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  • Cultural Geographies of Afro-Brazilian Symbolic Practice: Tradition and Change in Maracatu de Nação (Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil)
  • Jerry D. Metz (bio)

Maracatu de Nação, A Tradition Reinvigorated

The main carnival of Pernambuco, Brazil, which takes place in the large coastal city of Recife and the nearby town of Olinda, has received little attention from non-Brazilian scholars — either as an annual event or as a locus of cultural activity year-round.1 One of Pernambucan carnival’s most impressive features is the maracatu de nação groups, which are processions of predominately Afro-Brazilian percussionists and dancers dressed in resplendent colonial-era Portuguese attire. The focal point of each procession is its “king” and “queen,” a man and woman — usually the spiritual leaders and directors of the group, regally dressed and crowned — who, according to oral tradition, represent the king of Kongo and his queen parading with their court. This practice, unique in its musical detail to the urban area of Recife-Olinda, is related to a host of other widespread Afro-Brazilian traditional festivals evoking the king of Kongo. These were all held in conjunction with ostensibly Catholic celebrations of Nossa Senhora do Rosário, São Benedito, or Rei Baltazar (the “dark king” who, with two other wise men, visited the newborn Jesus).2 Prevalent in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Recife, maracatu de nação went into decline after around 1960. In 1967, only three groups remained. A 1969 newspaper states, “the authentic maracatus of pure African origin are disappearing with the deaths of their monarchs” (Jornal do Commercio [Recife] 1969). By 1988, one prominent observer of Pernambucan popular culture declared that the tradition appeared to be headed for extinction; another countered that, with nine groups then dedicated to performing maracatu de nação (many of them initiated recently by dissident members of older groups), there had been a “miraculous” rejuvenation of the form.3

When I visited Olinda and Recife for carnival in 2004 – 5, I found a cultural practice showing clear signs of revitalization. Dozens of groups were present; Santos and Resende (2005, 29) suggests that while thirty-one maracatus de nação are currently registered with Pernambuco’s Carnival Federation, some sixty-five groups are active. There were many young people in their ranks, and the various races of participants in many new groups were striking. Almost all the groups were arrayed in the characteristic [End Page 64] choreographic formations César Guerra-Peixe observed in 1949 – 1952, and described in his valuable Maracatus do Recife (1980). There are several social forces behind the resurgence of maracatu de nação:

  • • The work of middle-class, lighter-skinned activists to “rescue” the tradition by adapting its sonic and visual aspects into stylized, nonracialized forms (the first and most influential of such groups is Maracatu Nação Pernambuco, founded by Bernardino José in 1989);

  • • The globalized reimagining of maracatu de nação in the mangue movement (spearheaded in the early 1990s by Chico Science, now deceased, and the band Nação Zumbi);

  • • A state concern to articulate and project a unique identity, since exceptional cultural forms attract national status and tourism revenue; and

  • • A heightened Afro-Brazilian consciousness, inspired by the internationally renowned afoxés and blocos afro that transformed Bahian carnival in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s.

Attitudes in Recife vis-à-vis Bahian influence are divergent. Culture officials have watched in alarm (but tourism boosters in envy) as Salvador’s re-Africanized carnival, with its miscegenated soundtrack axé music, has elicited unprecedented controversy, prestige, and international interest. If the “invasion” of Rio de Janeiro – style samba schools in Recife’s carnival was the bane of Pernambucan purists a generation ago,4 the specter of a Bahian stranglehold on local creativity produced indignant debates and led some to call for a prohibition on Bahian trio elétricos in the 1980s and 1990s (Diário de Pernambuco [Recife] 1989; Jornal do Commercio [Recife] 1993). For segments of Recife’s black population, however, the impact of Bahia’s electrified frevos on local carnival bands was irrelevant. They hailed the racialized political discourse and neo-African aesthetic of Bahian afoxés and bloco afros. Internalizing the imperative...


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