Coco is a music and dance style from north-eastern Brazil, whose origins are not fully known. Some argue that coco appeared among the Afro-Brazilian slaves and that it is based on Angolan folk music. However, many others instead argue that coco was created in the meeting between African and Amerindian cultural elements, with some influences from colonial Portugal. Others yet believe that coco music was born in the legendary Quilombo dos Palmares (a town founded by runaway Afro-Brazilian slaves in the interior of the state of Alagoas, who for over a century, managed to defend themselves standing up to the Portuguese colonialists’ attacks). Another theory is that coco originated among coconut plantation workers, which would explain the music style's name, (coco means coconut in Portuguese).
Coco has long since been common in the coastal regions of north-eastern Brazil, but also occurs inland. The traditional coco music consists of singing accompanied by the rhythm of a ganzá, a surdo and a pandeiro, hand-clapping and foot stomping. The coco rhythm is usually marked by three distinct tappings in the soil, or drum beats. A typically African feature of the coco songs is its structure based on call and response. A single lead singer, called “coqueiro” or “tirador de coco”, starts the song by singing the often improvised verses. He is then answered by the dancers, who also act as a chorus. The melodies, and lyrics, are often rather melancholic and are presented in a relatively slow manner. The atmosphere of the music can be described as resembling early North-American blues. The coco dance is based on the African umbigada and is similar to the samba de roda dance.
There is a wide range of subgenres to coco, such as coco-de-roda, coco-de-embolada, coco-de-praia, coco-do-sertão, coco-de-zamba, coco-de-ganzá , coco-agalopado, coco-catolé, coco-de-desafio, coco-de-umbigada and coco-canção. In some places, mostly in the state of Pernambuco, the coco is accompanied by more powerful drums, such as alfaias and caixas, rendering the music a heavier, maracatu like character.
Coco-de-embolada clearly differs from other coco styles, as its lyrics consist of tongue-twisting wordplays, with a melodic structure that is very similar to that of modern rap music. Coco-de-embolada also often involves a challenge between two different singers, who compete to see which one of them has the fastest and best rhymes. The coco-de-desafio also includes a challenge, but instead of rhymes, it’s all about the dance, usually performed only by men, whose goal is to outdo their opponents in terms of agility, strength and sense of rhythm. Coco-canção is a much slower form of coco, which is not intended to be danced to.
During the 1800’s, the Brazilian authorities did not take kindly to the inherent eroticism of the coco dance, which was denounced as immoral, and attempts were therefore made to completely prohibit coco. The coco however survived and for many decades was very popular in the whole Nordeste region, not only among the poor, but also in middle class. Today, the coco lives very much in the shadow of forró, samba and modern pop music.
Perhaps the most famous coco-artist in modern times was Jackson do Pandeiro, from the state of Paraíba. He had his glory days as an artist during the 1950’s and 1960’s. Coco music experienced something of a rebirth during the 1990’s, when the famous band Nação Zumbi incorporated it’s rhythm into the band’s modern and highly innovative music. Among the talented and popular representatives of the traditional coco in recent decades are Selma do Coco, Lia de Itamaracá and Zé Neguinho do Coco.
Examples of coco music
Coco do Norte, Zé Neguinho do Coco, 2003
Moreno Cirandeiro, Lia de Itamaracá,
Moreno Dengoso, Lia de Itamaracá, 1977
Cará do Moço, Zé Neguinho do Coco, 2003
Zé Neguinho do Coco