Why you should care
Because this is a unique pocket of culture, often overlooked in the roar of Brazilian Carnaval.
Even by 8 a.m., in a town surrounded by hyper-green sugarcane fields, you can hear it coming: the clanging of cowbells bouncing off the walls of the churches. In this small town of Nazaré da Mata, located outside the northeastern Brazilian capital of Recife, a spectacular event occurs each Carnaval — though virtually no tourists see it. It’s perhaps the most off-the-beaten-path Carnaval around.
It’s so out of the way, in fact, that few bother to go. “I can’t believe you would want to drive all the way out here into the middle of the sugarcane, when today is the best day for the Carnaval happening in the cities,” our taxi driver Seu José Martins complains as the car bounces over dusty roads. He’s right in a lot of ways. But while most people are reveling back in Recife, out through the fields, a celebration of a different sort is afoot.
The intention is to take a product of sweaty slave work and celebrate it as art.
It’s called Maracatu Rural, and it’s a dance, a folklore and a tradition. One hundred groups in the state of Pernambuco perform the ritual each February, but Nazaré da Mata, a town of 30,000, is recognized as the state capital of the event, and 23 groups — about 80 people — participate. The performance is strikingly different from what you’ll see in the Sambadrome in Rio de Janeiro, from the sounds to the costumes.
Like so many things Brazilian, the tradition grew out of the intermingling of African and indigenous cultures during the slave period in Brazil. Most prevalent among the performers is the caboclo de lança, a sugarcane cutter turned dreamlike, with a wig of metallic-colored cellophane strands that mirror the intense sun and a wooden “sword” covered in fabric ribbons, meant to symbolize machetes. As the groups of men jaunt through the streets of Nazaré da Mata, to the blasts of trumpets and the jangle of the cowbells hanging from their backs, they shake their heads from side to side like they’re trying to dry their wigs, thrusting ribboned swords into the air. A commotion for the senses, it’s meant to recall something much simpler: the gestures of the sugarcane cutters. Inevitably, it leaves the performers drenched in the summer heat. As it should: The intention is to take a product of sweaty slave work and celebrate it as art.
“The most important thing about the Maracatu Rural folklore is the inclusion of people,” says Salatiel Cicero, the producer of the women’s group in Nazaré da Mata. For 11 years they have been pioneers, including women in the character of sugarcane cutter — in addition to their regular roles as colonial queens and overworked mothers. Women now have their own parade group that performs in sequence with the 22 men’s groups. And while Maracatu Rural is a celebration of the past, children are also involved, which is “essential to give movement to our city and to maintain tradition,” says Leonardo Martins, the culture secretary of the city.
“It’s a tradition that is full of history, full of secrets and full of magic, which is the most powerful force behind it,” says Cicero.