Papangus exist in other places in Brazil, but the date at which they make their appearance varies, as may their significance. In Canto Verde the Papangus come at Easter, rejoicing in their role of making Judas suffer for his betrayal of Jesus.
The origin of the Papangus is fairly obscure, the best explanation I have found came from the Brazilian researcher and playwright Oswald Barroso (my translation) “The Papangus are forest spirits, who fill the place of Judas with food gathered for a final grand banquet. It’s a migration of pagan or native rituals into a Christian festival, or more correctly of popular Catholicism. In times gone by they went round the houses begging for food as though they hadn’t eaten anything all day, frequently (asking) for corn angu,* which gave them the name Papangu. They were generally ex slaves, small holders or hired farm workers. They still exist in numbers on the Iberian peninsular, where, until today, they play abundantly. There they are called Caretos* or Chocalheiros*.”
The Papangus costumes are made from dried banana leaves, sacking and foliage, leaving them looking like a freaky, wayward haystack. It is very important to them that they not be recognised (indeed they get very angry if someone uses their real names) so they make their costumes in secret and are always very heavily disguised, often using gloves, boots and layers of clothes, regardless of the temperature here. The Papangus use grotesque masks, in the past they were exclusively home-made from paper mache or cardboard, coloured with charcoal and frequently sporting an excessively long nose. More commonly now they use shop bought Halloween masks. In Prainha there is always one Papangu who’s dressed as a scarecrow type ugly old hag, “she” is Judas’ mother, I haven’t been able to find out why.
Not that many years ago the Papangus had a fearful reputation. Sixty or seventy men would descend on Canto verde, mostly local men but also some from the neighbouring areas. They roamed around the village, frightening the children, begging for food and harassing people to buy them a drink (often cachaça, a lethal but relatively cheap spirit made from sugar cane). Minor robberies were common and violence was a feature, with some of the men using the time to seek revenge or settle old scores. If they caught a young woman, it was common for them to surround her and carry out a mock beating, sometimes not as mock as it should be. Not surprisingly the girls still fear them, screaming whenever the Papangus come close.
These days the festival is a much calmer event. The numbers taking part have declined and the men are now exclusively from Canto Verde. Everyone I have spoken to says that despite the bad behaviour (or may be because of it), there was something thrilling about the old days that is lacking now. People would stay in their homes, too afraid to go out, children clinging on to each other in fear, wondering if the Papangus were going to call on them, working out where the Papangus were by listening for their distinctive calls, throaty malevolent Ho ho, Boohurr, Oooo. The event was enjoyed in just the same way as many people enjoy a horror film, frightening but fun.
Throughout the year the specter of the Papangus is still used to frighten young children into obeying their parents, in the same way that I remember the Bogey man being used to frighten me as a child in England. The difference being that I never saw the Bogey man, he existed purely in my imagination, so much more frightening to have him physically manifested.
On the day of the Papangus, as night falls, they arrive at a predestined bar and pour onto the dance floor, some ambling in a rhythmic shuffle, others leaping about wildly, bouncing and spinning around, causing the air to fill with dust and particles coming from their costumes, an asthmatics nightmare.
When the Papangus try to pull a young woman into the dance, she makes a great show of refusing, appearing frightened or offended but maybe just a little pleased to have been chosen. Eventually some of the woman accept and the dancing calms down a little.
The men sweat profusely in their masks and multiple layers of clothing (not surprisingly), but before they can begin to discard their costumes, they have two important jobs to do. The first is to recite rhyming verses, mocking people whose deeds throughout the previous year, have made them the focus for derision. The verses cause great hilarity and are taken in good humour by the victims.
The verses are followed by the main event. An effigy of Judas that has been carried about and regularly beaten during the day, is set alight and pulled to the top of a tall pole to burn, with varying degrees of success. In the five years I have been watching this spectacle, I have seen Judas burn and on other occasions refuse to burn, no matter what encouragement he was given. Once he smoked so badly with burning cinders pouring out of him, that the watching crowd was forced to flee. On another he was tied to the pole by his legs which were then set on fire. Burning fast and furious, he fell apart before he got to the top of the pole, his body crashing down to lie legless on the floor, as by that time were many of the Papangus.
Over the last few years, as the number of adults taking part has decreased, the number of boys has increased, raising concerns for their safety. There were attempts to separate the men from the boys, especially at the party, to let the boys dance a little before the men took over, but a number of boys would always join with the men during the day, and therefore the problems associated with the men’s drinking and their behaviour around the village remained.
This year two separate events were held on successive weekends. The adults would go off as per normal, and the youngsters, divided into two groups, one of 15 to 18 year olds and the other 6 to 14 years, on the following Saturday, going up onto the dunes in their two separate camps, for an overdose of salty snacks and fizzy drink (undoubtably the older ones adding alcohol to theirs), before doing a tour of the village. Their day would come to a close when the two groups came together for the burning of Judas at 7 o clock in the evening.
My older son was taking part this year and I offered to help him make a mask from paper mache. He said he would make his own from cardboard (it would be quicker and take less effort). My younger son wasn’t going to join the Papangus but he wanted a mask, so he and I got on with that.
The mask turned out well, so well, that my older son’s best friend Pintinho asked if he could borrow it. Knowing my little one would be upset if I lent it out, I offered to make masks for both Pinchino and my older son, if he would help. We only had a few days and I knew it was pushing it to have them finished in time.
On Friday night the older boys went to bed early as they were getting up around 5 to get dressed up and meet up with their friends, why they have to go out at the crack of dawn is beyond me.
It started raining.
The paper mache wasn’t as dry as I would have liked and the paint wasn’t covering as it should. I painted one layer and when that was touch dry repainted, repeatedly. I made hair from rough string for beards and moustaches, eyebrows and fringes. Finally calling it a night at 2.30, not satisfied and knowing the masks weren’t really dry enough.
It was still raining.
At 5.30 in the morning it had stopped raining but only just. The boys got up and made so much noise they managed to wake everyone. I got up to spray a coat of varnish on the masks, to try to protect them from the rain a bit. Neu went off to do something on his boat, the boys went off to find their friends, I went back to bed.
It started raining again.
At 7 o clock the boys came back and woke me (again), saying hardly anyone had turned out because of the rain. Their masks were soggy, one of the horns on Pintinho’s mask had drooped and the mouth on the other mask had ripped, could I fix them PLEASE!? Probably, but not until I get a bit more SLEEP!
Neu came back and said there was still the odd, lone little Papangu trying to find the others, who’d all either given up and gone home like Pintinho and my son, or sensibly not gone out in the first place.
The masks were still damp, I stuck them in the microwave and hoped for the best, thankfully it dried them a treat. After repairs, alterations and another coat of paint, they went back in the microwave (it’s funny I never actually cook with the microwave) to harden them off, then a final coat of varnish and they were done just in time for the boys to go out again.
The rain stopped and at 3 o clock, masked and all dressed up, the boys went off.
my younger son now asked if he could have hair on his mask like his brother’s and Pintinho, rather than the paper fringe he had, oh and a costume too? Nothing like doing things at the last minute. Out came an old bit of sail from one of Neu’s boats, I cut a hole for him to put his head through, making a rough smock. A quick trip round the garden found some banana leaves the boys had left behind, a bit of string and Hey Presto!
At 6.30 we went down to the bar at the beach were the boys were going to dance. Our little papangu, all dressed up, got stage fright just before we arrived and said he didn’t want anyone to know who he was, he thought people would recognise him by his legs which were bare below his shorts and showing under his costume, he wanted to take his mask off. I explained that if he took his mask off, then everyone would definitely know who he was. Thankfully the first person we met played the game of not knowing him, saying she thought he must be from another village, this kept him in his costume but he clung to Neu’s leg like a limpet for most of the show.
The return of the rain sent everyone running for home, Judas got a reprieve because no one wanted to get wet.
Angu = a thick porridge made from corn meal, salt and water, like Polenta.
Caretos = a masked person
Chocalheiros = has various meanings: tell tale, gossip, rattle, busybody, inquisitive.
The film shows my son and his friend getting ready, some photos of my younger son and other Papangus (not the best quality photos as taken on a mobile phone) and then some film of the Papangus dancing.