Recorded by “Conspiração Filmes” in Salvador, February 9th, 1996.Full transcription, divided in five parts.
G – So master, how are you? And here, how is the house?
G- Was the whole Foundation sent here?
V- I don’t know, there are books down there. I’ve got lots of things recorded, but I don’t have the equipment to listen to the things..(laughing)
G- Your recordings of Africa?
V- They’re things I did in Africa.
G- When you were in Ibadan?
V- Yes. I stayed there for about 15 years.
G- Did you stay at the university when you were in Ibadan?
V- When I was in Ibadan, I stayed in Oschogbo and at the University of Ifer.
G- Isn’t it in Oschogbo where the river of Oxum runs?
V- Yes. They also have the Oxum celebration on the 5th of August
G- But there must also be some relation to Xangó. What is it?
V- In Ifé, Xangó is Oyó
G- No,… Oyó yes…
V- He was king in Oyó. Xangó is found here and there, and there are places where he is not found. In Ifé he is almost unknown. There, the god of thunder is called Olanfé.
G- When I went to Iwó and Benin City, I passed through Ibadan. One also passes by there when you go to Ifé, it’s the same way. V- Yes, it’s very central.
G- From Lagos…
V- The biggest city in Africa.
G- And you stayed for 15 years?
V- I stayed more. I stayed 17 years. I stayed for one year and then I went back there, which was much better because one did not have time to get used to the place. So you disappear and when you return – “Ah! you are back!” (laughter)
G- Did you go there specifically because of Candomblé?
V- Yes. The first scholarship I got was because I had photos of African festivities in Recife.
G- In Recife!
V- At that time, there was an airmail service in Recife for the transportation of mail, with the use of hydroplanes. Then, if there was a french navy officer who had to be on board, for at that time we did not have these new special equipment presently in use, and who performed……
G- To do the navigation (laughter)
V- …..more to the left, more to the right… until they got to Recife. Once in Recife, they stayed there until…… Because the pilots used to fly observing the ground and they were not needed any more. Then, they got bored in Recife and in Dakar they got bored too. They waited at these places to get on the passing planes. Then I had the idea to send a letter to Theodore Monod, who was the director of the French Institute of Black Africa, whom I had known when I was mobilized during the war, and he determined a scholarship to study the regime of African Cults, here in Bahia.
G- You had then already been in Bahia, you were in Bahia?
V- I was in Bahia, yes. That was in 47 when I was still in Recife.
G- You had been in Bahia and you were here in this region
V- I arrived in Bahia in 46
G- That was on your way back from the Far East?
V- No, on my way from Peru
G- On your way from Peru, had you already been to the Far East?
V- Yes, I had. G- Why and what did you go to the Far East for?
V- The Far East was way before, in 34, when there was a war between Japan and China.
G- In 34. And why did you go there?
V- Because I had a contract to take photos to cover the journalist’s articles.
G- About the war?
V- Yes, about the war. That was how I got to know China, the Philippines and also, later on, the Indochina.
G- From 34 till when?
V- Until a little after the 40’s
G- Then you flew to France?
V- I went back to France
G- You stayed there for a while.
V- I went to Mexico, I went to several places in South America and I was finally sent to Dakar.
G- To Dakar?
G- Still as a Photographer Correspondent?
V- No, as a French soldier.
G- As a Soldier?
V- As a French soldier.
G- Ah! You mean to say that you went half as Sartre. You were a soldier and you were involved in a specialty that wasn’t exactly the war, you were doing photography.(laughing) you were a soldier photographer.
V- No. What disgusted me, was the certain stupidity that there is in nationalities. The fact that my father was from Belgium, and as it was required that his industry be established in Paris, I was born in France. I studied French, did military service in France and they put a rifle in my hands to kill the Germans. If by chance my father had taken the train to Berlin, I would have been born in Germany and received a rifle to kill the Germans.
G- Kill the French!(laughter)
V- So this is patriotism.
G- I know, but the fact is that you.., so you go off to serve the army and you… There is something I didn’t understand. When you went off to the Far East as correspondent photographer, were you a soldier too?
V- No, no G- Were you dismissed from the army?
V- Some time after that.
G- You weren’t a soldier anymore.
V- I served the army in the year of 22.
G- But when did you go to Dakar? After Peru? After Mexico?
V- During the war…
G- Already in second world war?
V- Yes, yes G- Then you were a soldier again?
V- Yes. G- Were you mobilized?
V- I was mobilized
G- Ah! So that’s it.
V- Like all the French.
G- You belonged to of the reserve and called back for action.
V- And if I were German I would have been mobilized to kill the French.
G- To kill the French, I know, ça c’est la guerre!(laughter) La stupidité de la guerre!
V- Yes, yes. (laughter)
G- Why did you decide to stay in Brazil? Because until then you had gone to the Far East, to Mexico, to Peru, you had gone back to Africa, after all, you had gone to Africa and suddenly, you decide to establish yourself here in Brazil. What was it that attracted you so?
V- It so happens that Bahia has a certain charm, that maybe you don’t perceive because you were born here…
G- That other lands don’t have?
V- Yes. There used to be much more, more than now…but it still has a lot of charm. G- Yes… it has been changing .
V- The fact is that I had spent 5 years in Peru among the Indians, that are a very interesting people, but very withdrawn, it is difficult for them to maintain communication us. When I arrived here, I met some kind, open and friendly people. This very joyful, festive atmosphere that is found here. It reminded me of some very agreeable times I had in France, when I used to go to the balls of the Antilles (festive dance reunions), that was called “Bal Nègre (?)”and at that time already with my friends (?) e (?).
G- In Paris?
V- In Paris. I used to go to that place a lot. All of the domestic servants, the chambermaids, the chauffeurs that spent the week with the boring French that spent their time humiliating them, used to go there. They went there on Saturdays to meet amongst themselves, far from their employers.
G- To have their dances
V- They drank punch and there were lots of dances . That was the atmosphere I found here during carnival, I found samba in the “model market”
G- This was 1949, 50?
V- In 46, when I arrived in Bahia. I found again the atmosphere that I used to find in Paris among the people of Antilles.
G- Was that, in a certain way…
V- I felt well here. I always felt at home here.
G- As if then you had really arrived in the Antilles. Here you found a land that was exactly what, to a smaller degree, you had experienced in Paris.
V- And not forgetting the possibilities of one being able to be happy and forget the burdens of life.
G- The first day, when you arrived here: had you come because of Jubiabá? Had you read it?
V- Yes, I had read Jorge Amado’s book, translated into French with the name “Bahia de Tous les Saints”.
G- And your interest for the people of Antilles?
G- And then you arrived here by ship?
V- Yes, I arrived here by ship, The “Comandante Capelo”
G- “Comandante Capelo”
V- It took us 10 days to get here from Rio. It was the last trip for this steamer. There I met a student, with a very low pitched voice, that called himself, and still does….How do you call him?
Background voice – Cid Teixeira!
V- Cid Teixeira! (laughter)
G- Did he come on the ship?
V- Yes, he was a student and came from a students meeting in Rio. At the time I spoke Portuguese badly, but I even talked with Cid.
G- You got off and then where did you go? Did you go to a boarding house , a friend’s house? Was there someone you knew in Salvador?
V- I went to the Chile hotel, it had a little cabin at the back with a view of the port that was wonderful. It’s still there, but there’s a big building next to it now that cuts out the whole view. I liked that place very much.
G- Well, well. And then you…
V- Some time after that, I rented a business on the new way to Taboão. It was also a very picturesque place, donkeys passing…
G- And there you set up a kind of a atelier?
V- Yes… No, on the third floor of the Nina Rodrigues. There was a laboratory inside the morgue…
G- Yes, I remember.
V- Through Piquecs, who was the legal doctor, this was the first time in my life that I lived along with human bodies. (laughter)
G – Tell me something. How do you feel about the phenomena concerning the unity of Candomblé, in Bahia, with orixás that originally came in parts from several places, as from Nigeria itself, from Benin and even other countries, all in all, the Bantu part. Do you think that the orixás obtained this unity in Bahia?
V – They remained in part. The Nagô – Yoruba was one part, the Bantu the other part, and they don’t mix .
G – Even here, don’t they mix?
V – They don’t mix. Because the Nagô-Yoruba people of Candomblé, of the great Candomblés, were imitated by other religions. In their own way, they were their teachers, as the others didn’t even know the names of their gods in their own languages and, therefore, they imitated those of the Nagô. That’s why I got more interested in the Nagô, it was something more legitimate. Especially because in Africa I lived amongst them and managed to go in very deep. Thanks to the knowledge I had acquired here I was able to be with these people without ever having to ask anything. I lived with these people as if it were a natural thing, which it is, because I knew how to behave myself. I didn’t ask “why do you do this?” “Why do you do that?”….. You should never demonstrate your ignorance. And we usually ask things that have no meaning whatsoever. There are many things we do without knowing why. A foreigner comes to us and asks ” why do you do this?” You don’t know, never thought why, and you stare open mouthed.
G – But, evidently, I’m talking about your point of view, as a European, as a Frenchman, as a white man…
V – I’m not a European anymore.
G – That part of you doesn’t exist anymore.
V – I had already renounced this European side of myself.
G – But there’s always a remainder that stays on in a certain way?
V – I knew how to behave myself…
G – (Laughter)
V – …through the behavior I had to have here in Bahia.
G – (Laughter) Earn the right to live amongst the people!
V – Which consisted in gaining the ax of Xangô and shouting “Kawo Kabiyesi Lé”. Why I did not know! Nobody knows why! When I arrived with the necklace of Xangô, that Senhora had prepared for me, because I was initiated with Senhora before I left, the people saw that I knew something, because when I was in front of the alter of Xangô I shouted “Kawo Kabiyesi Lé”. There was an alter of Oxum and I shouted “Oraiêiêo”. There was something of Oxalá and I shouted “Épababá”. Fortunately it was the thing I had to say.
G – (Laughter)
V – It’s a question of considering yourself as one of them.
G – And the trance, the incorporating of Orixá ?
V – As for me, it’s not an incorporating . As for me it’s the manifestation of our true nature. A possibility to forget all the things that have nothing to do with you as a person. Like me being a Frenchman to kill the Germans. All of this, a person goes back to being what he used to be like, before learning this stupidity of nationalities and other behaviors.
G – And did you experience this “forgetting” of Orixá?
V – Unfortunately not. Because I’m a French idiot, rationalist, they cannot tell me any stories, I’m not an idiot to believe in these things.
G – (laughter) The residual…
V – It was a very political thing (???) Horrible. I suffered a lot,…
G – I know.
V – … I’d like very much to. I’d let myself…, but…
G – …to give in to…to let yourself be taken in by that, but it didn’t happen. And why do you say that Exú might be the most human of the Orixás ?
V- Because he has faults. He has faults and qualities. It’s an unbearable thing. G – But the other orixás had them too. Ogum killed, even got to be perverse, killed , raped, repented one day and decided to bury himself.
V- Yes, that which has water in the face, one washes with blood.
G – And Xangô too?
V – Xangô too.
G – Then, in this sense they were all human. Why do you think that Exú is even more human than the others?
V – Because he has faults and qualities at the same time.
G – And this is what determines his own quality. This is his own particular quality.
V – And there is also his slightly erotic behavior, which is very human.
G – Yes, of course, …of course. Another thing, Verger, the herbs, the book, this book here.
V – Yes?
G – The last time I came here, you were working on the book. It was a large file…you had written down…
V – Fortunately there was an interest in this thing, which helped its being published. And there I managed to get a lot of information as this thing was of no interest for me.
G – And you catalogued all this knowledge both here and in Africa, but mainly in Africa?
V – Yes, mainly in Africa. And the fact that it didn’t interest me is the reason I succeeded. As in real life, when you get interested in a lady, if you run after her, she’ll leave you. If you look the other way, she’ll be the one to run after you.
G – (Laughter)
V – With knowledge it’s the same thing!
G – Yes, it is! And for many of these recipes, did you have the occasion to try them out? Or not? Or you only wrote down the information.
V – I just wrote them down. In reality it didn’t interest me. That’s why I succeeded.
G – And in the same way asked: Why this? Why that? Because it didn’t interest you.
V – “Why” doesn’t exist in my vocabulary.
G – Right , right…. Now up to which point, even your saying that you didn’t have the happiness, the luck, all in all, the absolute realization of a total encounter with this reality, of the “absolute forgetting” with the Orixá, the surrendering, the pure energy, etc., etc.. But to which point you, still as a rational, as a Frenchman, as a man distant from all this, to which point do you feel yourself as a part of this Yoruba world, this Orixá world?
V – More like a admirer.
G – Yes, yes…
V – I appreciate what this religion can do for the descendants of Africans. I can quote the case of Balbino, for example. When I met first him, he was a small salesman of gumbo (vegetable “quiabo” in Brazil) in the market. He didn’t even know how to read, but was a person that, like even today, was completely satisfied with himself. He really didn’t feel humiliated by anyone and spoke to everyone as his equal, because he is the son of Xangô. This is is a great thing. He isn’t just a polite guy that wanted to be protected by us, on the contrary, he felt that he could protect the others, he who didn’t even have a cent in his pocket. He was the son of Xangô. This is the thing that I showed, or wanted to show, in the movie we did of this time “Brasileiros na Africa e Africanos no Brasil” (Brazilians in Africa and Africans in Brazil) to show the complete meaning of this influence.
G – Do you have another remarkable example of this type of redemption, another human example of…
V – Of a lady, a lady with a certain physical magnificence who sold fruits in the market. The place where she used to sell, was called “A Vencedora” (The Winner), which portrayed her inner spirit. And she only used to drink the wine “Vencedor”, too. Which I like too.(laughter). All of this makes the person, which in reality was a humble seller of vegetables, a prestigious woman. One feels very deep-rooted to know her. I remember when we went to see her with the director of the Museum of Rio de Janeiro: it was the director that was after her and not the other way around. There was a kind of dignity.
G – And what do you think of this aspect, this profound importance that the African culture had, its customs, the religion etc. for the people of Bahia, for the Black people of Bahia. How do you think of this in relation to the whole of Brazil? The African in Brazil, the African Brazil and the African elements that have helped Brazil, or presently help, or might be able to help Brazil reveal its own identity, new and differentiated in relation to the world…What do you think in relation to this?
V – What is interesting is that it shows that one religion is respectful regarding the religion of the others. Because one that is part of Xangô won’t put down those from Oxum or from others. I belong to Xangô, you belong to Oxum, perfect, we understand each other, complete each other and there are no problems. Observe what happens among Protestants and Catholics, they even kill each other. Terrible things happen.
G – And you think that, after all, this profound tolerance, this profound capacity of understanding, the acceptance of one another of those that have the African religion, is of a fundamental importance for Bahia. Do you think Brazil has also become imbued with this felling?
V – Yes, It looks like it. It’s the same thing as if you, on the whole, called me by your family name, which would oblige me to call you Verger. Nobody would understand it! One knows perfectly well that you are not called Verger. The catholic kill those that are not catholic. With them it’s the opposite, each one has his saint, his name, his characteristics and respect for the other.
G – It’s respecting the difference …
V – And there is the understanding of the other that is complementary to his own. And no other person come to force someone to believe or not in one’s ancestors. Because they’re not. And besides if he has the same name, he would have the right to a part of his belongings. He is not interested in the fact that other people are Xangô and have the same advantages as he has. Due to the profound respect they have for others that have different belongings, qualities and activities.
G – Which is the best thing in Brazil?
V – Ah! There are so many things (laughter) its difficult to decide.
G – (laughter) Which is the best, is there one?
V – Depends on the moment. It depends on the internal or external calls, if you’re hungry, if you’re thirsty, if you’re hot.
G -“Retratos da Bahia”,(Portrait of Bahia), the one you want to see , this book is beautiful, this one I have… “Maria Bebiana do Espirito Santo, Dona Senhora”, you dedicated it to her. There was a moment back there when you told me that things were better in the past.
V – Ah! Of course! First of all, because I was much younger then. ( laughter)
G – ( laughter) But do you really think it was better?
V – It was better without a doubt. In those days, we used to come home at about 5, take a bath with a gourd, because there was no running water, we used to sit in front of the house and chatted with the neighbors. In the beginning we used to live in “Rua Chile” (Chile street) “Avenida 7″(7th Avenue). We used to sit on a chair, to chat with the neighbors, now and then we would clap our hands as percussion and form a ring of Samba. It’s not like that now. We go inside to see these commercial TV productions and nobody knows their neighbor.
G – How were the poor neighborhoods at that time? There was the center of Salvador, “Santo Antônio”, “O Carmo”, “Rua Chile”, “Avenida Sete”, “Barra”, ” Graça” and finally “Rio Vermelho”, which already was a poor district.. . Did you use to go to the poor districts on the outskirts of the city?
V – I used to go by there of course.
G – Where was it that you used to go to, for example, now and then? Itapoã?
V – I used to go to “Amaralina”, drink coconut water in front of the ocean, walk a little on the beach.
G – There was already a community of fishermen, of people who lived northeast of “Amaralina”.
V – And there was no path at all. They had to go on foot.
G – On this side of the Itapagipe peninsula, Paripe, Peri Peri, these places,.. did you use to go there? Did you use to visit there too?
V – Yes, I used to go there. I used to go a lot to the Island, because I had to see the Egum. We used to leave on the Saturday, spend Sunday there and come back on Monday morning.
G – The only Egum worship-grounds that existed in Brazil at that time. Are there more today?
V – Yes, there are several.
G – Is it? Are there several in Bahia?
V – Yes, they had children and…
G – All on the Island?
V – Yes, in the beginning, they imitated a bit.
G – You were with us when during, the day, in Sacre Coeur, we saw an Egum worship-ground in the street.
V – It could be, but it was a long time ago. When we went it wasn’t there anymore. G – But I remember, I think it was there. At that place, Egum is…
V – Egum is a current.
G – Yes, it’s a current. It goes out, goes into the street, at any time of the day, there are no problems.
V – It salutes us , we do the same in return.
G – Why this difference? Why here it became a more esoteric thing?
V – Because here there is the fear of death. And there death is a passing thing. There is no heaven and there is no hell.
G – There wasn’t a Christian tradition there…
V – We disappear for a few months then come back. That’s why the son is called Babá Tundê, “the father has come back”. Recently in Paris I had the opportunity to live with the grandson of a person I had known, Mr. Postigianni. His son is the Delegate of Benin at Unesco and his son is his father’s reincarnation. I went to their hose for lunch and had the pleasure of eating together again with my friend, Mr. Postigianni. I even spoke to him with the greatest respect, saying “Do you remember when I arrived in the year of 43, you came to look for me in the airplane…”
G – And did he remember?
V – The boy started getting used to the fact that he was the “grandson.”
G – …that he had been his grandson.
V – The son was very happy to see that the son played my game. He even treated his son with the greatest respect, because he knew that he was his father.
G -(laughter)Son and father! This story is fantastic! Marvelous! That’s the difference!
V – This is important because it completely eliminates the feeling of jealousy the son has against the father. Because sometimes the son himself is the father.
G – Do you think there is some similarity between the vision of continuity, of reincarnation, from the African viewpoint, and that of the interpretation of reincarnation from the Eastern point of view?
V – It’s the same thing. I was very tempted to go into the temples when I was in Cambodia, and do my initiation as a Buddhist monk, that could only live with a piece of wool and a wooden thing and nothing else. In the morning one would go to ask for rice to eat and the fact of one’s receiving it was good for these people, assuring a good reincarnation through the good actions they had performed. At the same time, one lived and to be nice to you was good for these people.
G – So, Verger considering that the Christian point of view is very different, how then do you see syncretism? What is the role, if there is one, what is the importance of syncretism? How can you describe this religion , which results from this syncretism?
V – It seems there is no syncretism. There is an approximation of different notions. Our friend Balbino for example, says that if you drink a glass of water and olive oil, they don’t mix. There are moments when he is profoundly Catholic and there are moments that he is profoundly the son of Xangô. With the same sincerity. Dona Senhora for example didn’t accept the devoted Christians . When a person from Senhora’s “terreiro”( Afro-Brazilian worship-ground) turned into a devoted Christian, she would expel them. She doesn’t want these people that belong to Jesus. It shows that Catholicism had a certain value for her.
G – Although the other Christian currents didn’t interest her, the catholic did. And do you think this resulted in the junction of the orixás with the catholic saints?
V – There’s a lot of meaning if you compare Xangô, god of thunder, energetic, that killed with the blows of the ax, and Saint Jerome, an old baldhead reading a book…
G – He was a very studious man…(laughter)
V – The connection I saw is that, in the images, there is a lion at the feet of Saint Jerome and he lived in the desert. The lion is the real symbol of Yoruba
G – You then believe that these simplifications, obtained through syncretism, could in the future determine a total loss in the religious quality of the orixás?
V – No, because a person is, at the same time, as sincere in one case as he is in the other. When Balbino and I arrived in Africa, the first thing he did was to go to the cathedral to thank God for getting there. A little while later we went to visit the temple of Xangô and he sang the chants of Xangô and everyone sang with him.
G – And these traits in the human personalities of today, what happens to these people? Isn’t this schizophrenia? Doesn’t this determine a deep split in these people? One moment they’re Christ crucified and the other Oxalá? How do you project this? How will these people be in the future.
V – I don’t know.
G – But do you have any fearful, negative feeling in relation to the subject?
V – No. Something can be done, but it’s not something one can understand. One does not have a reason, a “why”. Why one does it, nobody knows. You do it because it’s a custom.
G – Do you suppose it will really be something else.., then let it be so…
G – Well, that’s it , my good old Verger. Do you miss those times?
V – Yes.
G – Of course, you have all the reason to.
Verger’s vision of black Brazil was imbued in this way with love and with learning. It was, both in its beginning and its end, a vision of an ideal. For him Salvador was the place where black people had contrived to redeem the history of slavery, wresting dignity and power out of the cruelty and humiliation of the slave trade. A recent Brazilian television documentary about Verger includes an interview (given on what turned out to be the penultimate day of his life) in which he mentions a long-time friend and former protégé of his, the pai-de-santo Balbino Daniel de Paula. He explains that Balbino, although he was an illiterate okra seller in the market in Salvador when they first met, had no sense of social inferiority, “because,” Verger tells the interviewer, “he knew he was a son of Xangò”.