'Runaway Samba' learn Maracatu in Brazil

Members of 'Runaway Samba' and Jack Drum Arts staff traveled to Recife, Brazil, to learn all about Maracatu from world class players 'Nação Porto Rico!

On February 11th 2017 sixteen members of our community samba band ‘Runaway Samba’ travelled to Recife, Brazil to spend 3 weeks learning about the rich culture, history and heritage of ‘Maracatu Nação’, an Afro-Brazilian performance genre practiced in the state of Pernambuco, in the North East of the country.  A trip that had been in the planning for almost 2 years.

When we first arrived we spent a lot of time in Recife Antigo (Old Town), an area that plays host to lots of the city’s Carnaval events. From the near-constant stream of maracatu groups, puppets, afroessa dance groups, frevo music on Rua da Moeda (money street), to the outdoor stage set-ups in Praça Barão do Rio Branco Square and Patio de Sao Pedro, there was plenty to keep us entertained. Every street was festooned with multi-coloured paper strips, hanging lanterns, graffiti-style boards and graphics, and bunting, as well as a 40ft papier mache cockerel for the tradition of ‘Galo da Madrugada ‘ or ‘Rooster of the Dawn’ – the largest carnival bloco parade in the world.

In our first week we also made a trip to the City of Olinda, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the best-preserved colonial cities in Brazil. The buildings are awash of colour and world-famous graffiti, and the historical buildings in the centre are beautiful. Olinda has one of the best Carnaval programmes in Brazil including ‘Noites dos Tambores’ (Night of the Silent Drums) a parade that unites the baque virado maracatu nations. It involves a candomble ritual and complete silence through the city at the stroke of midnight to honour the ancestors and as a mark of respect for the Maracatu Nação that no longer exist.

After a few days of orientation around the city we travelled to Pina and met the members of Nação Porto Rico the group that we would be working with for the next few weeks. Pina is a poorer district of Recife and as we made our way there by taxi we saw the modern high-rise buildings of Boa Viagem where our hotel was, give way to smaller communities with busier streets and a more vibrant atmosphere. Nação Porto Rico is located in an ex-favela (Portuguese for slum) and so while the conditions and quality of housing is not of the standard of the richer districts, the area was developing, improving, and evolving, thanks in part to the support, hard work, and vision of the Nação.

The mission of Nação Porto Rico is in many respects identical to that of Jack Drum, as both organisations seek to support their community through creative means. Under the leadership of Mestre Chacon Viana, the organisation engages with the community to raise aspirations, provide training and employment opportunities, dissuade people from turning to crime, promote positive mental health, and support community cohesion. We discovered that many of the musicians of the Nação were homeless and lived on site at the centre. Exposure to new cultures is a mixed bag, but it breeds broad minds and big hearts and through supported reflection our young people dealt with the experience of being in a less privileged place in a very mature and open-minded way.

Nação Porto Rico is a centre of learning for maracatu music, a community outreach hub, and is also a religious temple. Many of the members of Porto Rico are Candomble devotees, a religion bought over from Africa by slaves. Until fairly recently it was illegal to practice Candomble so worshippers disguised the following of the religion by allying their Orishas (deities) with corresponding saints of the Catholic faith.  Now the religion can be practiced freely and Naçãos use the music of Maracatu to express their faith in public.

With their music and religion walking hand in hand, Naçãos Porto Rico are very much influenced by their history and heritage. On our first day we sat with Mestre Chacon and our tutors for a history lesson. The Maracatu Naçãos developed from the institution of Reis do Congo (Kings of Congo), a position of leadership held by members of the slave community. After abolition, communities continued to elevate and elect symbolic leaders and hold coronations. We were introduced to Queen Dona Elda who is the figurehead of Porto Rico. She lived in the building behind the temple, and much of what they do revolves around her. We learned that Porto Rico has been in existence since 1916, and that for all it is one of the oldest and most respected of the Naçãos, their music is forever evolving and revitalising. For example, they now use an instrument called an atabace in their music which is not a traditional maracatu instrument. Porto Rico believe that it enhances the music and pays homage to instruments that would have been part of the ensemble in Africa. Here our musical education really began –

Maracatu Nação, or maracatu de baque virado (‘maracatu of the turned around beat’) is a style of outdoor processional percussion music. At its heart is the alfaia – a roped hide-skinned drum in the style of an 18th century marching drum. It is worn slung slightly to one side and is struck with a large stick (‘bate’) in the dominant hand in regular hold and with a smaller stick (‘rebate’) in the secondary hand clutched in a fist and held high up on the chest. The method of striking was very important and very precise. Though the rhythms seemed simple, they were deceptive, and kept us very much on our toes.

Maracatu utilises caixa-de-guerra (literally ‘box of war’) to act as the motor for the rhythm and to accent to rhythm picked up buy the alfaias. The tarol (a shallow caixa) often plays in counterpoint to the other rhythms. Interesting that it was our youngest member who took on the challenge of this difficult instrument, and did an excellent job.  On top of this, both drums had to incorporate a ‘swung’ rhythm as well as complex dynamics. One of our group was given a gongue – a massive metal cowbell that is perched on the thigh and held in place by a harness. It drives the tempo and keeps the other instruments all in check. Some of us also tried out a shekere, or agbe, which is a hollowed out gourd covered in a net of beads. The shekere players (traditionally female) are always at the front of the band and must sing, dance, and play, all at the same time. Finally we had an atebace player. Played much like a conga or timbal, the drum calls a lot of breaks and adds an extra layer to the motor rhythm of the caixa. It has the potential of improvisation due to it’s size and volume, and takes a lot of skill to play.

We rehearsed for days at a time, for hours on end. Lots of movement and hardly any let-up seems to be the Brazilian way.  They are much stricter than we are, and that’s something that the our own leaders have taken to heart to inform their practice back here in the UK.  Though strict, our Brazilian tutors were also warm and welcoming, and we really enjoyed our time with Rumenig, Bigato, Testinha, Nega, Xa Xa, and Edvaldo. Every lesson ended in an ‘AXE’ Circle, where we came together to give thanks.

Everything so far had been led through a series of signals and whistles – very much how we are accustomed to playing samba in the UK. Suddenly we were introduced to ‘The Loas’, which are a series of call and response songs and chants (all in Portuguese) that serve as introductions to the changing melee’s (or main grooves as we call them). It took us a long time to learn them but the loas are very beautiful – they talk about the inspirational nature of the Nacau and of their rich history and legend, some with roots in Yoruban African tradition.

Over the course of about a week we worked with members of the nation Agua and Emerson to make our own drums. The drums were made from ply wood bent round into a cylinder and held in place with nails and wood glue. We then wrapped them in Porto Rico decal stickers. Rims were made from 3-thick ply lengths, then painted in the Porto Rico colours – green and red. Skins were wetted and spread over thinner ply hoop, cut to size, with the excess tucked under. This was then placed on the drum lip, with the rim forced over it and tied across the body of the drum through drilled holes with coarse rope. With this design the drums must be loosened after use in hot weather or else the skins will split.

Drum care is a real labour of love – the people of Porto Rico arrive early to rehearsals and performances to prepare, sitting out in the streets, roping and re-roping their drums. They are slung into piles, onto coaches, and over shoulders but are never carried on the head – that shows disrespect.

We were made to feel so incredibly welcome by members of Porto Rico and quickly became part of the Nação and favela community. We ate in the Pinga Pinga café that was attached to the temple every day and mixed and mingled with everyone as they made their preparations for carnaval. It was great to see our young people getting to know the people in the favela – trying out the language or simply finding other ways to communicate. The local children were fascinated by us and completely unabashed in the face of the language barrier – they played games and swapped rhythms, but none of us dared challenge them at football!

We also often stayed after lessons to see the wider band rehearse. It is an incredible sight – a sea of green and red, hundreds of musicians on the streets and hundreds more out to watch. There were lights, speakers, a stage, and everyone was busy. When they started up, the drums echoed through the whole community. They would practice for hours without let-up, and even the tiniest of children joined in with miniature drums and shekeres. Children are very welcome in the community, and are learning to play the rhythms before they can walk.

The costumes for Carnaval are incredibly stylised and exaggerated - huge hoop skirts, lavish embellishments, giant hats. Brazilian Carnaval is populated by ‘stock characters’ that seek to emulate and caricature the Portuguese Royal Court of the 18th Century. The tradition is found across the globe but in Brazil it is also strongly tied to African costume, music, and dance. Many of the dancers in dresses carried a ‘calunga’ – a doll wearing a miniature version of the dancer’s own dress that represents a tribal deity from the Nacao’s African heritage. They are used in the candomble religious obligations

We watched and occasionally joined in as Porto Rico performed in various places to mark the launch of the carnaval. We saw the Night of the Five Nations – both the practice at the Patio de São Pedro, then the real thing in the Marco Zero Square. The event happens every year as a celebration and confirmation of peace between the 5 major Naçãos of Recife as well as marking the main opening of Carnaval 2017.

As Carnaval took over the city everyone donned a costume, the shops boarded up the building fronts to protect them from revellers, even the hotel changed over night from a sedate establishment hosting business people, and footballers to a place full of musicians and party-goers – where you could end up sharing a lift with a unicorn, and caveman, and a vampire!

We spent our time taking in the excitement of the competition preparations as well as enjoying the performances of the parades, the blocos, the frevo music! It was challenging as well as exhilarating – Carnaval is huge and in places it can be dangerous. We implemented a strict buddy system and did our best to stick to safe areas.

When competition time came around we were invited to participate alongside Porto Rico as dancers, soldiers, lancers, and banner holders and while some of us wanted to take in the entire spectacle from the audience, others of us jumped at the chance. On the day of the competition we headed to town and in no time we were lined up and ready to take part in Recife Carnaval 2017 on Team Nação Porto Rico! This was their chance to showcase everything they had been working toward for the entire year - showcasing the music, dance, costume – the wealth and pride of the Nação, and at the very heart of it, the queen, along with stock characters imitating and caricaturing the Portuguese royal court of the Baroque period.

The stage was set, barriers and seating stands at either side of the road, a start and finish line like a race, a huge countdown clock, cameras, microphones.  And the drums began. We were lost in the whirlwind of sequins and sweat… It was impossible to take in the scope of the event – there were hundreds of performers, drummers, dancers, runners, stage managers – and the performances came in wave after wave. Each group had 30 minutes to parade through the street to dazzle the crowd and the judges seated either side.

When we crossed the finish line we were exhausted, elated and cast asunder into the streets of Recife to discard our costumes.  Piles of costumes, props, drums, and people littered the road and everyone was smiling, hugging, and celebrating. The party continued all the way back to Pina where some of us helped the people of the Nacao unload. The skirts will go back into storage. Some costumes may be kept, but most will be donated to some of the poorer Naçãos – the costumes are shed like old skin and the end of Carnaval is seen as a rebirth. Preparations for Carnaval 2018 will begin as soon as the hangover wears off. The message came through 3 days later – Nação Porto Rico were reigning champions of Recife Maracatu, scoring full points across the board!

We finished off our trip like any self-respecting Brits abroad and went to the fabled Porto da Galinhas, translated literally as ‘Chicken Beach’. A 2 hour bus-ride through the lush Brazilian countryside got us to the seaside town. We made our pitch under 2 umbrellas on the beach and watched the world go by – drink-sellers, artists, musicians, basket-weavers, and ship makers. And then we took the plunge – the water was as warm as a bath and as clear as a pool, we swam through the most wonderful waves, some of us explored the reef, and we finally managed to get real Brazilian sunburn!

In our final few days we travelled back to Olinda where we also saw the huge parade of the Bumba Boi with scores of performance troops doing impromptu public performances. Similar to our British Mummers plays, they were made up of stock characters (such as the Devil, the thief, the Queen) and all starred a ‘Bumba Boi’ which is a large bull puppet, much like a pantomime horse. They are accompanied by drummers who play surdos and as the night drew in, the performance groups gathered together to create loud, raucous music in a colourful parade that snaked its way through the city.

The only thing left to do was box up the drums, pack up our stuff, and bid a fond farewell to Recife and our new friends as we began the long trip home!

Thanks to everyone who helped make this amazing trip possible, we couldn’t have done it without your support. That includes Nacao Porto Rico, Sam Alexander, Rio Floreza, Barbara Gubbins of County Durham Community Foundation, Sir Paul and Lady Nicholson,  parents, the young people themselves, the adults who kept themselves (and each other) alive and our most special thanks to Jack Drum Arts Managing Director Helen Ward who worked so hard to make it all happen!

We have a lot of work to do before we’re ready to perform but we are determined to bring the music of Maracatu Nacao Porto Rico to the people of County Durham and the wider United Kingdom. ‘AXE’!

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