What is Maracatu?

The state of Pernambuco in Northeast Brazil is a highly rich melting pot of Carnival cultures, music, and tradition. With Maracatu Nação, Côco, Ciranda, Maracatu Rural, Frevo, Caboclinho, and much more to discover, Juba do Leão’s repertoire explores the vast diversity in feel, power, songs, heritage, and stories from the region.

One of these native traditions of Pernambuco who’s story Juba do Leão strive to share is that of the Maracatu Nação…

Maracatu Nação:

Background: The intoxicating and powerful style of Maracatu Nação (Nation) is also known as Baque Virado [turned beat]. The name ‘Nação’ reflects the African and tribal heritage of the tradition. This strand of Maracatu sets its origins in the time of slavery in Brazil, where slaves and African royalty alike were brought in droves to Brazil to be strewn into the same daily life and oppression regardless of their standing in their home communities. To maintain their native rituals and beliefs, as well as honour the struggles and offer solidarity to one another, a member of the community would be crowned as a ‘Rei do Congo’ [King of Congo] at a coronation ceremony organised by the slaves featuring music, song, and dance. Maracatu has links to Afro-Brazilian religions such as Candomblé, Jurema, and Macumba, and often these traditional Nação groups are based in a terreiro (where sacred religious rituals are practised). The principles of these religions combine with the Maracatu crowning practices. When slavery was abolished in 1888, these Kings of Congo ceased to exist in the same way, but the Nação groups of Pernambuco continue to preserve and promote the traditions of the Maracatu ceremony until the present day.

Each Maracatu Nação has it’s own identity; its beliefs surrounding Orixa workship, the ratio of percussion instruments used, whether women are permitted to play drums, the feel of the batuque [combined conversations between the individual percussion parts], the speed of playing, the songs to be used, the number of characters in the royal court, whether those from outside the immediate community or family line may be permitted to take part in Carnival playing, and so on.

 

 

In the street: The typical formation of a Maracatu procession includes a ‘Cortejo’ [court] consisting of a number of royal characters wearing colonial style costumes representative of the Baroque period. The parade represents the African traditional roots by including several elements such as the Calunga doll (or ‘boneca’) which signifies the Afro-Brazilian deities and the spirit of the group; this doll is made from a mixture of wax, wood and cloth and is kept in a shrine at the Maracatu group’s ‘sede’ [headquarters]. This sacred doll is carried at the front of the procession by the Dama de Paço (a type of lady-in-waiting). The Embaixador or Porta-Estandarte (ambassador / flag-bearer) precedes the parade carrying the bandeira (flag) which shows the group’s name, when they were founded, and occasionally which the community the group comes from. Coupled with the exciting sound of the drums and singing approaching, the Dama de Paço arrives with the Calunga, then the Bahianas and Catirinas (representative of the Orixa tradition and better-treated workers, respectively) dance alongside wearing their beautiful flowing dresses and modest head-scarves. The most important characters featured are the Rei and Rainha (King and Queen), who strut by majestically dressed in fine robes, and are sheltered by a large umbrella carried by the Escravo (slave). Interestingly, the Queen must always be depicted as a black woman, as a direct mockery of the pale features of the Portuguese royal court.

At the back of the procession come the Batuqueiros (percussionists) playing a furious blend of low-end bass drum rhythms with slicing snare lines and a driving bell pattern, all led by the Mestre (a respected master or elder) singing the Toadas (songs). In some groups, the Batuqueiros are all men while women are confined to the cortejo as dancers and singers. In other groups, only members of the surrounding community are allowed to take part, most likely because they are direct descendants of the slaves who founded the older Maracatus. Nowadays it is quite common to see men and women playing drums side by side where others may adhere more strictly to the older traditions of Maracatu.

Juba do Leão members are lucky enough to have studied with several Maracatu Nação Mestres, thanks to the Masters Nation programme in 2010 and 2011. Thanks to:

Mestre Gilmar de Santana Batista & Maracatu Estrela Brilhante de Igarassu

Mestre Arlindo Carneiro dos Santos & Maracatu Nação Cambinda Africano

Anderson Nogueira from Maracatu Nação Pernambuco

Mestre Afonso Gomes de Aguiar Filho & Maracatu Nação Leão Coroado

Special thanks go to Mestre ‘Teté’ Antonio José da Silva Neto & Maracatu Nação Almirante do Forte, for their continued support, friendship, and connection, and for the warm welcome and gifts given to Director Holly Prest throughout her many visits to study with her Mestre, Teté.

 

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A typical Maracatu features the following instruments:

 

Alfaia/Bombo: Rope-tuned bass drums of varying sizes playing a mixture of complimenting, powerful rhythms.

Caixa/Tarol: Snare drum which often introduces the ensemble with a chamada (introduction).

Gonguê: a type of metal cowbell, can be handheld or several feet long on a rope harness.

Abê: also called ‘shekere’. A gourd shaker covered in brightly coloured plastic or ceramic beads.

Mineiro: a metal cylindrical shaker filled with metal shot or seeds for a sharp cutting sound.

Modern Day Maracatu:

Today there are still many Maracatu Nações playing in Recife and Olinda, the oldest of which being Maracatu Nação Elefante founded in 1800. Other groups include Maracatu Nação Estrela Brilhante de Igarassu (1824), Maracatu Nação Leão Coroado (1863), Maracatu Nação Estrela Brilhante do Recife (founded by former slaves in 1906), Maracatu Nação Cambinda Estrela and Maracatu Nação Almirante do Forte (both founded in 1935), and more recently Maracatu Nação Encanto da Alegria (1998).

In the 1990s artists such as ‘Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’ and ‘Mundo Livre S/A’ fronted a movement where traditional Brazilian rhythms such as Maracatu, Forró, Côco and Baião were mixed with modern styles such as dub, reggae and rock to create Manguebeat. Maracatu continues to evolve today, with a number of modern percussion and rock groups using the traditional instruments to create a fresh modern sound. Nação Pernambuco‘s incredible efforts since 1989 to promote Pernambucan culture to a wider audience through stage and street performance has helped to spread the word about both percussion and dance, and has led new generations to follow and respect theit homeland’s traditions and heritage.