This captivating legend derives from a Brazilian folk tradition that emerged in Maranhão in the 18th century, and later spread in different forms and under different names throughout many of the richly varied regions of Brazil. It is expressed in music, through dance, in an infinity of glittering colour: part of the rich and varied syncretism that embodies Brazilian cultural diversity, and one of the most important symbols of Maranhense identity and culture. Its musical forms, rhythms and original dances are endlessly reinterpreted and vary from region to region.

The legend of Bumba Meu Boi tells the story of two slaves, Pai Francisco (also known as Nego Chico) and Mãe Catirina. The pregnant Catirina has a craving for ox tongue, and her husband is determined to fulfil his beloved’s wish at any cost; but the ox he kills is the mill-owner's favourite, and when he finds out his best animal is dead he swears to take revenge on the couple. Now Pai Francisco is desperate to bring the ox back to life, however impossible this might seem – but all is not lost; with the help of the priest, the doctor and the “pajé” (healer), the ox is resurrected and Pai Francisco is forgiven. The tale ends in a great celebration.
The performances of the Maranhão Bumba Meu Boi festivities, which take place during the period of the San Juan Festival, use a number of different distinctive rhythms called "sotaques": the Boi de Zabumba, Boi de orchestra, Boi da Baixada, Boi de Costa de man, and Boi de Orquestra. There are also folk dances, such as the criola drum, the coconut dance, the quadrilha and the cacuriá de dona Tetê among others.

By the early 20th century, this same legend reached Amazonas where it was incorporated into the culture of the region. Here it takes the name of Boi-Bumbá, and has its own distinctive features such as the model oxen people make, using decorated fabrics on a wooden frame, to parade through the city. Ever since 1913, the Garantido and Caprichoso oxen have been the main attractions of the Folk Festival of Parintins (a city 369 km from Manaus), dancing with all the other characters to the rhythm of songs whose lyrics tell the myths and express all the exuberance of the Amazon jungle.
The performances are a veritable open-air opera, which takes place in the last week of June in the Bumbodromo – a stadium built in the shape of an ox's head. The two oxen, their performers and their great teams of supporters take part in a kind of duel: a competition that may be won sometimes by the red heart team of the ox Garantido, sometimes by the blue star team of the ox Caprichoso. Win or lose, the impassioned crowds take over the entire city with their team colours and symbols.