The MarHotel in Recife, in the Northeast of Brazil, is one of the nation’s finest hotels and a major selling point in the city’s attempts to attract tourists. Located in upper class Boa Viagem, it boasts an outdoor swimming pool with two waterfalls (one of which has a bar behind it), a rooftop garden with a view of the Atlantic, and a breakfast that on its own is worth the sixteen-hour trip from New York. Less than a block away, a bridge runs over a ten-foot-deep culvert which carries raw sewage through the streets. When this is full, the smell is unbearable. There are people living on the grassy embankment surrounding it, most of them children. Directly across this bridge is a dark stretch of sidewalk where street kids hang out at night, sniffing glue and leering at the gringos who pass by. This is the nice neighborhood.
But despite the city’s rough exterior and the seemingly hopeless situation of many of its inhabitants, Recife contains within it the seeds of its own salvation: a beautiful and strong culture, incorporating music, dance, art and poetry. Given the proper encouragement this city could be that could turn this struggling city into a well-developed and internationally known center of Brazilian culture. Over the past summer, I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to go to Recife and witness this for myself.
I am a professional guitarist, and a member of Scott Kettner’s band, Nation Beat. In 2001, Scott, who had just graduated from New School University, followed an impulse and went to Brazil. There he found Maracatu de Baque Virado, a traditional form of music from the favelas of Recife. Scott lived there for months, absorbing the music, the culture, and the language, and ended up finding not only his own purpose as a musician but also his beautiful and gifted wife, Michelle. Upon his return to New York, Scott began teaching Maracatu classes.
Nearly five years later, as well as continuing to teach classes every week in Brooklyn and at the New School, Scott now leads two groups which perform Maracatu and other traditional music from the Northeast Brazil. The Nation Beat is one, and the other is an all-percussion-group called Maracatu NY. Our goal in the Nation Beat is double: to compose original music based on Maracatu,Coco, Baiao, Forro, and other regional Brazilian styles while at the same time creating instrumental and vocal arrangements of those traditions that reflect our own backgrounds in jazz and American music.
Scott’s percussion group, Maracatu NY, traveled to Recife in 2005 to perform in Carnival. So when it came time for the Nation Beat to make its first CD, we decided to record in Recife in order to collaborate with Maracatu Nacao Estrela Brilhante, (literally: The Maracatu Nation of the Shining Star), the traditional percussion group from whom Scott learned Maracatu.
Flying six musicians from New York to Brazil, paying for their food, lodging, and transportation, and booking two weeks of studio time, is no nickel-and-dime endeavor. After tapping every contact in his book, Scott eventually found support in the form of CHESF, a Brazilian hydroelectric company, and the Cultural Department of the Prefeitura do Recife, (the mayor’s office). CHESF footed the bill for the recording, and the Prefeitura put us up in the MarHotel and provided us with a van and Andre, our taciturn but excellent driver. After ten long days, spent mostly in the studio or in the van on the way to the studio, we had a great record in the can, the first ever collaboration between a traditional Maracatu group from Brazil and an American group.
When we had time to look around, we were astonished to discover that most support for traditional regional music comes through subsidies like ours from CHESF, the Prefeitura do Recife, and other such private and public institutions. Although it is true that they receive substantial tax breaks for charitable donations, they could receive the same benefits from donating to other causes. They have, however, consistently underwritten CDs and concerts of folkloric music. Why? And why go so far as to give thousands of Reals to a group of gringos?
To begin with, it helps to understand a little bit about the city or Recife. Like most major Brazilian cities, it is a mix of the relatively prosperous and the unspeakably poor. And as I learned in Boa Viagem, by far the city’s most expensive neighborhood, there is no place where the poverty is not present. There are definitely beautiful areas —Recife Antigo, which has a lot of gorgeous Dutch architecture, sort of the equivalent of the Isle de Paris, is my favorite, and the neighboring city of Olinda is an unbelievable place. But there are also neighborhoods called ‘favelas,’ slums where the houses are made of plywood. A street of beautiful old Dutch houses will be abruptly interrupted by a burned-out husk of a building, rubble and trash visible through gaping holes in its façade. And the main streets of the city are surrounded by rolling hills called morros, areas where cabs won’t drive at night and the police don’t bother to go. Thus, these areas are more or less ungoverned. Opportunities for work are limited, the only real option being unskilled labor. And many people go hungry.
One of the major problems facing Brazil today (though not necessarily the one that’s most addressed) is what to do with these areas, with this massive underclass that suffers daily from privation and violence and has little opportunity to improve its situation. And although the reality of favelas and morros is nationwide, the problem takes on an additional dimension in the Northeast.
Think of Brazil and what comes to mind? The statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro, beaches, soccer, maybe the movies Black Orpheus or City of God, both of which take place in Rio – or samba, the music that’s native to Rio. In short, if you’ve heard of Recife or Maracatu, you’re in a very slim minority. The federal government does not promote Recife or the Northeast in the same way it promotes Rio and Sao Paolo, as tourist destinations and exemplars of Brazilian culture. Whenever I tell people I’m in a band that plays Brazilian music, the inevitable response is, “Oh, you play Samba?”
Thus the additional social problem faced by the entire Northeast region is how to restore a sense of legitimacy and pride in a population that has consistently been marginalized by the federal government and is all but unknown to the outside world. Slogans like “Orgulho de ser Nordestino” (Proud to be Northeastern), recently adopted by the government, are not in themselves much help. Here I think is part of the answer as to why CHESF and the city government were interested in helping foreigners like us to record local music—it helps prove the validity and worth of their culture. (Obviously, a greater international interest in Northeastern culture might also lead to an increase in tourist revenues, something the city could surely use.) And there are other signs of growing awareness of the importance of promoting this regional art form.
In the late nineties, Chico Science, a phenomenal musician born and bred in Recife, started the Mangue-beat movement. Mangue is the Portuguese for mangrove, the tree that only grows in the most fertile of environments. Taking this as one of their symbols, Chico Science and his band Nacao Zumbi sought to “inject some energy into the mud and stimulate what fertile material still remains in the veins of Recife.” They also understood the importance of creating a connection with the outside world, as is evidenced by their music, a perfect blend of traditional Northeastern styles and funk, rock, and hip-hop. Chico Science became a nationally-known figure and a great inspiration and source of pride to the city, and his tragic death in a car accident in 1997 was a serious blow to the newborn movement of urban cultural renewal.
The cultural initiatives of CHESF, the Prefeitura, and people like Chico Science have the potential to make great and positive change. Recife and many other places in the region have a tremendous natural resource ready for export. It’s music. Maracatu, Coco, Baiao, Mangue-beat, Forro, Embolada - all the incredible music of the Northeast is just waiting to explode onto the global scene. And it has already begun to happen: in Europe, especially, there is a steadily growing interest in Northeastern culture. France, which this year is celebrating “the year of Brazil in France,” just played host to several noted figures of Northeastern music during its “Pernambuco Week.” And New York City now has two exceptional bands dedicated to the performance of Forro music—as well as the USA’s only Maracatu group.
Exporting the culture of Northeast Brazil to the world, and thus creating a global market, expands opportunities for musicians to perform and record it. This in turn increases the incentive for Northeasterners to appreciate their musical roots. It can even help people in practical ways. In the United States, we are not likely to think of being a musician as a profitable career. But it is important to realize that all of the styles that I mentioned before are from the favelas or the interior—the poorest areas of Recife and the surrounding state of Pernambuco – and any and all skills are useful. Furthermore, in communities so lacking in education and opportunity, learning an instrument can help teach the essential traits of discipline, perseverance and self-respect.
Jorge Martins, a master percussionist, and lifelong resident of Recife, is a good example of the global potential of Northeastern music—as a member of the G-nominated band Cascabulho, he toured Europe and North America, lived and taught Maracatu for a time in Sweden, and has been giving Maracatu workshops in New York City for the past three years. Jorge runs a social service program called Tambores do Pilar that teaches children from a favela in Recife how to play drums; he has even been successful in enrolling several of his students in the music conservatory.
What it comes down to is this: music is one of the Northeast’s greatest natural resources. To waste it would be a tragedy, especially when it can do so much good not only economically, but culturally. We were fortunate enough to meet and record with musicians who are interested not only in their own success but also in the urban renewal of Recife. It is now our responsibility to represent their music well when we perform, to give credit where it is due, and to join in efforts to revitalize the city. In a city overflowing with culture, it would be a shame if the MarHotel’s swimming pools were the only tourist attraction.