Music and Rhythms of the Brazilian Northeast

Music and Rhythms of the Northeast
Music and Rhythms of the Brazilian Northeast

It is impossible to think about the culture of Brazil without considering the music and rhythms of the Northeast, the themes and inventiveness of Northeast music – a mix of influences in which tradition and renewal coexist.

In all of Brazil, the Northeast is the region that most zealously preserves its musical traditions and rhythms – a rich heritage in which indigenous, African and Iberian influences are mixed and which manifests itself in hundreds of rhythms sung and danced in all states.

Thus, while the atabaques of candomblé and the capoeira circles that multiply in Bahia are clearly African, the repentes sertanejos, with their improvised verses, are a legacy of the Iberian Peninsula and bear Arab reminiscences; Likewise, the caboclinhos – a choreography presented at the Pernambuco Carnival by dancers dressed as Indians – have indigenous origins, while the zambê of Rio Grande do Norte, a circle in which participants invite each other to dance by calling them through umbigadas, came from Angola.

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The examples are inexhaustible of the music and rhythms of the northeast: the popular festivities of the northeast multiply throughout the year, but reach their peak in the Carnival and in June.

Some types of music, rhythms and dances from the northeast


Bahia and Pernambuco represent the two poles of the Northeastern Carnival.

In Salvador, the party has become a lucrative tourist product. Alongside the ubiquitous axé music (a fusion of northeastern rhythms with commercial pop born in the 1980s) and the trios elétricos, the city is the stage for manifestations linked to African traditions, such as the afoxés and the blocos afros.

The afoxés emerged at the end of the 19th century. The popular Filhos de Gandhy (Sons of Gandhy) walk the streets, dragging sandals, singing ijexás – the rhythm of candomblé songs – and greeting the orixás in the Nagô language. The Afro blocos are very recent: they were formed in the 1970s.

Ilê Aiyê, very attached to the idea of affirming black culture and identity, only accepts Afro-descendants in its community.

In Pernambuco, Carnival is a party – even – less structured and more spontaneous. There, among other rhythms and dances (caboclinhos, coco, etc.), frevo and maracatu reign.

The frevo, born at the end of the 19th century, probably from the polka and the military dobrados, is characterized by the unmistakable nu rcha of frenetic rhythm and the choreography, an incessant up-and-down of legs and arms.

Maracatu is based on a collective and rehearsed petformance to the sound of drums, rattles and gonguês.

The members, dressed in colorful costumes and ornaments, chase the calunga, a richly decorated doll attached to a stick. Seu Salustiano, founder of the Pernambuco group Piaba de Ouro, is the biggest promoter of the variant known as rural maracatu, considered the most faithful to its African origins.

During Carnival, frevo bands spread the vibrant sound of brass throughout Olinda and Recife. They join the maracatu blocks, known as nações.

Since the 1960s, Recife has celebrated, at midnight on Carnival Sunday, the Night of the Silent Drums: gathered in the Pátio do Terço, in front of the church in Recife Antigo, the crowd stops for a minute and all the drumming falls silent, in homage to the Africans enslaved in the past.

The pause anticipates many hours of sound, at the meeting of nations from all over Pernambuco, some of them traditional, such as Elefante (founded in 1800), Leão Coroado (from 1863) and Estrela Brilhante (from 1910).


Like the drums, the sanfona occupies a prominent place in northeastern music. In a forró – a party animated by rhythms such as baião, coco, xaxado and xote – the “pé-de-bode”, the popular eight-bass accordion, cannot be missing.

The zabumba and the triangle form with it the basic set of the “baile sem etiqueta”, in the definition of the folklorist Câmara Cascudo. From popular entertainment, forró gained the status of a musical genre, especially with the intensification of the migratory movement of northeasterners to the Southeast of Brazil.

It was Luís Gonzaga who pioneered the spread of baião throughout the country. Born in Exu, in the backlands of Pernambuco, Gonzaga made a name for himself in the 1940s performing in Rio de Janeiro.

He died in 1989, the sacred king of baião, in a court that included several illustrious northeasterners, such as singer Marinês, accordion players Sivuca and Dominguinhos, and Jackson do Pandeiro, a native of Paraíba who was an excellent pandeirista because his parents had no money to buy him an accordion.

Forró marks another high point in the northeastern calendar: the celebration of the June festivals. The celebrations in honour of Saint Anthony, Saint John and Saint Peter take place all over the country, but in the Northeast they mobilize crowds and extend for days, usually elevated to holidays.

In June, the whole region is abuzz with lots of arrasta-pé, quadrilha dancing and typical foods. Caruaru, in Pernambuco, and Campina Grande, in Paraíba, compete every year for the title of best June festival in the world and each receive 150,000 visitors a day.


Alongside the music and rhythms of the northeast, and nurtured by them, other musical strands developed in the Northeast.

In the 1940s, while Luís Gonzaga was introducing Brazil to the sounds of the sertão, a Bahian was gaining national recognition: Dorival Caymmi, one of the country’s great sambistas – and musicians.

It is important to remember, by the way, that samba was born in Bahia, and was brought to Rio de Janeiro by northeastern immigrants settled in the suburbs of Rio de Janeiro; in 2005, the samba-de-roda of the Recôncavo Baiano was declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco.

At the end of the 1950s, bossa nova was born in the southern zone of Rio de Janeiro, which established in popular music a sophisticated guitar beat and an intimate style that contrasted with the grandiloquence that had dominated Brazilian popular music until then; curiously, the best translation of bossa nova was a Bahian from Juazeiro, João Gilberto.

The song festivals that shook up the cultural scene in the following decade were the great channel of expression for young musicians during the military dictatorship established in 1964.

They featured Geraldo Vandré, from Paraíba, known for his politically charged songs, and the Bahians Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, whose influence would extend throughout the following decades.

In 1968, the two composers would launch, with fellow Bahians Tom Zé and Capinam, and singers Maria Bethânia and Gal Costa, the Tropicalist movement – which discussed the concepts of good and bad taste, of national and foreign, promoting the encounter between traditional sounds and foreign influences.

In the same decade, the Alagoas polyinstrumentalist Hermeto Paschoal began, with his Quarteto Novo, to combine baião and xaxado rhythms with jazz and contemporary harmonies.

Maestro Moacir Santos, an exceptional composer and arranger, recorded his first album in 1965; born in the sertão of Pernambuco, Santos built a solid international career.


From 1970 onwards, the Brazilian recording industry could no longer do without Northeastern artists.

There is an extensive list of composers and singers who, more or less linked to the typical music of their states of origin, crossed regional boundaries and achieved popular recognition throughout the country – just remember the names of Djavan, Belchior, Fagner, Raul Seixas, Elba Ramalho, Zé Ramalho, Nando Cordel, Alceu Valença, among others.

The more traditional rhythms of the Northeast were also exposed to the general public: in 1973, Edith do Prato, a samba-de-roda singer from the city of Santo Amaro da Purificação, in the Recôncavo Baiano, participated in the album Araçá azul by Caetano Veloso (in 2004, at the age of 87, she would record her first CD).

The unusual sound of the Banda de Pífanos de Caruaru, formed in 1924 in the backlands of Alagoas, had its first vinyl record in 1972. In 1977, the cirandeira Lia, from the island of Itamaracá, in Pernambuco, also recorded her first album. By the end of the decade, critics and audiences in the United States, Europe and Japan were bending to the avant-garde beats of percussionist Naná Vasconcelos.

In the following decade, Salvador’s Olodum Afro bloc became a national sensation; shortly after, it was Timbalada’s turn, led by composer Carlinhos Brown.

Axé music took singers like Margareth Menezes, Daniela Mercury and Ivete Sangalo, currently one of the biggest record sellers in the country, and Lenine has become known in Brazil and Europe as a singer, songwriter and arranger.

In a very different vein, the Pernambucan Antônio Nóbrega , dancer, musician and scholar of traditional Northeastern culture, has settled in São Paulo, where he continues an important work of musical research and dissemination.


The younger generations are no less creative. Zeca Baleiro and Rita Ribeiro mix folkloric tendencies from Maranhão with electronic pop, and Parai Bano’s Chico César hits with his vigorous repertoire.

Mestre Ambrósio and Cordel do Fogo Encantado are good examples of groups that have combined popular poetry and the rhythms of the sertão (toré, samba-de-coco, reisado, embolada, caboclinho, ciranda).

Annual festivals ensure that this granary of talent is buzzing. Percpan, the World Percussion Panorama, has been held in the Bahian capital since 1994 and aims to bring together musicians from Brazil and around the world linked by the percussion link.

Two Recife festivals, Abril Pro Rock and Rec Beat, which were held in 1993 and 1995 respectively, brought to the fore the mangue beat movement, an almost improbable fusion of soul, funk, hip hop and maracatu, originally promoted by Chico Science with Nação Zumbi and Mundo Livre S/A.

In recent editions, Abril Pro Rock has made room for two new figures on the current northeastern scene: rocker Pitty and electronic DJ Dolores. Rowing against the tide, the Bahian prefers the heavy sound of guitars.

DJ Dolores – whose stage name is Helder Aragão de Melo from Sergipe – travels around Brazil and the world playing sampled versions of regional tones picked up on the streets of his homeland. The success achieved by both leaves no doubt: all sounds fit on the northeastern board.

Music and Rhythms of the Northeastern States


candomblé, axé, samba-de-roda, capoeira, samba reggae, ijexá, afoxé


Reisado, warrior, coco-de-roda, bacamarteiro


Coco-de-roda, guerreiro, chegança, pagode alagoano, baianá, masseira, boi de maragogi, pagode de viola, martelo agalopado, roda de valsar


Maracatu baque solto, maracatu, baque virado, maracatu rural, caboclinhos, cavalo-marinho, candomblé, frevo, coco, ciranda, repente


Ciranda, nau catarineta, coco-deroda, baião


Coco-de-roda, zambê


Reisado, guerreiro, maraca tu, maneiro pau


Reisado, coco-de-roda


Tambor de crioula, boi de pindaré, boi de matraca, boi de orquestra, boi de costa de mão, tambor de mina, reggae maranhense

Music and Rhythms of Northeast Brazil – Tourism and Travel Guide to Bahia, Salvador and the Northeast of Brazil

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