I met Professor Flávio Medeiros in 2001 when he arrived in Rochester to participate in the Orff Schulwerk course at Eastman.  After three summers of study he returned to his university in Recife with a generous donation of Orff instruments along with new energy for including Carl Orff’s Schulwerk  in one of his teacher education classes.   It was in 2005 that I made my first trip to Brasil with my good friend and colleague, Mary Helen Solomon; we arrived at the very moment (almost) that the shipment of instruments from Germany did.  The unpacking of more than 20 boxes of pitched Orff instruments attracted many curious students who wandered in throughout the day to help assemble the Orff barred instruments and tinker with the sounds of wood and metal.

Orff instruments arrive-2005

Today these same instruments are put to good use by students enrolled in an Orff Schulwerk course–Musica Iniciação III, the third course in a four-semester music education sequence at UFPE.   I have been eager to learn how Orff Schulwerk was being adapted in this course at UFPE and to observe Flavio’s use of Brazilian repertoire. He had explained many times that Orff Schulwerk would only “live” in Brazil if it drew upon regional music, dance, and poetry and that earlier translations in Brazil had relied too heavily on the original source material.   For several years he has incorporated a final arranging assignment into his class requiring students to compose a piece using a traditional northeast rhythm–ritmo nordestino such as côco, ciranda, maracatu, and frevo.

According to Flávio it is nearly impossible for students to improvise or compose without bringing a traditional rhythm into the mix, so this assignment generates much enthusiasm among students.  Students research the roots and characteristic instruments of each style to inform compositions that blend Orff xylophones and Brasilian percussion.  Flavio’s own collection of instruments (zabumba, alfaia, caixa, surdo, and conga drums) become part of the Orff ensemble to preserve traditional rhythms and local flavor.  Accordion and rebecha (played by violin) are added for some of the pieces.

For the past two weeks, student compositions have been performed in class.  Flute, trumpet, trombone, violin, often carry the melody and students always come prepared to play.  Xylophone parts (soprano, alto, and bass) are performed by any who volunteer to play and the contrabass bars are doubled by a string bass. A small group of 5 or 6 students gather to read through any vocal parts and a percussion section also begins to form as students jump in to try their hand (literally) at conga, zabumba, alfaia, or pandeiro.  When a part requires an advanced technique, as is often the case with the pandeiro (a tambourine-like instruments), an”expert” student joins the class for a brief demonstration and performance.  Many students learn to play in their communities outside in the university and willingly share their knowledge of northeast rhythms and dance.  Cavalo-Marinho (sea horse) was one style that had a particularly challenging pandeiro rhythm and complex dance steps.


The “community” of learners comes to life in Flavio’s class as the pieces are constructed.  Scores are passed around to different “stations” (Orff xylos, contra bars and bass, percussion, melody for flute, violin, or brass, and vocal parts).  Shakers of all shapes and sizes are added along with any other sound effects that people choose to add.  Even though scores are used for learning purposes, everyone begins by simultaneously practicing and learning from each other (not under the direction of a teacher-director).  Students work out parts as the composers circulate to help, and Flavio jumps into assist when necessary. My first reaction to the use of scores was that this is not Orff Schulwerk, but the environment reflects Andrea Sangiorgio’s description of an Orff Schulwerk learning process that is “disciplined, yet open and permissive.”  The sense of community and collaboration are also markers of an Orff classroom.  There is noise with a purpose and everyone remains on task until a “lead” student eventually takes charge for a final rehearsal and performance.

As the arrangement comes together, the dancing and drama begin.Students play and move with ease and delight; Samuel dances the côco while playing his flute; Adriano adds a simply baião step to the ganzá rhythm he plays, and singers are typically in motion inviting me to join in for maracatu, forró, and cocô.

The synchronicity of music and movement is a fundamental element of traditional music and most students here are at home assuming dual roles as musicians and dancers.  Although Recife is a long way from the Munich and the Güntherschule where Orff began his music-movement experiments, I am finding similarities between these different worlds.  “Out of music movement; out of movement music” (Dorothee Gunther) is an idea that is practiced by Brasileiros.  Music and movement in this culture are as “important for survival as water and air”—something that long-time director of the Orff Institute Hermann Regner no doubt marveled at during his travels to Brazil.  In class, I am swept away by the music and dance as well.  For those who know me well, you can imagine that I am in heaven!


I just found a YouTube link of Maracato do Porto Rico performing during Carnaval and thought it would complement my video of one of their Saturday classes that was included in the last post.

Soon I will write about the Maracatu rhythms being used in Orff arrangements in a music education class that I am observing each week at the university.  Try to envision “Maracatu-Orff” complete with dancing and traditional drums!

This past week I had an opportunity to visit one of the traditional Maracatu venues, Nação do Maracatu Porto Rico.   Former Music Alive exchange student, Juliana Cantarelli, invited me to join her for a first observation that is part of a university research project studying “informal” music learning in Recife.  Three northeast music traditions will be observed in the coming months:  Capoeira, Cabocolinho, and Maracatu.   Ju’s assignment is to study a maracatu nation, or nação. This particular nação is located in neighborhood not far from my “home” in Boa Viagem, but the contrast between Boa Viagem’s high-rise apartments and upscale shopping and this neighborhood that was once a favela is dramatic.  Soon after turning off the busy avenue,  we made our way slowly through the narrow streets of Communidade de Bode (community of the goat) before arriving at the entrance of Nação do Maracatu Porto Rico, one of several well-known “nations” in Recife currently led by Mestre Shacon Viana.  We also got to meet Shacon’s mother, Elda, who is the spiritual leader and “queen” of this group.

Each nação is connected to an African-based religion of Candomblé.  During the period of slavery in Brazil Candomblé dieties called orishas (orixas) were worshiped.  To appease the Catholic church naçãoes were required to associate with a Catholic saint.  As we entered nação Porto Rico we saw evidence of this synchretism with statues of orishas and St. George standing side-by-side.

The first room on the lower level is the site for candomblé ceremonies.    Turquoise walls reflect the color of the South Atlantic ocean and possibly Iemanjá (the orisha of the sea)–although I don’t know what orisha this naçáo worships.   African language painted over the stage was yet another unknown for me.  We were led up a narrow tile staircase to the main room where red and green alfaia drums were stacked neatly along the wall.  Fifteen students ranging from 9-50 years would soon begin their two-hour rehearsal, but first we had a short tour of what takes place behind the scenes of Carnaval preparation.  A small multi-purpose room housed five industrial sewing machines that are essential for the elaborate costumes worn by the queen and court during Carnaval processions.  Our guide was eager to show us the queen’s dress, which brought back memories of the 2006 Carnaval parades that I saw.

We divided our time between observing the percussion rehearsal and the girls practicing a simple movement with abê shakers (large gourds with beads on the outside).  At the center of the percussion rehearsal was Mestre Shacon.  His calm, yet commanding approach, kept the 12 musicians constantly busy working on technique, rhythms, and sequences for various patterns. He gives students “the look” when patterns are inaccurate, or he simply begins to model rhythms on his drum.   At times the group of younger girls would gather to work out rhythms together.  Mestre Shacon shifts his attention between the alfaia and caixa (snare drum) players, sometimes standing back to listen and other times taking the lead with vocal calls and gestural cues. The sound is both powerful and deafening (after two hours); next time I’m bringing ear protection.   Fortunately, the alfaias all had cloth pads attached that could quickly be placed over the drum to dampen the sound. Downstairs girls practiced a simple movement while playing large abê (gourd shakers).

In this clip you will see the two rehearsals of drummers and dancers.

Recife Antigo, the oldest part of the city, comes alive on Sunday afternoons for a weekly street fair.  Several blocks are transformed with arts, crafts, music, and food.  Many people fill the streets shopping for jewelry or artwork as strolling musicians weave their way through the crowds.   Mime artists pose like statues on street corners inviting curious children and touristas to “wake them up.” As night falls, a central park area becomes the scene for live bands and forró dancing.  (More on forró in a future blog.)

Just off this square is a small stage set for mamulengo–a puppet theater that is an improvisational form with comic and satirical themes. Old Recife’s turquoise and yellow buildings provide a colorful place for this creative art form.  There is a museum of mamulengo in Recife’s sister city of Olinda that I hope to visit soon.

After stopping for a suco we moved on to watch some of the maracatu rehearsals taking place in nearby streets.  Maracatu is a traditional music of northeast Brazil that was generated in the African slave quarters (senzalas) and poor areas (mocambos) of northeast Brazil. My friends are quick to point out that what I am seeing is “middle class” maracatu and not the traditional form.

A feature article in last month’s regional Continente magazine discusses the current “crisis” of differing ideas of maracatu. (“Ha uma crise na ideia de maractu.”)  As the “parafolclorico” groups spring up outside the neighborhoods where the roots of maracatu still reside in Recife, there is concern that something is lost in translation.  Not surprisingly when any musical tradition crosses economic, religious, and musical boundaries it takes on a different form and purpose even when the geographic gap is so small as it is here.  I can already hear the questions about  issues of authenticity when sharing maracatu with teachers in the U.S.

Maracatu has become a marker of cultural pride in the state of Pernambuco and it seems that everyone wants to know maracatu–to participate in a group and join in on Sundays in Old Recife to drum and dance. I’m ready, too, but I am also eager to find the roots of maracatu.  Thanks to former WVU Music Alive students who are serving as my guides I will soon visit several of the traditional maracatu venues in search of the masters. “Whosoever really wants to learn maracatu, it’s better to look for the mestres.” (Maracatu: Baque Virado e Baque Solto, 2005.)

The past week was spent getting situated, not simply in terms of navigating through a sea of Portuguese and getting acclimated to a new place, but finding a rhythm for each day. By 5:30a.m. the sun is streaming through the shutters of my room and sounds of nearby construction signal a new day. Another high-rise apartment building with magnificent views of the South Atlantic will soon join many other dwellings on Boa Viagem’s beach.

Breakfast in this house always includes traditional bolacha–a crispy cracker supplied by the nearby padería (bakery). Cheese and an endless array of fruits are served daily. Add acerola, melão, papaya, and maracujá (passion fruit) to those I have now tried. I’m not sure why I am so preoccupied with fruits; perhaps it’s my love of gardening and local foods along with the recognition that fruits are part of daily living here and a marker of Brazilian culture.  Family members are eager to teach me the names of fruits and often quiz me to make sure I’m making progress.

An early morning walk on the beach provides an important time for reflection and brings opportunities to observe children at play. At mid-morning some children are chasing water as it washes in and out; others are digging and building. “Perigo” (danger) signs warn of sharks lurking, but Recife’s many reefs provide protective pools for water play.

I am reading an interesting book by Andrea Sangiorgio, “Orff Schulwerk as Anthropology of Music” and am reminded of Orff’s insistence on the central role of play in learning. In the 1930’s he wrote: “Music education for children does not begin in the music class, but in the play time.” Soon I will be visiting children’s music classes, but for now the fieldwork begins here…in the sandpit.

Lunch (almoça) is the largest meal of the day that typically includes rice and beans…black, brown, green, tan. Green beans (fejão verde) are my favorite (although they look nothing like the ones in my Morgantown garden). On the days that I attend music education classes from 8 until noon I join other faculty and students for lunch in the cafeteria located next to an open courtyard in the center of the CAC (Center for Arts and Communication). Another CAC! Here I have a chance to practice my Portuguese and chat with students.

At the end of the day people in my host family’s house “have a coffee” (which often doesn’t include coffee). This light meal of a sanduíche or soup and suco (juice) is consumed soon after the sun sets around 5:30p.m. My seasonal clock is confused: “Can this be September?” The 12-hour day that comes with living near the equator is all part of getting situated and finding a new rhythm for my work here.

goiaba suco e coxinha....delicious!

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