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 Two Brazilian scholars have written a master's thesis and an article (unpublished).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!


  1. Hi! I'm so happy about your research. I'm from Fortaleza and I'm living in New York. I'm working with maracatu here, and will be great to be in touch with you. My name is Liliana Araujo... well, I don't know if you can see my email adress after that I posted my comment, but I have facebook maybe we could start the comunication there. Anyway, will be nice talk with you.
    All the best!

  2. Hi! My name is Natalia and I recently curated an exhibition on Maracatu dolls from Pernambuco. Your research is very interesting!

  3. Ron: I just completed my PHD at NYU where I wrote a dissertation on blackface in Latin America. I am organising a conference on blackface in Latin America and would like to get in touch with you. Please email me: dmr402@nyu.edu