Last Christmas I stayed in my wife’s small home town deep in the interior of São Paulo state, Brazil.
Whilst sitting with my in-laws and friends I heard a rumour, that a group called Folia de Reis went from house to house at night playing music and praying for the families that they visited. For a curious person like me this was a bit like a red rag to a bull. I had to see this group, and photograph them if possible. As it turned out, photographing them was the easy part, finding them was slightly more problematic. It turned out that my wife’s aunt knew how to get the number of the leader of the group, a man called Divino.
Things were moving! However, no-one, including the group themselves, really knew where they would be on any particular night, in fact nobody was very sure when they would be around either. Arrangements seemed to be ad-hoc, and I needed to be patient, to set aside ‘my need to know where and when all the time’ and to relax into the rhythm of the muggy Brazilian interior.
So, I made sure that my camera bag was prepared, and hung around within earshot of the phone. I waited.. and waited..
Over the following nights the phone rang to say that they had been seen, but nobody knew exactly where. Or, that they had visited a family, but nobody knew who. It was almost time for us to return to Britain, and I was getting slightly anxious that I hadn’t even heard them, let alone taken a photo. Until, one night we had a call of a positive sighting on the other side of town!
We stopped what we were doing, which happened to be sitting on the veranda doing nothing, and piled into the car and sped off in a vague direction. When we got to the neighbourhood, where Folia de Reis had been seen we could only hear the hum of cicadas, had we missed them? Had they actually been out that evening? Did they even exist?!
We drove slowly along badly lit, pot-holed roads, occasionally winding down our window and asking locals if they had seen the group. Some said that they hadn’t heard them that evening, others that they had heard them and others that they had seen them a few days before. I wasn’t used to this unorthodox way of doing things, and was getting slightly agitated that I wouldn’t see them. Eventually we had to admit defeat, and return home.
Some days later though things began to look up. If I was interested, “Of course I was!”, I could meet them on Sunday morning and join them before they set off. This sounded promising! They were all going to meet at Divino’s house. If we waited in a square close by someone would come and collect us. Early on Sunday morning we waited, and waited. After half an hour of sitting in the car I began to think that this was all a lost cause, until the phone rang. Could we come to the house by ourselves? Directions were given, and a few minutes later we pulled up outside a house, a dachshund ran out to greet us, barking excitedly. I could hear chatter and guitars being tuned. We were led through the house into a courtyard, and there in front of us were the Folia de Reis.
After greeting everyone and having a ‘cafézinho’ (a small coffee), we got back into our car and followed a couple of old Volkswagen vans to our first house, which was behind the Christ the Redeemer statue.
At this point I should tell you the little that I know about Folia de Reis. The tradition came to Brazil along with the Portuguese, when the country was founded, and it’s a mixture of music and pantomime. The Folia de Reis is a veneration of The Three Kings, and the group go from house to house re-enacting their journey, playing music, singing and praying for the people in the house. In my wife’s town they believe that this protects the house and the people who live there.
I spent a few hours with the group, whilst they visited families. Before I left I took a series of portraits, directing everyone in my limited Portuguese.
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© Raphael Schutzer-Weissmann