Afro-Caribbean-Brazilian fundamentals for a technology of/ for the body

While embodying the idea of ‘modern’ technology due to their state-of-the-art transistor or digital amplifiers and cutting edge speaker boxes design, sonic street technologies also nurture relations with ancestral technologies. During our research we frequently found out that, across the Black diaspora, the sound system in its different types is often compared to the the ancient African drum. This week’s blog shares poignant reflections by SST Brazil researcher Marcus Ramusyo Brasil on the resonances between the local radiola (sound system) technology and the wood, leather and fire powering folk celebrations in Maranhão, Brazil.

by Marcus Ramusyo Brasil

The state of Maranhão in Northeastern Brazilian coast, as well as its capital, São Luís, is nationally considered the “Brazilian Jamaica”. This is mainly due to the role of the radiolas (local sound systems) as cultural agents that turned reggae into one of the strongest and most consistent cultural and economic manifestations within local society.

This dimension of the reggae movement in Maranhão is sustained by sound, ethnic identification and geographic and climatic proximity between Jamaica and São Luís, both island environments. But none of this would have come about if it wasn’t for the brave spirit of the first radiola entrepreneurs and DJs, who, from 1991 onwards, sought the vinyl that shaped the hegemony of reggae as popular music for the masses in the capital of Maranhão from the source: Jamaica. These pioneers were true adventurers, launching themselves into a new market by building their own sound systems and also consolidating the music repertoire which defines Maranhão reggae culture, here called “reggae roots”- in fact, mostly based on lovers rock, among other reggae sub-genres. With the economic and cultural evolution of the reggae movement in the 1980s and 1990s, some radiola owners began to buy spaces in the mass media, radio and TV to advertise and broadcast their own parties, as well as showcasing the local reggae culture. This is how the regueira mass (reggae crowd) was formed.

Reggae practitioners/followers, next to the Super Itamaraty radiola boxes

With the consolidation of reggae culture among less well-off people, and its popularization into fractions of the local middle class, during the 1990s reggae became a primary cultural, social and economic phenomenon in Maranhão. The success of a few radiola owners, the so-called ‘reggae magnates’, launched them into institutional politics. One exemplary case is Pinto from radiola Itamaraty, who went from councillor to federal deputy and then to substitute senator of the republic. This trajectory took place throughout the 2000s, consolidating the exponential growth of a few major radiolas to the detriment (and sometimes the disappearance) of the small and medium ones. A process of professionalization took place in the reggae scene, which went from being an organic part of local festive culture to a complex business enterprise. Radiola Itamaraty owned by Pinto da Itamaraty, Estrela do Som owned by Ferreirinha, and FM Natty Nayfso owned by Natty Nayfson dominated the scene, in that order. With the unsustainability of the oligarchies of these reggae conglomerates, due to the very size and structure that these operations demand, from the 2010s onwards these major radiolas begun to loose space in the mass media. Currently, they also play much less in São Luís than in the interior of the state – especially with their full set including several sound walls. Recently, roots reggae nostalgia and revival songs gained space again, after being replaced by these radiolas by self-produced electronic reggae for some time.

Crowd at the Cidade do Reggae dance party, held at the Vila Palmeira Folklore Park, São Luís, in a radiola meeting

Considering that radiolas play a lot in the inner areas of the state and in the countryside of the island of São Luís, sessions are often linked to popular culture celebrations: Bumba-Meu-Boi festivals, saint festivals, Tambor de Crioula festivals, among others. In this sense, it might be possible to explore resonances between the ancestral sound technologies made of leather, fire and wood sustaining these popular culture manifestations and the modern sound technologies of Maranhão sound systems. Such relationships can raise hypotheses about ethnic knowledge passed down through generations: what Muniz Sodré called Nagô thinking (2017, p. 91), in a reconfiguration of knowledge coming from Africa that he describes, inspired by Alain Badiou, as “guardianship of the event” (2011, p. 105).

This “guarding of the event” evidently implies a group memory, which can be described, along the lines of sociologist Maurice Hallbwachs – a disciple of Bergson and Durkheim – by traits of collectivism (a synoptic view of individual memories), presenteeism (the representation of the origin depends on the here and now) and spatiality (representations are raised by the construction of a specific territory) (Sodré, 2017, p. 92) The category of “guardian of the event” can be articulated with the notions of archaic, residual, emerging and dominant culture proposed by Wlliams (1979), to provide nodal clues about a possible archeology of radiola technologies in Maranhão, as well as the profusion of culture arising from them.

Ancestral and Modern Technologies

Reggae sound systems in Maranhão have always been linked to folk traditions such as the Bumba-Meu-Boi and the Creole drum, ancestral manifestations of enslaved Black people from Africa, who found in the music and dance of those who preceded them, fertile ground for resistance practices against colonial domination. These traditional cultural practices centred around music and dance are powered by percussion instruments which are made up of wood and leather and tuned by fire. The wood, when stretched by the heat of fire, frays the leather, providing the perfect sound of the drums. As Mestre Felipe of Mestre Felipe’s Creole drum stated in his famous summary: “The drum is tuned with fire, danced to with a kick and played with the punch”.

Sound technician at work on Super Itamaraty radiola’s amplifiers, at Cidade do Reggae dance party.

We can therefore establish an important relationship between the early radiolas from Maranhão, transitor-amplified, and the ancestral technologies of such folk culture manifestations. The heat that provides the ideal sound for the first reggae radiolas in Maranhão is the same heat that tunes the sounds of popular culture. Their relationship is not one of  comparison, but rather an approximate correspondence between black African ancestry and modern Maranhão radiolas. This heat warms the bodies and minds of local reggae fans, in the insular flows of identification between the island of Jamaica and São Luís, providing a cultural influx that connects the Caribbean and Brazil, having as its guiding thread the flows of African ancestral culture across the Black Atlantic.

One of the many Anancy spiders in Casa Fanti Ashanti murals

The presence of reggae in local popular culture festivals is therefore not accidental – nor is the attempt by local hegemonic media to try to disqualify such presence within black cultural manifestations in Maranhão. Local reggae bands such as Nêgo Bantu (now ended) already indicated this relational feature by introducing the rhythmic cell of the Creole drum into the sound of local reggae in the 1990s. Pioneering this connection was drummer Moisés da Nêgo Bantu, who seems to have captured, with his musical sensitivity, the “spirit” of the times, both then and now. Such spiritual approaches were also noticed by the director of the São Luís Reggae Museum, Ademar Danilo, when he found correlations between the Tambor de Mina religion from Maranhão and Jamaican Pukkumina, an Afro-Jamaican cult descending from surviving forms of African religiosity mixed with Protestant elements, at the time of the Great Revival, in Jamaica between 1860 – 1862. This inference is drawn by Ademar Danilo through the onomatopoeia aspect of the prefix ‘Pukku’ for the root word “Mina”, as a linguistic trace of the touching of drum, as in ‘Tambor de Mina’, which has the drum in its name. Another important clue to such considerations was attested by SST researcher Julian Henriques when visiting Casa Fanti Ashanti in 2022, currently led by Mãe Kabeca. Here Henriques noticed the presence of Anancy, the trickster incarnated in the form of a spider, which is found in both Jamaican folk culture and Maranhão’s Tambor de Mina.

The “coreira” ballet in front of the “coreiros” at Tambor de Crioula and their drums: “grande”, “meião” and “crivador”, from left to right.

Sound technologies and aesthetics of black and mixed-race life in Maranhão resonate through the bodies of the crowd at the Bumba-meu-Boi parties, in Largo de São Pedro (the festival that culminates the June celebrations with all the Bumba-meu-Boi groups reunited on Saint Peter’s Day, June 29), for example, where all musicians strategically position themselves next to the “onça drum”, a type of cuíca bass drum that directs the rhythm of all the other instruments in a batalhão (as the ensamble of Bumba-meu-Boi  players are called). This same attraction is seen in reggae radiolas, with the regueiros dancing next to the speakers, to feel the vibration of the subwoofers, making the entire body vibrate, especially the central organs: stomach, viscera, heart, lungs, etc. It is no surprise that Nietzsche warns us that: “consciousness is an organ like the stomach” (apud. Peixoto Junior, p. 729) and that “(…) this little reason that you call ‘spirit’, my brother, it is just an instrument of your body, a very small instrument, a plaything of your great reason.” (Idem)

Bumba-meu-boi crowd at the “Bois” meeting in San Peter’s Square in São Luís, which occurs every year on June 29th

The ancestral sound technologies of the popular culture in Maranhão, as well as the technologies of reggae radiolas in Maranhão, indicate the creation of a specific territory for the full realization of the gesture of Black existing A technology of the body and for the body. Something that cannot be simply described, but must be affectively perceived in the displacement of air and sound, in the breeze of the tide and in the modulations of the senses, as incarnations of a propitiatory gift, a domain typical of the philosophies of the African spirit (Afro-American / Afro-Brazilian) of being-in-the-world, which cannot be totally rationalized, something like a structure of feelings in the sense that Raymond Williams puts it: “feeling as it is thought and thought as it is felt” (1997, p. 155). Here, the grave is the mother, fertile and aggregating, and the fire is the father, radiant!

Marcus Ramusyo Brasil is a filmmaker, musician and multimedia artist. Researcher at the Mountain Arts Laboratory – Graça Morais, Portugal. Associate Professor of Photography and Multimedia at the Federal Institute of Maranhão, Brazil. Doctor in Social Sciences (PUC-SP).


Badiou, A. 2011. Le réveil de l´histoire. Nouvelle Edítions.

Peixoto Junior, C.A. 2010. Some Nietzschean Considerations about Body and Health. Interface – Communication, Health, Education, v.14, n.35, p.727-38, Oct./Dec. 2010.

Sodré, M. 2017. Pensar Nagô. Petrópolis: Vozes, 2017.

Williams, R. 1997. Marxismo y literatura. Ediciones Península, 1997.

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