Sounding Out the Swamp: Recife, Pernambuco, and The Cultural Rise of Northeastern Brazil (Part One)

By 12 September, 2011

Two ghosts haunt Recife, Brazil’s fourth largest city: Gilberto Freyre and Chico Science. They make for an odd pair, the former a distinguished intellectual from a wealthy background whose perspective on his homeland remains a powerful paradigm in Brazilian studies, the latter a dreadlocked alt rocker who put Recife on the contemporary musical map. Peregrinations around the city, the economic capital of the rapidly growing northeast, are littered with references to the two. One lands at Gilberto Freyre Airport, drives through the Chico Science Tunnel or along Chico Science Avenue, visits a museum on the Gilberto Freyre campus of the local university, and eats dinner on the Chico Science floor of a shopping mall downtown.

Chico Science monument in Recife (photo by Guilherme Cavalcanti

Their arc also traces the rise and fall, and emerging rise again, of Recife, and by extension, the state of Pernambuco, which has lovingly preserved musical tradition as it seeks to carve out a modern cultural identity. Much like the American South, northeastern Brazil is perpetually living in a state of faded glory. Made rich by sugarcane, and to a lesser extent coffee, the 20th century shift to an industrialized nation sent money, jobs, and ultimately waves of nordestinos to the south and southeast. That plantation economy also imported a massive number of African slaves to an area with a deep indigenous heritage. Meanwhile, those communities were not as decimated as further south because development remained along the coast.

The ensuing socio-cultural mix, with European (mostly Portuguese) landowners at the top, resulted in one of Brazil’s enduring national myths, that the country is a feijoada of European, African, and indigenous influences – a stew best born out in the demographics of the northeast. As a corollary to that worldview, Gilberto Freyre argued in his seminal 1933 work, Casa Grande e Senzala (titled “The Master and The Slaves” in English), that the close relations between master and slave in Brazil – such as masters’ willingness to recognize as heirs children born by slave women – meant that African culture bore a tangible influence on all Brazilian, “the first modern civilization of the tropics,” no matter how light-skinned.

Sadly, facts on the ground did not always follow Freyre’s theories. In a place like Recife, the tension between European affectation and African roots has played out for over a century. The Museum of the Northeastern Man, home to a devotedly curated permanent collection on the history and culture of northeastern Brazil, implicitly and explicitly tells that story, among many others. The exhibit reads in places like a polemic in favour of Recife’s, Pernambuco’s, and the wider northeast’s previous splendour (city serves as metonym for state as metonym for region). Bourgeois furniture, curio cabinets, and objets d’art share space with technological innovations that arrived in Recife concurrent with the rest of the country, much dating from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Meanwhile, flashing forward to the hallway on maracatu, an Afro-Brazilian music and dance that flourished in the era of slavery, newspaper reprints complain of maracatu nações (nations, akin to Mardi Gras Indian “tribes” in New Orleans) “disturbing the peace” when playing on the streets of Recife, echoing the disdainful attitude of the mid-19th century elite. The retention of African cultural traditions, blended with the onerous conditions of life in the antebellum northeast, did not square with an insistence on a European cultural heritage. It remained, as much African adaptation in the New World, a strategy of survival. “To dance lugubriously cuts the sound of the whip,” wrote the abolitionist poet and playwright Castro Alves, quoted at the end of the exhibit.


Flash forward across the 20th century, as the northeastern narrative becomes one of outmigration and impoverishment. By the late 80s and early 90s, the situation was particularly dire not just in the northeast, but across Brazil – high inflation and a rocky transition to democracy after 20-plus years of military dictatorship. Recife, in particular, was mired in the geography that defines it: swampland. A stagnant economy, a stagnant cultural scene, a stagnant identity. Operating under the mantra of “mudar o lugar ou mudar de lugar (change the place or leave it),” the young musician Chico Science started a band, Nação Zumbi, referring both to the maracatu concept of nations and the fugitive slave leader, Zumbi dos Palmares. Blending maracatu percussion – which until that point was considered the music of the poor – with crunchy guitar rock, Chico’s gruff vocal aesthetics, and a reggae-dub-ragga-pscyh-trip-hop sheen, Chico Science and Nação Zumbi produced gripping, swirling sound that had simply never been heard in Brazil, or the rest of the world for that matter.

Chico Science was compared to Kurt Cobain, and it didn’t hurt that Nação Zumbi’s first music video was played on MTV Brazil immediately after the debut of “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” Nowadays, he is the number three figure for Recife youth after Ché Guevara and Bob Marley, according to Helder Aragão, aka DJ Dolores. Although the most prominent musical export from Recife in this period, Chico Science and Nação Zumbi were hardly the only, and a loose collection of musicians who really didn’t have a unifying sound, but all hailed from Recife or Pernambuco, became known as manguebit or manguebeat.

Dolores is one of those originals, and he chatted with me over coffee and whiskey (I had coffee; he had whiskey after a long day in the studio working on soundtracks) in the Paço Alfândega Mall, the one with a Chico Science floor, “Manguebit was never a movement, it grew and got popular, then the media baptised it a movement.” The name, indeed, was invented and then corrupted by the media: the resonant manguebit, combining “swamp” with the basic unit of digital information, the wellspring of tradition with the building block of a technological future, transformed to manguebeat, using a considerably less provocative Anglicism.

Looking back, Dolores even sees the famous manifesto “Caranguejos com Cérebro” (Crabs with Brains), with its potent image of an antenna emerging from the mud, as “just a press release.” But media meddling aside, the need to break out of a stultifying environment shines through in lyrics like the opening of “Manguetown,” (video above) from 1996’s Afrociberdelia. A dub reggae sample opens, followed by a consistent drum roll, a solid bass groove, and Chico Science sneering, “Estou enfiado na lama / é um bairro sujo / onde os urubus têm casas / e eu não tenho asas (I’m stuck in the mud / it’s a dirty neighbourhood / where the vultures have homes / and I don’t have wings.”

The response, then, comes in a trademark song, “Maracatu Atômico,” (video below) where an urgent maracatu percussion line breaks into funk rock when Chico sings out “atômico.” The fusion of Pernambuco’s long-ignored traditional music with the trappings of fim-do-século genre-hopping was an explosion, and of the most destructive kind. The track name is such a resonant image that it served as the title for Philip Galinsky’s 2002 cultural study of manguebit. Suddenly maracatu was cool, with echoes near and far. Rodas de maracatu continue to populate the streetscene on weekend nights in Recife Antigo, while the Rio Maracatu bloco secured a major beer sponsorship for its parade in this year’s Rio de Janeiro Carnival.

Chico Science died in a car crash in 1997, and Dolores believes that the manguebit scene (movement, concept, whatever one wants to call it) had its beginning and its end some time in the 2000s. In the mean time, Recife is going through something of a boom, buoyed by the overall rise in the Brazilian economy. The northeast is the fastest growing region in the country, almost impossible to believe after so many decades as Brazil’s backwater. Recife is already the second biggest provider of healthcare services after São Paulo, and I was told has more MRI machines than the entire nation of Canada. In a historic reversal, migrants who have suffered on the margins of mega-cities like Rio and São Paulo are actually returning to the northeast, where they can make a decent living with a much better quality of life.

Keep on reading! Part Two of Sounding Out the Swamp: Recife, Pernambuco, and The Cultural Rise of Northeastern Brazil is right here.

Gregory Scruggs is a freelance writer, DJ, and urban researcher who lives in Rio de Janeiro. He focuses on the intersection between audio culture and urban space.

Plus, listen to new music from Pernambuco via our compilation Musica da Massa! New Sounds of Pernambuco and also check out our In A Nutshell guide to the Mangue Bit movement: In A Nutshell: Mangue Bit.

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