Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung
The Intractable Beauty of the World
What goes up from the chasm/abyss
It is a rumour of several centuries. And this is the song of the plains of the ocean.
The sonorous shells rub against the skulls, bones and green cannonballs at the bottom of the Atlantic.
In the abyss there are cemeteries of slave ships, many of their sailors. The rapaciousness, the violated borders, the flags, raised and fallen, of the Western world. (. . .)
But these deported Africans have broken down the barriers to the world. They too have opened up, with bloody splashes, the spaces of the Americas. (. . .)
What remains of these formerly transborded, this silt from the abyss, is all the old worlds that have been crushed to give rise to a real new region. A world had flattened Africa. These Africas have impregnated the worlds from afar. This manifests and makes us understand le Tout-Monde (the whole world), given in all, valid for all, multiple in its totality, which is based on this rumour of the abyss.1
—Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau
“What goes up from the chasm/abyss,” Edouard Glissant and Patrick Chamoiseau so evocatively write about Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco in Brazil – known to have been the first port in the Americas to receive enslaved people abducted from Africa – in their essay “L’intraitable beauté du monde” (The Intractable Beauty of the World). Since its founding in 1537 upon Portuguese colonization of that space called Brazil, Recife (the main anchor of sugar cane production through slave labor and harbor of the Captaincy of Pernambuco) is a remarkable site which has emerged from that gouffre, that abyss, that chasm – that despite despicable violences has been able to manifest intractable beauty – a site in which the rumors from and of the depths of that abyss still resonate in all-engulfing ripples and manifest themselves as that Glissantian notion of Tout-Monde.
It goes without saying that it is that “intractable beauty of the world” that birthed, especially in Brazil, some of the most important artistic and cultural movements of the twentieth century. From the Anthropofagia movement of the 1920s that gave form to, informed, and infused a Brazilian avant-garde with the “Manifesto Antropófago,” an aesthetics and politics that Oswald de Andrade called “Cannibalist transnationalism,” a philosophy that claimed for the cannibalization, the ingestion and digestion of other cultures as a way of asserting Brazil against European colonial and postcolonial cultural domination; or the Black Experimental Theater (TEN) movement founded by Abdias Do Nascimento in 1944 to tackle the dearth of black presence and dignity in the national performing arts and initiated a movement of Afro-Brazilian playwriting and engaged politically by bringing the anti-racism struggles to the 1946 Constituent Assembly “and influenced the proposition of the Afonso Arinos Act, the first legislation geared to curb racism”;2 or Cinema Novo’s “Eztetyka da Fome” (Aesthetics of Hunger) movement filmically formulated by Glauber Rocha in 1965, that understood cinema as an important tool and weapon for the revolutionary struggle; or the Tropicalismo movement of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Gal Costa, Tom Zé, and Torquato Neto of the 1960s that advocated with their “Tropicália: Ou Panis et Circencis manifesto” for a “field for reflection on social history” through music, film, and other artistic expressions that synchronized African and Brazilian cultures to find a political voice at the height of the Brazilian military dictatorship; or the Manguebit movement of the 1990s in Recife, Pernambuco, that stood for a musical revolt against socio-political, economic, and cultural stagnation, and for a resistance of the neoliberal capitalist agenda that had usurped most of Latin America, that advocated for a cultural memory that embraced all the attributes of the Glissantian Tout-Monde, “given in all, valid for all, multiple in its totality,” and that opted for a way out of the socio-economic cul-de-sac through a creolization of sonic scapes and genres like makossa, Congolese rumba, reggae, coco, forró, maracatu, frevo, as much as rock, hip hop, electronic music, and funk. It is the Manguebit movement and its manifesto “Caranguejos com Cérebro” (Crabs With Brains), written in 1992 by singer Fred Zero Quatro and DJ Renato L and brought to life by two legendary bands and two albums in 1994 with titles that betray their intentions: Mundo Livre S/A’s Samba Esquema Noise (Samba Noise Scheme) and Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s Da lama ao caos (From Mud to Chaos) that are our foremost concern today.
In the very first song on Samba Esquema Noise, “Manguebit,” Mundo Livre S/A sing:
It’s me transistor/ Recife is a circuit/ The country is a chip/ If the land is a radio/ What is the song?/ Manguebit/ A virus contaminates the eyes, ear/ Languages noses electrical wires/ Sound waves, virus carried out/ UHF, needle antennas/ Needle antennas/ Mangrove swamp/ Electricity feeds/ As much as oxygen/ My lungs connected/ Information enters/ the nostrils/ And the culture comes out of bad breath/ Ideology/ Mangrove swamp/ My lungs turned on/ It lands is a radio/ What is the song/ Manguebit/ Manguebit.
This could be an anthem for the strange times we live in today.
Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s first song on Da lama ao caos titled “Monólogo ao Pé do Ouvido (Vinheta) / Banditismo por uma Questão de Classe (Vinheta)” is a fierce double hymn of defiance. In “Monólogo ao Pé do Ouvido” they sing:
Modernizing the past/ It’s a musical evolution/ Where are the notes that were here?/ I don’t need them/ Just let it all ring out to your ears/ Fear gives rise to evil/ The collective man feels the need to fight/ Pride, arrogance, glory/ Fills the domain imagination/ Demons are the ones who destroy the fierce power of humanity/ Viva Zapata, Viva Sandino, Viva Zumbi, Antônio Conselheiro/ All black panthers/ Lampião, his image and likeness/ I’m sure, they also sang one day.
And in “Banditismo por uma Questão de Classe” they sing:
A while ago there was talk of bandits/ A while ago there was talk of a solution/ A while ago there was talk of progress/ A while ago I watched television (. . .) Go up hill, slope, stream, alley, favela/ The police behind them and them on her ass/ It happens today and it happened in the sertão/ When a flock of monkeys chased Lampião/ And what he said others still say/ (I carry with me courage, money and candy)/ On each hill a different story/ That the police kill innocent people (. . .) And who was innocent today has already become a bandit/ To be able to eat a piece of bread all fucked up/ Banditry for sheer malice/ Banditry out of necessity/ Banditry for the sake of class/ Banditry for the sake of class.
That these bands refer to a free world and to Zumbi’s nation in their names is no coincidence. That they are from Recife, Pernambuco is no coincidence either. After all, it was in Recife that Gilberto Freyre organized the 1º Congresso Afro-Brasileiro in 1934, which included activists like Solano Trindade, who was also part of the Frente Negra Pernambucana as well as the Teatro Experimental do Negro.3 And even more importantly, it was in Pernambuco and Alagoas that the great Francisco Zumbi (1655–1695) of Kongo heritage, who went down in history as Zumbi dos Palmares, claimed his kingdom, fought against the Portuguese colonialists, resisted the enslavement of Africans, and freed his people and resettled them in the kingdom of Maroons, the Quilombos, that Abdias do Nascimento was later to qualify as the first democratic space and structure in what is today Brazil. With a population of more than thirty thousand people and a conglomerate of eleven towns in which African religious, cultural, trade, agricultural, and political ways of being were practiced, a lot of groundwork was laid for movements like Manguebit to come.
I would like to argue that to be able to understand the Manguebit movement and their “Crabs with Brains” manifesto, it is worth doing a marcher en arrière and deliberating on the notion of the Intergenerational Collective or Social Brain. In their 2016 paper “Innovation in the Collective Brain,”4 Michael Muthukrishna and Joseph Henrich reflect on something many in non-western cultures have actually known since time immemorial, namely, how societies and social networks act as collective brains. As they write:
Our societies and social networks act as collective brains. Individuals connected in collective brains, selectively transmitting and learning information, often well outside their conscious awareness, can produce complex designs without the need for a designer – just as natural selection does in genetic evolution. The processes of cumulative cultural evolution result in technologies and techniques that no single individual could recreate in their lifetime, and do not require its beneficiaries to understand how and why they work. Such cultural adaptations appear functionally well designed to meet local problems, yet they lack a designer.
The authors elaborate on the origins and machinations of collective brains by “discussing the ‘neurons’ of the collective brain” and pointing out how individual brains evolve in accordance with “the acquisition of culture”: “cultural brains – brains that evolved primarily for the acquisition of adaptive knowledge.” Which is to say that “our cultural brains evolved in tandem with our collective brains.” They show how “cultural brains are linked into collective brains that generate inventions and diffuse innovations,” as well as examine the ways in which “collective brains can feedback to make each of their constituent cultural brains ‘smarter’ – or at least cognitively better equipped to deal with local challenges.”5
The voices that crept out of the crevices, those whom Yemoja guided through the storms of the Atlantic and who survived the violent passage, the struggles and resilience of Ganga Zumba, the radical liberating spirit of his nephew Zumbi dos Palmares and the warrior spirit, care, and organization of Zumbi’s wife, Queen Dandara, who upon her arrest on February 6, 1694, chose to commit suicide rather than be enslaved again, and the incredible thirst for freedom of the enslaved people as well as the disenfranchised Indigenous people, are the threads with which the fabric, the cultural brain, the collective brain of Recife, of Pernambuco, of the “Crabs with Brains” were woven. Weaving a family. A family thing. Not the family in the limited capitalist sense of the word. But family in that Black, that African, that Tout-Monde sense that is all-encompassing, “given in all, valid for all, multiple in its totality.”6 As Muthukrishna and Henrich point out, “the most basic structure of the collective brain is the family. Young cultural learners first gain access to their parents, and possibly a range of alloparents (aunts, grandfathers, etc.). Families are embedded in larger groups, which may take many forms, from egalitarian hunter-gatherers to villages, clans and ‘big man’ societies, from chiefdoms to states with different degrees of democracy, free-markets and welfare systems, to large unions.”7
Next to the people, the geographical and geological bearings of Recife, Pernambuco also play an important role in the manifestation of that cultural and collective brain that birthed the Manguebit movement. Recife is situated at the confluence of the Beberibe and Capibaribe rivers as they proceed in their majesty to empty themselves in that massive body of water, the South Atlantic Ocean, from whose belly, from whose vault the voices still sing. Topography and climate, too, contribute in the making of knowledge. With its tropical forest and high rainfall, its tropical monsoon climate and high relative humidity, Recife has been called the daughter of the mangrove, with its Parque dos Manguezais that lends its name to Manguebit. But this natural, ecological richness of Recife, which could be a dream for some, became a nightmare for the people of Recife. In Alice de Souza’s article “Life Reborn in the Mud,”8 she writes about an island of Racife, Ilha de Deus (God’s Island), that had been generally neglected to its decrepitude in the 1970s and 80s – there was no water, no electricity, no attention from the government. In the middle of these dire socio-political and economic conditions, the island was called Ilha sem Deus (Island with no God). As if the neglect of Ilha de Deus wasn’t enough, in 1983 two nearby factories provoked an environmental disaster by dumping waste from soap production into the water, thereby intoxicating fish and sea plants, which were the main means of subsistence in the area. This led to starvation and mass exodus of the islanders in search of greener pastures. At the same time, criminality skyrocketed on the island, which had become a hiding place for gangs. This was not restricted to Ilha de Deus as the ruthless construction in Recife, the intoxication of the environment by industries, the dumping of waste in the rivers, and the perishing of lives in the mangroves of Recife that had become oversaturated with plastic and other waste led to an auto-suffocation. If the rivers and swamps of Recife were the veins and arteries of the place, then the city was struggling from a terrible thrombosis.
It is against this backdrop that the Manguebit movement emerged as a cultural revolution in the 1990s, basically to say “No more,” accompanied by several environmental NGO projects to replant mangrove seedlings, to fold up sleeves and go knee-deep into the mud to clear plastic from the swamps.9 This new movement came with a new sound that imagined a new city.
In “A Cidade,” Chico Science & Nação Zumbi sing:
And the city presents itself as the center of ambitions/ For beggars or the rich, and other frames/ Collectives, automobiles, motorcycles and subways/ Workers, bosses, police, street vendors/ The city doesn’t stop, the city just grows/ The top goes up and the bottom goes down/ The city doesn’t stop, the city just grows/ The top goes up and the bottom goes down/ The city is prostituted/ For those who used it in search of a way out/ Illusor of people and other places/ The city and its fame goes beyond the seas (. . .) I’m going to make an embolada, a samba, a maracatu/ All well poisoned, good for me and good for you/ For us to get out of the mud and face the vultures (Haha).
In Mundo Livre’s funky “Cidade estuário” they sing an ode to the city’s estuary:
Maternity/ Salinity/ Diversity/ Fertility/ Productivity/ Mangrove mangrove/ Recife city estuary (. . .) Brackish water spawning and breeding, breeding/ Organic matter from which production comes, production/ Recife city estuary, it’s you (. . .) The mangrove injects, feeds, supplies, recharges the beauty batteries/ Sclerotic, distorted, debased, harsh.
As Melcion Mateu writes in his essay “Nação Zumbi: Two Decades of ‘Crabs with Brains’ (and Still Hungry),”
The term “manguebit” is itself a hybrid, portmanteau word containing a reference to local landscape (“mangue” as said, “mangrove swamp,” “marshland”) and global technology (“bit” or binary digit, as in computer science): a movement rooted in its landscape but connected to the global technology (. . .). A parabolic antenna put in the mud became the concept image to describe a movement that aspired to connect the local culture to the global scene.10
Which is to say that the Manguebit (or Mangue Bit) is a conceptual paradigm that brings the notion of maternity, fertility, diversity, and productivity together with the notion of a technology, digital media, and computation; that can facilitate syncretism, that can bridge the gap not only across the Atlantic, but between those that survived on land and those still locked up in that gouffre. Technology in this context serves a double purpose of connecting but also subverting. Mangue Bit should also be understood as the possibility of creating technologies, sciences, and arts that not only reflect the quotidian but also are fundamental for the subversions of the terrors of normativity – whereby technologies and sciences are misappropriated and perverted for their own purposes in what we might call weapons of mass subversion.
In a context where nothing really functions, where the dearth of state infrastructures and an abundance of stranger-than-fiction realities is the norm, subversion in the form of what my colleague Juan Pablo Sossa calls Magical Hackerism emerges as an attitude. One could say that the people violently abducted from the African continent and those indigenous peoples violently displaced from their lands for over five hundred years could only survive the colonial suppression and disenfranchisement because from the very onset they practiced Magical Hackerism. Mário de Andrade’s 1928 novel Macunaíma, which is considered one of the founding texts of Brazilian modernism (like writings of Gabriel García Márquez from Colombia or Ben Okri from Nigeria), has been qualified as Magical Realism because of the supranatural, fantasmatic twist it gives to that thing called reality. Mário de Andrade considered the blend of Brazilian folktales told in hybrid Brazilian languages whose main character, Macunaíma, had the superhuman and divine ability of shapeshifting, a rhapsody. But one could actually say that what de Andrade’s Macunaíma does at its foundation is a process of hacking reality – and with it cultures and technologies, norms and attitudes, banalities and politics, even geographies, economies, and laws of gravity (making up the core of physics as much as other mundane occurrences). So too, Manguebit could be understood as a manifestation of tools, methods, and ways of being that refuse, but also embrace, impossibility.
In Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s “Computadores Fazem Arte,” they chant (tongue-in-cheek):
Computers make art/ Artists make money/ Computers make art/ Artists make money, money/ Computers advance/ Artists take a ride/ Scientists create the new/ Artists lead to fame.
Mundo Livre, on the other hand, grooves in “Saldo De Aratú” about digits, digitality, digitability. Digits with many zeros, especially in the bank:
Sometimes it’s good to talk about the losers/ (. . .) I wake up thinking about eating salad/ At nine o’clock sharp I get the role of the bank/ Saying I have nothing/ A zero point of zeros/ Zero point, zero, zero (. . .) I lie down thinking about my girlfriend/ But soon in memory I will be three digits/ Signaling how much is left/ I remember I’m not worth anything/ Zero point, zero, zero.
The Manguebit manifesto “Crabs With Brains” is a direct reference to the people of Recife who are colloquially referred to as crabs living in the mangrove. Crabs, like some other lobsters and shrimps, are known to be master navigators of their territories, even unknown territories, with a sophisticated memory. They have been found to have the cognitive capacity for complex learning despite their rudimentary brains. In the 2011 Scientific American article by Erica Westly, “Clever Crustaceans,” it is said that crabs “can remember the location of a seagull attack and learn to avoid that area. In mammals, this kind of behavior requires multiple brain regions, but a study published in the June issue of the Journal of Neuroscience suggests that the C. granulatus crab can manage with just a few neurons.”11 The experiments that neuroscientists at the University of Buenos Aires made to test the memory skills of the crabs showed that they could retain information for more than twenty-four hours, which is the clinical benchmark for long-term memory in most animals, including humans. Even more, crabs showed the ability to apply their acquired knowledge for their wellbeing and survival. The researchers attributed this behavior to the crabs’ lobula giant neurons that might have the possibility of storing information about different stimuli. It is known that crabs learn from their mistakes and crab mothers are said to be very caring and place snail shells around their young ones to increase their calcium intake. Crabs are known to have a sense of compassion that leads them to protect their territory, and it is common knowledge that crabs are ambidextrous.
I am interested in the sophisticated social and cultural brain of the collective that embodies the ambidexterity, intelligence, and prudence of the crabs as a way of being in the world. I am interested in that space of the mangrove that is evidence of solidarity, a coexistence of a variety of beings, plants and animals and mycelia, that mostly assist and subsist with each other – if left alone by the capitalist, colonialist, destructive kind of human. So, if such creatures with what we humans might call “primitive brains” could exercise such proficient memories and such compassion, why can we humans with such complex brains not succeed in fulfilling our auto-crafted slogans like “nie wieder” (never again) after such horrendous atrocities that litter the course of human history, be it the Maafa or the Holocaust?
That is the feeling one gets from Mundo Livre’s mellow and profound piece “Terra Escura,” in which they sing:
If we could dive/ Deep in the dark land/ We would find the shiny gold/ Or if we could penetrate/ In the darkness of the waters/ We would find the pearl of the seabed.
And in Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s “Da Lama ao Caos” they sing:
Can I get out of here to organize me?/ Can I get out of here to disorganize. (. . .) Of the mud to chaos, chaos to mud/ A stolen man never fools (. . .) And a crab walking south/ Left the mangrove and turned Gabiru/ Ô, Joshua, I’ve never seen such disgrace/ The more misery has, more vulture threatens/ I got a balaio I went to the fair steal tomato and onion/ I was going through a vain and picked up my carrot/ Aê, my véia leaves the carrot here/ With empty belly I cannot sleep (. . .) Of the mud to chaos, chaos to mud/ A stolen man never fools.
One could say my major concern here is of a collective cultural brain that goes beyond the human, a symbiotic brain that encompasses a plethora of beings; a symbiosis between humans and crabs, as much as all the other existences that make up the mangrove of Recife; a hybrid collective cultural brain that is birthed from the cycle of the human eating crabs, the human defecating in the river, the crabs eating the feces of humans to grow healthy for the humans to feast on the crabs again. This brain is crafted in the spirit of co-dependence and not the myth of singularity and individualism: a brain based on the cycle of defecation. And the medium of negotiation, of cultivation of this brain, is the mangrove. Mangroves are rich but precarious spaces in which life needs to be adapted to survive. To survive in the mangrove, beings must adapt to low oxygen intake, for example through their “breathing tubes” above water and the aerial roots that absorb gases directly from the atmosphere and other nutrients from the soil. To survive in the mangrove, beings must adapt to limiting salt intake by creating systems that dispose 90 to 97 percent of salt taken up at the roots through the “sacrificial leaf.” To survive in the mangrove, beings must adapt to limit water loss. To survive in the mangrove, seeds do not germinate in soil, but germinate attached to the parent tree before dropping into the water when mature.
It is this philosophy of the mangrove that also informs the Mangué brain, but the relationship between crab and humans that is central to the Manguebit movement was already described in Josué de Castro’s seminal work Of Men and Crabs, published in 1967. By then, Josué de Castro had already earned fame for his path breaking ecological work on the politics of hunger, The Geography of Hunger, published in 1946. Being a physician in Recife, de Castro had done studies with workers and declared that their “basal disease” was hunger, which manifested itself clinically as anemia, protein-calorie malnutrition, and more. He linked the socio-economic realities of the people of Recife to their biological manifestation of hunger. In his later work Of Men and Crabs, written while in exile in Paris, he writes a fictional tale of poverty related to his childhood. With Of Men and Crabs, de Castro narrates the tragic life of the young João Paulo. The story tells of the pathetic condition of all the people around the boy interwoven with the story of the priest Father Aristides, whose craving for the guaiamu crabs is insatiable. In that space of exile and hopelessness, de Castro gave the world a book that paints the reality of “the wretched of the earth.” It is no surprise that the main character João Paulo disappears during a disastrous flood that literally erases the whole settlement. But what we take with us is, as de Castro writes, “humans fashioned of crab meat, thinking and feeling like crabs; amphibians, at home on land and in water, half-man, half-animal; fed, in their infancy, on that miry milk, crab broth.”12
Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s “Risoflora” brings this relation of the land living and the water living to the fore when they sing:
I’m a crab, and I’m walking/ Just because of you, just for you/ And when I’m with you I want to like/ And when I’m a little more together I want to love you.
Mundo Livre’s “Musa da ilha grande” might be about something else, but it also begs to be interpreted as that relation between the land-bound and water-bound beings as they sing:
I will not leave here without seeing her out of the water/ I will not leave here without seeing you leave, I will not delicious (. . .) She got white bikini/ She left her blouse in the sand/ She threw a smile back/ She left me with her head full (. . .) Idea.
These relationalities of beings across land and waters, those in the swamps, so playfully and critically put forth by Mundo Livre S/A and Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, these relationalities between different genres, between gods and humans and other existences put forth by Mário de Andrade, these relationalities proposed by de Castro, these relationalities convoked by Glissant and Chamoiseau that mediate the rumors from several centuries ago to the rumors of today, that negotiate between the voices in the vault and the voices of those who are still surviving, these relationalities between those formerly transborded, those displaced, and the perpetrators – all these relations speak to an exhaustive and resilient brain: the Mangué Brain. In “Caranguejos Com Cerebro” (Crabs With Brains), Fred Zero Quatro and Renato L structure the manifesto in a Mangue trilogy: The Concept, Manguetown – The City, Mangue – The Scene. What I am advocating for is Mangué – The Collective Cultural Brain. If one thing is for sure, Mangué – The Collective Cultural Brain negates the Darwinian notion of survival of the fittest, or toxic competition, and advocates for collaboration and co-existence as the basis for the intractable beauty of the world!
This essay was published in MARCH 02: Black Ecologies.
Dr. Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung (born 1977 in Yaoundé, Cameroon) is an independent curator, author, and biotechnologist. He is the founder and Artistic Director of SAVVY Contemporary in Berlin, Artistic Director of sonsbeek20→24, a quadrennial contemporary art exhibition in Arnhem, as well as Artistic Director of the 13th Bamako Encounters in 2022. Ndikung was Curator-at-Large for documenta 14 in Athens, Greece, and Kassel, Germany in 2017. He is currently a Professor for the Spatial Strategies MA program at Weissensee Academy of Art and the new Director (starting 2023) of the Haus der Kulturen der Welt (HKW) in Berlin.