People describe the city of Juazeiro do Norte as the largest center of religiosity in Brazil. In the late 19th century, a priest known as Padre Cicero, driven by a desire to help the poor, became a primary figure in the region’s development. Many believe that while giving communion to one of his followers, one of Padre Cicero’s wafers turned into blood. It was quickly declared a miracle, and people from all around the Brazilian Northeast came to see the priest. (Here’s a 2005 New York Times article on Padre Cicero if you’re interested.) Today, people still make pilgrimages to Juazeiro do Norte on Catholic saints’ days. The town’s tourism industry seems to be based on the memory of Padre Cicero and his brand of Catholicism.
A few weeks ago, I traveled with my parents, who were here visiting, to the region surrounding Juazeiro do Norte. We saw the important Padre Cicero sites, like the twenty-five meter statue that sits above the city, and a few of the churches where pilgrims leave wooden milagres and light candles. I interviewed accordionists and artisans, saw rehearsals of reisado dance groups (both Reisado São Miguel and Reisado Dos Irmãos) and spent days with the instrument builder and musician Francisco de Freitas. I presented a lecture on my research at the Juazeiro do Norte campus of the Universidade Federal do Ceará. And I made my own personal pilgrimage to the town of Exu, Pernambuco, the hometown of Luiz Gonzaga, Brazilian musical legend and central figure in my dissertation, where a guard at the little museum in front of his final home let me play one of Gonzaga’s accordions. It was one of the great moments of the year. Sadly, the museum is struggling to stay open, and the caretaker told us that they often can’t afford to pay their electricity bills.
I made this little video with some highlights from my trip. You can see Freitas playing one of his instruments, an oud-like lute made out of a calabash.