What is Maracatu?

In Brazil, Maracatu is not only a music style, but also a group which plays, dances and sings Maracatu.

You can also call an event a Maracatu, which is arranged by a Maracatu group. Let´s go to the Maracatu tonight!

End of 17th / beginning of 18th century

End of 17th / beginning of 18th century

The Maracatus exact moment of origin and its culture cannot exactly be defined, but it reaches back several hundreds of years in Brazilian history. The oldest, still active Maracatu group which has continuously been playing ever since, is Leão Coroado, nowadays based in Olinda. Leão Coroado celebrated its 150th anniversary in 2013. Most probably, the first Maracatu groups originated a lot earlier.

In the late 17th and early 18th century, black communities all over Brazil started to develop, usually with a religious and social background. This shows a carefully growing appearance of consciousness within the black and partly still enslaved population. These groupings chose a leader for whom the expression Rey do Congo – the Congo king – established itself. On the one hand, those leaders were excellent personalities of the black communities and therefore of great domestic political importance, but also they filled the gap of the missing link between the usually white upper class and the black population. In order to celebrate an appointed Congo King or a Congo Queen and for the celebrations of the Saints, those groups, the Congadas, would parade through the villages accompanied by music.

In the end, the carnival was the most important event of the year, although the energy of the Baque Virado, the strongly syncopated rhythm, the powerful beats of the drums, the rather dignified dances and least but not last the religious connection are quite contrary to the party-flavoured carnival.

End of the 80s till today

End of the 80s till today

There were only very few active Maracatu groups left in Pernambuco at the end of the eighties. Their musical and social meaning had dropped considerably. Only when Chico Science and Nação Zumbi had unexpected success mixing Maracatu rhythms in their Mangue Beats, the traditional Maracatu started to draw new attention. Parallel to this development and based on the style of the group Nação Pernambuco, a completely new concept for the Maracatu community was established. The members of this fresh Maracatu who mostly came from the middle class had a high aesthetic and musical interest in Maracatu, but only very little connection to the religious content. Bit by bit the Maracatu, which had been surrounded by prejudices, myths and missconception became of great interest for all classes of society in Pernambuco.

As a result, many new groups arose which basically had nothing to do with the concept of the traditional groups. We now differ the traditional groups from all the new percussion groups, that play the Maracatu on traditional instruments. This modern form is called Maracatu Estilizado o Maracatu de Baque Livre compared to the traditional Maracatu de Baque Virado.

Instruments used for Maracatu

The instrument that draws the most attention is the bass drum, nowadays the so-called Alfaia. Only a few decades ago, the bassdrums were simply called Bombo or Zabumba. For building them, people used old wine or brandy barrils. Later, people started to also use the barril technique for building new instruments. Today the Alfaias are mainly built from plywood. Only recently Alfaias are again being built from Macaiba wood. Macaiba is a palmtree with very dense and extremely hard wood. The caved trunk, segmented and fittet with a goatskin in traditional tension string technique, is an excellent resonance body. The tension string technique for tuning the Alfaias is the signature of Maracatu style. Applying this method makes it quite difficult to tune the drums to one certain tone which is a considerable difference to Samba, where the surdos are supposed to be tuned to certain voices. In Maracatu music the imprecise tuning is exactly the effect wanted. Like this the players can produce the converging of the different voices, the characteristic thunder. Nana Vasconçelos once said in an interview: Maracatu é trovão – Maracatu is thunder.

The snare instruments complete the set: The caixa de guerra and the tarol, the mineiro – a shakertube filled with seeds – and the gongue, a large bell made of thick steel sheet. Only since a couple of years people also started playing the Shekeré, which in Pernambuco is also named A(g)hbé in the Maracatu de Baque Virado. Although being an old instrument with African roots, it is not a traditional Maracatuinstrument. Some groups also experiment with integrating the Timbal in the musical structure of Maracatu.

Rhythms and chants of Maracatu

The Maracatu derives from the same origin as the Samba, from the musical tradition of the Bantu population in the southern Central Africa. In the traditional Maracatu, 4 rhythms with slight variations are played:
The Martelo, the Luanda, the Arrastão – also called the Toque do Elefante, and the Baque Parado. The musical sequence used to follow some simple rules. A precentor would start a song (a Loa) which suited the situation. The group would respond in the refrain and finally the whole drum orchestra would join in, sometimes called by caixa.

In earlier times, without the possibility of amplifying electronically, the precentor would use a tube of some kind as an improvised megaphone.

In the traditional songs the content is often about religion, history and significance of the group. But there are also songs which are related to other Maracatu groups and are only played when both groups meet during the parades. The rhythms of the bass drums follow a system which is often found amongst African drumming: a basic voice (Marcante) repeats a pattern without variations. A solo-voice (Repique) which, based on a complex pattern plays authentically bound-to-the-pattern solos at certain parts like the end of the song. Both drums are completed by a middle tuned voice (Meião). The Meião is often a pretty variation of the base or is designed complementarily to the Marcante. The number of Marcante-players is a lot higher than the Repique or Meião voices.

Formerly, two voices played by the white-noise instruments tarol and caixa de guerra, were the standard. Nowadays the rule is rather, that all snare instruments follow the same pattern. The central instrument is a large iron bell, the gongue. Each Maracatu band has only one gongueiro. An experienced gongueiro secures the beat and provides musical orientation to all drummers and caixa players with his constantly repeated patterns. He encourages the musical structure with scarcely placed variations. The characteristic gongue patterns are a 2-beat and a 4-beat figure.

Until the 1950s, using rattles and shaker instruments in the Maracatu was the exception. Today a large shaker called mineiro in Pernambuco is known as a traditional instrument. The mineiro plays a rhythm very similar to the basic samba pattern and intonates the beats. The shekerés keep repeating a pattern that differs from the mineiro but also intonates the beat. By tossing it up and catching their shekerés or other choreographies, the shekeré players try to bring colourful movements into to musical structure.

Form and arrangement of the Maracatu group

In Brazil, the main focus of attention in the traditional Maracatu groups is not on the drummers but on the royal couple. King and queen are dressed up in magnificent costumes and are protected by a large umbrella-like sunshade which is constantly being swung around by a dancing porter. The royal couple is accompanied by y large royal suite. Slaves (!), court ladies, lantern and lance porters, bahianas and of course the ladies carrying the Calungas are the main components of every traditional Maracatu group.

The Calunga is a small, gorgeously dressed figure. She is held by the Dama do Paço during the dance. The Calunga is named after a historical, deceased personality and stands for the ancestors and the knowledge of transmission. In the parade, the royal suite and the royal couple are the head of the group, only afterwards come the drummers and the singers. The Bahianas and a further group of court ladies close the procession.

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