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