Royal Rhythm: Maracatu North and South

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 09.18.13 in Spotlights

(Photo by: Kevin Yatarola)

When Dona Marivalda Maria dos Santos took the stage at Lincoln Center in Manhattan recently, she flickered like a psychedelic Snow White.

The glittery queen, priestess and president of Maracatu Naçao Estrela Brilhante wore an elaborately spangled, mostly red and white hoop-skirted gown she had sewn herself and would wear for but a single year. She was flanked by a pair of equally dazzling “ladies of the palace,” who carried the calunga dolls said to contain the ancestral spirits who guide this 96-year-old maracatu drumming “nation” (or nação) from the city of Recife in the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil. Her king, holding both scepter and sword, danced beside her while a large androgynous “slave” had the wearying task of holding an oversized parasol above the royal couple. Behind the court, seven Estrela Brilhante (“Bright Star”) drummers created a titanic wall of rhythm. Like master of ceremonies Mestro Walter de França, who led the call-and-response songs that characterized their set, they wore Estrela’s blue and white garb adorned with namesake stars that lent an interstellar vibe to the affair.

Maracatu is both a percussion style and a culture in Brazil. Played on a variety of drums, cowbells and shakers, the music starts, stops and shifts gears at the leader’s whistling direction. During Carnival, maracatu groups of some 150 drummers and as many flamboyantly attired dancers fill the streets of Recife amid millions of spectators. Founded in 1906, Estrela Brilhante is a renowned and respected example of a 400-year-old tradition that bears a large and somewhat uncanny resemblance to that of New Orleans’s Mardi Gras Indians — as demonstrated by opening act Big Chief Monk Boudreaux & the Golden Eagles.

Two days before the show, ringleader Scott Kettner, who performed with both his Brooklyn-based Nation Beat and Maracatu New York groups, explained to me that both the Indians and maracatu nação were created by African slaves and flourish during Carnival in unique costumery created new every year. They blend African roots with indigenous influences to deliver loud, raucous call-and-response parade music. Maracatu nations, however, are aligned with Brazil’s syncretic Candomblé and Jurema religions. Dona Marivalda is both the group’s spiritual and secular leader. And maracatu drumming in Recife, where city-sponsored competitions have goosed the drummer body count upward, is both more rhythmically complex and simply more overwhelmingly populist than its New Orleans equivalent. Some, however, feel that competition has been a negative influence on maracatu groups, whose popularity increased through its association with the funky, fusion-y Mangue Beat movement of the early ’90s spearheaded by Chico Science’s Nação Zumbi.

Nation Beat drummer-bandleader Kettner’s first learned of maracatu from drumming teacher Billy Hart. Invited to play a Paraguay jazz festival in 1999, Kettner subsequently flew to Recife, where American ethnomusicologist Larry Crook hooked him up with Jorge Martin, the longtime Estrela Brilhante member who became the 22-year-old’s mentor. Communicating solely through the language of rhythm, Martin taught Kettner both how teach maracatu, as well as how to play it, by taking him into the favelas (shanty towns) where he taught drumming to children. Since opening his own maracatu school in Brooklyn in 2002, Kettner has brought Martin north several times as well as taken groups of students to study in Recife and to parade with Estela Brilhante.

In 2005, Kettner took his Brazil-New Orleans–jazz-Celtic fusion band Nation Beat south to record their debut album Maracatuniversal with Estrela Brilhante. These “bumpkins from Brooklyn,” as he describes his posse of young jazzers, became the first contemporary band to record with a traditional maracatu group. The experience “changed our lives,” he says simply. “We ended up throwing away all our notions about what music could or should be.” Nation Beat returned home a new attitude, a striking homage to the thunderous and beautiful world of Estrela Brilhante, and a new singer in Brazilian native Liliana Araújo.

Teaching maracatu drumming to gringos allowed Kettner to educate his potential audience, avoid flipping burgers for rent money, and spin off Maracatu New York the band from his school of the same name. Consisting of a half-dozen professional and semiprofessional percussionists filled out by students who’ve risen to the top, Maracatu New York released its own debut, Baque do Brooklyn (Brooklyn Beat), in July 2013. Nation Beat’s musical “cousin” adds horns and jazzy solos to traditional maracatu percussion arrangements that pay tribute to its sources without mimicking them overtly. “It’s a challenge,” Kettner admits. “I’ve been very careful artistically to not try to recreate what the traditional maracatu groups do. That’s a battle you’ll never win. I want listeners to say, ‘What is that?’ when they hear it. I want my music to lead people to the traditional groups.”