Afro-Atlantic Histories (Part 1)

Maria Auxiliadora ‘Iemanja segurando os seios’

From Nereci to Yemanjá

What a melodic hook! Doo doo doo doo doo doo doo doo! I like to think I was smitten from the moment I heard it, though in reality it was probably a slow burner. The year I first came across Nereci by Djavan was over a decade ago, in 2006. It had just appeared on a compilation CD called The Brazilian Funk Experience, which is both a funky and functional name.

In those days, as long-time readers of this blog may recall, your oldest of Ropes was a more spritely string in his mid-twenties, living in Leeds with Dannish Inquisition and C-Boats. This blog was a different beast back then: all calamity, clumsiness and Yoko Ono fetishes. Some would say it was better.

Fast forward to 2010 and (seasoned followers will also remember) Old Rope was grooving in Argentina. It was there I met my good pals Danilla and Valeria from Brazil, with whom I shared my love of Djavan’s song and asked for help with the lyrics.

“I couldn’t translate the name,” I pined, Google not being much cop back then, “I’d love to know what it means.” The young women knew Djavan as a popular singer from back home, but had never paid much attention to this particular song and its lyrics.

“I think it’s a woman’s name,” Danilla said. I felt disappointed; I had assumed it was something more interesting, more magical. That seems daft with the benefit of hindsight. How could I not have noticed that it is a brill name? I would happily name all my future adopted daughters Nereci. Yes, all of them. Except the ones named after characters in the Jungle Book. But that is, both literally and figuratively, another story.

Iemanja, Yemanja, Nereci

Eight years later and I finally found myself in Brazil for the first time. While there, I picked up a copy of Djavan’s first LP, having had my mate Justino scouring second hand shops for ages. He’s a good man and thorough, finally haggling a fella down in a street market for me. My copy of Nereci was secured and would immediately find its way into my DJ sets after a twelve year gestation.

But an old vinyl record wasn’t the only thing I got while I was there. Thanks to a mix of museums and friends, I was also lucky enough to learn more about Nereci herself. Turns out she wasn’t just a love interest in a ballad, but something altogether more supernatural after all.

René Portocarrero, Yemaya (Iemanjá), 1962

Nereci is in fact an alternative name for Iemanjá, or Yemanjá, a form of water deity appearing in various religions of the Black Diaspora of Latin America. In Brazil in particular she is one of the seven Orixás (or godlike spirits) and a key figure in the Umbanda religion. More specifically, she is the queen of the ocean, the patron ‘saint’ of fishermen (and shipwreck survivors) and on top of that she is the feminine ‘principle of creation’ and the spirit of moonlight. In short, she is kind of a big deal and not to be trifled with.

Umbanda is a syncretic Afro-Brazilian religion, that is one which mixes African traditions with Catholicism, Spiritism, and Indigenous American beliefs. It is complex and manifold, and I won’t do it justice here. My friend Darlison, a practising Umbandista, gave a potted summary at the end of this episode of my Hefty Tomatoes podcast (around 52:40mins).

Suffice to say that it has its roots in the Yoruba religion, from the area that is now South-West Nigeria, finding its way to the New World with the people brought to the colonies as slaves. Over time many of the Orixás were syncretised with catholic saints, perhaps as a survival mechanism for those seeking to preserve their faith, though they remain resiliently distinct to those who practise the religion today and their holy-buddy system seems more like a shorthand guide for Christians.

Yemanjá herself is a version of Yorbuba’s Yemoja, often depicted as a mermaid. Legend has it that when Yemoja’s waters broke, it caused a great flood which created the rivers and streams of the world and from her womb came the first mortal humans. Marvellous stuff, don’t you think?

As it happens, there were plenty of clues in the song Nereci all along, as Djavan sings of her maritime royalty. It seems there was something magical about the old girl after all and I would come across her more and more over my two visits to Brazil.

Nereci quando o mar levou
Teria sido de traição
Será que na maré de hoje
Ela virá
Rainha do mar

Nereci when the sea took away
It would have been treason
It will be in today’s tide
She will come
Sea Queen

Além de todos além
Além do além mar
Nereci além do azul estará

Beyond everything, beyond
Beyond overseas
Nereci beyond the blue will be

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