OTHER SIDE OF THE TRACKS Artist Q&A with Maracatu Ilha Brilhante

Maracatu Ilha Brilhante kick off Hotter than July this Sunday 28th at 3pm! We spoke to Tom Duffy from the group, to learn a bit about where their style of music comes form, how it's learned and what is special about maracatu.

Maracatu Ilha Brilhante are an Irish percussion group specialising in the beautiful songs and powerful rhythms of Maracatu Baque Virado from Pernambuco, Brazil, gathering together maracatu players from the four corners of Ireland. Created ahead of the European Encontro, the group plays maracatus Baque Virado from a number of traditional nacoes - from Maracatu Elefante to contemporary Manguebeat. 

Maracatu is a style of music which began as an ancient carnival tradition in the north-east of Brazil. It has its roots in the sugar fazendas and slave estates of Pernambuco state, where black African slaves formed religious brotherhoods to preserve African culture and heritage. Each year the crowning of the slave King and Queen was celebrated with music and dance. This rich cultural ceremony – first recorded in 1674 – has been preserved through the centuries by the maracatu naçãos – literally “maracatu nations”, which form the colourful parades of drums, dancers and costumed kings and queens of today’s world-famous Recife carnival.

Q. Can you tell us a little bit about your style of maracatu music?

Maracatu ilha Brilhante is a cultural group that plays the traditional rhythms 'Toques' of particular Maracatu 'Nations' (Communities) from the cities of Recife and Olinda in the north-eastern Brazilian state of Pernambuco. As a group we are affiliated to one partcular Nação [nation]; Nação do Maracatu Leão da Campina. We participate in Carnival with this community. Our members in Ireland are experienced Brazilian percussionists who have a passion for this type of music. Maracatu ilha Brilhante (Maracatu of the Shining Island) attends festivals and Carnivals nationally and internationally. When we play Maracatu we capture the cadence, power and beauty of this music.Yet maracatu is not just about the music, but a broader cultural expression of particular communities in Recife and Olinda. We use a range of persussion instruments: rope-tuned bass drums called alfaias (or bombos), snare drums, occasionally hand drums, gourd shakers and a large bell called a gongue. Whilst we are a 'Grupo' (a music group without any religious connections) of Maracatu who play the rhythms and sing the songs we try and give respect and due recognition that this street music has still many connections to the Afro-Brazilian religious houses from the region.

Q. How did you get into this genre of music? What about it appealed to you?

I have been a percussionist and teacher of Brazilian/ Afro-Brazilian music for over 20 years, and I am a musical director of a number of samba and percussion groups nationally. Through training events and chatting with other musicians and percussionists I became aware of contemporary music from Pernambuco in the mid 90's. This music was fed from the rich cultural traditions of the region. The traditions had strong connections to the African diaspora in Brazil as was as evidence of Brazils colonised past. I also had a teacher who introduced me to a wide range of Afro-Brazilian ceremonial and profane folkloric music, and introduced me to maracatu. We played some with a previous band and when we invited a teacher of maracatu from the U.K. in 2008, the Ilha Brilhante project was born.

The initial appeal of this music for me was in the asymmetric, syncopated rhythms with a ton of sub-bass, that shoot the cobbled streets of Recife. Later the appeal grew into the communal aspect of the music and culture. The music of maracatu is a single part of a whole community expressing itself. From the references to sacred Afro-Brazilian Beliefs, to theatricality of mimicing Portuguese Royal courts. From dancers, costume-makers, luthiers, and organisers the power and beauty of Maracatu comes from communal effort brought into a sharp focus through practice and care for each other.

Q. How did you approach learning maracatu playing? Is it different from other traditions and cultures of learning?

As with many types of folkloric music from Brazil, Maracatu (or Maracatu Baque Virado (Maracatu of the turning stick) is inherently social in its production. It was tradionally also played and learned by people from the poorer communities. The mode of teaching and learning was primarily through oral recitation, the use of mnemonics as well as purely haptic. Within the communities from where the music originates participants grow up surrounded by the culture in the environment. When the musical form became popular in Europe it tended to be mixed with Western ways of communicating and learning.

There are a selection of exceptional teachers in Europe who straddle these modes of learning well. In general many of the players of this music in Brazil are not professional percussionists or Musicians. Hence teaching methods have evolved to best suit the transmission of learning to the students.

In the last 10 or so years there has been an explosion of popularity of Maracatu outside of Brazil. Now many of the cultural and musical leaders travel to teach and transmit the essence of their culture. We Europeans have returned to ways of learning that those leaders bring. Much of the import of their teaching is less about placement of beats and more to do with approach, attitude, posture and intent of the playing. As a percussionist I also travel to Brazil to continue my learning and as a group we regularly host teachers and leaders from the Maracatu Communities.

Recently some of my own work has been to assist musicians who may have learned through traditional western modes of learning to better embody and understand where the swing and attitude of music comes from, and how to apply it in their own performances. I do use my own knowlege of Western musical notation for my own recording and research of music I experience in Brazil. Whilst it can assist me, it is always secondary to direct learning from the players and teachers from within this culture.
Thanks Tom!

Be at Smithfield Square LUAS stop this Sunday 28th at 3pm, to hear Maracatu Ilha Brilhante kick off Hotter than July in style!

Have a listen to Maracatu Ilha Brilhante here:

You can hear some more music in the 'maractu' style on this PLAYLIST:


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