About this site, the virtual archive project, and the researcher
Building on ethnographic fieldwork conducted between 2009-2012 in Nazaré da Mata and the surrounding area, I returned in 2022 to highlight an element of rural maracatu that tends to be overlooked by official discourses surrounding the practices of maracatuzeiros: their improvised song-poetry contests, or sambadas.
What is a “sambada”?
These events, which traditionally begin on Saturday evenings and unfold according to an established sequence of poetic exchanges of increasing complexity until daybreak on Sunday morning, are intense verbal battles of wit and wordplay. But they are more than this: they are living repositories of collective commentary, sung testimonials in declamatory cadences, inscribing and reinscribing the memories of a people with a complex relationship to the land they often worked but rarely owned, memories of families pushed out of their shareholdings and into the increasingly crowded towns and small cities. The sambadas are crucibles where the reputations of oral poets are made or unmade, with each singer buoyed by their battalion of supporters and admirers.
These nightlong events happen throughout the year, but especially during the sugar harvest, and were traditionally staged in the neighborhoods where the groups are based, rather than the more formal presentations of carnival or folklore festivals. Although the annual carnival celebration obviously occupies a place of profound importance for the maracatu groups, the regular sung poetry contests are an understudied phenomenon that has persisted through decades during which the sugarcane and ethanol industries transformed the landscape. Many urbanites in the nearby capital city of Recife are completely unaware that this tradition even exists, while the middle and upper class of the towns of interior view it with indifference or disdain.
The persistence of the sung poetry contests (or desafios) reflects the tenacity of a people determined to preserve their practices and traditions, resisting both the repressions, indignities, and alienation of a society that is fundamentally racist and classist. In the Brazil of lived experience (rather than a Brazil that is imagined or idealized), a Northeastern cultural identity is often deployed in conflicting or contradictory ways: for example, Nordestino identity has been targeted as an object of scorn and bigoted attacks (as in the last few election cycles), while also celebrated by reactionary figures in the Northeastern elite advocating some version of cultural conservatism or even regionalist separatism.
Sometimes the repression is less subtle or symbolic, and more direct. The rural migrants to Recife and its periphery who founded baque solto maracatus were once forbidden to parade in the official carnaval of the city, their traditions shunned as a disfigured imitation of the better-known baque virada or Nação maracatu. But there is no need to reach far back into history for such examples when the dismissive attitudes and beliefs at their root are still circulating. It was only within the last decade (2011-2014) that the maracatus were subjected to the overt repression of the state through the (mis)application of a law ostensibly crafted in the interest of “public safety”, which criminalized the practice of the nightlong sambadas that are the subject of this website and, I would argue, the lifeblood and essence of the tradition. After a protracted struggle of public hearings and legal challenges, the maracatus regained their right to hold sambadas. That this incident could happen at all in the twenty-first century underscores the necessity to stay vigilant against the antidemocratic currents of authoritarianism which, 35 years after the end of the military dictatorship, still swirl beneath the surface and cannot be stilled by regime change alone. Without constant struggle, those currents can become a riptide all too easily, as we saw with the rise of neo-fascist Jair Bolsonaro and his legions of supporters that traversed class and racial divides.
I envision this aural archive as one small tool in that ongoing struggle. As a free and open resource, this project seeks to rebalance the available representations of rural maracatu by emphasizing a living tradition to which the maracatu community itself attributes immense value. Although it is a work in progress, the aim is to have a searchable database of recordings as they become available for streaming from this website. Within it, the interested listener can find in the sung poetry a multi-vocal commentary on the local, regional, and national realities of people who are seldom taken into account in the archives of newsprint or state agencies. Amidst the colloquial expressions and “country” dialect (linguagem matuta), the attentive listener can glean glimpses of other values and ways of being in the world. The attentive ear will hear things that challenge and complicate many of the nebulous concepts that continue to beguile as well as inspire vast swathes of humanity, from the notion of “progress” and “modernity” to the idea of “authenticity”. And above all, I hope this cultural repository helps to humanize the practitioners of maracatu as they continue to innovate and find news ways to narrate and shape their own histories.
Field recordings in this archive were made by Sérgio Veloso (Siba), Maciel Salustiano, Belmiro of São Lourenço da Mata, as well as a few unknown individuals.
If you have additional information, factual corrections, or just fond memories you would like to share about any of the events listed in this table, please send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Anyone with cassette tapes relevant to this project is encouraged to get in touch as a collaborator.
About the researcher
My name is Chris Estrada, and I created this website to accompany my ongoing research. My most recent research has been ethnographic and archival fieldwork on an improvised sung poetry, music, and carnival tradition called maracatu de baque solto in the Mata Norte region or the state of Pernambuco, Brazil, where I lived from 2008-2012, and again in 2015 and 2022. I have also done fieldwork on diasporic immigrant communities in southwest and south Florida, and on community organizing and social movements among Puerto Rican activists in Humboldt Park, Chicago. I am currently based in central Michigan in the American Midwest.
I have a doctorate in anthropology and history from the University of Michigan – Ann Arbor. My research has been funded by the Ford Foundation, the Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowships, the Fulbright-Hays program, and a Fulbright Scholar fellowship. I enjoy candlelight beaches and long conversations. I am also a musician who occasionally engages in songwriting, performing and audio production.
If you really want to know about my professional life, you can download my CV here.