The Other Carnaval in Brazil

Few foreign tourists experience the folkloric festival in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, different from the stereotypical version in Rio with its glitter and bikinis and exotic headdress.
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Carnaval in Recife, Brazil

It's a sweltering mid-summer night, and the pulsating crowd only adds to the heat. The shout, "Tu Maraca! Tu Maraca!" by musician Naná Vasconcelos reverberates throughout downtown Recife. More than 400 percussionists from over 30 different maracatu nations answer, beating out one thunderous rhythm, and thousands in the audience roar with approval. Once again, Carnaval has begun.

Few foreign tourists experience the folkloric festival in the northeastern Brazilian city of Recife, different from the stereotypical version in Rio with its glitter and bikinis and exotic headdress. Recife's Carnaval is a treasure of cultural fusion and musical styles, combining Afro-European tradition with Brazilian modernity, both in the city and the country. Everyone casts off the trappings of normal life in preparation for the discipline and repentance of Lent, and scenes of breathtaking beauty and folklore -- dance, ritual, music and poetry -- unfold on every street.

Pernambuco's capital, Recife, is Brazil's fifth largest city. The first Portuguese port in 1534, just a few decades ago, Recife was ranked one of the world's least livable cities, yet all of its richness remained, hidden beneath urban grit and the rugged, sugarcane-filled surrounding countryside. Since the 1990s, Recife's profile has steadily risen, becoming known as the home of brilliant, original music and a vibrant local scene.

When I first visited Pernambuco, I was captivated by the extraordinary music of Carnaval. As I continued to explore this region in five visits over the past nine years, I realized that this vibrant music stemmed from the depth of the culture, ranging from folkloric to contemporary. What at first seemed like a raucous party was, over time, revealed to me to be the very roots of a people, firmly held in place by tradition. What makes this Carnaval different? It's all on the streets, and there's a lot of diversity of influences.

Carnaval in Pernambuco boasts a rich tapestry of indigenous, black African, European, and even Middle Eastern influences. Burly sugarcane workers transform into buxom, colorfully clad women. Less than ten miles from Recife, in Olinda, a UNESCO World Heritage site, costumed revelers overload the ladeiras -- hilly, cobblestoned byways -- dancing to urban styles like frevo in various clusters of marching musicians called blocos. And, it's hard to ignore the booming maracatu troops parading down city avenues, mixing a regal procession, Afro-Brazilian religion, and a cast of characters both whimsical and fearsome.

The maracatu is a traditional Carnaval parade with dance, lyrical poetry, and music, and a collection of characters including a standard bearer, a singer, a percussion orchestra and a king and queen leading a full court, all in regal finery from the Baroque era. Two very different versions of maracatu are featured prominently in Carnaval: maracatu nação (also called maracatu de baque virado, performed in the city of Recife) and maracatu rural (also known as maracatu de baque solto, it starts in the zona da mata countryside). Maracatu nação's deep-toned alfaia drums evoke a spirit of resistance, and a time when escaped African slaves formed independent communities in the hinterlands. The bells, drum, and brass of maracatu rural accompany the royal processional marching through the country towns. Both have music of profound, transformative rhythmic power.

In central Recife, there are activities day and night, starting with the Saturday morning Galo da Madrugada (Rooster of the Dawn), Brazil's largest Carnaval parade at over 1.5 million people. The Noite dos Tambores Silenciosos (Night of the Silent Drums) features a midnight ceremony paying homage to the orixás (gods), with a moment of abrupt silence and darkness while one lone dove is released and flies above the crowd.

Similar to the famous samba schools in Rio, the maracatus in Recife represent a strong aspect of the Afro-Brazilian heritage. Maracatu nação developed from the celebratory processions of elected black kings, mediators between the colonial masters and their people. This system enabled communities to maintain their ceremonial practices, and continue to be closely linked to religious practices, as well as a component of their identity. Members of the maracatu don't just play music: they live it every day.

The heart and soul of Carnaval in Olinda are the blocos (blocks), each aligned with a theme or community. Blocos are collections of people parading with friends, and anyone can join different groups as they pass. Every day of Carnaval, Olinda overflows with costumed revelers drumming and singing, or parading with large dolls (bonecos) that represent mystical characters, celebrities, and even famous politicians. The most prevalent music is the wildly popular frevo, originating in Recife yet springing from European influence, with trumpets, trombones, and saxophones combining for a bright, brassy sound.

In Pernambuco's zona da mata sugar cane growing region, the maracatu rural reigns supreme. Amid clanging bells and booming drums, the hulking forms of the caboclos-de-lança hurtle into the streets. The casual viewer can't get too close, since the 12-foot lances of the caboclos jab and sweep onlookers out of the way of shifting formations. The dancers' well-coordinated circles and inverted loops create nearly constant kaleidoscopic motion with colorful members of the king and queen's court.

World-famous musicians like Chico Science and other stars of the manguebeat movement in the 1990s used traditional rhythms as a springboard for contemporary fusion with rock, electronica or cumbia to create hip and edgy Afro-Brazilian music. As manguebeat music groups became better known, interest in the folkloric culture of Pernambuco increased both locally and internationally. It became hip for young local musicians to listen to, seek out, and employ traditional rhythms when creating new music. Government institutions and cultural foundations started supporting this dynamic culture, honoring great musicians during Carnaval and supporting local music groups financially.

In the last two decades, awareness of this culture has been spreading globally. Starting with Nação Zumbi and Mundo Livre performing in New York Brooklyn in 1995-1996, this musical movement has gained momentum and international recognition. In 2010, David Byrne's label, Luaka Bop, released "What's Happening in Pernambuco," and in 2013 Maracatu Nação Estrela Brilhante premiered in the U.S. at Lincoln Center in New York.

Past and future collide; ideas mingle in a passionate reinvention of local identity. For Brazilians, especially those from Pernambuco, Carnaval is more than just a one huge party -- it is a way of life -- an expression of their culture, their heritage, and the pride they take in their deep and diverse traditions.

The Other Carnaval in Brazil