It’s a sweltering mid-summer Friday night, February 24th. The shout “Tu Maraca! Tu Maraca!” by musician Naná Vasconcellos reverberates throughout downtown Recife. More than 400 percussionists of the maracatu nação answer, beating out one thunderous common rhythm, and the crowd of 100,000 roars with approval. My heartbeat quickens. Once again, Carnaval has begun.
Everyone knows Salvador de Bahia and Rio de Janeiro throw lavish and large Carnaval festivals. Outside of Brazil few know about Recife, the capital of the state of Pernambuco and Brazil’s fifth largest city. A modern urban center on the Atlantic Ocean coast, with a population over 1.5 million, Recife was founded in 1534 as a port city. Now, it is becoming a prime tourist destination. Pristine white-sand beaches near the city protected by coral reefs (“recife” is Portuguese for reef) and colonial architecture add to the attraction of visiting for Carnaval.
What makes Carnaval so special here? The answer: it’s an authentic, intimate event, a treasure of unique music styles, appreciated by both visitors and locals. This five-day marathon features music, day and night, all free and outdoors. Huge stages placed throughout the city present famous acts and local traditional groups. But the true magic happens on the streets, as people parade in feathered and painted costumes, the mysterious caboclos-do-lanca perform, and musicians play all night along narrow alleyways.
Pernambuco is often described as the “Mississippi Delta of Brazil” because many styles of music flourish here. During Carnaval we see them all. There is the wildly popular frevo music similar to marching band or American swing. The maracatu nação features deep bass cutting against the crisp counterpoint of crackling snare (caixa) and double bells (gongue), creating a propulsive and dramatic rhythm. (One of the maracatu groups, Maracatu Nação Estrela Brilhante, boasting direct links to Africa’s Nagô tribe, will celebrate its 100th anniversary later this year.)
Maracatu rural, a mixture of African rhythms and Portuguese melodies, features a traditional procession of poetry, music and dance. These performers whirl in specific patterns while brandishing spears and wearing heavy, colorful costumes. Cavalo-marinho—part street theater, part musical tradition, part indigenous ritual—starts at midnight and continues all night with music, dancing, costumes, comedy and a crazed ox character. Coco music uses the mineiro (shaker), zabumba (bass drum) and call-and-response lyrics to create a propelling, trance-inducing sound. Everyone dances until dawn.
Starting at Marco Zero, the “Zero Point” from which all distances in Pernambuco are measured, you can hear music in the main street of Rua Bom Jesus, the site of the first synagogue in South America, on stage at historic Patio Sao Pedro with its central piazza lined with cafes, or in the narrow cobblestone streets of Olinda, a World Heritage Site. Only six miles from Recife, Olinda recently celebrated its 479th anniversary, and its traditions run deep. Every day of Carnaval, Olinda overflows with costumed revelers joining parades, featuring large dolls (bunecas) that represent mystical characters or famous politicians.
Crossing one of the many bridges that span the Capibaribe River and connect Old Recife to the outlying suburbs, we arrive downtown in the first hours of a bright Saturday morning to witness the Galo do Madrugada (Rooster of the Dawn), Brazil’s largest Carnaval parade. Over one million people swarm around a 40-foot-high rooster float. The rest of Saturday and Sunday is a nonstop celebration where friends and strangers join together to celebrate in the streets.
Sunday night we meet the maracatu nação as they participate in a highly competitive challenge, display their finest costumes and most
| Travel notes|
||Where to stay
Pousada d’Olinda , Praca Conselheiro Joao Alfredo 178 .
Hotel Pousada Sao Pedro, Rua 27 de Janeiro, 95
Brasil Hotel, near Parque 13 Maio.
Hotel Park 13 Maio.
Places to Eat
Tepan, Rua Jose Maria, 151. Encruilzhada. 3427-4187.
Restaurant Royal, Rua Moeda. Recife Antigo.
Casa de Noca, Rua Bertiogas. Olinda Marola Bar, near Rua do Sol, Olinda
Varig, TAM, United and American fly nonstop from New York-Sao Paulo. Varig, TAM and Gol offer daily flights to Sao Paulo-Recife.
Clube Atlantico, Olinda.
Mercado Eufrasio Barboa, Varadouro, Olinda Burburinho, near Rua Moeda, Recife Antigo.
Where to Buy
Oficina de Musica, Avenida Guararapes 86.
One of the best music stores in Recife. Very knowledgeable and helpful staff.
Livraria Cultura, Rua Moeda, near Shopping Paco Alfandega. Fantastic bilingual bookstore, great coffee and very good music collection.
Mercado Sao Jose, near Patio Sao Pedro, Recife Centro. Traditional market selling vegetables, tourist souvenirs, religious articles and herbal remedies.