The Reggae Scene in São Luís do Maranhão
When the reggae movement was first taking roots in Brazil during the 1970′s, it’s influence was seen to be the strongest in Brazil’s Northern region. Reggae completely took over the music scene in the Brazilian state of Maranhão, especially in the capital city São Luís. So much, in fact that the city São Luís is known to its reggae-loving inhabitants today as “Jamaica Brasileira” – Brazilian Jamaica.
São Luís do Maranhão : “Brazilian Jamaica”
São Luís, the capital of Maranhão, is the Brazilian city that has the largest number of reggae listeners in Brazil. Residents of Maranhão talk about reggae as if it were a way of life. Therefore, the city has been nicknamed “Jamaica Brasileira” (Brazilian Jamaica). In São Luís there are many outdoor reggae performances similar to Jamaican Sound Systems. The city has a mystical atmosphere, it’s situated on Brazil’s coast and is famous for its sunshine, azulejos (Portuguese tiles) and its booming reggae scene.
Since the late 70′s when reggae invaded Maranhão through short wave radios (that were customarily tuned by the locals to broadcast music coming from the Carribian), the rhythm of reggae has been a phenomenon in São Luís do Maranhão that has not stopped growing. Even though there were a few famous artists in Brazil (like Gilberto Gil) who were already playing a bit of reggae here and there at their shows, in truth their fans didn’t even know what it was. Brazilians at first were so unaccustomed to the sounds of reggae, that the first reggae albums that were sold in São Luís were sold in the rock section at record shops.
During this time however, reggae parties started emerging in Maranhão, a symptom of the new reggae fever. In Maranhão, the popularity of reggae exploded in such a way that it grew to become a part of the culture that is now totally rooted in the heart of São Luís. The unforgettable reggae nights held in enormous dance halls, the magic of the parties that took place in the towns and on sítios of the interior, under mango trees and delapidated wood huts, the way that people began to dress, dance, act and talk….all of this is a movie that is still very much alive in Maranhão.
The largest collection of reggae music outside of Jamaica can now be found in Maranhão, thanks to the persistence of DJs and reggae club owners who would go to Jamaica or England to bring back reggae records. Jamaican singers such as Eric Donaldson, Stanley Beckford, Honey Boy, Jimmy London, Ken Fyfe, Owen Gray and Joe Higgs are heavily listened to in Maranhão and have become like kings to the Brazilian people of São Luís.
One of the largest Reggae festivals in the world is the “Maranhão Roots Reggae Festival” which always hosts Jamaican reggae legends as well as Brazilian reggae artists or groups.
Something else that’s interesting about how reggae has transformed in São Luís do Maranhão is that this might be the only place on the planet where reggae is danced in couples. Even in Jamaica, you dance alone to reggae, not with someone else.
To most people, the word “radiola” brings up an image of an old fashioned radio, the kind that our grandparents would have listened to as children. In Maranhão, a radiola means something completely different – it’s like a “Paredão de som” (wall of sound). In terms of sound potential, these radiolas are pretty much like trio eletricos without wheels. People from Maranhão (Maranhense) prefer to listen to a strong and loud beat, the kind that prevents you from having any form of conversation. The radiolas Maranhenses do a good job at accomplishing this effect. You will see these radiolas all over the city of São Luís, and they are also scattered around the smaller cities in the interior of Maranhão. Radiolas are so ubiquitous in this area of Brazil that they have become somewhat of a symbol of Maranhão’s reggae culture, also contributing to the nickname “Brazilian Jamaica.” Here are some pictures of the radiolas de reggae do Maranhão: