Lindsay Hale. Hearing the Mermaids Song: The Umbanda Religion in Rio De Janeiro. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2009. 6 x 9 pp208. $26.95 paperback.
Umbanda is a complex and unique religion popular in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It involves mediums who summon spirits of old slaves, Indians, saints, and even young children through trance. It is a mixture of traditional African religious practices brought over by slaves, Catholicism, and sometimes the writings of Allen Kardec; full of African rituals and magic, it still manages to tie in Catholic ideas. Many Afro-Brazilians particularly identify with this religion because of its undeniable African roots. Recently, however, Brazilian people of European descent have begun to practice Umbanda. The spirits talk to members of Umbanda centers through the mediums and help them work through issues and problems they are experiencing. Mediums take on the full mannerisms of the spirit they are channeling during the trances. They talk, sing, move, and even eat like the spirit. There are multiple kinds of spirits that serve different purposes. Old slaves, or pretos velhos, are kind, gentle spirits who are wise and patient. Indian spirits, or Caboclos, are arrogant and brave. All spirits, however, serve the Orixas, or gods, and console people about how to live the right way.
Lindsay Hale’s book, Hearing the Mermaid’s Song: The Umbanda Religion in Rio De Janeiro, takes a look at a few different aspects of the religious practice of Umbanda, which has grown in popularity over the last century. In addition to giving a unique perspective on the religion itself, Hale looks at how race and racism shaped Umbanda, how it relates to national identity, and what effect Umbanda has on its participants. The book is a collection of stories and information gathered through interviews during the author’s fieldwork in Brazil during the mid- eighties and early nineties. Most of the information was gathered through talking with a few different priests and priestesses of the religion and also talking to the spirits summoned by the mediums. When researching subjects such as religion and spiritual rituals, personal interviews and experience are the most reliable ways of getting information. Hale also mentions getting information from professors and other scholars, but the most interesting and authentic information came from the people who actually practice Umbanda. His personal ideas about Umbanda are also intertwined into the book, but they are not overbearing. Instead, it makes his writing seem more sincere. He talks of his own path to Umbanda and reminds the readers that the focus is not on the validity or truthfulness of the religion, but instead on the path that leads people to Umbanda and the power it gives them.
The author does not necessarily offer a clear thesis or main argument. Instead, Hale states that this is only a “sketch” of what people have stated or inferred about the practice of Umbanda. It is a broad overview of the religion that covers the history of how Umbanda came to be, the differences between the people that practice it, and function it has within these people’s lives. The main sources Hale used in writing the book are Dona Luciana, a priestess of Umbanda branca (or white Umbanda), Seu Silva a priest at the House of Father John Umbanda Center, the spirits that visit these mediums, and the people who sought the advice of these mediums’ spirits. This information was collected by the author during personal interviews with these people, from experiencing the spirit sessions, and from personally talking to the summoned spirits. Lindsay Hale does not claim to be an expert on Umbanda, but proved to be very knowledgeable on the subject. It is obvious that the author has been deeply touched by the religion and its followers; however, he strives to write without bias.
The differences between the priest and the priestess that the author interviews play a key role in looking at how race affects Umbanda. The priestess takes a more relaxed approach to Umbanda; she practices it in her apartment with just a few regulars who come to talk to the spirits. Seu Silva, the priest, practices Umbanda in a large center. His center has large ceremonies and the members incorporate drumming and other more African aspects into their practices. Looking at the differences between the two mediums in greater detail allows the reader to see how race issues in Brazil have affected the practices of Umbanda and also how members of Umbanda use the religion as part of their national identity.
The book is organized into eight different chapters that each cover an important topic. Within each chapter there are small sections related to specific stories and people. With a subject this broad, it is difficult to figure out how to make the information come together. Hale does a wonderful job at making all of the information cohesive without being repetitive or dull. The book seems to flow naturally, first giving some personal accounts of Umbanda and how it works, then going more in depth about the different kinds of spirits, priests, and gods. He speaks about different kinds of Umbanda, but lets his readers know that there is much more to the religion than what is written in his book. He makes sure to note that there are many variations within Umbanda and it can mean very different things to different people.
Hearing the Mermaid’s Song not only covers fascinating material about a very unique religion, but is also thoughtful and well-written. Lindsay Hale works to embody what Umbandistas think is important about their religion. He puts skepticism aside so that he can accurately and respectfully portray what Umbanda is to its followers. It offers an outsider’s perspective on Umbanda as well as an inside perspective. It is a valuable and insightful resource for anyone interested in religion, national identity, ritual or Brazil in general. This book is great for undergraduates and people beginning to learn about Brazilian religions. Scholars may find this book interesting, but it is not necessarily a good source for research because there is a large portion of the book shaped by the opinions and experiences of the author.