Northeast Brazilian Carnival

Rita de Cássia Barbosa de Araújo
Historian and researcher at Joaquim Nabuco Foundation
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Carnival, an ancient party of Catholic tradition originating in Europe, happens annually in the three days that precede Lent. Introduced to Brazil by Portuguese colonisers, it was known as ‘Entrudo’ (Shrovetide) in the first centuries of colonial life. During this time, people used to play games which consisted of throwing containers of water and other liquids, powder and also limes and lemons at each other. The games were played between the landowner families or on the streets and squares where slaves and poor freemen generally had fun.

During the Empire, the party dedicated to laughter and pleasure began to become more commonly known as Carnival. The urban elite gradually abandoned the Shrovetide games and turned their eyes towards the Carnivals of the most progressive cities in Europe, namely Nice, Paris, Naples, Rome and Venice, where the revelry was made more exciting by balls, dances, music, lighted halls, banquets, parades and masked parades, and brought luxuries to the city streets. These types of entertainment were considered to be signs of civilization and progress, of elegance and cultural progressiveness.

From the mid-19th century, Carnival societies began to rise, formed by people from the urban cultural socioeconomic elite, whose members performed wearing masks and parading in allegoric and satirical carriages. Making satirical observations of the customs, politics and social types through laughter and humour without committing personal offences was an extremely valuable practice. Salvador, in Bahia, had the Bando Anunciador dos Festejos Carnavalescos (Heralding Band of Carnival Partiers), the Cavalheiros do Luar (Moonlight Knights) and the Cavalheiros da Noite (Knights of the Night), whose members were young men who worked in commerce and some office workers. In the 1890s, clubs with black members appeared who paraded in luxury, satirical and ideological carriages, accompanied by bands composed of African instruments. Their names recalled Africa: Embaixada Africana (African Embassy) and Pândegos d’África (Africa Roues/Rakes), Chegada Africana (African Arrival) and Guerreiros d’África (Warriors of Africa). These large clubs of black members were particular to the Carnival of Salvador.

In Recife, the Carnival of masks, satire and allegory was represented by the Carnival societies Asmodeu, Garibaldina, Comuna Carnavalesca (Carnival Commune), Azucrins (Sad Faces), Os Philomomos, Cavalheiros da Época (Knights of the Epoch), Fantoches do Recife (Puppets of Recife), Clube Cara Dura (Hard-face Club), Seis e Meia do Arraial (Half-past six on the Ranch) and others. In 1883, the Clube Francisquinha brought the joy of Carnival to the streets of São Luís in Maranhão. With a stronger presence in the Carnival from the 1870s, the allegory and satirical clubs entered into a short decline in the early years of the 20th century.

The popular levels, on the other hand, continued to occupy the streets with their games and entertainment, but the elite despised them, the press criticised them and they were oppressed by the police – the segments of society who saw them as a sign of ignorance and socioeconomic backwardness and a potential danger to public order. In Recife, aside from Entrudo, the “mob” let loose with sambas, maracatus and cambindas, enjoying Rei do Congo (King of the Congo), the fandangos and bumba-meu-boi. In São Luís, at the end of the 19th century, the number of baralhos – groups of black people painted white, carrying parasols or umbrellas – grew along with the cordões de ursos (bears), fofões, morcegos (bats), mortes (dead), sujos (dirties) and others like guarás (wolves), carneiros (sheep) and águias (eagles). In Salvador, the “caretas” (grimaces) appeared wrapped in scraps of twin palm fruit or with tree leaves covering their robes; as well as the caricature of Ioiô Mandu, a costume made from a petticoat, colander, broomstick and an old suit.

In 1905, to avoid the Salvador Carnival’s so-called process of “Africanisation”, repressive measures against the fun of popular Carnival street parties, which included ‘batuques’ (drumming), sambas and ‘candomblés’ (African religious ceremonies) were stepped up. Up until the beginning of the 1930s, there are no known reports of clubs or groups that evoked Africa or the performance of drumming in the central streets of the capital of Bahia (Salvador).

In Recife, from the 1880s, the decade in which slavery was abolished and the proclamation of the Republic of Brazil occurred, the number of popular Carnival associations in the streets multiplied, formed by urban workers, artists and artisans, workers, clerks, traders, and domestic workers. When they performed in public, all sorts of people joined in: unemployed, homeless, street kids and ‘capoeiras’. Out of these walking Carnival clubs, the ones that dominated where those with accompanying musical or brass bands that played vibrant Carnival marches, later known as ‘marchas pernambucanas’ or ‘Pernambuco marches’ and, in the end, frevo: Caiadores, Caninha Verde (Green Cane), Vassourinhas (Little Brooms), Pás, Lenhadores (Lumberjacks), Vasculhadores (Combers), Espanadores (Dusters), Ciscadores, Ferreiros (Ironmongers), Empalhadores do Feitosa (Stuffers from Feitosa), Suineiros da Matinha (Pig-herders of Matinha), Engomadeiras (Ironers), Parteiras de São José (Midwifes of St Joseph), Cigarreiras Revoltosas (Revolting Tobacconists), Verdureiros em Greve (Greengrocers on Strike), among many others. With the coming and going of clubs and troupes, frevo and Pernambuco dancing was born. At the beginning of the 21st century, convention states that frevo was born in 1907, the year in which the first record of the word is found in a local newspaper, the Jornal Pequeno, in the 9 February 1907 edition.

‘Maracatu’ nations, with their booming rhythms, also considered by the elite as dangerous, infectious and producers of “an infernal noise”, began to be more or less tolerated by the Pernambuco elite from the 1920s and 30s, possibly because they were part of the traditional ceremony of Rei do Congo and for the fact that some were “eye-pleasingly organised”. Blacks, mulattos and half-breeds still searched for openings in the celebrations by organising ‘Caboclinhos’, groups that presented music, dance and costumes which harked back to the hierarchies used by Jesuit missionaries during the conversion of indigenous people: Tribo Canindés (1897), Carijós (1899), Tupinambás (1906) e Taperaguases (1916).

From 1930 began the process of making the Brazil Carnival official, and the cultural manifestations coming from popular levels began to be recognised as a great force of expression in Carnival. In Recife, the Pernambuco Carnival Federation, founded in 1935, became responsible for the organisation of the parades and defined the categories of the street Carnival organisations: frevo clube, ‘troça’, ‘bloco’, ‘maracatu’ nation or ‘maracatu de baque virado’ e caboclinhos. Excluded from the list were the popular bears and bulls of Carnival, and the ‘maracatus de baque solto’. At that time, frevo began to be considered officially as the cultural identity symbol of Pernambuco. In São Luís, in 1929, ‘turmas de batucada’, or groups that recovered traditional local rhythms, began to rise. In Salvador, the popular Carnival overcame its anonymity from 1949, with the creation of the ‘afoxé’ group Filhos de Gandhi (Sons of Gandhi), a group formed by stevedores and linked to candomblé.

In the 1950s, the city councils of Recife and São Luís assumed the organisational role of their respective Carnivals and instituted official contests for different categories of Carnival organisations. There was also the intention, among others, to transform Carnival into a touristic product and a grand open-air spectacle. The rise of ‘trio elétrico’ – an open-air double-decker bus with built in speakers – radically modified the structure and the form of the Carnival parades of Salvador from 1951. In the 1980s, ‘trios elétricos’ were seen enlivening Carnivals and the Micaremes, known as “Carnavais fora de época” (Out-of-season Carnivals), in various Brazilian cities.

During the military dictatorship, the street Carnivals of Recife, Salvador and São Luís almost disappeared. They began to recover their strength and energy with the first signs of political opening from 1975. In Pernambuco, parties exploded onto the streets of Olinda where Carnival clubs performed in the middle of the people, without parades, stages and official contests. In 1978, in Recife, the Masked Club O Galo da Madrugada appeared, becoming the biggest carnival group in the world, as confirmed by its entry in the Guinness Book of Records at the turn of the 21st century. In São Luís, fuelled by the growth of the Black Movement, around 1984 the first groups appeared with roots in Afro-Brazilian culture and, since the 1990s, Carnival has shown its vitality through the cultural expressions of local roots.

In Salvador, the Filhos de Gandhi and Ilê Aiyê, created in 1974, confirmed themselves to be among the greatest expressions of black culture, contributing to the process of preservation, strengthening and valorisation of ethnic and cultural identity of African descendents and giving a positive sense known as “re-Africanisation” to the Bahia Carnival. ‘Afoxés’ and black groups nowadays share the avenues and public attention and through the means of mass communication, with ‘trios elétricos’ and groups with their abadás and isolation ropes. At the end of the 20th century, the Bahia party had already been converted into a profitable and lucrative commercial endeavour, subject to market demand, though many still go to simply laugh, have fun and play.

Recife, 9 December 2009.
Translated by Peter Leamy, January 2011.


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Source: ARAÚJO, Rita de Cássia Barbosa de. Northeast Brazilian Carnival. Pesquisa Escolar On-Line, Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, Recife. Available at:  <http://basilio.fundaj.gov.br/pesquisaescolar_en>. Accessed: day month year. Exemple: 6 August. 2009.


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