EPISODE 5: Mama's comfort - a samba story

With Dona Nildes Bomfim and Mileide Bomfim

English Translation 

Jamie Andreson Welcome all to our bilingual podcast Brazil Culture Connections. My name is Jamie Lee Andreson, I am the creator of this project, and along with a team of interns from The Pennsylvania State University, we present original interviews with Brazilian artists, leaders, and thinkers accompanied by English translations of all the materials, offering new content to the media and education. 

Our fifth episode is called “Mama’s Comfort: A Samba Story,” and it is the second-to-last in the first season, “Bainas em Foco.” In this episode, I spoke with samba master Dona Nildes Bomfim and her daughter Mileide Bomfim, two immensely important women for the maintenance of the family tradition of the Bahian samba circle in their county, Camaçari. I had the pleasure of meeting them and seeing their Espermacete Cultural Group when I lived in Camaçari, the hometown of my husband, in-laws, and nieces and nephews. It was a rich conversation about their family lineages, the Bahian samba culture of the North Coast, the storyline of their songs and dances, and how they manage this family business to maintain popular culture. 

Dona Nildes Bomfim Good morning! My name is Anatanildes, also known as Nildes, master of the Espermacete Cultural Group, where I am master, president, organizer, and more for the Espermacete Cultural Group. This group comes from generations...it comes from generations. I am already the fourth generation, as it all started with my grandfather Cassiando, my grandfather Cassiano passed it onto my mother, Arlinda, who invited our cousin, my mother’s niece and my cousin, and I arrived last to join the team. I am continuing it on, I took hold of the staff, and I am continuing the Espermacete Cultural Group. 

This fifth episode features the samba master Dona Nildes Bomfim and her daughter Mileide Bomfim – two important women keeping alive the samba de roda traditions from their state of Bahia.Dona Nildes and Mila are not just musicians, singers and dancers, they are producers, directors and administrators. We discuss their samba group Espermacete, which is not just about music, but also community, social service, family traditions and preserving generational knowledge.

J How nice! Thank you, you are a true legend of the samba master, from Camaçari in Bahia, Brazil. It is a privilege to have you on this podcast. And also with us today is your daughter, Mileide. 

Mileide Bomfim Yes! Good morning everyone. My name is Mileide Bomfim. My artistic name is Mile Percussa [Mila Percussion]. I’m 27 years old, I’m the daughter of Master Nildes, who directs the Espermacete Cultural Group, a group that I am also a part of, I am on the front line in the area of  percussion, I’m also the representative. And that’s all!

J Marvelous! It’s the first time that we’re having a mother and a daughter, two people in the interview, and it is also the first time that we’re talking about music in this program. So, I know I have a lot to learn, as does our audience, about your history and your artistic and cultural actions. And thank you again. So, I’m going to begin by asking Dona Nildes, the great samba circle (samba de roda) master from Bahia. And I would like to know: how did your participation in the traditional samba come about?

DN In reality, I’ve been part of it since I was little because I come from a family of sambadores [male samba dancers] and sambadeiras [female samba dancers]. And then, when I was really little, of course, I couldn’t go to samba because I was a child, and kids can’t go...but from that moment on when I continued growing and understanding that I really liked the samba circle, traditional samba—and I still do today. It is precisely the samba that we dance barefoot. So, this maintained my interest in the samba and increasingly made it grow more. 

J And how did it turn into a family tradition for you, Dona Nildes? You referred to your relatives that did it. How was it in your childhood—and in Mila’s, who is part of these generations—to grow up in this environment and learn these traditional acts?

DN Yes, so my mother was a sambadeira. My grandfather was a sambador. My grandfather spent a month in Rio de Janeiro singing Kings, and my mom—his daughter—accompanied him. From the moment that they realized I could start and also accompany them, there was...there was no way out. I fell into samba, and even today, we continue with it because the majority in the Espermacete Cultural Group is a Bomfim relative. In reality, Espermacete comes from the family, it’s from the Bomfims, it is from Bomfim to Bomfim. The man who had this group was my grandfather, because it was he who...started it all, right? Afterward, he passed it on to my mother, to my cousin; but the person who founded it was my grandfather Cassiano, and he told the story. It began being sung, telling the stories from the date when he passed it on to my mother, to my cousin, which then turned it into a samba group, and then we put the Kings into the samba. So, today we sing Kings, the terno [a reenactment from the night of Jesus’s birth], and then we always finish with a samba circle. So, it stays in the family. My mother as well as my cousin brought it forward, and from there I joined, as I mentioned earlier. I am taking hold of the staff, I am continuing it on, and I’m already preparing Mileide as well. From woman to woman, I am preparing Mileide as well. I have my son, and there are my cousins, who are also Bomfims, and the people from the community, which I in no way leave out, as whoever wants to participate, I invite: come, come now, come. 

  "In reality, I’ve been part of it since I was little because I come from a family of sambadores [male samba dancers] and sambadeiras [female samba dancers]."

Dona Nildes Bomfim

M So, I, Mileide, don’t have much to say because my mother explained how her grandfather founded the group, he was a sambador, then there was her mother, my grandmother, who was a sambadeira. She grew up in this family business also with her cousin and it came to her and was passed on to me. So, it is a matter of happiness in being able to share these moments. I didn’t know my mother’s grandfather. I only met my grandmother. I met her [Dona Nildes’] mother. That was great. I also got to meet her cousin, and that was also very important for me, because whether I was willing to or not, I hadn’t discovered myself yet. I didn’t know what I wanted for my life, to be honest. As I was growing up, my mother was raising me in the rhythm of music. And because of that, I took on this love, this passion, and she said, “No. You have to be here, of course. It belongs to the family, do you understand?” And I ended up taking on this great responsibility for myself. 

J Yes, it is. And what was the day-to-day like for those who don’t know the culture? How can you describe what it’s like to be a sambadeira, to be part of a family like yours? Is it inside your home, is it events, is it in parties, it is every day? What is that experience like? 

M To tell you the truth, it is a good life, but at the same time, it is difficult, my friend, because there’s a lot on your mind, you know, when you have issues to solve. My mother goes: “Mila,let’s go let’s go!” So, there was always commotion—and we stopped because of the pandemic—but I’ll tell you that there was always something new, every day, independent of living together and solving problems together all the time. There was always something new because, for me, every day is a new learning experience. And when I began to frequent the group from a young age, my mother was already placing me in the rhythm. I was already a sambadeira in the group, in the performance part. I was the standard bearer, which is the person who shows off our flag of Brazil. The performance also demonstrates what it was like, because the group forms in the shape of a ship, and we show each part of the ship in the group, even the sambadeira shows the sea waves. So, everything was new for me every day. It still is today. It’s a great pride to always be together with my mom in the midst of the bustle so that we have a big objective, which what we really want is for the group to be recognized. That’s what we want. 

"There was always something new because, for me, every day is a new learning experience. And when I began to frequent the group from a young age, my mother was already placing me in the rhythm.."

Mileide Bomfim

J I understand. You aren’t just musicians or dancers. You are really producers. There is an administrative side where you have to manage and run all the events. So, it’s like a family business, right? 

M Exactly, that’s right. We are the ones who hustle for it, my mother works hard and we go forward putting on shows. When we give an overview of the group, we explain the reason behind the group’s name.

J And Dona Nildes, you grew up in Barra de Pojuca in Camaçari? 

DN No, I am a daughter of Mata de São João. I grew up for some time in Imbassaí. I’m from Mata de São João, I lived in Santo Antônio until I was six...six and a half. I was in Santo Antônio. After that, I went to Imbassaí. I stayed in Imbassaí until I was eleven. When I was eleven, I had to work to help my mother. And so, from that date on I continue today running after, working towards and always seeking improvement for my family, and also doing anything for my group, so that nothing is lacking and we don’t lose our essence, our roots, or our traditions.  

Dona Nildes and her daughter Mila 

J Generally, the culture of the samba de roda is more well-known in Recôncavo. So, you have experience coming from the North coast [of Bahia]. I wanted to know: how has the musical and cultural scene transformed throughout your life and career? 

DN In reality, my friend, I entered into this group, and I am in this group now. I see various other samba circle groups as well, which I think is really important, and the experience with each master is a learning experience.  

J So, each group has its own tradition? Is that it?

DN And it has its own way of doing things. It has its….its…

M Its style. 

DN It is style that distinguishes it, because they can’t all be the same. My group doesn’t have string harmony. It’s just percussion. It’s just percussive. It’s voice, percussion, and clapping. And the other groups already come with string harmonies, viola. Anyways, our samba is more or less a samba corrido, it’s a fast samba, it’s truly a traditional samba. The majority of the other sambas, there’s now samba chula, it also has samba corrido. Samba chula, as I just mentioned, because of the viola and its songs as well, when they are singing, the sambadeira can’t go out to dance samba. In my case, in the case of the Espermacete group, we sing. Samba chula doesn’t have harmony, we sing. Samba corrido sings the batuque style, it sings the samba coco, as I just said. When it is singing samba chula, when it is singing a chula, people have to wait to finish singing in order to get up and dance samba, return and choose somebody from the outside of the circle to give an umbigada and go back to their spot and then wait for us to sing again, that is, to say a line, it goes like that in succession. The Batuque doesn’t. With Batuque, you can samba dance the whole time, because then you go into the circle, you dance, you go back, now you just can’t stay in the middle of the circle for long. You go, you dance, you return, you give the other person an umbigada, you get out of the circle, that is the Batuqe. Samba coco is an unhurried samba, a slower samba, it’s calmer. Does that make sense? It’s like that in succession. 

J So, the family objective is to continue the same tradition, to not innovate too much with technology. Is that it? 

DN Exactly. To not change the tradition, to not take away from what already came since the beginning. If we have to change something, like I changed it a little, but it was to improve and the group has songs from my grandfather, which were sang by my grandfather, but when I made the CD that I went to record, the very producer said they wouldn’t be put as mine, my grandfather’s, because I didn’t know due to the age [of the song], I didn’t know if someone had arrived before and registered it in their name. Then I put it into the public domain, but it has my songs, it has sambas that I made from my own authorship for the Espermacete Group as well.

J How nice. And Mila, do you think it is possible to continue this tradition given the changes in Bahian culture and in the music scene?

Cultural Group Espermacete 

M I’ll say this: with the jeitinho brasileiro [Brazilian way], we can achieve anything, isn’t that the truth? I see the difficulties too. I won’t deny it because in the music environment, I see a lot of things that are...you know...difficult to deal with. The popular culture part of the group...when you say popular culture, sometimes popular culture is not really valued. It is not really valued, which makes many things difficult. We already had places to go far away in other cities, but we didn’t get to because we didn’t have a car of our own, and also because we couldn’t get support, you see? To work in the area of popular culture, we have to like it, we have to love it, we have to feel pleasure in what we do, because if someone was there just to be there, they would give up halfway through because of the difficulty from the things we go through because it’s not...most of the time, it’s not valued. That is the truth. But I intend to work hard, each and every day my mother shows me things, how they are, how I have to act, how I should problem solve, that I need to have patience, which is something I could use more of. I can’t deny it. So, that is it. I will try. I have to get there, to reach it some day, to make her even more proud because this is her dream, she started as a little girl, as she always tells me that it is from generation to generation. She is passing on this responsibility to me, so I have to do all that I can so that it is successful.

J It will all work out. You will be successful, since you already have all this familial wisdom, there’s no way it could go wrong. I’m certain of that.

M Amen, amen. Thank God, certainly.

J So, now I wanted to concentrate more on the Espermacete Group. How did it develop into what it is now? What was the origin of the group? And what are its activities and objectives today?

DN The origin of the group is in the name, the Espermacete group. In the past with my grandfather, it was Espramacete. I changed the name a little because it is the right pronunciation. Anyway, everything began with a shipwreck, a ship that was coming with various spices, it was bringing them and it sank here on the Brazilian coast. Among all these spices was the substance “spermaceti” [sperm whale wax], which then was what generated all this, all this history. So, it sinks on the Brazilian coast. Then, the native women who liked—and still like—to make braids, hats, mats, bags. So a couple of women got together to round up all the  material  to make braids. And from there, through the shipwreck, they gathered letters, stories...and so then they made songs and added in the dances. For example, there is...it’s a story that is told and sung.   

“Japanese spermaceti that has never been seen here before. The winds were very strong, it hit the coast of Brazil.”

So that was when the ship sank and lost all its spices. And then, not for their own uses, the women said they had found the spices at the seashore, and from then on they were singing, putting together songs. Each song from the Espermacete Group is sung, the history is told. Then there was:

“From August on, and from August on it has to hit very Northeast. It has to hit very Northeast. Let’s go to the beach, let’s go to the beach to look for the spermaceti, oh to look for the spermaceti.”  

So, the song is telling what happened. What was lost at shore in their imaginary in order to make music and have it be this beautiful thing. So, the format that we make the group is exactly like a ship, there is a side with women, the other with sambadeiras, and in the head the men come, who are the musicians, the music players, and at the end we always have the flag to represent.  And it goes like that. This is the Esperacete Group, this is our format. And in the end, we play samba for all the songs and the dance. The dance is different. But being on the same level. So we don't take anything away, nothing is left out. And to finish, we finish with samba. 

“The shepherdesses who are dancing samba, the shepherdesses who are dancing samba, it is espermacete presenting, it is espermacete presenting. 

So, we present the Espermacete. But we aren’t used to always doing the full terno performance [reenactment of Jesus’s birth with three kings]. We are more used to doing the samba circle group because our terno performance isn’t done on January 6th, on that day we go out with the terno in the street. We then go to the church door, where we sing, and we descend doing the street procession, singing the songs. Even when we arrive here at the fair. That’s where we present the other groups that I invite. Various groups come to be part of our event.

J How nice! Wow! I wish you could see my smile. I’m imagining it all, and I’m itching to go on January 6th one of these years to accompany you. How wonderful! And Mila, can you talk a little about your activities, the group’s objectives today and your role in it all, please? 

M My activities are like I always tell you. They include organization, which we...which I do with my mother. When we have to answer emails, we answer emails. When we have rehearsals, I speak with every participant about...we have a group that we can communicate with. We share the information that needs to be shared and more. My objective in the group, my objective in reality is my greatest dream, which I know is my mother’s dream. To put on multiple shows in different places, to explore this big old world of God, you know, to be recognized like we deserve, to be recognized for the work that she develops, because my mother, her group, she builds a project that isn’t just for adults, it’s not just for the elderly. She does it with children as well, with teenagers, because we know the world we live in today is very cruel, whether we like it or not. Bad things are very active, so she tries, she offers the group that she always places me in as well: Mila, let’s go, let’s do this, and I pass on the little I know about percussion to the children. At one point she even says: No, let’s make an area here only for percussion so that they learn, and so I began doing it for free. And my mother also has the cultural aspect of the quadrilha junina [folk dance during the June celebration in Brazil], which has many adults, children as well. We go into the community, she arrives in the community, she comes even to those who aren’t from the community, and she calls on them to participate and the people like it, they are teens and everything else. There are teen parents, but they are parents and they participate also. She also developed work braiding straw and samba de palha, which is her seeing her ancestor, which the lady already built those braided straws. She does it already, it is an additional income as well. She has the Da Mangaba Group, which is another samba in which she speaks of the difficulty people faced in the past and still today, of the difficulty to survive as they went into the dense forest to pick mangaba fruit, to gather these mangabas. And so she always had people inside of the brush, and so then she put it there like a caboclo [native Brazilian spirit], which scared the the people, the pickers so they wouldn’t take the mangabas and the women tried to take them so they could preserve them so they could ripen. It is very spectacular. And she makes this story into a samba story. We demonstrate it. So that is it. Our greatest goal is for us to be able to demonstrate all these activities of ours that we do with our hearts, with our soul, with happiness so that many can expand. 

J And we are here for that as well.

M That’s great! And we are thankful for being able to always count on you. You were someone who we knew and that we admire, and that we like, we think of you highly, and in whatever you may need, trust that you can count on us for it. Okay? And about my role. My role currently, as I mentioned earlier, is that I am in the area of percussion. I am on the front line, as well as my brother, Vitor. He is 26, he’s 25, 25 years old, and my mother gave this responsibility to us. And outside of percussion, I am the representative of the Espermacete Cultural Group when my mother can’t fix whatever issue, she puts me in that position, and I go with the little that I know and I try to fix it. And that’s my role.

J  So many things, you must have a full calendar! How nice. You have to have passion, you have to have this strength, even an ancestral strength in order to continue all this. It’s super importante, and this project really is to make partnerships, to amplify cultures, leaders, masters, who aren’t very well known in the English-speaking world. So I do the work of translation, of education, of partnership itself. So, it’s a great pleasure. And to wrap up, I just wanted to recognize that we are in a moment of pandemic, and I wanted to know how you are doing with it, how is the process of cultural production, and what we can expect from the group in this growth process.

DN About the pandemic, dear friend, it put a lot of pressure on us, we are very….you see, because we aren’t being able to do anything at all, we can’t do anything. I also tried to help my group because the difficulty is huge, I’ve been able to get some things by asking, I got kits with basic food needs and staples, with which I helped a few families, thank God. And from here on out, I don’t know, I don’t even know what to tell you, I don’t know what it will be like. Because the situation is very difficult, it’s precarious. I hope, I hope to God, who is in command of everything, I hope in God that there comes a turn for the better, and that we can overcome all this in the future, in the future we will beat all these difficulties.

J I hope so as well. In this moment of crisis. It is difficult to imagine the future. And we must deal with the present, the day to day, in order to overcome the challenges that we see more and more. It’s heavy.

DN It’s a struggle, you see?

J It is a struggle and people have to understand the situation that Brazil is in. That is part of the project as well. We have to celebrate the wins but acknowledge the difficulties that exist at the same time. So, to finish up, I would like to invite you two to play a short song or chant with claps or whatever if you have something you can share with us. It would be an honor.

DN Yes, I will sing a samba that I made because I thank God for everything, for the opportunity, for what he made me to be today. I never imagined I would be a samba master. I never imagined being a master of a samba group, and a group that in reality is already out there inGod’s great big world. We just need to get out there, but the group already has before us. 

J It has, music goes a long way.

Espermacete Cultural Group Performance. Camaçari, Bahia. 

DN So, I made a homage to all my boys and girls who make up the 56 members of the group. But then, you know, when you talk about money, many things get confused. Money is good, but it also confuses some things because you know how Mila said earlier, that it is difficult for popular culture groups. It’s a lot. And it isn’t always that there’s a payment for our work. And we have done a lot for free because the group has a community work side to it too. And so we played [our music] a lot for social purposes. And the mothers were waiting for their children to come home with bags full of money, or whatever, I don’t know. And then they were saying the children were just making a ladder for me to climb, as if I were making money and I wasn’t passing it on. And that’s not what I do. Whether or not I have it, I am very transparent. My book is open. But, let it go, it already happened, today we bounced back, whoever wants to be with us is with us. You understand? And those who want to come, come, you’ll be welcomed and embraced as long as the Espermacete Group is with open arms to receive you and make you part of our activities and our victories. Anyway, this samba that I made is talking about my girls, talking about my group, it’s called “Xodó de mamãe.”

Grandpa wanted to give me a beating

A beating with vine 

My father and my mother said I am their pride and joy

I am mama’s love

Mama's comfort, papa’s comfort

I am mama’s love

Mama's comfort, papa's comfort

I am mama’s love

Mama's comfort

I am mama’s love

Papa’s comfort

I am mama’s love

Mama's comfort, mama’s comfort

I am mama’s love

Mama's comfort, papa’s comfort,

I am mama’s love

Mama's mama’s mama’s love

I am mama’s love

Papa’s mama’s mama’s love

I am mama’s love

Mama's comfort

I am mama’s love

J I’m so sad we don’t have video so you can’t see my smile.

DN This samba that I made is for all the people in the group because they are all my xodós [loved ones, pride and joy, comfort]. If I could, I would bring everyone under my wing.

J How beautiful, you are a grand mother.

DN But I am always helping in what I can, I am always growing stronger, they arrive and ask for advice. If they are needing something more and ask, and if I’m in the right conditions, it doesn’t matter the distance, I already helped many children with their legal documentation, nowadays I can’t help [by legally adopting them] anymore as they have to be registered  with their father or mother or someone from their family, but there are many children here who are undocumented. And unfortunately I feel like my hands are tied because I can’t help. But I already helped a lot, and in what I can help, I continue to help. And Mila is in the same vibe.

J That’s great, the world needs you all, people like you. 

DN Thank you, thank you.

J It was so nice because we united the topic of your group of family tradition. It’s really beautiful what you all do. And I even am feeling inspired by your story. I hope our audience is too. So thank you so much for your participation today.

DN Amen, thank you, my friend. Thank you for the opportunity that you’re giving us to be seen from outside.

J Exactly, exactly. I will do all I can to expand your wisdom, your traditions and experiences that come from this Bahian land that is so important for the world. I’m certain of it. 

Closing credits

I thank Dona Nildes Bomfim and her daughter Mileide Bomfim for participating in this interview with me, which was recorded at home between Pennsylvania and Camaçari, Bahia in April 2021.

The audio editing was done by me, Jamie Lee Andreson. I thank the support of our Brazil Culture Connections team, the interns from the Pennsylvania State University Amanda Talbot, Madeleine Tenny and Belle Hattingh, as well as the technical support from Jonatas Borges Campelo. The music is called “Xodó de mamãe” by the Cultural Group Espermacete.