By Rita M. de Cerqueira / Translation: Flavio Gondin

Whoever goes to the Northeastern Brazilian carnival can not avoid enjoying the Maracatu presentations, whose groups prepare all year long to brighten the typical merrymaking of the state of Pernambuco. It is a thrilling show of shining colors, rhythm and dance. There are two kinds of Maracatu: the “Baque Solto” or “Maracatu Rural” and the “Baque Virado” or “Maracatu Nação”. Indeed, they are two completely different styles of merrymaking; which have in common the “Maracatu” name and African origin.

The “Maracatu Rural” puts together workers from sugar reed plantations, who march during the carnival through the city streets of Recife, Olinda and neighboring cities. The main character is “Caboclo de Lança”, a type of soldier wearing a huge cape, embroidered with under sown ornaments and cowbells. In his hands, he holds a spear adorned with colorful ribbons, also used during the dance. The experts say that he is a supernatural manifestation. Protective entities are evoked in Umbanda rituals to assure the success of carnival playing. Some “caboclos” march “acted” – the “caboclos the frente” – foreground caboclos, who walk possessed, holding a white flower in their teeth.

It is very difficult to know exactly what the true origin of Maracatu is. The bibliography is very recent and superficial, but the common point among many historians’ versions is that Maracatu resulted as a fusion of other popular merrymaking elements from Pernambuco’s upcountry. The more ancient Maracatu groups still active are: the Cambindinha, from Arassoiaba City (founded in 1914) and the Cambinda Brasileira, from Engenho Cumbe in Nazaré da Mata City (founded in 1918).

The Maracatu Nação (Nation Maracatu) is an African cultural contribution to the musical and choreographic landscape of Pernambuco’s carnival. It began with enslaved African people, the greater number coming from Luanda’s Banto nation – an exiled nation that crowned their kings and queens, in foreign land, inside the churches or out. This ritual was born in Pernambuco, according to documents, in 1966 of September.

The word “maracatu” meant “a lot of people”, and turned the denomination of these groups that appeared together in religious festivities to “Nossa Senhora do Rosario” – the patron saint of that people. This ritual still exists today and on every Monday of the carnival there is the “Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos” (Silent Drums Night) in Igreja do Terço’s yard, São José district, where all Maracatu groups of the region meet.

The march is opened by the Ambassador carrying the national banner to open the way for the party owners: the royal couple. King and Queen are protected by an ornamented umbrella carried by the Vassal. Next, Baianas and Damas-do-paço come. These are ladies carrying the dolls in the direction in front to burst. They never put the doll down while they dance because it is a sacred symbol. There are also Indians with adorned heads who point their “weapons” in characteristic choreography, representing Brazil itself.

Every Maracatu group belongs to a community. Its members, generally with low financial resources, learn to make their own dresses and ornaments. The Maracatus’ headquarters are generally near Umbanda centers, and it is very common for King and Queens to be spiritual leaders. It is a familiar tradition passed down over generations.

The Calungas dolls receive special treatment. Near Carnival time “obligations” are made to the Orixás – African entities. Each Maracatu group belongs to a different protective Orixá. The dolls represent these divinities and use particular dresses and ornaments, with particular “preparations”. During the march a copy of the doll is used, while the original one never goes out of its “peji” – headquarter’s altar. But this happens only with the traditional authentic groups: Pernambuco still owns the “Maracatu Nação” as an African nations’ descendant, among others like Leão Coroado (Crowned Lion) founded in 1863, the Estrela Brilhante (Shining Star) from 1910, the Elefante from 1801, the Indiano, the Porto Rico and the Piaba de Ouro (Gold Fish).

Music

The Brazilian researcher Guerra Peixe explains that “baque” means “drumbeating”. The “Maracatus Rurais” are called by the name “baque solto” (free drumbeating) because there is only one drum in its ensemble. In “Maracatus Nação” the “baque virado” is a double drumbeating with three drums making a more complex rhythmic texture.

Enjoy this Kings’ and Queens’ merrymaking with Pernambuco’s parades and drums!