Maracatu is a term common to two distinct performance genres found in Pernambuco state in northeastern Brazil: maracatu nação and maracatu rural.
Maracatu nação (also known as maracatu de baque virado: “maracatu of the turned-around beat”) is an Afro-Brazilian performance genre. The term, often shortened simply to nação (“nation”, pl. nações), refers not only to the performance, but to the performing groups themselves.
Maracatu nação’s origins lie in the investiture ceremonies of the Reis do Congo (Kings of Congo), who were slaves that occupied leadership roles within the slave community. When slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1888, the institution of the Kings of Congo ceased to exist. Nonetheless, nações continued to choose symbolic leaders and evoke coronation ceremonies for those leaders. Although a maracatu performance is secular, traditional nações are grouped around Candomblé or Jurema (Afro-Brazilian religions) terreiros (bases) and the principles of Candomblé infuse their activities.
Traditional nações perform by parading with a drumming group of 80-100, a singer and chorus, and a coterie of dancers and stock characters including the king and queen. Dancers and stock characters dress and behave to imitate the Portuguese royal court of the Baroque period.
The performance also enacts pre-colonial African traditions, like parading the calunga, a doll representing tribal deities that is kept throughout the year in a special place in the Nação’s headquarters. The calungas, usually female, are traditionally made of either wax and wood or of cloth. They may have clothing made for them in a similar Baroque style to the costumes worn by the other members of the royal court. The calunga is sacred and carrying this spiritual figurehead of the group is a great responsibility for the female Dama de Paço’ (Lady-in-Waiting) of the cortège.
The musical ensemble consists of alfaia (a large wooden rope-tuned drum), gonguê (a metal cowbell), tarol (a shallow snare drum), caixa-de-guerra (another type of snare drum), abê (a gourd shaker enveloped in beads), and mineiro (a metal cylindrical shaker filled with metal shot or small dried seeds). Song form is call and response between a solo singer and (usually) a female chorus.
Today there are around 20 nações operating in the cities of Recife and Olinda. Although several have an unbroken line of activity going back to the 1800’s, most have been set up in recent decades. Well-known nações include Estrela Brilhante, Leão Coroado and Porto Rico. Each year they perform during the Carnival period in Recife and Olinda. Maracatu Nação Pernambuco, while not a traditional maracatu, was primarily responsible for introducing the genre to overseas audiences in the 1990s.
The genre has inspired the establishment of performing groups in a number of cities outside Brazil, including Toronto, New York, Cologne, Hamburg, Lyon, Stockholm, London, Edinburgh, Auckland, Brighton, Oakland and Manchester .
Maracatu rural is also known as maracatu de baque solto, maracatu de orquestra, and maracatu de trombone. It is rooted in the Pernambucan interior and evolved in the early 20th century as a fusion of pre-existing forms of Carnival revelry. It is considered to be Afro-indigenous in origin. Its members, typically sugarcane workers, are involved with the native-influenced Catimbó religion. Maracatu rural has a high participation rate with dozens of groups operating all over the state.