The folia de reis is a popular Brazilian tradition of folk Catholicism that involves a group of participants who, between Christmas and Epiphany, go on a journey asking for alms for social-religious purposes. The tradition refers to musical ensembles comprising predominantly low-income rural workers from various regions of Brazil. Instrumentalists, singers, and other participants travel from house to house and farm to farm, singing and praising the birth of Christ. The folia de reis celebrates and reenacts the Biblical journey of the Three Kings to Bethlehem and back to their homeland guided by the Star of Bethlehem. The folia de reis tradition under investigation in this research is a tradition that traces its origins back to colonial Brazil and to the Iberian Peninsula.
As they travel from Christmas Eve through Epiphany (January 6), their singing journey blesses the families, which they visit in exchange for food or money. The folia de reis tradition is classified as “popular Catholicism” (Catholic ritual practice external to the interests of the Catholic Church) and it is quite widely diffused in the southern, central, and northern regions of Brazil, primarily in the rural communities. From the early Portuguese sources through the manifestations in twenty-first century, one theme is common to folia de reis: the Three Kings are important personages among the rural populations of Brazil.
The primary focus of this dissertation is the relationship between music and religion as expressed in folia de reis songs and its participants’ personal faith. My analysis of the relationship between song and faith is partially based on how folia de reis group members strengthen their spiritual world by praying and singing their songs along the journey to express devotion and fulfill their obligations to the Three Kings. It also relies on comparison with other studies by Alceu Maynard Araújo (1949), Zaíde Maciel de Castro and Aracy do Prado Couto (1961), Guilherme Porto (1982), and Suzel Reily (1996). Through the study and understanding of music and song texts, including musical instruments and other aspects of folia de reis material culture, I argue that the folia de reis tradition, empowered by all its characteristics (music, text, costumes, etc.) has the power to strengthen faith and forge community bonds in both its traditional religious context and its newer staged context of the Olímpia Folklore Festival.