Great Brazilian Music


With the intensive slave trade in Brazil during the 16th century, the number of black slaves soon far exceeded the number of Portuguese in the colony. In order to maintain control over the situation and for administrative purposes, the Portuguese in the year 1538 made it a practice to appoint so-called “kings” and “queens” among the black slaves. These “royalties” enjoyed a privileged status, compared to other slaves, over which they were given authority to “reign”. The coronation ceremonies of the black kings, which were called “Kings of Congo” (Reis do Congo) were surrounded by festivities, called congadas, where music and dance played an important part. In the state of Pernambuco, the encounter between African percussion-based music and the more melodic Portuguese music tradition during the congada festivities, gave rise to a new style of music: maracatu.

Maracatu music is driven by percussion instruments called alfaia, tarol, caixa, ganzá, agogô (also knows as gonguê) and zabumba, the sound of which is accompanied by a solo singer. The alfaia and tarol drums emit an unusually deep, heavy and powerful sound, which creates the thunderous beat that is the main characteristic of maracatu music. The sound waves of these drums affect not just the ears of the listener, but the whole body.

With the abolition of slavery in Brazil in 1888, the coronations of the “Kings of Congo” also came to an end. But the maracatu music stayed very much alive and became the most popular music among the lower classes in Pernambuco, especially during the carnival and other religious festivities. During carnival, different maracatu group’s started to form processions and parades, often dressed in extravagant and colorful outfits, and thus in many ways preceded the samba processions, which were later to become the trade mark of the Rio de Janeiro carnival. The maracatu groups were called “nações” (nations) and played much the same role as the samba schools of Rio de Janeiro. Several of these maracatu nations still exist today, including Nação Elefante (founded in 1800), Leão Coroado (founded in 1863) and Estrela Brilhante (founded in 1910).

On the modern Brazilian popular music scene the Recife based band Nação Zumbi is by far the most famous representative of maracatu music. Nação Zumbi, lead by their charismatic singer and songwriter Chico Science, took Brazil by storm during the mid 1990’s, with an exciting blend of modern rock music and the heavy percussion sound of traditional maracatu. Cordel do Fogo Encantado and Pedro Luis e a Parede are two other popular contemporary bands, which have repeatedly used maracatu in their music.

Maracatu drummers