Santa Maria de Belém do Grão-Pará
I’d been introduced to the Tamba-Tajá by Marga, who was a Lutheran minister, human rights activist, and liberation theologist. The bar’s owners were her friends, Iza and Rosângela, who were related by marriage. Iza had been a revolutionary and women’s rights activist in Brazil for many years, including the worst years of the military dictatorship in the 1960s and 1970s. Rosângela was raising her children and grandchildren while selling apartment leases in Belém and generally dabbling in real estate.
They named their bar for a plant of local legend, called Tamba-Tajá by Amazonian natives, known as the Elephant Ear plant to others, which people grew in their yards. The Tamba-Tajá can tell if there is much love in the house, very little, or if one of the spouses is cheating. A friend of mine in Belém made a point of telling me that a smart woman always plants one in her yard.
The bar called Tamba-Tajá was a family affair in the working class neighborhood of Jurunas. In January, during the height of the rainy season, the streets of Jurunas are deep with a mud of dark, red clay which can also be home to ferocious tribes of fire ants out in the countryside. People debate which is better, the mud during rainfall or the fine red dust kicked into the air when the streets are dry. The dust gets in your nostrils and mouth, leaving the taste of clay on your tongue. They say the dust causes the “gripe,” colds and fevers everyone lives with and no one likes.
A street in Jurunas, 1993
The Tamba-Tajá opened right on to the unpaved street. It was in the bottom floor of the house where Iza’s estranged and still quite revolutionary husband lived. He was a poet of some local fame. The bar was completely open to the outside, inside and outside having little meaning in a place where inside is often outside, defined less by bricks or wood than by the way people inhabit those spaces. In the front, palm trees shade the patio and keep the rain off people as they eat and dance and drink.
The windows are open to the outside air, too, as there are no screens in Belém, except on Marga’s house, perhaps because she was descended from Germans. In the streets and through the windows of the Tamba-Tajá you can see dark silhouettes of palm trees swaying in the breeze over Jurunas and its little, wooden houses, home to too many people with too little money, though they always seem to have enough to stop by the Tamba-Tajá and the other housefront bars in the neighborhood on a Friday night. Cold beer beats the heat in Belém.
There’s a group of reggae musicians who hang out at the Tamba-Tajá, along with political dreamers and the friends and family of Iza and Rosângela. These musicians spin records on some nights and everyone dances. The sweat soaks your body as you twist and find a place in the scratchy rhythms booming from the old, battered speakers Ivan dragged to the bar on the back of his bicycle. Over crackling, jerry-rigged wires and pounding drums, Bob Marley lived for a while at the Tamba-Tajá.
The first time I went there was to meet Marga and celebrate Iza’s birthday. They had me play for them. The stereo wires were re-rigged to a microphone that had seen much better days many years ago, and they gave me a guitar that made the microphone look like a piece of new equipment. I didn’t know any Brazilian songs, but that’s not what they wanted to hear from me. “Let It Be” always brings down the house in Brazil. And it did again, that night at the Tamba-Tajá.
Now Iza’s birthday had passed, and it was a Friday night. I hadn’t been over to Tamba-Tajá for a while, and with no plans to speak of I headed for Jurunas, a slow walk about 10 blocks down Rua Tupinambás, like “Jurunas” the name of one of Brazil’s original, native peoples.
It had been a long day for me, with much work to do, and the rain storms were particularly hard. In Belém, the blue skies of morning typically give way to clouds and showers by mid-afternoon. From January to May the rain can start in the afternoon and not stop til near daylight. It washes the city and cleanses its ills and keeps the equatorial sun from burning everyone and everything to a crisp. In all, about 86 inches of rain falls in Belém each year, a little over 7 feet.
The rain leaves the air smelling fresh with the breeze off the giant Guarajá Bay, which brings the ocean to into the mouths of the three rivers that surround Belém: the Amazon, Toncantins and Guamá. The ocean tides are sometimes so strong that they send waves up the rivers, so that they seem to flow backwards for a while. Pororoca, they call it. All this water gives life to the land and its people.
As I walked down Tupinambás, I looked to the sky for signs of rain, letting my eyes graze the cloud bottoms and measure how far or close they might be. The city lights bounced back from the clouds, and the clouds glowed orange in the distance, a false sunset that lasts all night long until the clouds dissipate in the coolness of dawn and the new day.
Tonight at the Tamba-Tajá there was no one I knew, save for Rosângela. I greeted her, got a frosty Kaiser, and sat down at a table of strangers, just listening to the conversation. A man was speaking to a boy. The man held his right arm across his chest. He held his right arm with his left hand, as he would the neck of a guitar. The boy did the same.
So we began to speak about music. The man called himself “Nego,” which is a common nickname meaning “black dude.” The boy I recognized from reggae nights at the Tamba-Tajá. He had wide, brown eyes that spoke of youth. Nego had curly black hair thick atop his head, a round face and full lips like my own. His smile and manner drew me in. He asked me questions, about music, my life, why I was sitting in the Tamba-Tajá and what I was doing. We talked for a long time, over a few more Kaisers. The others round us had their own conversations, and we had ours.
Nego wanted to know if I’d ever been out of the city to see the forest. I hadn’t. He asked me if I’d like to go with his family to a farm they have in the middle of the forest, a day away from Belém in Moju. I said, “sure, Id love that.”
“We’ll leave in a couple hours,” he said.
Notes and Credits
This story, Tamba-Tajá, will be told in 3 parts on truth and rocket science. It recounts a visit I took to the bar on a Friday night in 1993, during my year of doctoral research on Belém. There I met a young man who became a close friend for most of 1993, and he invited me out to his family’s farm in the rainforest. I returned home on Tuesday.
I took the photo of Belém’s docks in the “Cidade Velha” in April 1993, as the boat left Belém for the journey that is recounted in this story. “Cidade Velha” means “old city” and refers to the original colonial settlement of Belém that was established in 1616 to consolidate Portugal’s claims over the Amazon. The other photos of Jurunas were taken around the same time by me, except for the photo of Rua Tupinambas. That photo comes form the site Skyscraper City, which contains a great number of photos of Belem. Very nice collection!
For more on my friend, Rosa Marga Rothe, see her Wikipedia page. Her daughter, Iva Rothe, is a accomplished musician.
The picture of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the text is from the website, “Pasarela Cultural,” which goes on to discuss the legend of the Tamba-Tajá.
The legend of the Tamba-Tajá can be found all over the Web. Silvana Nunes’s fotolog has a great photo of the plant and a simple text of the myth, which I have translated. Nunes, a teacher and photographer, has another blog called “Foi desse jeito que eu ouvi dizer…” (this is how I heard it…).
In the Macuxi tribe there was a very strong and intelligent Indian. One day, he fell in love with a beautiful Indian woman from his village. They were married a little later, and they were very happy, until one day the woman became very ill and was paralyzed.
So that he wouldn’t be separated from his love, the Macuxi man made a sling to carry the woman on his back, taking her everywhere he went. One day, however, the man noticed that his cargo was heavier than normal. When he untied the sling, he found that his beloved wife was dead.
The man went into the forest and dug a hole on the edge of a creek. He buried himself together with his wife, for there was no reason for him to continue living. Some time passed until a full moon appeared in the same place where they were buried, and a gracious plant unknown to the Macuxis began to grow there.
The plant was the Tamba-Tajá, with dark green triangular leaves, which have on their backside another, smaller leaf which appears similar to the female gentialia. Together, the two leaves symbolize the great love that the Macuxi couple had.
Amazonian caboclos grow the plant near their houses and attribute mystical powers to it. If, for example, the plant grows well with exuberant, lush leaves, it’s a sign that there is much love in that house. But if the larger leaves don’t have the smaller ones on their backs, there is no love in the house. If there is more than one smaller leaf on the backside of the larger one, one of the spouses if unfaithful.
The photo of the Tamba-Tajá plant in the story’s text shows the “small leaf” or flower on the backside of the Elephant Ear quite well. Without that flower, love ain’t going right in the house.