It’s a sweltering night, and the pulsating crowd only adds to the heat. The shout, “Tu Maraca! Tu Maraca!” by musician Naná Vasconcelos reverberates throughout downtown Recife. More than 400 percussionists from over 30 different maracatu nations answer, beating out one thunderous rhythm, and thousands in the audience roar with approval. Once again, Carnaval has begun.
Carnaval in Pernambuco is colorful, folkloric, and intimate, with a rich tapestry of indigenous, black African, European, and even Middle Eastern influences. Booming maracatu troops parade down city avenues, mixing a regal procession, Afro-Brazilian religion, and a cast of characters both whimsical and fearsome. Burly sugarcane workers transform into buxom, colorfully clad women. Less than ten miles from Recife, in Olinda, a UNESCO World Heritage site, costumed revelers overload the ladeiras – hilly, cobblestoned byways – dancing to various clusters of marching musicians called blocos.
The maracatu is a traditional Carnaval procession with dance, lyrical poetry, and music, and a collection of characters including a standard bearer, a singer, a percussion orchestra and a king and queen leading a full court, all dressed in regal finery reminiscent of the Baroque era. Two very different versions of maracatu are featured prominently in Carnaval: maracatu nação (also called maracatu de baque virado, it is performed in the city of Recife) and maracatu rural (also known as maracatu de baque solto, it starts in the zona da mata countryside). Maracatu nação’s deep-toned alfaia drums evoke a spirit of resistance, and a time when escaped African slaves formed independent communities in the hinterlands.
When I first visited Pernambuco, I was captivated by the extraordinary music of Carnaval. As I continued to explore this region in five visits over the past nine years, I realized that this vibrant music stemmed from the depth of the culture, ranging from folkloric to contemporary. What at first seemed like a raucous party was, over time, revealed to me to be the very roots of a people, firmly held in place by tradition, but also reaching up to the sky, adapting and evolving organically.
Similar to the famous samba schools in Rio, the maracatus in Recife represent a strong aspect of the Afro-Brazilian heritage. Maracatu nação developed from the celebratory processions of elected black kings, who acted as mediators between the colonial masters and their people. This system enabled the communities to maintain their ceremonial practices, and they continue to be closely linked religious practices in Recife.
Often organized by neighborhood, maracatus continue powerful traditions, and this is best displayed at their street performances. Using their signature baque virado (“turned-around” beat, named for the unique interplay of drums within the rhythm), the music of the maracatu is an impressive sound. The crackle of the snare drum, cutting across the forcefulness of the deep-toned alfaia drums, mixes with the ringing tones of cowbells (gonguês), double bells (agogô), and the background rasp of the abê gourd. Amidst all of this, the pageantry of maracatu processions also incorporates ceremonial overtones.
There are over thirty maracatu groups around Recife, and many are registered as a “nação” (nation), with direct links to Africa. Maracatu Nação Estrela Brilhante is one of the oldest traditional maracatu groups in Brazil, its roots coming from West Africa’s Nagô tribe. The maracatu rhythms and songs are both a key part of their ceremonies as well as a component of their identity. Members of the maracatu don’t just play music: they live it every day.
During Carnaval, there is a competition, culminating in the march on Avenida Dantas Barreto, in the middle of the night on Sunday. The maracatu participate in the highly competitive contest, display their finest costumes and most pristine uniforms, and dance in their tightest marching formations. One musician tells me, “The pressure is on, because the winner will have bragging rights and the lion’s share of government-sponsored shows during the following year.”
World-famous musicians, like Chico Science and other stars of the manguebeat movement in the 1990s, used maracatu as a springboard for more contemporary fusions, transforming it from a purely traditional form to a hip and edgy Afro-Brazilian music that has captivated the youth of this area of Brazil and beyond. Each maracatu group is its own universe, with different ways of playing, and varying accents of the same core language. All of this points to this culture’s gift for urban adaptation and reinvention.
The Queen: Marivalda Maria dos Santos
Queen Marivalda is actually the leader of the maracatu: all decisions go through her. She has an imposing figure, and exudes an air of authority, yet also tends to laugh a lot, mostly at the expense of some of the younger participants. It’s hard work to be the queen of the maracatu. Marivalda labors every day, sewing and fixing costumes.
Not only is she the head of the maracatu, managing all logistics for them getting to and from shows, but she is also a spiritual and community leader for the neighborhood. She has the important duty of housing the calungas, wooden dolls that represent tribal deities and confirm the maracatu’s ties with their African heritage.
The calungas, referenced in certain songs, are sacred, and the maracatu ceremoniously dresses and displays them both in public marching and in private ceremonies. Marivalda’s house on the hillside in Alto José do Pinho is the center of the maracatu, the sewing and tailor shop to outfit the whole procession with costumes, where they practice, and where all drums and costumes are stored. When asked why she does all of this work, she simply replies, “It’s my obligation.”
“The maracatu queen is much more important. It’s very important in a Latin American country, a macho country, that we have a strong female figure. There’s an inversion.”
-Sérgio Gusmão, executive producer and cultural consultant
A boy plays the alfaia barefoot, with Maracatu Nação Encanto do Pina in the street during the Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos, at the Pátio Do Terço.
The musicians use the traditional “cordão” method of tightening ropes to the frames to tune the drum.
A member of Nação Maracatu Gato Preto plays during an Encontro of Maracatus in Bomba do Hemetério.
Cláudio Rabeca reacting to a member of the court of the maracatu
Mario Irton Silva, maker of maracatu drums, completes all steps to construct a drum – cutting and measuring the wood, bending it to shape, washing the cow skin to soften it, then stretching it across the drum’s shell to dry and harden. It usually takes days to make one drum. He explains, “When I make the alfaia, I connect with the soul of the drum. Every drum has a personality, and all the players understand this. You can be a good musician, play maracatu, but to really learn it is a different thing.”
During the Carnaval competition, the maracatu was scheduled to perform at 4 a.m. There is a delay, no one knows when they will play, and so a few members rest, exhausted after four days straight of marching.
About the author
Jason Gardner tells stories visually, using the framework of Visual Anthropology. He recently published A Flower in the Mouth, a book of photography and writing about the culture, music and rituals of Carnaval in Pernambuco, Brazil.
Gardner has also branched out to photograph other manifestations of this festival in the Dominican Republic; Trinidad; New Orleans and Cajun country in Louisiana; and Saranac Lake and Brooklyn, New York.
His work has appeared in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, New York Magazine, NPR.org, SPIN Magazine, among others. Clients include Con Edison, HBO, Ogilvy & Mather, Putumayo Records, and Human Rights Watch.
The Brazilian Consulate General of Los Angeles sponsored an exhibition of his work in 2013, as well as exhibits in San Francisco in 2010 and NY in 2007. Exhibitions include Art From the Heart and Roulette in Brooklyn, NY. Gardner was selected as a Finalist in PDN/National Geographic’s “World in Focus” travel photography contest, and featured on the Kodak.com Professional website. He is a board member, NY Chapter, of The American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP), and co-founder of creative networking community Toasted Almonds.