It drizzled as I drove to the annual meeting of the “rain prophets.” Farmers from around the northeast of Brazil gathered in Quixadá, a town in the interior of the state of Ceará. The prophets, who learn from the time they’re young how to predict when and how much it will rain each year, make their forecasts by observing nature. Some listen to birdsong, others measure honey inside dissected bees. The stars, the leaves, and the behavior of ants all suggest how much rain will fall, and the prophets share their predictions so farmers will know when to plant their seeds. The organizer of the meeting, João Soares, is the president of the Instituto de Pesquisa de Violas e Poesia Cultural Popular do Sertão Central (the Institute of Research of Ten-String Guitars and Cultural Popular Poetry of the Central Sertão), and he sees the two-day event as a way of preserving regional culture and traditional ways of knowing.
The festivities began Friday night with a concert of improvised songs, a kind of music called cantoria or repente. Pairs of musicians took turns improvising verses to songs with predetermined rhyme schemes. The performers sang about rain prophets, about drought, farming, and life in the rural interior, about corruption and politics, about sex, love, and women. There was even a song about Barack Obama.
The next morning, around two hundred visitors, farmers, students, journalists, and politicians met at the base of the town’s reservoir, built at the end of the 19th century as an early effort to mitigate the impact of drought in the region. About thirty rain prophets explained their techniques and gave their predictions for the year. I’m told the best prophets are right 80% of the time. This year’s consensus? A good winter with lots of rain. I’d say it was a safe bet: It started raining in the middle of the meeting and poured in the afternoon.
Here’s a video of Guilherme Calixto, a repentista (a repente singer) improvising a song at the Meeting of the Rain Prophets. He says rain prophets are like poets, and asks for a year without too much rain, since floods devastated the northeast last year.