Chris Estrada, a PhD student at the University of Michigan has made a study of this vibrant art-form from the coastal sugar-producing area of Pernambuco, north of Recife. He has witnessed the way so-called public security/public safety laws are being used to close down the traditional all night rehearsals and performances. The original, much longer version of this article can be read here.

Também pode ser lido em português aqui.

All the photos and videos are by Chris Estrada. For a photo-gallery of his images, see here.

Trumpeter Manoel Roberto greets the dawn at an ensaio for Estrela BrilhanteA combination of a capella sung verse and frenetic brass and percussion music, Maracatu de baque solto (sometimes called “rural” maracatu) is part of Brazil’s vibrant musical culture. Less widely known than Samba or Capoeira, it exists only in the coastal sugar-producing region of Pernambuco north of the city of Recife, as an art form of the rural poor and working class.

Now rural maracatu is under threat  as its traditional ensaios and sambadas fall victim to scattershot enforcement of new ‘public security’ laws allowing authorities to close down these events at 2 a.m. in the small towns and cities where maracatuzeiros have flourished for the last century.

This is despite the art form being recognized by the establishment of several cultural centres, or Pontos de Cultura, one of many progressive initiatives begun during the tenure of former Minister of Culture (and world famous musician) Gilberto Gil in 2003.

Pernambucan recording artist Siba, who has incorporated the sounds of maracatu into his albums and done much to raise the music’s national profile, wrote an open letter last January about the new predicament of maracatu, published on his Facebook account:

Dancers at Estrela Brilhante ensaio, 2010“Maracatus have been systematically prevented from continuing their rehearsals until the break of day. On the eleventh of January, I spent the better part of an ensaio with the group of which I am part, Maracatu Estrela Brilhante of Nazaré da Mata, arguing with the police about whether or not we had the right to continue with the celebration until morning, seeing as we had a document giving us authorization and they had a higher order to tell us to stop.”

Performances continue all night until sunrise

Although it has a strong carnival tradition, maracatu’s backbone is really the all-night performances that emphasize the poetic prowess of its singers through their mostly improvised verse. These events include the sambadas or contests of intense verbal sparring, a battle of wits and wordplay between two established singer-poets from different maracatu groups, as well as looser, more open “rehearsals” (or ensaios) held once or twice a year by a given group in the neighborhood they call home, when visiting singers are also called upon by the hosts to display their skill throughout the night.

Brass and percussion music, played at a breathtaking pace, careens to a halt every time the singer signals that he is ready to launch into complicated stanzas of a cappella sung verse, performed within a demanding structure of rhyme and meter for a discerning audience, fanatics attentive to every detail, ready to howl with derision if a singer slips up. 

An ensaio/rehearsal event with a lot of invited singer-poets

A sambada contest traditionally ends only at the break of day, the first rays of the sun revealing which mestre has emerged victorious. These unique events only occur on Saturday nights beginning in the traditional sugar harvest month of September and continuing until carnival, at which point the groups take a long break before slowly beginning the cycle all over again.

The rationale given for this recent persecution of maracatu is public safety and an arbitrary silence law. Yet there is no safer public place at 3 a.m. in many small towns than in the middle of a maracatu performance: this is a community that looks out for its own, polices itself, and treats visitors and outsiders with the same courtesy.

A small sambada song contest, at break of day

Maracatu members often play upon the imagery of the fierce warrior represented in the mysterious caboclo de lança figure, their most prominent and visually-striking symbol during carnival. These individuals sport massive headdresses, lances measuring two meters and adorned with hundreds of strips of cloth, and cloaks adorned with thousands of sequins in ornate patterns and designs — all made with their own hands over the course of many months in the long lead up to carnival.

Legends about rival groups battling each other on the dirt roads traversing the sugar plantations form part of maracatu’s internal mythos, which is also infused with neo-indigenous and African religious traditions of jurema, xangô, and catimbó.

But for all the ferocious imagery on display, maracatu gatherings nowadays are social events involving entire extended families and are widely supported by bar owners and local businesses.

Only officially sponsored events escape sanction

The Estrela Brilhante’s rehearsal referred to by Siba was eventually allowed to continue, no doubt because of his status as a nationally-known figure and a person of light skin and a member of Brazil’s artistic elite. He notes that most of the other famous maracatus in the area have not been so lucky, and have had their rehearsals forcibly shut down.

In February, for instance, in Nazaré da Mata a massive police raid closed down a rehearsal commemorating 96 years of the group Maracatu Cambinda Brasileira, which still holds events at its original location on an old sugar plantation, several miles from the city center.

This led to protests and a public hearing held on February 14 in Recife at which maracatuzeiros and their allies presented their grievances to officials from the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Military Police who, predictably, denied any discrimination or persecution.

Author and journalist Dr. Maria Alice Amorim, talked about the need for dialogue and the potential consequences of the misapplication of security laws in the state to cultura popular. She coordinates  a project to gain protected status for maracatu with the Institute of Historical and Artistic National Patrimony (or IPHAN), which could lead to protection under the UNESCO charter.

Law professor Liana Cirne Lins argued that what was happening was clearly discriminatory, racist, and illegal: nobody sees the police shutting down large gatherings held by the wealthy, and the police actions are consistent with the legacy of unequal treatment left in place by an aristocratic slave-holding regime.

Maracatu poets sing about the history of their region and of Brazil; about the challenges and pleasures of everyday life; engaging with events in Japan or Iraq; with the environment, unemployment, or violence; they sing about morality, God, and living a virtuous life. Their voices deserve to be heard more widely in a more inclusive Brazil.

But there is an old saying in Brazil that highlights the attitude of the powerful: for my friends, I’ll do anything; for the rest, there is ‘the law.’

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