[Column and Essays]

Umbanda Music and Music Therapy

By Gregorio Jose Pereira de Queiroz


This article discusses the use of music in religious rites of Umbanda and the possible correlations between the role played by music in this rite and its role in music therapy process, especially in some of its approaches.

Keywords: trance, drumming, Umbanda, music, music therapy

Music Therapy and Religious Practices

Umbanda is a religious cult that originated in Brazil in the early twentieth century. Followers experience a process of incorporation during which they are said to be possessed by the supernatural entities they worship, and can thus practice acts of charity by helping people who seek them.

Music plays a central role in Umbanda's ritual of possession or incorporation. Although the most traditional term is possession, I prefer using incorporation when referring to Umbanda, because during the rites the participants aren't totally taken; that is, they are not entirely owned by the entities they supposedly give way to. Instead, consciousness is preserved. Participants preserve the notion of their own everyday identity, even though they have no control over their bodys’ actions. This has certainly been my own experience of being incorporated by Umbanda entities, and my peers and research Zangari (2003) have confirmed it. Zangari found “to give yourself doesn't mean being unconscious. (However) there are 'unconscious mediums', who have no memory of the incorporation happening. But those are a minority. The others are the 'conscious mediums'" (p. 107).

Stige (2002) suggests "by seeing their own practices in the light of other practices [music therapists] may be able to evaluate assumptions and procedures that have been taken for granted" (p. 195). Umbanda is not a therapy, however, it is a religion. And being so, it doesn't fit Stige's term, "popular music therapy" (p. 194), because its purpose is not therapeutic. However, because music is situated at the center of the ritual, the study of music in Umbanda seems especially interesting to consider alongside music therapy’s "assumptions and procedures."

Candomble is a religious cult brought by enslaved Africans to Brazil, in which the followers are also possessed by supernatural entities venerated by them. Some aspects of Umbanda derive directly from Candomble, such as certain worshipped entities, types of offerings, ritual forms, and particularly, the music. There are therefore great similarities between the Umbanda and Candomble when it comes to the kind of music and its role within the ritual. Joseph Moreno (1988, 1995, 2004) discusses aspects of the relationship between music therapy and Candomble. He notes that “the prominent role of music in Candomble makes it of particular interest from the perspective of music as therapy” (1995, p. 219). Further, he argues that:

highly conditioned responses between specific musics and trance induction certainly suggests that Brazilian music therapists should be well versed in the music of candomble if they ever hope to work effectively with Afro-Brazilian clients. (p. 230)

Barcellos (2001; 2002) also comments on the presence of Candomble's music in music therapy. Although she does it less peremptorily than Moreno (1995), she still emphasizes the importance of music to patients, who often:

recreate pieces of music connected to religious practices of African origin such as Candomble. The movements, dances and instruments of these practices are also frequently part of the patient’s inner experience. (Barcellos, 2001, Brazil, para 15)

Another Brazilian author, the sociologist Rosa M. S. Barbara (1998), makes use of concepts and terms which are similar to those used in music therapy in her description and analysis of the role of music in Candomble. She affirms the importance of “musical sound identity” of orishas[1] and “Daughters-in-Saint”[2], and how that identity communes among one another through the particular musical rhythm assigned to each orisha, to which only the son of that deity will answer: “Music is the communication between the daughter and the Orisha, while the dance is the manifestation of the communication" (p. 9). In Candomble, the relationship between the music, the orisha and the Son-in-Saint that flows into dance, is important to the whole ritual, but specially to the incorporation moment. The researcher and "Mother-in-Saint"[3] Gisele Ominderewa Cossard argues "the communication is given through the vibration of the atabaques[4] for the orishas, the rhythm and movement are blended" (2011, p. 119). Barbara’s terms and concepts can be compared to those in Benezon`s music therapy theory (1988), which are based on the principle of musical sound identity (ISO) and defined as:

a full dynamic concept that sums up the notion of existence of a sound, a set of sounds or acoustic phenomenon and internal movements, that characterize or individualize each human being. (p. 34).

Musical sound identity covers experiences from intrauterine life, birth, and vibrational and musical experiences during life, known as the "sonic archetypes inherited onto and phylogenetically" (p. 34). The ISO principle covers the following levels: gestaltic, cultural, universal, group, and complementary (p. 34). Barbara's description of the relationship between the orishas musical sound identity, and the various levels contained in the deepest parts of an individual being, can be seen in terms of the relationship between cultural, group and/or gestaltic musical sound identity of the daughter-in-saint. The orisha's identity is expressed in the musical rhythm and in the particular chants that correspond to its nature.

Research investigating the relationship between Candomble and music therapy is important because the biggest part of the musical structure in Umbanda comes directly from Candomble[5]. The percussion on the atabaques and the chants sung over it are the conductive musical elements in both Candomble and Umbanda ceremonies, although there are numerous differences between them.

Percussive Music and Altered States of Consciousness

Research which explores the relationship between music and so-called altered states of consciousness (ASC)[6] has been approached it in two ways. First ASC is addressed through the Bonny Method of Guided Imagery and Music, BMGIM, (Bonny, 1978a, 1978b). Bonny (1978b) describes her method as “a technique which involves listening to selected music in a relaxed state ... to elicit mental imagery, symbols, and deep feelings arising from the deeper conscious self” (p. 5). One of her basic principles is for music to be heard as movements, and thus stimulate the imagery, symbols and feelings at deep levels (p.14-15). Researchers have also explored various relationships between music and ASC, particularly regarding the possible ability of music to encourage, facilitate, support, or trigger the entry into trance states and ASC.

Fachner (2009) discusses various states of consciousness and how these are affected by music due to the socio-cultural context, individual degrees of suggestibility and predisposition, beliefs, alterations in brain functioning and brainwave emissions (p. 36). He comments on Fischer’s chart (1971), “Cartography of the ecstatic and meditative states”, which maps the “deviations from ‘normal’ conscious states and divides them into a continuum of ergotropic (exciting) and trophotropic (damping) states” (p. 16-17). The meditative state is associated to the damping of the senses. Ecstasy is associated with the arousal of the senses. The excitement promoted by the rumbling percussion of the drums played in Candomble and Umbanda rituals may thus induce non-ordinary states of consciousness as much as a long period of monotonous drum beating.

Percussive music, like that used in the rites of Umbanda, has been studied in relation to unusual states of awareness and consciousness, and in relation to trance states and their effects on physical and psychological processes. Szabó (2009) describes the effect of listening to monotonous drumming on the imaginative and perceptual processes, concluding that this manner of percussion has significant effects on subjective experiences, with changes in the perception of body image and the passage of time, the perception of self and the world, as well as the meaning of things. Thus, “listening to percussion influences subjective experience very strongly and effectively” (p. 59).

The percussion that happens in Umbanda, while rhythmically repetitive is not necessarily monotonous. It can be perceived as vigorous and exciting, despite the marked and ongoing maintenance of the rhythmic pulse on the drums. Pilch (2009) states:

Music might not directly induce trance, but is recognized as key among the cluster of elements that contribute to induce trance. For the most part, music works a neurological effect on the listener. Cultural associations that accompany the music also play an important role in stimulating a trance experience. The ultimate choice of music, however, will rest with the individual, or better yet, the community, since most of the reports reviewed about music and trance are communal experiences. (p. 49-50)

Moreno (1988) describes the effects of percussion in the musical practice of shamans in their healing works in neurological terms:

The hypnotically repetitive rhythmic music can be seen as a sedation of the left hemisphere of the shaman’s brain, the hemisphere that could otherwise be concerned with distractions of the “ordinary reality.” This sedation then liberates the right hemisphere of the brain to travel to the spirit world, a journey that is integral to the healing process. (p. 275)

Terpsichore Trance Therapy (TTT), created by the Brazilian psychiatrist and hypnotist David Akstein (1980), appropriates music and kinetic trance of Umbanda. He proposes a therapy in which the patient performs the actions of an Umbanda ritual, without, however, having any religious or mystical experience. In TTT, the patient experiences a kind of trance, a different relationship with themselves, and, from it, some interaction with the issues they want to work in therapy.

Following his comprehensive ethnographic study into trance and possession rituals, Rouget (1985) concludes that, rather than trigger the trance, "the major function of music thus seems to be maintaining the trance”, it is “‘in tune’ on the psychological level, since its action consists in putting the individual experiencing his transitional identity ‘in phase’ with the group that is recognizing this identity or imposing it on him” (p. 325). To Rouget, the role of music in trance rituals is “nothing more than to socialize it” (p. 326).

Be it for triggering a trance or socializing individuals with the group of people within the rite, music appears to be a mobilizing factor for alterations in the relationship of the individual with their identity.


Some academic studies about Umbanda situate its origin in Candomble cults, “ritual practices of African origin” (Negrao, 1996, p. 43), and in social tensions between Afro-Descendants and whites, a social process of “constant repression and rejection manifested by the middle and upper classes” of Brazilian society (Figge, 1983, p 13.). However for the followers of Umbanda it was clearly born in a spiritist center[7], not as an extension of Candomble. Peixoto (2008) suggests in 1908, in the city of Niteroi[8], a young man is brought by his parents to a spiritual center, due to disturbances he presented. During the session, an entity referring to itself as “Caboclo of Seven Crossroads”[9] embodies the young man, causing great commotion, since such manifestation was completely contrary to the existing rules of the center. The next day, at a meeting marked by the Caboclo itself in the young man’s house, the entity manifests itself again “to declare that at that time should rise a new cult, in which the spirits of old African slaves and Brazilian Indians (...) would work to the benefit of his embodied brothers” (p. 17-18). This is the genesis accepted for Umbanda, if not by every practitioner, at least by the vast majority of them. Prandi (1991) suggests it founded the first center of Umbanda, which was born as a dissent to Kardecism that rejects the presence of blacks and indigenous guides, considered by most orthodox Kardecists as inferior spirits.

Umbanda is more than the addition of spiritism to Candomble, or vice versa. As Prandi (1991) suggests:

in its first moment, Umbanda is not a simplification of Candomble, a mere "cleaning." And neither is it just the ritualization of Kardecism with elements from Candomble. It’s is a huge transformation. (p. 50)

Thus, Umbanda is a religious practice that emerged amid spiritism with strong presence of elements of Candomble and its African roots, but also with elements of Brazilian indigenous religious rites and Catholic religion. Umbanda arises in Brazilian territory and brings several characteristics of Brazilian culture in its rites and symbols (Saraceni 2012, p. 12-15). Because it contains many amalgamated aspects of Brazilian culture, one might think it would be a free and widely accepted religion by various sectors of Brazilian society, but it’s not like this. Umbanda is quite vigorously rejected by many segments of this society – which is, perhaps, even other feature of the “Brazilianness”: the denial of its own aspects.

Music in Umbanda

Music in the form of singing and percussion on atabaques is one of the fundaments to the Umbanda’s rites[10]. And it is precisely the type of music and its association with incorporation trance[11] that brings it closer to the Candomble: music works here to provide the conditions that give passage to guides or entities[12], so they incorporate the followers and attend the consultants. However, the trance in Umbanda is not necessarily accompanied by identical or similar musics to those of Candomble. In some rituals, the music involves singing accompanied by clapping; in other cases there is singing unaccompanied by rhythmic support, and sometimes I have witnessed only recorded music or even no music at all when visiting many Umbanda terreiros[13]. But these are exceptions, in most cases, the drumming and chanting takes command of the session.

Whatever forms the music takes in Umbanda, it’s not an addition to the rite, an embellishment to please the viewers, or even a exterior element to the rite. In Umbanda, the music is crucial to the religious ritual: it works to the rapprochement (or reconnection) between human and the divine, especially by the incorporation of guides and deities. In this sense, Umbanda is a musical religion in its essence. Religiosity in Umbanda happens in the music making itself. To pray, to approach the divine, to attract the presence of guides and deities, to purify one’s self, to ascend, to repent, to praise, to find answers to questions of life, and to express faith … are to sing and drum: all are embodied in music. Not that playing music and singing is the one and only rite, but it is an essential part. Along with music there is dance, the movement of the body. “The Umbandist religion is based on the worship of the spirits ... by the manifestation of these in the follower’s body” (Ortiz, 1978, p. 69). The movement of guides and entities in the follower’s body characterize them, as each lineage of entities has its own typical movements. The body’s movements are the first sign that something is happening when it comes into embodiment in Umbanda (Barbosa & Bairrão, 2008, p. 226).

Playing the atabaque is a special function only allowed to selected people, called Ogan. Sena (2010) details the various pontos[14] and drumming on the atabaque for the various moments of the rite and to the guides and deities. He also describes ethical behavior for the ogan towards the atabaques and other members of the cult, but there is little about the role of music within the rite. In one instance only Sena writes:

A guide by singing ... one chant is handling a colossal amount of energy, we have no notion of energetic power moved at that moment, and they, by transmitting this sung chant, require that we change all that energy to Earth’s plane, without losing the power achieved by the chant; there comes the knowledge of music, melody and touch of the ogan to the person who receives that chant in order to make the transformation from the ethereal to the physical, keeping all the power of the accomplishment. (p. 21)

The power to energise is attributed to music;, to bring something from an intangible plane of existence to a tangible one (“from the ethereal to the physical”). Thus the music gains the “power of accomplishment” (p.21).

Umbanda’s connection with Brazilian culture is not only as a religion. The music made and practiced in their rituals has intimate connection with samba and a good portion of popular music and rhythms present in the general Brazilian culture and life. The samba’s syncopated percussion came from the same roots of percussion and chants of Candomble and Umbanda: the musical tradition of black people, slaves brought from Africa to Brazil (Sodré, 2007, p 11.). Samba, chorinho music, and many other musical forms contain the vibrant rhythmic continuous syncopes, which also mark the music of Carnival festivity. Similarities with the music therapy setting have been suggested by Barcellos (2002). Moreover, Umbanda is permeated by many aspects of Brazilian culture, not only in music but in their symbols, characters, entities, contents and conflicts, or, as stated by Prandi, the “Umbanda is not only religion; it is one of Brazil’s stages” (1991, p. 88).

The Music Role in Incorporation

In this section I will discuss how music influences the incorporation of entities. In almost all of the rites I observed, music starts when the session starts and ceases when the session ends. The music played and sung can announce, foreshadow and reassert what happens in the followers’ movements; in the entirety of the liturgy; following the orientation given by the rite officials; during the guides’ incorporation, and according to the needs presented by the consultants when entering the grounds of the rite.

Music is an integral part of the preparation work for neophytes to incorporate, called development gyre[15], which usually happens before the attendance gyre[16], open to the public. The term gira[17], to designate the Umbanda seance, originates mainly from the circular motion of the body around its axis, gyrating. Gyrate is the movement that, by excellence, precedes, prepares, and anticipates the incorporation. This gyre occurs amidst dance steps, a fairly simple step that the younger followers learn by imitating the older participants. In the moment of the incorporation, a crucial part of the rite, music seems to have a decisive role. The ogan strikes the atabaques with more strength, and the rhythm intensifies and often accelerates. Participants dance excitedly in circles around those who will incorporate, sing with greater intensity and surrender more to the chants. In the center of the circle, the dance movements of the followers who are about to incorporate, begins to change at a given moment. The movement that animates them seems to come from another source. The steps of their dance gain other features, their body seeming to be driven by other forces.

But incorporation is not a series of random convulsive movements when facing the music, opening the way to manifest any unexpected and unknown entity. The incorporation is learned through a series of steps delineated and more or less constant in the various terreiros. These steps, organized and described by Zangari, as “assimilation, surrender, training, creation, manifestation and evidence” (2003, p. 173), are essential to the process of incorporation in Umbanda. Moreover, when an accidental incorporation happens within the rite it is treated as an imbalance, requiring care to bring the person back to conscious awareness, and subsequent treatment to prevent it, as much as possible, from happening again.

The learning process of embodiment is a construction made along the development of gyres that, by what I have witnessed, can last, on average, from six months to over a year for beginners.

Participating in the development gyre leads to learning about the incorporation, beginners start to learn about incorporation by observing it being done by elders: the lineage of entities to be incorporated by this or that person and movements, gestures, and manners of the entity which are expected to take possession of the body movements of the follower. They learn to recognize those characteristics, as well as the habits and practices that identify each entity; more than anything, learning by seeing the visible identity on their movement.

Ritual music will not be sufficient to trigger the incorporation. Music by itself, automatically, produces nothing. Embodiments rarely occur before the follower has lived, and not for a short period time, with people incorporating around them. That is, they will not be required by the Father-in-Saint to incorporate before learning through direct, visual and mobile sensation about the guides and deities’ identity, expressed by other people’s movement. Thus, the adept knows beforehand the general lines of the entity to which they will give way when called to do so. The identity of the entity to be embodied is first built in the subjectivity of the follower, through socially shared situations. Zangari says “mediumship incorporation leans on, in its ritual activity, in the altering of a culturally disciplined awareness, namely in the ritual activity” (p. 138). And, further, the process of incorporation:

is the result of a social and individual construction in which group concepts or beliefs related to mediumship and the doctrine of Umbanda in general, and individual aspects of mediums, both cognitive and affective, are at play. (p. 173)

On one hand, there is the construction of another identity, first recognized in another person and then seized from them. On other hand, there is the resonating music in the environment. However, the person to be incorporated must also abandon his own identity to make way for the new identity that will be incorporated. “Abandon yourself to dance, loosen up in motion” is a recurrent stimulus made by the Father-in-Saint to beginners. The person who is dancing and gyrating, needs to give internal permission for other forces or intentions to take possession of their body movements. This is a contradictory gesture: voluntarily relinquish the desire to have control over yourself. This is also the second step described by Zangari, as “surrender”:

Without exception, the mediums claim that the process of development of mediumship … only takes place if they do not interfere, this is, if they allow their entities to take care of their bodies. I called this cognitive disposition surrender. The surrender process assumes complete absence of control, the conscious effort not to act on their own body so that an entity can act on it as their own will. (p. 175)

As noted earlier, at that point the music seems to play a role that is unique if, on one hand, experienced followers can easily incorporate without having music in the environment, on the other hand, novice followers rely heavily on music to be able to incorporate. When they have difficulty, the atabaques sound louder, involving their bodies with a sounding vibratory force; the effect can be described as irresistible for those who are inside the circle.

In a rite of graduation[18] that I participated in, it was proposed by the Father-in-Saint officient that the ogans played the music of a given lineage of entities while undergraduates, as proof of their incorporation control, should be able to incorporate another lineage of entities. It seems that everyone was well prepared for this test, since everyone brought the desired lineage, even against the sounding music. However, it is possible that the song could contribute to the transition of identity, regardless of its characteristics being associated with this or that entity, and independent of the codes combined and recognized by all. Music is not essential to trigger the trance, whether or not incorporating. Nevertheless it seems, within certain limits to facilitate, support, stimulate or trigger the transition between different aspects of potential identities that have access a particular person. Zuckerkandl (1976), states that:

music is appropriate, is useful, where self-abandon is intended or required – where the self goes beyond itself, where subject and object come together. Tones seem to provide the bridge that makes it possible, or at least makes it easier, to cross the boundary separating the two. (p. 24-25)

Further, he concludes: “Music, however, surely provides the shortest half, the least arduous, perhaps even the most natural solvent of artificial boundaries between self and others” (p. 51). If at the crucial moment in which we seek to give way to another identity other than the one recognized as our own, we must give up the self to an outside force to what we perceive to be ourselves, the music seems to be the ideal “solvent” for dissolving the perceptual boundaries between the “self” (what I perceive as my identity) and the “other” (the entity to be incorporated, another identity).

Umbanda's Music Examples

The musical examples that follow in audio and transcript present the music played in Umbanda. They were chosen and played by the house's most experienced ogan, especially for this article, and recorded at the terreiro I attended.

Among the many Candomble rhythms, Umbanda makes use of at least of three of them, called ijexa, aluja e barravento. These are responsible by moving the ritual, in the terreiros that use atabaques. Any one of the three can be used during incorporation moments.

Music sheet 1. Ijexa
Sheet 1. Ijexa

Music sheet 2. Aluja
Sheet 2. Aluja

Music sheet 3. Barravento
Sheet 3. Barravento

It's important to note that the rhythms are not just to be heard, and the body does not just move or dance to the sound. Rather, the sound works directly on the body. This music proposes to evoke the body to a continuum of dislocation, leaving a stable position and entering a universe of new possibilities still not established.

Some authors refer to that effect of dislocation by music of Candomble and Umbanda specifically by its syncopated character:

The syncopated rhythms break the order of expected rhythms, creating a new pattern. Our body, our heart, our walk, they obey to an isochronous rhythmic functioning. Missing that rhythm causes a chock, a fall feeling. Symbolically it speaks to us about the possibility that things don’t always happen in the same way, and obligates do body to move. The syncopated rhythm proposed in an obsessive way acquires, in a ritualistic context, a massive importance because it changes the rhythm pattern expectation, moving the accents of strong time to a weak time. That way it maybe opens the door to other dimensions, metaphorically indicating other knowledge pathways, that require not also mind, but body. Contributing, together with other components of the rite, to opening orum's door, the unrecognizable. (Barbara, 1988, p.14)

Sodre (2007) suggests that the syncopated rhythm has an effect over the listener’s body and propels it into movement. The syncopation of music in candomble and samba:

acts in a special way, triggering the listener to fill the gaps in the music with body movements – clapping, wiggling, swinging, dancing. It's the body that also lacks – in the appeal of syncopation. It's magnetic force, even compulsive, comes from the push (provoked by the empty rhythm) to complete the lack of time with the dynamic movement in the space. (p. 11)

However, we can't attribute the dislocation capacity only to the syncopation, because it's not present in all the rhythms that are used in Umbanda. Of the three presented, only ijexa is, in fact, syncopated. Its accentuations fall in unstressed beats in the middle and in the ending of the compass. Syncopated or not, the instability provoked by the variations and peals, can be heard in the rhythmic fluctuations, especially in the ending of each audio. When the body gets used to a rhythmic instability level, other levels come up and make it dislocate again. The variations and peals inside the rhythms provoke alterations of expectations. Even when you are used to hearing it, the body expects to respond to the vigorous rhythmic beat.

The dislocated accent in the atabaques playing is only one of the factors, that cause the body’s dislocation. Sung melodies are also important. The two examples of pontos sung in the moment of the incorporation, and chosen by the ogan, use the barravento rhythm. This rhythm strongly propels the body into movement and incorporation, because it is vigorous and obstinate, combined with an accentuation that, even if performed in a strong tempo (see sheet 3), still creates the sensation of moving forwards, driving the body to move.

The first is the one used when incorporating the lineage of Pretos Velhos, the Black-Old-Man.

Sheet 4. Incorporation ponto: Bate Bate na cumbuca
Sheet 4. Incorporation ponto: Bate Bate na cumbuca. Translation: “Beat beat on the bowl, peal in the ground[19], call the Black-Old-Man and go to the labour”.

The melody of this ponto has a tonal character. Sung in B major, it first ascends in a major triad until it reaches the octave above; part of the appeal of the chant is the way it leaves the ground of common reality (first B) and reaches its counterpart in a higher vibration (an octave above). Following, after a small impulse even further (C#), the melody descends to the dominant (F#). In the second half of the melody, the impulse note (C#) is restated with the same insistence of the initial note (B) and then descends to resolve the melody in the dominant, a vibrational point between the high and low. That kind of melodic pattern is often included in occidental music, including sacred music, with high and low notes demonstrating heaven and earth, as some of Bach's works, for example.

The meaning of the lyrics follows the pattern of the melody. In the beginning, the words sung over the repeated note (B) and in the ascending phrase tell about the percussion, in the ground, that's evoking them ("bate na cumbuca, repilica no conga"); later, in the impulse note (C#), the most acute in the melody, the music talks about the Pretos Velhos, in the heaven, being called to the ground, to the conga; and in the final melodic descent, it tells them to come to this world to execute their work.

We must also note that the accentuation of the chant does not fall on the strong beats of the bar or percussion, creating a lag of accentuation between chant and percussion. If the percussion is not syncopated, the chant is lagged in relation to the played rhythm.

The second chant is used in Caboclos incorporation.

Music sheet 5. Incorporation ponto: Oxala chamou
Sheet 5. Incorporation ponto: Oxala[20] chamou. Translation: “Oxala called and already sent for the Forest[21] Caboclos... Father Oxala is the king of the whole world, and already gave orders for the Forest to call the Caboclos… Send, send the Forest Cabocla to your terreiro, this is the supreme order."

This melody begins with a jump over the major triad to an octave above, with the words "Oxala chamou." It's the highest of the orishas, Oxala, calling those supernatural beings, the Caboclos. From this point the melody assumes a modal character rather than major diatonic, with a scale making use of the raised second and forth degrees. Again, the melody of the chant accentuates the unstressed beat of the compass, in discrepancy with rhythmic accents of the atabaque. The instability of the rhythmic accents are still quite marked. However, in this chant the tonal instability also contributes to creating oscillation, and for those who have ears used to occidental music parameters, as the Umbanda adepts usually are, loss of the notion of center. The melodic lines of those two pontos contain elements of the popular and folk music of the country.

Now to the third example, that was recorded inside the gira de atendimento (Audio 6). The reader will be able to hear Umbanda's music as it is in reality, inside the swirl of the adept's chants, the atabaques and the clapping. From seconds 17 to 35, the reader can listen to the sound of adja, a sacred bell used when people are called to incorporation. In this exact moment, five of the adepts start to simultaneously incorporate their Caboclos. The conjunction of those is what the reader can hear in the audio, along with the screams saluting the "arrival" of the Caboclos:

The conclusion is that not only the syncopation, but all the variations in the rhythmic pattern, tonalities and gaps between atabaques, claps and dances that cause a musical flotation seems to compel the dislocation of the body to uncommon positions and movements. Repetition over a few minutes seems to be necessary to promote that dislocation.

Some of the mentioned authors (Moreno, 1988; Fachner, 2009; Rouget, 1985) refer to the monotony of the music as the main stimulation factor triggering the altered states of mind. Without denying that proposition I have stated that, in Umbanda and Candomble, the oscillations and instabilities are responsible for that transition, mobilizing the body first, out of its habitual position, and then triggering a disposition in the individual to dislocate from its habitual identities to other possibilities.

Music and Transition Between Identities

Music seems to facilitate a subjective “slide” from one identity to another, among those, so to speak, “potential identities” within the person, allowing them to try other possibilities beyond what they would normally consider as themselves. It does not matter if that identity belongs to a disembodied entity that occupies their body. If it is a potential identity present in themselves that begins to come into existence; or if it is an identity deliberately constructed in a particular socio-cultural environment, already there to be experienced as their own, like the cult of Umbanda.

The word that is commonly used for this is trance, which “is a temporary state of consciousness, or, as the word itself indicates, it is transitory” (Rouget, 1985, p. 12). In the specific case of the Umbanda trance incorporation, we can say that it is not exactly a transient state in the sense of a temporary state that will “soon pass”; trance is specifically the transition or the transit between a perceived identity to another. More than anything, trance is a synonymous for this transition between identities.

And isn’t this the same kind of transition facilitation that music and body movement assumes in Terpsichore Trance Therapy (TTT)? The method proposed by Akstein (1980) transposes the conjunct work of percussive music and circular body movement out of the religious context, into psychotherapeutic work. The TTT uses Umbanda's music, without any alteration. Not only is the general structure of the music the same, but the melodies and the lyrics are exactly the same used in Umbanda. So is the rhythm played in the atabaques. “The music we have used is some of the prettiest that are sung in Umbanda spiritism centers”; we use “a drum, which can sometimes be beaten at the usual rhythm, or at a faster rhythm” (p. 27) and the “melody is of secondary importance in relation to the rhythm marked by the drum” (p. 26).

The preparatory work involves concentrating on a particular idea. The patients "are asked to keep their eyes closed and to concentrate in their biggest desire: cure, well-being, familiar or social issues solution" (Akstein, 1980, p. 28). Next, there is a hyperventilation respiratory exercise, preceding the music. When the music starts, the patients are led to "kinetic trance by revolving movements imposed to their body in an unnatural position: with the head sloping down" (p. 28). Yet, instead of contacting incorporeal entities, the patients stay in contact with their previously chosen idea. Put another way, TTT is enabling internal transition to a new idea.

And is this not the same kind of transition facilitation found in the use of music in music therapy in Bonny’s Method of Guided Imagery and Music, BMGIM? With this approach there is no body movement, unlike Umbanda and TTT. Rather, the body is in a passive relaxed state – a condition required for the work. The mental images are in movement, not the body musculature. The music one hears is not predominantly rhythmic or percussive as in Umbanda and TTT (although, naturally, the rhythm is not absent from music, as it would not be possible). Works of Western erudite music are chosen within a pre-defined repertory, according to certain criteria, to induce movements of imagery (Bonny, 1978b, p. 24-37). In the application of this method there also occurs a kind of "sliding" of the patient's consciousness through certain subjectivity areas, recognized by them, to other less or not at all known areas:

Using Guided Imagery and Music (GIM), initial sessions usually approach the areas closely surrounding the Ego center. However, as subjects learn to relax deeply and to trust in letting the music “take” them into deeper states, inner mechanisms let go and important problem areas are approached (p. 11).

In TTT the sliding occurs to an idea chosen by the patient; in GIM there is the previous election of an image, which occurs during a process called “induction”. It happens right after the preparatory work of body relaxation and immediately before the music, and it’s the starting point for the triggering of the patient’s images (Bonny, 1978a, p. 18-19). Thus, what happens in GIM music therapy process has a certain similarity to what was observed in Umbanda, in which the follower’s everyday identity slides into a previously prepared identity, idea, or image, for specific purposes.

A particularly important difference between GIM process and Umbanda is the way the physical body of the patient and the follower participate from quite distinct types of relationship with music. In Umbanda rite (as well as TTT) the percussive music, together with the dance and body, takes this role. The syncopated percussion calls the body to the front of the scene and the participant and the music merge together in the process to trigger the transition of the subject’s perception between the identities present in their interiority. In GIM, although the body may appear absent or out of process, the importance attributed to the relaxation process that precedes the musical hearing and consequent journey – or transition – between inner images (p. 16-17), indicates how the body is also important in relation to music, although in a different manner. Here, the body’s relaxation – another way to make the body available (together with its subjectivity) to music, taking it out of its habitual state – allows dislocation to happen.

Barbara (1998) also observes that of Candomble, in deities incorporation, when the “Daughter-in-Saint” leaves her everyday identity and allows herself to be carried away by the sound of the atabaques in order to embody her orisha (p. 9).

Perhaps it’s not too absurd to claim that the same aiding to the transition not only between identities, but different aspects of being, is what one may find in the use of music in the Nordoff-Robbins approach. This approach proposes the patient's involvement by using their own body movement to produce music, improvising alongside with the therapist. Not exactly a dance, as in Umbanda and TTT, nor the shifting of subjective images while physically relaxed and inactive, as in GIM. However, in the Nordoff-Robbins approach we find the music raising the sliding and displacement between the condition child (deficiency condition) and the music child (innate musicality). In musical improvisation, the core of this approach, both the body movement and the imagination lead the person to get involved with music.

Stimulating one’s innate musicality through musical improvisation and thus displacing the gravity center of their personality from the disability conditions to enhance other potentials and bring up a new identity (Robbins and Robbins, 1991, p. 134) is perhaps another formulation of the same potential action of music over human beings. Against the rigidity of the condition child music is able to promote fluidity, like a “boundaries solvent”, to incite the displacement and transition from a particular condition of identity to another condition or potential identity. It's important to note that, in all described cases, music's potential as a "solvent" happens only inasmuch as the person's body and subjectivity have involvement with it.

This relationship between humans and music is mediated by the innate human faculty called musicality. I have developed a concept of musicality considering it not as only the ability to listen and produce music, but as “a form of cognitive perception” (Queiroz, 2003, p. 22).

The musicality... in a way, allows us to perceive the world expanding a certain aspect of our sensibility, merging it to the outside world, capturing it to our perception without breaking its interactions or, rather, making us perceive it in the dimension in which happen its interactions. (p. 23)

This concept of musicality originates from Zuckerkandl’s ideas. He asserts:

music is appropriate, is helpful, where self-abandon is intended or required – where the self goes beyond itself, where subject and object come together. Tones seem to provide the bridge that makes it possible, or at least makes it easier, to cross the boundary separating the two. (Zuckerkandl, 1976 pp. 24-25)

Considering that these statements are correct and music is a solvent of boundaries between the self and the other, between subject and object (p. 75), and also between different potential identities in an individual, over what neurological basis would the music be able to act on human being?

Fachner (2009) reviewed the role of music in neurological functioning. Some researchers observed brain changes, with greater emission of alpha and theta waves, and greater stimulation of the limbic system (p. 23 & 37). Moreno (1988) states that continuous percussive music can promote the numbing of the left cerebral hemisphere and thus free up the necessary brain functions, at the right hemisphere, to enter into a trance state (p. 275). Moreover Moreno, commenting on the Neher experiments, states that the percussion's rhythm can become close to “the basic rhythm of the alpha waves production... leading to a trance state in the subject” (p. 275). Whether by stimulation and sedation of the brain’s hemispheric activity or by the change of emphasis in the brainwaves, there is a major neurological reaction to percussive music, which is used by religious and healing traditions. However, those works do not mirror the findings from Umbanda, this is, the destabilization of body's movements and a consequent dislocation of the identity notion.

If neurological research is yet to discover definitively the entire action of music on brain function, it is certain that not only physical factors of music act on the human beings and their neurology. The social and cultural context in which music is shared between people seems to be a decisive factor on the interaction between humans and music, in music therapy or religious rites (Fachner, 2009, p. 36; Pilch, 2009, p. 50; Rouget, 1985, p. 323).

In my comprehension, cultural and neurological factors cannot be seen as exclusive opposites, but as complementary points of view about the music phenomenon in its relation with the human being. Starting from the first observations made in this work, knowing the broad ways in which humans interact with musical elements in a cultural context, seemed to be a good first step.

Final Remarks

The ways in which Umbanda employs the music for its purposes allows us to look at music from another perspective and to show how it converges with some uses of music in music therapy. Music would support the transition processes between different identities constructed within an individual. To facilitate the sliding or displacement of perceived identity, from the usual one to other possibilities of identity, seems to be a characteristic of the individual's involvement with music from the innate musicality of every human being (Zuckerkandl, 1976, p. 7-8). This involvement with music can happen in different ways: with the predominance of body movements (Umbanda, Candomble, TTT), imagination (GIM) or both (Nordoff-Robbins).

I am by no means proposing that a religious practice, such as Umbanda, and a therapeutic practice, such as music therapy, could occupy interchangeable roles. While one can learn a lot about music and healing practices in tribal cultures (Moreno, 1988, p. 271; Stige, 2002, p. 195), or even learn about the music in the rite of Umbanda, there are capital differences to be considered before applying elements from one into another. The first difference is that in Umbanda, as a religion, problems and solutions (and cures) occur as a result of supernatural forces in action; in music therapy, as a science, disease and healing occur in the natural sphere (Schmais, 1988, p. 281). The social position of a music therapist is another, the therapist's vocation is not mystical nor have relation to mediating supernatural forces. However, music is a common denominator within the ritual of Umbanda and music therapy practice.

Another aspect worthy of highlighting, for the music therapy practiced in Brazil, is the fact that Umbanda is “one of Brazil’s stages”, as Prandi (1991, p. 88) stated. That is, it is a manifestation of national culture in which it expresses some of its essential features. Among these is the popular practice of dancing to samba and other music styles that bring to the common reality, but doing so unsuspecting, this ability of unstable and syncopated percussive music, when danced, to encourage the individual to slide between their potential identities. Something about the Brazilian culture and people might be better understood from this perspective – and a music therapy study about this question could be an important contribution to this knowledge field, not to a patient or a group in particular, but to the understanding of the Brazilian sound of music identity as a whole.

Or, in the suggestive description of the Brazilian sociologist, Maria Isaura Pereira de Queiroz (1992), concerning the presence of samba, a syncopated music deeply rooted in several of Brazilian cultural habits:

When, at a ball, or even a small family party, the old Carnival songs of yore resonate to the beat of the drums, the elders enthuse and are caught up in the joy of dance – “the saint low” ... (which Roger Bastide observed from the trance in Afro-Brazilian religions is very close to the national Carnival emotions). In fact, those who once experienced the delights of leaving their body to the syncopated rhythm of percussion instruments don’t know how to resist when listening again to this puckish rhythm; they find themselves dragged by an impulse from some unknown place, whether it comes from the outside or from the depths of their being. They realize – a little apprehensively at first, but easily getting habituated to it – the impulse is irresistible and reveals to themselves an ignored face of their own “self”... (p. 20)

This easiness in our culture for trances, to “lower the saint”[22], that is, to perform a sliding between identities, perhaps isn’t present only in terreiros and Carnivals, although in them is where it gets more evidently visible. This possibility is something to be considered in the work of Brazilian music therapists along with their compatriots.


[1] Orishas are considered aspects of divinity manifested in the forces of nature, in the individuals and in people’s ancestry. The deities are incorporated by followers of Candomble. In two concise definitions, among the many possible given the complexity and scope of the theme, Verger (2002) states that in Candomble “The Orisha is a pure force, an immaterial áse which only becomes noticeable to humans when embodied into one” (p. 19).

[2] From Portuguese, "Filha-de-Santo". “Son” or “Daughter-in-Saint” is the follower that embodies the particular orisha to which they have a spiritual affinity, being their “son” or “daughter”. Incorporate the orisha means relinquishing control over the followers’ body and psyche in order for them to dance and move guided by this “force of nature”.

[3] “Mother-in-saint”, or “Father-in-saint”, is the hierarchically highest figure inside a Candomble or Umbanda center, it's the person in charge, “responsible by transmitting the doctrines and rituals” (Zangari, 2003, p. 81).

[4] Particular type of conga drum used in ceremonies of Candomble and Umbanda.

[5] While no research appears to have been done, participants and scholars of Umbanda and Candomble commonly talk about the rhythms and songs used by one another, which are the either same or derived from each other. In general, the rhythms and songs used in Umbanda derived Candomble.

[6] Altered states of consciousness (ASC) referred in this paper are specifically the normal though unusual states of consciousness, and not pathological states. Naming the states studied here as “unusual states of consciousness” would be more appropriate. However, in order to maintain the already established expression, I use it with the observation that, when using it, I mean the non-pathological conditions.

[7] A spiritist center is the place of worship of spiritism, a doctrine originally proposed by Alan Kardec, in the nineteenth century in France.

[8] Niteroi is a neighboring city to Rio de Janeiro, the former capital of Brazil, which received an influx of European culture (and with it, the Kardecism) along with the influx of African culture (and with it, the Candomble).

[9] “Caboclo” is one of the lineages of entities worshiped by followers of Umbanda. Literally, “caboclo” means indigenous native from Brazil land or a descendant. Inside the Umbanda, the Caboclo entity is a disembodied spirit, regarded as belonging to these indigenous peoples, incorporated during the rites. As goes the narrative, the Caboclo itself said “to me there is no closed paths” (Peixoto, 2008, p 16.), Thus explaining his name, “Of Seven Crossroads”: one that go through the crossroads of life.

[10]I use the plural form here, "Umbanda's rites", because it has many ways to be practiced. There is no standard rite. Despite the variation of forms assumed in them all, or virtually all, there is music, and it occupies a central position in the course of the rite.

[11]In trance incorporation, or possession, "there would be a change of consciousness induced by spirits during which the behavior and speech of the possessing entities could be observed" (Bourguignon quoted by Zangari, 2003, p. 55).

[12] In Umbanda, the guides, or entities, are considered to be "deceased persons experienced in life, spiritually developed, with interest in conveying the teachings that they resort" (Zangari, 2003, p. 82), unlike the orishas, which are considered deified entities.

[13] Terreiro is the physical space where the Umbanda and Candomble rites happen.

[14] Pontos of Candomble and Umbanda are songs with lyrics in Portuguese and Yoruba, composed by followers or by incorporated guides, which are sung targeting a particular purpose, such as praising or calling of a guide, the evocation of a moment of the rite or a celebration, a thanksgiving etc.

[15] Gira de desenvolvimento, from Portuguese. Development gyre is the moment within the cult of Umbanda dedicated to new followers to learn its fundamentals, know about the identity of each entity and guide, and to develop the ability of incorporating them, under the presence of ritual music.

[16] Gira de atendimento, from Portuguese.

[17] The English word gyra, as the verb gyrate, were chosen as a translation to the Portuguese terms due to it's similar sound and meaning of the Portuguese word gira.

[18] It was a bori graduating, which in Yoruba language means "to feed to the ori”. Ori is the region of the crown where, according to this religion, occurs the contact with the supernatural plans and existing entities there. Nourish the ori is bathing the head with consecrated food.

[19] Although I choose to translate it as ground, the original name refers to conga, that is the name given to the ground where the rite takes place.

[20] Oxala is the supreme orisha.

[21] Jurema is a word with multiple meanings. It can refer forest spirit, the kingdom of Jurema, but can also be the name of a tree, a tribe and an Umbanda entity, Cabocla Jurema.

[22] From Portuguese, baixar o santo, incorporate an Orisha or an entitiy.


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