São Luís has one of Brazil’s richest folkloric traditions, evident in its many festivals, including Carnaval. For two to three weeks between early May and early June the city celebrates the Festa do Divino Espírito Santo, which has a strong Afro-Brazilian influence. São Luís' famous festival Bumba Meu Boi lasts through the second half of June. The Tambor de Mina festivals in July are important events for followers of the Afro-Brazilian religions.

Bumba Meu Boi

São Luís is famous for its Bumba Meu Boi, a fascinating and wild folkloric festival. Derived from African, indigenous and Portuguese influences, it’s a rich mixture of music, dance and theater, with fantastic and colorful costumes and masks. In a Carnavalesque atmosphere, participants dance, sing, act and tell the story of the death and resurrection of the bull – with plenty of room for improvisation. The festivities take place all over Maranhão, and in São Luís alone some 400 groups take to the streets every June. New songs, dances, costumes and poetry are created every year.

The story and its portrayal differ throughout the Northeast, but the general plot is as follows: Catrina, goddaughter of the local farm owner, is pregnant and feels a craving to eat the tongue of the best boi (bull) on the farm. She cajoles her husband, Chico, into killing the beast. When the dead bull is discovered, several characters (caricatures drawn from all levels of society) track down the perpetrator of the crime. Chico is brought to trial, but the bull is resuscitated by magic incantations and tunes. A pardon is granted, and the story reaches its happy ending when Chico is reunited with Catrina.

Groups traditionally start rehearsing on Easter Saturday in preparation for the ‘baptism’ of their boi on June 13, the feast of Santo Antônio, or June 23, the feast of São João. Many rehearsals are open to the public, and some groups begin months before Easter; check with tourist offices or your accommodations for schedules. During the festival, several groups perform in different places in the city every night from June 13 to 30. The more commercial performances may last only one hour, while local community celebrations can go on all night. Things get especially lively on the nights of June 23 to 24 and 29 to 30.

The Bumba Meu Boi period is also a good time to catch other Afro-Brazilian cultural manifestations, such as the Tambor de Crioula dance performed by women.