Maracatu is a rich and beautiful tradition found in the Northeastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. Maracatu is a major cultural component of carnival in Pernambuco. Maracatu shares many similarities with capoeira, including its connections to African culture in Brazil, its preservation by poor Brazilians, and its recent surge in popularity in Brazil and around the world.
There are two types of maracatu: maracatu nação or maracatu de baque virado and maracatu rural or maracatu de baque solto, maracatu de orquestra, or maracatu de trombone.
The rituals of maracatu nação derive from the coronation ceremonies of the Reis do Congo, enslaved Africans who held leadership positions in the black community in colonial Pernambuco. The Portuguese overseers approved of these leaders as a way to control the Africans and their descendents, but the rituals involved also served to mask preserved African religions of which the colonizers disapproved and allowed the Africans a measure of freedom of expression. Today, secret rituals associated to Afro-Brazilian and indigenous religions of Northeastern Brazil persist in maracatu and are not necessarily discernable by the uninitiated.
A maracatu nação consists of about 80-100 dancers, a singer, chorus and a percussion section, as well as a court of royal characters, including a king and queen, which represent the Portuguese courts of the Baroque era. Maracatu nacões parade with calunga, small sacred dolls usually made of wax or wood and held by the damas do paço (ladies in waiting). On the Sunday night of Carnival in Recife, all the maracatu nações parade in front of the Carnival judges, vying for the first-prize award.
Today, a few of the nações can trace their history back to the nineteenth century, however most were recently formed due to the surge in popularity of maracatus.
The maracatu rural is a more recent development, and is rooted in the traditions of the interior of the state of Pernambuco.
The most colorful costumes associated with the maracatu rural are those of the caboclo de lança or lance-bearers (pictured). These are mostly men (some women have participated in the last few years) who lead the maracatu rural processions in a wild dance of leaps, twirls, and sweeps of their lances. Their elaborate costumes may weigh up to 50 lbs and include sunglasses, a flower clenched in the teeth, and yards of brightly colored cellophane paper. In rural Pernambuco, many of the caboclos de lança work in the fields during the day. It is a great honor to be a caboclo de lança.
Maracatu was close to dying out in the early 1980s, but interest was re-kindled when women and children were allowed to participate, when local authorities cracked down on the violence associated with rival maracatus (who would steal each others costumes), and when popular Brazilian musicians, like Chico Science and Naçao Zumbi, began incorpating the rhythms of maracatu into their music. There are now maracatu groups in the United States, Canada, England, Sweden, and other countries around the world. Some are concerned that the sudden growth in popularity of the maracatus have brought people to the tradition who are more interested in dancing and playing music than learning the history and traditions of maracatu.
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This is just some information I put together from articles I found. If you have some further insight on maracatu that you would like to share, please feel free to comment.