Ride through Jardim Iracema

Jardim Iracema is the neighborhood in Fortaleza that is home to the community founders of Maracatu Nação Iracema. Here, we're on our way out of the neighborhood to the pre-Carnival event across the river in Caucaia.

Video: Markus Honaker

Nação Iracema's Rhythm vs. Áz de Ouro's Ritmo Cadenciado

Each maracatu nation has a particular rhythmic pattern that forms the basis for the loas, "theme songs" (similar concept to samba school enredos) that are composed and performed in competition at each year's carnival parade. Nação Iracema's rhythm retains the standard maracatu cearense instrumentation (surdo, triangle, snare--different from what we find in Recife), and the unmistakable signature 2/4 triangle timeline with the accented upbeat (top video: 18-year-old bateria chief, Cristiano Simão, demonstrates Nação Iracema's rhythm on the caixa, with the help of another brincante on the triangle, and me on the surdo.

Nação Iracema's moderately fast tempo reflects a trend in certain groups to move away from what some consider to be the dirge-like tempos of the past, which can be as slow as 45 beats per minute. This slow tempo, described as the ritmo cadenciado, "cadenced rhythm," was the invention of Raimundo Alves Feitosa, founder of Fortaleza's first maracatu, Áz de Ouro (1936). Áz de Ouro still uses the ritmo cadenciado, intended to express the misery and suffering of slavery (bottom video).

Basic rhythm of Nação Iracema.

Video: Markus Honaker

Ritmo cadenciado of Áz de Ouro, 2009 Fortaleza Carnival.

Video: Markus Honaker

The Making of a Maracatu Queen

José Maria Paula de Almeida--simply "Almeida" to his friends--kindly allowed us to document the gender and race transformation he undergoes when he performs as Queen of Maracatu Nação Iracema. Here, he was preparing for a pre-Carnival show in Cáucaia, which took place on February 21, 2009, the day before the municipal parade in Fortaleza.

Video: Markus Honaker

Maracatu Nação Iracema in the 2009 Fortaleza Carnival Parade

In Fortaleza's 2009 Carnival, Maracatu Nação Iracema was the last group to perform on the second of three nights of competition. Several hours of heavy rain cleared out most of the spectators so that by the time we paraded the bleachers were empty and all who were left to witness the group's past year of hard work--preparing costumes, creating and rehearsing music and dances, raising funds for materials, equipment, and logistics--were the parade judges, a few die-hard members of the local press, and event security. We were scheduled to go on at 12:30 am, but the rain delayed all the parading groups, and we didn't begin our march until well after 2:00 am. It rained during the entire time we marched, but thankfully not as heavily as it had earlier in the evening. Some maracatus, like Áz de Ouro, had to parade in a torrential downpour.

Check out that tall white guy in the bright blue beaded dress and headgear, holding what looks to be an open book and a plumed fountain pen. Yes, that's me, in the midst of a rather unexpected stint of participant-observer fieldwork. I had hoped to play a drum or a triangle and march in the bateria, but, unlike most maracatus, Nação Iracema's percussion wing is reserved for children and teenagers. Because the group lives in a neighborhood riddled with crime and drugs, the weekly rehearsals perform the vital community function of giving young people a safe place to come together to learn and play music, and avoid becoming involved in the destructive activities that are too accessible to them. Once I realized this, I was wary of taking over an instrument because its use, in the context of this community, is potentially life-saving to its user.

Still, the directors of the group, William and Lúcia Simão (a married couple with four sons, founders of Nação Iracema), urged me to participate and cast me in the role of Princesa Isabel, the last (and apparently tall and white) Brazilian monarch, who signed the Lei Aurea, "Golden Law," that abolished slavery in 1888. Being cast in this role was an honor, and I was very moved that they gave me the opportunity to enact a
destaque, "headline," personage in their parade.

That ghastly, pained expression on my face? That's due to my having walked for nearly an hour in that 30-pound dress that was made even heavier by the rain soaking it. Meanwhile, I had to keep both arms lifted up the entire time, which absolutely killed my shoulders, while attempting to glide in a graceful quadrille pattern across rainslicked pavement that I was certain I was going slip on and bite! (I didn't, fortunately.)

Nação Iracema's 2009 loa was "Os livros não contam" ("Books don't tell"), which critiques and reinterprets the so-called freedom of Brazil's blacks, 121 years after abolition.

Having lived my entire adult life in Los Angeles, California--a city where human isolation is too normal--spending two weeks with these maracatuqueiros was an extraordinary (and, admittedly, exhausting) experience. But I was reminded about how vitally important community can and should be to the individual's life force. (I reserve the right to ethnographically "should" all over myself from time to time--that's what blogs are for.)

Most of the video posted on this blog is thanks to the steady hand and intuitive eye of my friend, Markus Honaker, who accompanied me on my February 2009 fieldwork trip and commandeered my Sony Handycam to free me up to interview and participate in the group. Also with us was Allan Oliveira Venderbeck, who helped me with photography, video, and important acts of communication when my Portuguese got tired--which inevitably occurred towards the end of each day. Allan and Markus both made it possible for me to gather at least twice as much documentation as I would have otherwise. Thanks, guys! Long live our barraquinha on Avenida Beira-Mar!

Video: Markus Honaker

The Blackface Maracatus of Fortaleza, Brazil

Maracatu cearense is an Afrobrazilian Carnival tradition found in Fortaleza, in the northeast Brazilian state of Ceará. A variant of Pernambuco's more proliferate maracatu de nação tradition, maracatu cearense was imported to Fortaleza and became the centerpiece of the annual municipal Carnival competition. Several performative features distinguish Fortaleza's tradition from Recife's: different standards in percussion instrumentation; slower, less syncopated rhythms; the cross-gendered performance of the destaque, "headline," female personages, including the queen; and--central to my current research--the use of blackface.

Fortaleza's brand of maracatu is little-known outside of Brazil--indeed, outside of Ceará--and is the subject of my master's thesis (in progress) in ethnomusicology entitled "Brazilian Blackface: Maracatu Cearense and the Politics of Participation," which I am finishing up at the University of Cailfornia, Riverside. In fall 2009, I will start my PhD in ethnomusicology at UCLA (where I did my undergraduate work), and continue working with this and other understudied northeast Brazilian musical traditions. To my knowledge, I am the only North American/English-speaking scholar currently researching this tradition, so if you are one, or if you know of others, please contact me! Two Brazilian scholars have written a master's thesis and an article (unpublished). Beyond that, most of my sources that deal directly with maracatu cearense have been archival and ethnographic.

I took the picture above during my most recent participant-observation fieldwork in February 2009, which included documenting this pre-Carnival show in Cáucaia, a town near Fortaleza. The rainha, "queen," of Maracatu Nação Iracema, José Maria Paula de Almeida, has paraded in Fortaleza's maracatus since 1980, and is a founding member of Nação Iracema (2002).

Ten maracatu nations paraded in the 2009 municipal carnival in Fortaleza. The oldest, Áz de Ouro, "Golden Ace," has been in continuous operation since its founding in 1936. Other groups have come and gone over the decades, and a new group seems to start up every few years.

Blackface in maracatu cearense--known as falso negrume, "false blackness," within the tradition--is performed in homage to the African slave's contribution to the Brazilian civilization, and is understood, from the perspective of brincantes ("players," as participants call themselves), as a performative necessity because Ceará's racial demographic is overwhelmingly caboclo and white. Only 4.4% of Fortaleza's population identifies as black, a figure much lower than the national black population percentage and that of other Brazilian cities with prominent African-heritage Carnivals (Rio de Janeiro, 12.6%, Salvador 28.6%, Recife 8.9%). In Fortaleza, this manifests a situation where blackness is performed on mostly brown and (to a lesser extent) white bodies.

My research examines how blackface is utilized at the regional level to enter into hegemonic discourses about Brazilian national identity, which, since the early twentieth-century, has placed Afrobrazilian cultural products, such as samba, as a required element of brasilidade, "Brazilianness." I also set out my first meanderings of a theory I have come to call identity consonance (look out, journals!), which I will blog about soon. I will be presenting a summarized version of my research at IASPM (International Association for the Study of Popular Music) in San Diego on May 30, 2009.

Wish me luck!