(This essay was republished in an abbreviated form by the Latin American Bureau. Many thanks to them for helping to draw attention to this issue.)
The vibrant street culture and ubiquity of live music is an obvious first impression made on any visitor to Brazil. Samba on the sidewalks of Rio or capoeira in Salvador are common sights and sounds, and not just staged for the tourists: they have also formed a part of social life there for generations. Maracatu de baque solto (sometimes called “rural” maracatu) is less widely known, in part because it exists only in the coastal sugar-producing region of Pernambuco north of the city of Recife. Although it has a strong carnival tradition, its 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. The instrumentation is made up of brass and percussion played at a breathtaking pace, but which 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. A sambada contest traditionally ends only at the break of dawn, 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 continue until carnival, at which point the groups take a long break before slowly beginning the cycle all over again.
Relatively unknown outside its place of origin until the late 1980s, maracatu is now celebrated as a symbol of identity and cultural tradition in the state of Pernambuco. Yet as an art form associated with the rural poor and working class, it continues to develop in a liminal space of socioeconomic disparity and discrimination, even while receiving recognition and legitimation from other sectors of society. Nothing says this clearer than the current suppression of the ensaio and sambada tradition by the scattershot enforcement of new laws purporting to promote “public security,” 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.
The rationale given for this recent persecution of maracatu is public safety and an arbitrary silence law. In the three years I spent attending maracatu events in the Mata Norte region, the number of violent altercations I witnessed can be counted on one hand. Maracatuzeiros, as maracatu enthusiasts are called, do everything they can to prevent a conflict from escalating into a fight. In fact there is no safer public place at 3 a.m. in the 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 extended to houseguests. By forcing everything to end prematurely, people are left to their own luck as they make their way down poorly-lit streets in the middle of the night, easy prey for assaults. At the first ensaio that ended this way in Nazaré, I met a São Paulo tourist who ended up sleeping on the floor of the maracatu’s headquarters after the event was shut down at 2 a.m., because bus service back to Recife does not begin until 7.
What might appear to the outsider as “spontaneous,” ludic expressions of a quaint regional culture are actually the product of a tremendous amount of planning, organization, and artistic sophistication within the maracatu communities, the product of many generations’ worth of collective experience. The directorates of the groups are adept at juggling the bureaucratic requirements for holding their events, in addition to paying their musicians, doing their own publicity, and securing the support of local entrepreneurs like bar owners or small businesses who might contribute with donations, either to maintain their standing in the neighborhood or simply because they also like the music. 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 bedecked with thousands of sequins in ornate patterns and designs – all of it 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 ferocity on display in the colorful imagery and frantic music of maracatu, in practice their gatherings today are sociable ones where entire families are often seen together. 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:
There are people who see a kind of romantic rebellion in maracatu. But a maracatuzeiro is in truth always making peaceable agreements. The maracatuzeiro is who waits for the evangelical church to finish services before they start their own party. They are the ones who cancel a rehearsal when someone in the neighborhood has recently died. Maracatu also has to reach agreements with the police.
To hold even a small rehearsal, you have to prepare a document and go to the police headquarters of your city to inform them about the planning of the celebration and requesting police presence at the locale. Police always appear at some point in the night, observing from afar, eventually making their rounds at the surrounding bars but never, never entering into the maracatu to interfere. In my years there I never witnessed a situation of tension between maracatus and the police. I always understood this as a good example of an agreement between power and local custom, but recently this reality has changed.
Maracatus have been systematically impeded from realizing their rehearsals through 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.
Estrela Brilhante’s rehearsal was allowed to continue after this long negotiation, one that was no doubt influenced by Siba’s status not only as a nationally-known figure but also as a person of light skin and a member of Brazil’s artistic elite in an extremely class-conscious society. 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. None of the older veterans of these maracatu groups, whose memories reach back to the 1960s, recall any similar prohibitions ever being imposed. Siba also notes that in contrast to these neighborhood events driven by the maracatuzeiros themselves, maracatu productions sponsored by the local mayors or by “cultural projects” with state or federal backing seem curiously immune to these silence laws, a phenomenon I also noted during my own fieldwork. When it is convenient, politicians and state agencies make use of maracatu’s popularity with the working class and appropriate its symbols – governor Eduardo Campos (a presidential hopeful until his untimely death in August) was even flanked by an honor guard of caboclos de lança during the inauguration of his second term in 2010.
Yet these scenarios of repression have played out with increased frequency since the first of these new “security” laws began proliferating in 2011, an unintended consequence of the Pacto Pela Vida (Pact For Life) enacted by Campos to combat violence, a program that has garnered his administration the “good governance award” from the Inter-American Development Bank. The dramatic example which precipitated the formal complaint and public hearing in Recife last February occured in Nazaré da Mata during a rehearsal commemorating 96 years of the group Maracatu Cambinda Brasileira. One of the last maracatus to still hold events at its original location on an old sugar plantation, the celebration was several miles from the city center but still in the municipal limits. With an outsized police presence descending on the festivities, they were forced to end early in spite of having all of their paperwork in order. Cambinda Brasileira is an institution of maracatu on a par with the great samba schools of Rio like Portela or Mangueira, a group that can count among its alumni many of the most established singer-poets, caboclos, and artisans in the tradition. They have even earned further recognition with a cultural center, a Ponto de Cultura, one of many progressive initiatives begun during the tenure of former Minister of Culture (and world famous musician) Gilberto Gil in 2003, intended to fortify artistic creation across Brazil’s vast territory through a decentralized incentives program. Yet even with all that recognition, and in plain view of the scores of journalists, photographers, and tourists in attendance for Cambinda’s anniversary celebration, the police still shut down the festivities. As Siba put it:
For the maracatuzeiros, maracatu is only maracatu if it goes until the sun comes up. If not, it becomes “folklore,” a word used in the region to denominate any type of artificial presentation, like a show for tourists, being filmed for television, and so on. The importance of playing until sunrise is perhaps easier to understand if you think if it as something mystical and religious. It seems simple, but it’s not. The entire night is needed, but the point is not the quantity of time, but instead the possibility of the suspension of time. To make time stop: the people who perform the heaviest manual labor seem to only know how to relax by pushing their body to the limit in dance, in song, in the mental juggling-act of rhyme.
At the public hearing held February 14 in Recife, 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. The officials argued that their interests were solely about public safety and order (which seemingly manifests as a bizarre fixation on salting the earth with sanitary portable toilets). They dissimulated and deflected accountability in accordance with their own tradition – that of bureaucracy. Recording artist Maciel Salustiano, whose father Manoel Salustiano founded the Maracatu Association of Pernambuco in the 1980s, emphasized that maracatu is not just about pretty costumes at carnival, but a belief system and tradition. His brother Manoelzinho, current president of the Association, pointed out that many maracatuzeiros would feel coerced into signing documents foisted on them by the police. During the course of the hearing, it became evident that Maracatu Cambinda Brasileira had been asked to sign an authorization document that differed drastically from the usual format to which they were accustomed. The new form, signed without the maracatu being aware of its full contents and ramifications, stipulated that they were asking authorization for an event in excess of 3,000 people – a number filled in by the attending police officer – and would need to terminate at 2 a.m. In actuality the event had an estimated 500 attendees, which was relatively large by the standards of maracatu.
Author and journalist Dr. Maria Alice Amorim, coordinator of a project to gain protected status for maracatu as immaterial patrimony with the Institute of Historical and Artistic National Patrimony (or IPHAN), talked about the need for dialogue and the potential consequences of the misapplication of security laws for cultura popular in the state. Siba emphasized, “Yes, maracatu events need and want some police presence. But maracatu should not be treated as a police matter. Maracatu is a tool of civilization; it is a positive force in society.” Law professor Liana Cirne Lins added to these observations that there was no legal basis for classifying these gatherings in the same category as large events. She 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. No deaths have been attributed to any maracatu event, yet the authorities’ constant reference to the “Pact For Life” program serves as justification for their arbitrary and erroneous application of the law.
If cultural policy fails to address the current stifling of the core practices of maracatu, “folklore” is all that will be left.
Siba in his letter went on to acknowledge the artistic debt he holds to the regional singers from whom he learned in a long process of apprenticeship – poets like Barachinha, Dedinha, João Paulo, and Zé Galdino – “who are giants there, but unknown even in Recife, the land of Mangue Bit,” referring to the movement of the 1990s that contributed to an efflorescence of creative reinvention in music, cinema, and the plastic arts. Maracatu de baque solto is finally receiving broader respect and recognition, becoming fashionable with a portion of the artistically-inclined in cities as far away as São Paulo or Paris, with some groups traveling to festivals in Dakar and New Orleans. Yet Pernambuco, and perhaps Brazil more generally, is in the duplicitous position of celebrating the diversity and social inclusion of its artistic heritage while continuing to persecute and exclude many of the people who create it. This may be changing in the near future. The proposal to include maracatu and related forms of artistic expression in Pernambuco (such as caboclinhos, cavalo marinho, and the more urban maracatu nação) on IPHAN’s register of immaterial patrimony would guarantee maracatu constitutional protection in accordance with the UNESCO charter. In the months since February the town of Nazaré da Mata, which has the highest concentration of rural maracatu groups, passed an ordinance permitting their events to continue uninterrupted. But complaints about police shutdowns were received by 32 municipalities in Pernambuco; the struggle will not be over until all maracatu groups can practice their tradition without fear of police repression.
There is an old saying in Brazil that highlights this attitude of the powerful: for my friends, I’ll do anything; for the rest, there is ‘the law.’ Laws are enforced on a sliding scale that seldom applies to the privileged, while targeting those who have the least capacity for fair representation in the forums where policies get made. The musical, poetic, and carnival tradition of maracatu was created by sugar-cane workers in one of the regions most dramatically touched by Brazil’s long history of slavery. Their descendants, many of them pushed off their land as industrialized sugar mills continued to concentrate more and more territory in fewer hands, are now frequently found laboring in construction, driving taxis or trucks, or providing basic city services. Amidst all that, they have created, maintained, and refined an art form as complex, fascinating, and moving as any I’ve encountered. To quote once more from Siba’s letter:
In maracatu they dance a rhythm that only exists there. There are no standardized moves. Everyone dances in their own way: in the style of maracatu, but nobody dances the same. The “manobra,” the choreographed maneuver that opens and closes the celebration, is an intricate movement that involves dancers, musicians, and poets in a mobile constellation that seems like an image of the chaos that generated the universe, but which moves with the grace and beauty of the best of all possible future worlds, for those who know how to see it.
The best of its poets deftly sing about a dizzying array of subject matter: 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. Theirs are voices worthy of being heard by a more inclusive Brazil. Yet for now, as the poet Zé Galdino sang during the night that Cambinda Brasileira’s anniversary celebration was shut down, “Instead of defending us, the law negates our protection.”