influx of new blood, the Jongo rodas grew in size again, and thankfully the tradition was maintained, and is still going strong to this day.

We’ll leave you with one of their videos so you can get a feel for the Jongo spirit:

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