The Town Music Festival — from the same organizers of Rock in Rio — was recently held in São Paulo. However, the night of the premiere, with nearly 100,000 people eager to see artists such as Iggy Azalea, Post Malone or Demi Lovato, was marred by persistent rain that caused long lines. Some voices quickly attributed the chaos to the absence of a contract with the Cacique Cobra Coral Foundation — the group that represents a spirit (a chief, or a cacique), who promises to control the weather.
This is one of the best-known examples of magical realism in Brazil: if you want your event to be a success, you must contact Chief Cobra Coral, to guarantee that it doesn’t rain. This is a normal superstition, be it among couples who want sun on their wedding day, or private firms that want to host an outdoor gathering. And, behind this popular belief, there are contracts — some of which are quite secretive — signed by city councils and ministries.
Chief Cobra Coral is a spirit of the Umbanda: a Brazilian religion that mixes elements from African, Indigenous and Catholic traditions. Adelaide Scritori — who has worked as a medium since she was a child — is in charge of summoning this spirit. Her husband and right-hand man, Osmar Santos, receives requests from governments or companies to push for meteorological changes.
Once a contract is signed, the medium receives the spirit into her body. Despite being North American in origin, the spirit expresses himself in perfect Portuguese. “[The spirit] speaks little — he gets to the point. When he finishes, [Scritori] doesn’t know anything about the words he spoke through her, she’s not conscious of what she has said,” her husband explains by phone. The foundation’s spokesperson also highlights that the spirit can change the weather, but only so long as he perceives that it’s due to “a greater good,” rather than just a whim. For instance, if he prevents rain during a festival, he’ll have to divert that precipitation to somewhere relatively nearby that needs it.
The Rio City Council is among the foundation’s best-known clients. The municipal body is especially keen to ensure clear skies on two dates that are marked on the local calendar: the end of the year — which brings together hundreds of thousands of people on Copacabana Beach — and the even more massive Carnival celebrations.
The collaboration between the City Council and the Cobra Coral Foundation is well-known. From time to time, it appears in the municipality’s official newsletter. Even the Ministry of Mines and Energy turned to the spirit two years ago, amidst a serious drought that put Brazil’s hydroelectric supply at risk.
Most agreements happen behind the scenes; it’s not very clear how they work or how much they cost. Santos assures EL PAÍS that they don’t accept a cent of public money. What’s required in return from the authorities, he explains, are flood-prevention projects, the recovery of freshwater supplies, the reforestation of river banks, etc. “The [spirit of the] chief often says that we cannot help men permanently if we do for them what they can do for themselves,” he emphasizes. The spirit is very environmentally-conscious and has been warning — without success — about the dangers of global warming for decades, Santos laments.
With private companies, the agreements work differently. The foundation remains solvent through Tunikito, a family-owned insurance conglomerate. Santos usually offers to insure companies that seek the spirit chief’s actions. In Rio, it’s no secret that Roberto Medina — the business magnate and creator of the Rock in Rio festival — has placed significant faith in the hands of the spirit. However, since his daughter, Roberta, has taken over the enterprise, the spiritual collaboration seems to have taken a backseat.
Even so, the chief’s fame remains unbeatable among organizers of outdoor events. One of the main companies in this sector anonymously states: “Everyone protects the entity. There are many years worth of contracts. The great event organizers haven’t given up on seeking [the spirit’s] help — he’s almost omnipresent.”
Santos confirms that the chief practically has the gift of ubiquity. He explains that he, as an interlocutor with the spirit of the chief, has traveled around Brazil and halfway around the world to meet those who require his assistance. With a discreet profile, hidden behind dark glasses, he positions himself at the event site and looks up at the sky. He identifies the meteorological conditions — be it atmospheric pressure, humidity, or wind — and talks to the foundation’s scientific advisors. They prepare a report for the spirit, so that he knows what the outlook is. Subsequently, he decides to act.
Chief Cobra Coral’s advisors include a technician from the state-run National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and Rubens Villela, a meteorologist and professor at the University of São Paulo. This collaboration between science and a supposed supernatural entity — which would perhaps make many academics from the Global North shake their heads — is generally received without fanfare in Brazil. Of course, from time to time, a specific controversy arises.
30 years ago, the Brazilian Meteorological Society sued the foundation for illegal exercise of the profession. However, the case was dismissed. In the end, to avoid further problems, Santos and Scritori created an agency (La Niña) that registered with the professional council of meteorologists and obtained permission to sign contracts.
For Renzo Taddei — an anthropologist at the Federal University of São Paulo and author of the book Meteorologists and Prophets of Rain — the science versus religion dichotomy is too limited. “Brazil likes to imagine and think of itself in a way that doesn’t reflect much of reality, especially when it comes to seeing itself as a Western country,” he notes.
Taddei remembers the mark left by millions of enslaved Africans in Brazil, such as the fusion or coexistence of their practices with shamanic, Catholic, Kardecist or spiritist beliefs. “Brazilian spirituality has nothing to do with the way the European world imagines religion. The fight between religion and science from Darwin’s time in England isn’t replicated in Brazil. Maybe now it’s starting a little, because the evangelical population is growing very quickly,” he acknowledges by phone.
The work done by Chief Cobra Coral is perhaps the best-known case of a spirit having made the leap to the business and institutional world. Although Taddei emphasizes that, in the Indigenous worldview, for example, it’s common to dialogue with spirits in an attempt to control the forces of nature. In 1998, a devastating fire devoured the Amazon rainforest in the state of Roraima. Brazil received international aid, but, in the end, the desperate authorities turned to two shamans from the Kayapó Indigenous group. After two days of rituals — coincidence or not — a torrential rainfall managed to stop the flames.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter to get more English-language news coverage from EL PAÍS USA Edition