The word for forest is mato
The sounds of pororoca and carimbó
Mato, mata, juquira, capoeira: in the Amazon, what you call “forest” might have a number of names.
It was as if my uncle had met a holy entity… Oh, if he were allowed to see and hear her, he would never forget her voice, nor her three enormous heads, opening their foamy mouths to chew the bushes by the shore, break canoes, stir up the bottoms, turn ships upside down.
Três casas e um rio (Three Houses and a River), published in 1958 by the Marajoara writer Dalcídio Jurandir, is the third book of his “cycle of the extreme North,” an Amazonian literary saga composed of ten novels. Although unknown by many, particularly outside the state of Pará, Dalcídio is undoubtedly one of the great novelists of the 20th century and is essential reading for those who seek to embark on the literature that portrays the peoples and cultures of the region.
In the passage that opens this text, Alfredo – the novelist’s alter ego – reflects on the fascinating stories told by Sebastião, his mother’s brother. Among stories of mato and waters, he would also tell tales of the pororoca, the spectacle of the meeting waters of the immense Amazon River with the Atlantic Ocean. When aligned correctly, earth, sea, and moon give birth to the so-called marés lançantes, the high tides with their immense violent waves.
Sebastião, “a black-black man, but really very black,” as Dalcídio portrays him, narrates to his nephew’s amazed eyes and ears the phenomenon of the pororoca in Caviana, an island in the Marajó archipelago. The man arrives at his sister’s house without warning and seems to personify the Black population of the Amazon, often ignored and even denied. The narrator says that his maternal uncles lived scattered in the Amazon and that, always unexpectedly, one of them would come to visit. Now it is the youngest one, with side-parted coarse hair and a guitar on his shoulder. Among the “mysterious elements of water and mato that made up the whole existence of that smiling, young black man,” the boy learns about the pororoca:
The one in Arari. The one in Guamá, so tiny, although of a good size, as they said, could not even remotely be compared with the one that happened near Caviana, in those uncertain and arbitrary regions of the North coast. Sebastião told him about the Juruá River, in the Amazon, so so far away.
The phenomenon of the pororoca is symbolic for the Amazon and its peoples, especially for the regions occupied by ancient Black and Indigenous populations, such as Dalcídio’s Marajó, or the state of Amapá (the former Cabo Norte), and the Tocantina, Guajarina, and Salgado regions in the northeastern part of the state of Pará. The best-known pororoca spectacles, besides the one on the island of Caviana, happen in rivers such as Mearim, in the state of Maranhão; Capim, in Pará; and Araguari, in Amapá. The pororoca of Araguari was recently declared extinct, after having been compromised by hydroelectric projects and other human interventions, such as cattle rearing.
In his exploratory incursion at the end of the 1830s, the English naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace stood still in his canoe in the Guamá River waiting for the phenomenon. It was the month of May – a period when the tides are not so high. Although he knew that the pororoca occurred during high tides, he was too curious not to try to see it for himself. The pororoca, he wrote, appeared “suddenly erupting in the form of a wave, running rapidly upstream and breaking into foam…”. It caused his canoe to rise as a rogue wave in the ocean would do.
The pororoca is only possible through the existence of the waters, of living waters, of wide and free waters – only in this way can it permeate the imagination of the Amazon people. As Dalcídio’s characters, we, peoples of the Amazon basin, are immersed in worlds of matas and waters. In his passages, I find resonances of my existence, as well as in his biography as an Amazonian and racialized man, born in this Northern part of the country. He is a writer of the watery worlds that are also mine.
This deep intimacy with the waters and matos is a technological wisdom inherited from our Black and Quilombola ancestors. Our past, present, and future existence is deeply entwined with these sacred entities. Their health is indispensable and non-negotiable, their lives are also ours. Any separation between these elements and us is urban, Eurocentric, and distorted.
The “forest” thought of as an untouchable sanctuary does not exist except in the minds of those who don’t know and don’t care about our real existence. The “forest” only continues to exist because we have been here for centuries. The lives of the Amazonian peoples are the lives of the waters, of the matos, matas, animals, fish, birds, trees, channels, rivers, and streams. If I prefer to say mato instead of “forest,” as they often say in the cities, it is because being a daughter of what you call a “forest” – and what we call mato, mata, capoeira, juquira –, I carry with me the vocabulary of rural Black people and Quilombolas.
We need the “forest” alive because our relationship with it is one of feedback.
Our vocabulary expresses the worlds that live in us and where we live and make our living. “Forest”: this beautiful word belongs to an exogenous, urban vocabulary. It is often used in salvationist speeches, full of colonialist overtones, even if well-intentioned. Colonial reproduction extends beyond the field of conscious intentions – it is essential to remember this in fighting racism, ethnocentrism and colonialism.
Entering the trenches of defense of the Amazon cannot boil down to an ethnocentric salvationist discourse. Perhaps it is necessary to minimally know the region, beginning with the basics of conceiving the existence of its peoples, our existences. I repeat: we, rural Black populations, Quilombola populations, are here resisting and have occupied this territory for centuries. What you call “forest” is us too. Our life is also at stake in the face of the colonial death projects that menace the region.
We need the “forest” alive because our relationship with it is one of feedback. We need it alive for the fishing and hunting that sustain us. We need it alive because we need to plant our gardens, to drink our water, we need the wood, the straw, the clay for our dwellings. We never had a predatory relationship with the land. For us the land was never a merchandise, it is a space shared among our families. We repudiate and feel violated by the propagation and legalization of white-urban hunting and fishing, a predatory entertainment carried out and encouraged by current State projects, long architected by capitalist logic. We do not accept being contained in the same toxic logic of destruction, as we often are.
In the Amazonian territories, the waters influence our conceptions of art, our poetics, our musical ancestry. They are the core of the carimbós made in Pará. Once, in an interview, Dona Onete – one of the greatest carimbó singers of our time – was asked what kind of carimbó she made. Her answer made an impression on me: she said she makes a carimbó “from the fresh waters of the lower Tocantins”; thus, differentiated from the carimbós of the oceanic region, of salty waters, more to the East. This is even mentioned in one of her songs: “What carimbó is this / what a snazzy touch / nice and wet / where do you come from? / I came from the lower Tocantins / to play here in Belém / from the headwaters / from the banks of the streams / where the grass is thriving / and the carpet is waterlilies / I am a freshwater carimbó / very differentiated / because my touch is soft / my swing is cuddly.”
The carimbó songbook is swarming with images of rivers, beaches, bays, matos, igapós, igarapés. Mestre Verequete used to sing: “I went on a canoe / I went to learn how to row / in the Bay of Guajará my canoe had a hole / row, you rower / let’s learn how to row / let’s see if we can cruise / the Bay of Guajará.”
One of the traditional instruments of carimbó, the curimbó, is the lying drum on which the curimbozeiro sits to play with bare hands. It is also the image of a mount, a canoe carried by the rower. The music starts with a beat that resembles the lundu rhythm; when the player speeds up the canoe’s pace on the water, with stronger taps on the drum’s leather, then it becomes the faster carimbó. Poetry, among other things, is also a place of image projection. The image of the seated curimbozeiro stages the rower who glides the canoe on the waterways of the Amazon.
As an Amazonian and Quilombola poet, I am fascinated by the various carimbós played and chanted in the territories of the Brazilian Amazon. It is from this part of the world, and about this part of the world, that I speak to you, and I grant myself the right to this image, the right to chant in my imagination like someone who chants an old carimbó song. A resonance of ancient presences – of peoples, matos, water bodies, and animals – permeating the ruins of old villages. They are in our songs, our bodies, our lives, in the Amazon that goes back to ancient times, as a carimbó song by a Marajoara group from the Bay of Guajará says: “carimbó is not only a dance / carimbó is a religion / as sacred as a heritage / from the times of enslavement.”
The waters and their natural phenomena, as well as our own existence, must continue to exist free from exploitative, ethnocentric, colonial, and murderous projects and practices. The bodies of water are not just water, they are inhabited and enchanted worlds, their deaths are our own death, and we demand to continue to exist.
We, Quilombola peoples, Indigenous peoples, peoples of the mato, of the waters, of the carimbó chants, we have inhabited for centuries the banks and headwaters of Amazonian rivers and streams, and here we are. We are black families, like the family of Dona Amélia, scattered throughout the region, wandering from one place to another, often marginalized and ignored, but also organized in our collective land use, fighting for our existence, and practicing other possibilities of autonomous life. We are the community leaders who are threatened by the new latifundia – now the monocultures of oil palm, soy, and the like – that murder our matos and matas, poison and dry up our watercourses, undermining our very lives. We do not accept the discourse of saving the “forest” without considering us as people of the mato. Our history has been, above all, a history of struggle and protagonism for existence and dignity in this territory, since time immemorial. We are the sounds of the pororocas and the carimbós. We are the Amazon itself.
To introduce your ears to the carimbó world, the author suggests the following: Mestre Lucindo, Mestre Verequete, CD De Carimbó Santarém Novo, Chico Braga e os Nativos do Canal – Carimbó de Algodoal.