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La Pasión según San Marcos (2000): Articles
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Latin American Syncretism: New Rhythms in the Gospel
by Anuncia Escala & Paul Semonin

Syncretism: the combination of different forms of beliefs and practices into new patterns of meaning.

La Pasión Según San Marcos by Osvaldo Golijov transports us to an imagined world where different styles of music, languages, singers and dancers intermingle to create a vibrant musical drama infused with many elements of Latin America's diverse cultures. This unique Pasión is set in the form of a Brazilian or Caribbean Lenten celebration taking place in the streets. News of the drama that is unfolding is passed on by voices and drums, the traditional instruments of those who were carried off from Africa to be slaves in the Americas. Golijov's Pasión evokes Brazilian samba, Cuban salsa, Spanish flamenco and Argentine tango through its creative use of percussion, brass, guitar and accordion. It is a highly innovative composition in an artistically stylized form, but it clearly draws its inspiration from the hybrid character of today's Latin American cultures.

In addition to the surprising mix of musical styles, different singers and dancers, both male and female, portray the roles of the main characters--Jesus, Judas, Mark and Peter. The role-switching by different soloists might be confusing at first, but it is also an intriguing device that makes the piece unique not only for its music but for its new interpretation of the biblical story itself. Golijov's conception and his music are quite original, but the cultural context of his creative team of performers--it is the Schola Cantorum chorus from Venezuela and the other Latin American musicians, drummers, and dancers--that gives his Pasión its transforming force. The use of drums and dance infuses this Pasión with Afro-American expressions and the spirit of Latin America's syncretic form of Christianity. The role of the performers, either in music, song or dance, is an affirmation that African beliefs are still surviving there.

Because of its large black population Brazil is very close to its African roots, despite the racial mixing that has taken place. Afro-Brazilians, like their counterparts elsewhere in the Americas, were very quick to adapt their native religious practices and beliefs to Christianity during the colonial era, combining the Lucumi-Yoruba religious rites, for example, with Catholic ritual. In Brazil those religious practices have different names, Condomblé in Bahía, Macumba or Umbanda in Río de Janeiro, and Xangó in Recife, but they are all variants of the Condomblé. Historically Condomblé was not only a spiritual practice, but also a form of resistance to the dominant white society. Despite strong opposition by civil and religious authorities, the creative acts of self-conscious African slaves and their descendants made possible the emergence and growth of these Afro-Brazilian religions. In time those practices went beyond social class and ethnicity and became popular among the general population.

In Condomblé, as in the Catholic Church, you have a spiritual guide or priest, named babalåo-orishá or pai de santo or mae de santo (father or mother of the saint) who acts as the intermediary between the orishas, or gods, and their followers. In their syncretic form, the orishas are often a combination of African gods and Catholic saints. However, the orishas are very different from the concept of Catholic saints because they have more earthly human characteristics. They are considered to be superior to humans, but not necessarily morally superior. In the African tradition human beings and gods lived in the same world. The physical world is as important for the orishas as it is for the humans. Good and evil are not conceived in absolute terms but rather are related to each other since they express different aspects of the essential life force. Even the divine forces have destructive and constructive possibilities in this conception. The interplay among these forces is dramatized in religious rituals by dancers playing the role of different orishas.

In Condomblé the supreme god and creator of the world is Olofi-Olorún, who can be identified with the Crucified Christ. However, the life force of the creator is thought to be in all creatures and things. When Olorún-Olofi was tired of ruling the earth, he turned his kingdom over to Obatalá, the king of purity and whiteness. Obatalá in Brazil is a major Yoruba deity and the father of the gods, who is sometimes identified with one of the Catholic virgins. Traditionally either a woman or a man can dance this double-sexed orisha, who is maternal and kind, but also can be an old man, a knight, a cripple or a wise man.

In Golijov's Pasión different soloists, including both men and women, portray Jesus as if the performers were representing his different sides, much as they would do with the orishas. We also see the same performers portraying Mark, Peter and Judas, and, at one point, there is a dialogue between Jesus and Peter played by the same soloist, the Cuban singer and dancer Reynaldo Gonzalez. Another striking example of this role switching is the attempt by the singers or dancers to portray the human side of both Jesus and Judas. In this drama Judas is represented as a human in conflict and Jesus as a man with different human characteristics, perhaps demonstrating the lack of clear-cut boundaries between the sacred and the profane in the African tradition.

"The Aria of Judas," a flamenco song sung by the Brazilian jazz singer Luciana Souza, expresses the wish of Judas to "renegar" or reject the world as it is, and to return in the future to a more truthful one. The same soloist sings "Agonia," an aria by Jesus just before his betrayal by Judas. Later, during Souza's tender rendition of Jesus' "Confession," Reynaldo Gonzalez appears in a white robe elevated above the chorus, dancing as if possessed by the holy spirit. Toward the end of the drama, Souza portrays Jesus again in his suffering, uttering his cry "My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?"

At the beginning of Golijov's Pasión, Deraldo Ferreira, a capoeira dancer from Brazil, plays the berimbau, a Brazilian stringed instrument, while portraying the fishermen caught in a net. After the arrest of Jesus, Ferreira performs a break dance called the "Dance of the White Sheet." Who is the dancer here? From the scriptures, we only know that he is a follower of Jesus who did not run away when the other disciples fled. Capoeira was originally a martial art form used by the slaves to defend themselves from their masters, but here it is a dance, and we need to keep in mind that the goal of dancers in the African tradition is to be possessed by the "gods" or spirits.

The electrifying effect of introducing drums, dancing and popular songs into the biblical story is what gives Golijov's Pasión its transforming power. While most of us perceive rhythm by hearing, Afro-Americans often perceive it by movement, and rhythm is the forceful element in this musical drama that opens up new ways of understanding the crucifixion. No wonder audiences who have experienced Golijov's Pasión have jumped up from their seats at the end of the performance to applaud. It is hard to sit still when you are moved by these new rhythms and possessed by the spirit of the gospel reborn.

Anuncia Escala teaches Spanish and Latin American cultures at Oregon State University. Paul Semonin is a historian who has taught Latin American history at various universities in Oregon.

This essay originally printed in La Pasion Journal published by the Oregon Bach Festival.
© Anuncia Escala & Paul Semonin. Reprinted courtesy of the authors.

La Pasión Según San Marcos: A Spiritual Perspective
by David Orique, O.P.


The word "passion" often conjures up romantic ideas of being with one's beloved--watching a golden sunset, sipping red wine and listening to rich music. It often refers to that enthusiastic drive that energizes aging dreams and youthful visions. Although the notion of passion may carry these amorous and zealous overtones, its deeper etymological connotation is more applicable when experiencing Osvaldo Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marcos.

The root of the word "passion" is found in the Latin word "passio" which means "to undergo or to suffer change." Golijov's Pasión is transformative. It offers viewers a unique opportunity to witness, and to undergo, change. Its combination of rich visual and aural threads weaves a powerful tapestry for viewers to gain a fresh sartorial understanding of the cloth of Mark's Gospel, the ancient manuscript from which Golijov weaves his masterpiece. Golijov's innovative and refreshing presentation of this ancient story is passionate; it is change-inducing.

Mark's Passion

To appreciate the magnitude of change induced by Golijov's version of the Passion by Mark, a very basic understanding of the original Gospel, and particularly of the chapters treating the Passion of Jesus Christ, is needed.

Of the four canonical Gospels, Mark is the oldest (written between 60-70 CE) and the shortest (sixteen chapters). The Gospel of Mark has been referred to as a "Passion narrative with a long introduction." The first thirteen chapters are a breathless narrative of Jesus' message about the Reign of God, which culminates in the final three chapters about the betrayal, agony, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Mark's Gospel was written in simpler Greek and with less sophisticated grammar than the Gospels of Matthew, Luke and John. As with each Gospel, the community of believers was also distinctive. The ancient audience of Mark consisted of Greek-speaking Roman Christians who thought of themselves as Jews. This culturally eclectic community suffered greatly during the persecutions of Nero (64 CE). While some slipped away in fear, others responded heroically. They reeled for many years from that tyrant's cruelty. Their experiences provided the contextual interpretation in Mark's Gospel for the unjust and senseless suffering of their community and of Jesus Christ.

In Mark's Gospel, Jesus is the Son of God, "My Beloved One", who was sent to rescue humanity by service and by the ultimate sacrifice of His life. Unique to this Gospel is the timing of the full public revelation of Jesus' identity; it is kept hidden for most of Mark's Gospel. This "Marcan Secret," as it is known, is definitively revealed when Jesus is dying on the Cross and the Roman centurion, standing at the foot of the cross, exclaims, "Truly this man was the Son of God!"

While presenting Jesus as the Divine Son of God, Mark's Gospel also strongly emphasizes the humanity of Jesus as well as discipleship. The Jesus in Mark's Gospel, as well as in the other Gospels, cures and heals, extends mercy and compassion. (Compassio means "to suffer with.") He teaches justice and peace, admonishes and corrects, feeds and comforts. He welcomes and embraces all, including strangers and foreigners. He models the proper use of wealth and power. He calls and commissions others to do the same.

Jesus is a model both in life and in death. Jesus is simultaneously a complex and a simple character; one of great paradox; one who both suffers with and suffers for others. He suffers in solidarity with others--especially with the poor and the outcast. He undergoes the Passion for others--indeed, for all humanity. This is the Jesus that Golijov brings to his artistic masterpiece.

Golijov's Passion

Golijov's La Pasión Según San Marcos focuses mainly on four chapters of Mark's Gospel (Mark 1; 13; 14; 15). His exuberant and novel interpretation brings the epic experience of the suffering of the innocent Jesus into our contemporary multicultural world.

As the writer of Mark's Gospel did with the people of his time, Golijov presents his Pasión in a way that takes into account the torturous history and rich contemporary reality of the peoples of Latin America. Yet he does not ignore the ancient roots of the Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian tradition in this masterpiece of inculturation. The experience of suffering is enriched by linguistic, cultural, and spiritual diversity as he draws from ancient and contemporary periods. He bridges the centuries by linguistic plurality: soloists and chorus sing, lament, chant, and pray in Spanish, Aramaic, Latin, and/or Galician (Galego). The predominance of Spanish is a reminder that all cultures have filters through which experience is interpreted.

Golijov draws from the Pan-American culture for diverse evocative expressions of joy and sorrow in a rapidly changing multicultural world. His allocation of roles reminds us that both women and men, and all races, are equal in the eyes of God. Golijov integrates diverse spiritual expressions by adroitly blending Afro-Indigenous-Latino images, ideas, sounds, movements, instruments and performers into a soul-stirring liturgical expression of an ancient Greco-Roman-Judeo-Christian fresco of faith. This effort reflects the historical reality of syncretism in all religions, in this case Christianity.

Golijov's sensation-rich interpretation of Mark stimulates change because it speaks to one of the deepest parts of the human condition: suffering. It is a 21 st century voice reminding us that suffering is universal. All peoples and persons experience Passions--the cutting betrayals, the painful disengagements, the dashed hopes, the abysmal sorrows, the unending agonies, and the brutal crucifixions--alleviated by interludes of soul-resting sharing at table and of anointing with oils of kindness--buoyed up by the continuous drumbeat of a sense of destiny that cannot be deterred.

La Pasión gives expression to the depth of human suffering that has been experienced over the centuries. It creates new meaning in the struggle to alleviate suffering. It nuances how suffering can be lessened, if not alleviated, by promoting universal dignity and equality, by plumbing the richness of cultural diversity, and by demonstrating the creative effectiveness of collaborative effort. Listeners come away from this sonorous, and yet contemplative, musical score experiencing profound and powerful emotions. They are jolted into the realization that the suffering continues...and, sadly, that all people are complicit in it! Accordingly, the experience of La Pasión Según San Marcos can evoke and elicit solidarity with those who suffer.

World's Passion

We live in a world experiencing its own Passion as the violations of human rights, the violence of wars, the ruptures of personal and collective relationships, the negative effects of globalization, and natural disasters cause suffering, particularly the senseless suffering of the innocent.

A significant part of the warp and woof of the tangled fabric of our world, of our world's Passion, has to do with "values." In this, the difficult and sometimes discordant blending of diverse linguistic, cultural, and spiritual understandings in La Pasión Según San Marcos parallels our own conflicted time of debate on "values." Yet the lesson is clear: unless people are able to speak and do speak "their truth" with the "voices" that only they can utter, as was done in La Pasión, and unless people are open to truly listening to the "truth of others," the world will continue to suffer because it functions on "half-truths"--and needed dialogue does not take place.

Many barriers prevent the understanding of different worldviews. Golijov's Pasión invites his audience to a change of worldview...toward a vision that empowers the diversity, toward responsible engagement in society, and toward standing in solidarity with those who suffer.

The Passion of the world in the 21 st century offers an invitation to weave justice and peace into the tangled tapestry of the world--as did Martin Luther King, Archbishop Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa, Bishop Helder Camara, Sister Dorothy Stang and many others. However, those who weave these threads in solidarity with others, or for the sake of others, often pay the price of martyrdom. This is what happened to Jesus Christ--the principal figure of Mark's Passion and Golijov's Pasión .

Father David Orique, O.P., member of the Western Dominican Province of the Friars Preachers, has traveled and studied extensively in Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries, especially in Latin America. He is the Director of Catholic Campus Ministry at University of Oregon Newman Center, and pastor of St. Thomas More University Parish.

Martin Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Historic Biblical Christ. (Originally published in 1896. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1988), p. 80 n. 11.

This essay originally printed in La Pasion Journal published by the Oregon Bach Festival.
© Father David Orique. Reprinted courtesy of the author.