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Antique calunga doll.

The maracatu is a carnaval group from Pernambuco, in northeastern Brazil. The groups call themselves nação (nation), for example, Nação do Leão Coroado, (Nation of the Crowned Lion), meaning a large homogeneous group. Since the maracatu has close ties to Afro-Brazilian religious ceremonies, for some traditional groups these parades are the secular manifestations of their cults, what they take to the streets, so to speak.

The maracatu is composed of a small percussion orchestra with several types of drums, agogô, rattles; women dancers and a male singer. They parade to the rhythm of the drums, wearing beautifully decorated costumes. The soloist sings a song and the chorus of women answers with the refrain. The standard bearer is followed by the king and queen of the maracatu (represented above in clay), and the man who carries a large colorful umbrella adorned with fringes symbolizing the sun. The woman in front of the group of dancers carries a doll called the calunga. This doll is supposedly a fetish.

In the maracatus of the countryside, called maracatu rural, there is also the figure of an Indian with a feathered headdress who carries large rattles tied to his back.

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Miniature (1 inch tall) maracatu clay figurines by the famous artist Marliete, Caruaru, Pernambuco, 1984. It's now part of the Sheila Thomson Collection of Brazilian Culture at Florida International University in Miami.

A few years ago this centuries-old tradition - it originated with groups of slaves and ex-slaves more than 300 years ago - seemed to be dying out, slowly disappearing from carnaval celebrations. Fortunately, today it is thriving in Pernambuco, both in rural and urban areas (see Leão Coroado), and Rio (Rio Maracatu). If you come to Rio for an extended period of time, you can even take percussion and dance classes from this group. To watch on YouTube, click here. You'll see maracatu rural, followed by maracatu nação, during a whole night parade in Recife.

Rio Maracatu. Photo courtesy: Rio Maracatu

Music & Folklore