The rhythms and dances of the Northeast are so rich in variety that they demand a much larger section to describe them. Here you can find out more about some of the most popular and famous cultural traits of North-eastern Brazil, many of which have historic roots, steeped in symbolism:
Originating in the North-eastern sertão (a vast, semi-arid region in North-eastern Brazil), the baiao is now known all over Brazil, thanks to the accordion playing Luiz Gonzaga, from Pernambuco, who recorded his first big hit in 1946 and opened the doors for similar artists to gain fame and fortune. With its binary rhythm and striking melodies, played on the accordion, agogo and triangle, the genre still has a strong influence on today’s musicians. The dance goes in pairs, who take steps called balanceios, heel steps, crouches and spins. The women wear printed cotton dresses adorned with frills, lots of cleavage and colourful sandals. The men wear light denim trousers, simple shirts and rawhide sandals.
Capoeira is a cultural expression, which makes a ritual of martial arts, playfulness and dance. It arrived in Brazil in the 16th century with the Angolan slaves, who were mainly brought over to the states of Bahia and Pernambuco. Noteworthy for the level of interaction of the participants, who form a circle around performing pairs, with rapid interchanges and highly difficult acrobatic kicks, flips and spins, capoeira is played to the sound of berimbaus, chants and hand claps and has become popular all over the country.
The main attraction of the Pernambuco carnival, frevo is a collective dance known for its syncopated, aggressive, wild march, which keeps going until the dancers ‘boil’ – ‘ferver’, in Portuguese, and the locals have an idiosyncratic way of pronouncing the word, which explains the slightly different spelling. The dance is symbolized by an umbrella, which is used to prevent the dancers from losing their balance. Interestingly, the dance is all about individuality, there are no set steps, everyone dances their own way. You rarely see two people dancing the same way, which makes the spectacle even more interesting.
The maracatu came to Brazil from Africa, originating at the Congolese coronation ceremonies, as a demonstration of strength and power. The rhythm goes along to the beat of percussion, and it starts with a baque virado, a ‘twisted hit’. The dance has an important historical meaning, as it was once a symbol of the slaves’ resistance. Nowadays, the maracatu is a common sight at the Pernambuco carnival.
Portuguese in origin and popular in the state of Piauí, the reisado is so-called due to its being celebrated on the eve of the Day of Kings (Dia de Reis). Between 24 December and 6 January, a group of musicians, singers and dancers go from door to door announcing the arrival of the messiah, giving praise to those who open their doors. The dance first appeared in Brazil in the state of Sergipe, during the period of Portuguese colonization, and these days it can be danced at any time of year, with the themes revolving around love, war, and religion, among others. A reisado performance usually features a certain group of characters, such as a king, a master, a foreman and youngsters, who perform to the sound of accordions, a ganzá rattle, a zabumba bass drum, a triangle and a tambourine.
Also known as the catira, the cateretê is an indigenous dance, heavily used by Padre Anchieta, who translated catholic texts into Tupi, whilst native Americans would dance and sing religious songs. There are no traditional outfits, performers just use their everyday clothes. Different regions have different versions of the dance, but generally there are two rows, with men on one side and women on the other, who tap their feet to the beat of hand claps and guitar, whilst the guitarists sing melodies.
Popular in many states, the congada comes from Catholicism, mixed with African tales of the king of Angola, Gola Bândi. The presentation tells a story of slaves with magic powers, foremen, ladies-in-waiting and warriors, who escort the king and queen to church, where they are coroneted. During the procession, the dancers perform war-like movements, to the sound of guitars, congas and reco-reco scrapers.
A traditional African dance from the state of Alagoas, the coco is now popular all over the Northeast, where it has many names and incarnations. It is usually sung and accompanied by the tapping of feet or the stamping of horses’ hooves. The coordinator intones traditional songs, which are repeated by the singers.
A popular dance from the sertão, the xaxado received its name thanks to the sound made by the sandals used by the cangaceiros (resistance fighters), who celebrated the victories of the Lampião group, whose leader was known as the King of Cangaço. Originally a male-only dance, with satirical lyrics sung to the fast beating of a rifle on the ground, Luís Gonzaga popularized the genre, getting it played on radio, TV and at theatres.
Traditional in Bahia, the maculelê originated at the time of the colonizers, and was a way of celebrating a good harvest. It is performed by men, who dance and sing to the orders of a leader, called the macota, who commands the choir to the sounds of sticks, congas, tambourines and guitars.
Another rhythm which became popular all over Brazil in the 40s, thanks to Luiz Gonzaga, the forró inspires several tales as to the origins of its name: some say it refers to the African term forrobodó, which means party, mess; others say it has to do with the legendary “For All” parties, thrown by the English engineers for the North-eastern railroad workers, who built the Great Western Railway at the beginning of the 1900s. Whatever the origins of its name, what really matters is whether or not you can dance. Its ‘two steps here – two steps back’ to the sound of the big zabumba drum, the triangle and the accordion has become so popular that, nowadays, its name is synonymous with the kind of party where anyone can dance whatever rhythm or style they like.