It is difficult to explain the effect of maracatu on the psyche, when one is residing in that particular hotbed of hedonism, carnal infestation and debauchery that is the bohemian clamor of Lapa, in the heart of Rio de Janeiro. Maracatu was, once every week, a very necessary catharsis. Maracatu was redemption.
In ways it felt like the entire globe was being simultaneously summoned, sated, and held to account finally by nothing more than a kaleidoscopic assemblage of percussionists, dancers, singers – and, preternaturally, the reveling, rag-tag court that pursued them.
Around 10 pm on Friday nights, this intoxicating, resounding and reverberating ensemble would assume title to the cobblestone streets, culling us each from our domiciles, watering holes, and open air eateries. Invariably we would drop what we were doing, leaving food on the table, inebriates unmolested, and money unwagered, to witness the spinning, flailing and pounding brouhaha that would roll through the streets like a pagan Christmas parade.
It was an inclusive, rejuvenating and orchestrated wildness, meant originally to bind and maintain a community of black slaves in colonial Brazil. In typical Rio fashion, however, the maracatu of today has rebounded with a reflected image, a rectifying pulse, and vital glare back into the face of world, demanding through its insistent beats, steps, and refrains that the world instead maintain itself in a just, orderly, and accountable manner.
In that spot where we stood, overtaking the streets, snarling and blocking the marveling traffic, maracatu pushed the world forward. If there had ever been such a thing as a Pied Piper, we, a variegated assemblage of varmints, miscreants and ignoble personages, most definitively fell in all around it. Cleansed of our demoralization, transformed into demigods and running through with cheap beer we allowed ourselves to be escorted home.
The nascence of Maracatu emanates from the Northeast of Brazil, from some time generally in the mid-17th century. Its origins, however, are of course traced back to Africa, and to the narcotic blend of Catholicism, slavery, and the ritualistic Afro-Brazilian religious practices known as Candomblé.
Maracatu is and remains exclusively a Brazilian concoction; though similar forms can be found in other Atlantic Coast South American nations like Uruguay and Argentina – where performances fall generally under the heading of Candomblé. Reverberating with increasingly resonance, maracatu is assuming its role in the construction of the Brazilian consciousness, just as have samba, bossa nova and Carnaval.
It is safe to say that such things could not be possible outside of a place like Brazil. But, much like all things infectiously Brazilian (like the widespread popularity of capoeira culture, for example), maracatu is finding its fertile soil, and, having made many world tours, its seed too is being gradually and dynamically scattered abroad.
It did not help that I had temporarily fallen for one of its dancers. Falling in love in Brazil is one of the easiest things to do. You really don’t have to overcome much, just have your eyes and ears open, for the most part. She spun in the front; she was not even Brazilian.
But as much as Brazil influences, it even more so absorbs influences, and the fact that this incorporated dançarina was from another country only enriched the attraction. Therefore, I was hooked, and committed. I too fell in and became absorbed as a kind of integral asset to Rio maracatu: its unofficial biographer, photographer, and raconteur, for a short time.
It was obvious what it meant to me, as a much desired reprieve from the harsher musical bombardments of hip-hop and baile funk, when I found myself bolting from a late shower one Friday evening in nothing but a damp towel to the second-story balcony of our building…..
Yes, there I was, semi-nude before God and the world, bedecked in my terry cloth, to cheer on and celebrate with the rest of the congregated hoards our beloved maracatu. And the crowds cheered and jeered me in return…. I did not take it off. Nor did I put it away, either!
Allow me to describe it in this way: First come the dancers. Well, actually, first comes the distant boom of drumbeats. One cannot tell if they are miles away or if next door. But telltale thunderclaps and rumbles announce their presence, and they are heard from a great distance.
Next you gather yourself, walking swiftly, jogging, or running, depending on your predilections, and priming yourself with a fresh beer, or what have you, to seek out the source, to witness and perhaps join the melee. Then you see dancers, spinning, stepping and twirling, coordinated in garb and in movement, spearheading the promenade like a legion of ship’s figureheads.
Rio maracatu is perhaps a dressed-down version of the more ornate and traditional maracatus from the Northeast, but I cannot see how it could be less attractive. An assemblage of young, magnificent and forthright hippies it seems, all fit and slender and decorous, glide and parade and fan the night air in colorful skirts, which, once spun, erupt into a floral spectacle as they levitate into fantastic, dizzying and multi-colored palettes, dozens in unison.
A feast for the eyes as they twirl, undulate and rejoinder to the beat and the calls of the ever-pressing company of percussionists to the rear. There seems every kind of drum here; leading the pack are genial ladies, singing and shaking their abês and mineiros, two varieties of seed shakers.
Then comes the banging of the tarol and caixa-de-guerra, two types of snare drums, providing pop and motivation. The backbone of the set, the source of deep bass and boom, the alfaia drummers urge the march forward, taking fully-extended and generally sweaty swings at their large, wooden drums.
Then, yes, to add heavily to the native effect, there are the pepperings of gonguê players, clanging their metal cowbells high above the din, signaling in time and in step with the urging procession like back-country minstrels.
The overall effect, once devoid of your misgivings and given over to its particular voodoo, is like that of a unifying, prolonged, and clamorous climax, enough to subdue and cajole any mass of dark slaves. This makes for good mania; beer induced fellowship abounds, and the otherwise disparate hoard unites as one community, focused, enthusiastic and with good will towards all.
All of this flows like a swollen river, accumulating and sweeping up crowds of onlookers like debris and everything which is not otherwise tied down. We all follow and dance, refueling the furor and celebration from intrepid beer vendors, all the while still dancing, sweating, beaming and hooting.
Once a traveling friend asked me, amid the din, what they were all singing about, as the chants and calls were not understood to him (nor I) in Portuguese. I responded, authoritatively of course, that they were the “Summoning of the Community” and “Calls for Social Justice” or some such thing.
Overhearing my response, a native Carioca standing close by interrupted to say that that was correct! Her daughter danced for the troupe, and she proceeded to tell me all about it! For the sake of diplomacy and much to my relief, I had extrapolated correctly….
From out of Recife in the Northeast come the much touted nações, or maracatu nations, the infamous names: Estrela Brilhante, Leão Coroado, Porto Rico, and the eldest, Elefante, with a continuous line of performances dating all the way back to the year 1800.
Rio maracatu’s inception seems the wild and spirited grandchild of these elder greats, being spawned only recently in the year 1997, with it’s direct lineage from the band’s leader and founder, Francisco “Chicote”, descending from the northeastern state of Pernambuco.
Here there are gringos, elders, and children who both practice and play with the group. Reflecting Rio itself, so much is absorbed into one magnificent and gorgeous bohemian race. Everyone is invited. I was invited. Deferentially, I declined direct involvement, and opted to remain on the outskirts, merely cataloguing, for now. How I would have loved to be transformed into one of those ardent drummers though. Maybe next time.
My brief and spurious crush amounted to nothing; she danced out of my life. Overly ambitious, I was outclassed again, as is my persistent tendency. But maracatu remains in my mind as one of the, if not the greatest reflection of what Brazilian life is like, and can be, always and at any time.
If you are sitting at a little hovel eating full portions of farofa and rice, beans and steak, drinking large bottles of cheap beer and enjoying the night air and the beautiful, challenging chatter of Portuguese conversation, do not take for granted that your night will conclude there.
At any time, magically, for you only need to be present in Rio – as that is the state around which life is arranged there – you may find yourself swept up and away in the beautiful clamor, irresistibly led on by the banging and booming, the twirling and calls and leaps and rejoinders.
You might notice a girl that takes you away, makes your head swim. She may leave you no option but simply to watch her, admiringly, unabashedly spell-bound. Curiously and startlingly, they can do this…. Maracatu makes me wonder about the fate of the world.
For more information about Rio Maracatu, visit www.riomaracatu.com
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David Adair is a burgeoning freelance writer originally hailing from the United States. Adair has traveled extensively throughout much of Latin America, calling Brazil home for the better part of 2007. He has written on topics ranging from booty-shaking Baile Funks in the favelas of Rio, to the impact of Colombian narco-trafficking on real estate speculation in Nicaragua, to the quiet Colombian banking boom spawned by the exodus of Capital from Chavez-weary Venezuela. Currently he calls no place in particular home. Adair can be reached directly via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his personal, gratuitously self-promoting page at www.myspace.com/daveobscuro.