Nação Zumbi: Two Decades of “Crabs with Brains” (and Still Hungry)

© 1968, Maureen Bisilliat.

When roughly 20 years ago two youngsters from Pernambuco signed what is known as the first mangue manifesto, “Crabs with Brains” (“Caranguejos com cérebro”)[1], they knew what they wanted. Recife, the capital of Pernambuco, one of Brazil’s poorest regions, the manifesto reminds us, held the largest unemployment rate in the country and had been ranked by a Washington institute of demographic studies as the world’s fourth worst city in quality of life; its culture and economy were sinking in their own stagnation and were much in need of a new impulse. What is not so clear is if the signatories to the manifesto were conscious of how what was meant to be a metaphor for cultural fertility –the mangue or mangrove swamps on which Recife is built– would prove fertile itself in producing new ways of looking at the region’s society, culture, and landscape––thus contributing to changing conceptual paradigms. The manifesto, signed by musician Fred Zero Quatro, leader of the band Mundo Livre S/A, still active, and DJ and journalist Renato L. (Renato Lins) was later to appear, in slightly different form, within the liner notes of Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s debut CD, Da Lama ao Caos (From Mud to Chaos, 1994)––a CD and a band that defined much of what manguebit (aka as mangue bit, mangue beat or, simply, mangue) came to be: one of the most relevant phenomena to have happened in Brazilian music since the emergence of Tropicália in the late 1960s.

Da Lama ao Caos (liner notes)

Crabs with Brains

Coming from Olinda, in Recife’s periphery, Chico Science became the indisputable leader of the mangue scene, stamping his personality on its music, clothing style, and performance. His influence on the new music scene was huge and his premature death in a car accident in 1995 turned him into a myth. Nação Zumbi, despite the loss of Chico Science, continues to be productive and evolve, as do other bands and musicians such as Mundo Livre S/A, Otto, and Siba. Shortly after the 20th anniversary of “Crabs with Brains” and while fans await Nação Zumbi’s much expected new CD release (forthcoming in 2013), it is perhaps worth recalling the foundational moment of the manifesto and the movement’s flagship CD, Da lama ao caos. The metaphors and principles that inform “Crabs with Brains” and many of the lyrics of Nação Zumbi are deeply rooted in the fertile mud of Northeastern traditions and played a fundamental role in renewing, and transforming, a whole cultural heritage.










Like­ mangue itself, “Crabs with Brains” is about fertility. Fertility and hybridity, one should say. ­The term “manguebit” is itself a hybrid, portmanteau word containing a reference to local landscape (“mangue” as said, “mangrove swamp,” “marshland”) and global technology (“bit” or binary digit, as in computer science): a movement rooted in its landscape but connected to the global technology (soon, however, the “bit” part was mistaken for a Brazilization of the word “beat,” and thus “mangue bit” corrupted to “mangue beat,” which became even more common). “A parabolic antenna put in the mud” became the concept image to describe a movement that aspired to connect the local culture to the global scene. In the early 1990s Brazil was still coming off the shadow of a long military dictatorship (1964-1985), which had kept much of its culture closed within its borders, and the democratization of technology–internet was to become widely available in a few years­–was rapidly changing every aspect of the music industry, communication, and people’s access to information.

Divided in three parts  (“Mangue – The Concept”, “Manguetown–The City” and “Mangue – The Scene,”), the “Crabs with Brains” manifesto starts by vindicating the mangroves, where more than 2,000 species–including a variety of crabs–, live and reproduce, as a metaphor of cultural “fertility, diversity and richness;” it continues by denouncing the agonizing situation of Recife (now re-baptized as “Manguetown”). It concludes with a call for action (“Emergency! A shock, quick, or Recife will die of a heart attack”) and a proposal to solve the situation: “So what is there to do to prevent sinking in the chronic depression that paralyzes the citizen? Is there a way to give back the spirit, delobotomize / recharge the batteries of the city?” ––it asks–– . “Simple, just inject a little energy in the mud and stimulate what still remains of the fertility in the veins of Recife.”

As a manifesto, “Crabs with Brains” inscribes itself in two-pronged tradition. On the one hand, it goes back to the early Brazilian avant-garde of the 1920s and what has been called the “Cannibalist transnationalism” of Oswald de Andrade,[2] as defined in his Manifesto Pau-Brazil (“Manifesto of Brazilwood Poetry,” 1924) and his Manifesto Antropófago (“Cannibal Manifesto,” 1928)–. On the other, its social concerns relate to a longstanding Northeastern aesthetics of hunger and violence with revolutionary purposes––traceable at least to the 19th century––that was famously laid out in another manifesto, by Cinema Novo’s multitalented figure Glauber Rocha: “Eztetyka da Fome” (“Aesthetics of Hunger,” 1965). In his manifestoes, Oswald de Andrade argued in favor of poetry that was not a mere copy of European models but a model itself worthy of being exported to the rest of the world, a poetry that would digest European models, “cannibalize” them, and infuse their energy in its metabolism. This avant-garde attitude has permeated much of what has happened in Brazilian culture ever since, but in the world of pop music the main precedent is the Tropicália of Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and Os Mutantes, among others. The same Oswaldian principles of transnationalization and cannibalism could be recognized in the manguebit manifesto, in which the cultural heritage of Pernambuco––symbolized in the biodiversity of the mangrove––and “the world network of the circulation of pop concepts” are metabolized and revitalize what otherwise would be the dying body of Recife. In Chico Science & Nação Zumbi, this transnational cannibalistic attitude is self-evident, as global styles such as soul, funk, hard-rock, and hip-hop, are mixed with local rhythms and genres such as maracatu, frevo, and coco de embolada.

Needless to say, however fertile mangue and its metaphors may be, this fertility violently clashes with a harsh reality. “The most noble cultural manifestation of hunger is violence,” insists Glauber Rocha in “The Aesthetics of Hunger.”[3] And there is a good deal of hunger and violence in the song lyrics of manguebit. Violence and provocation have become pervasive in pop culture––and particularly in rap music, which is where Chico Science was coming from––but Nação Zumbi is not just another instance of the consumerization of violence to which Josep Heath’s and Andrew Potter’s title, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (2004), alludes. In a context such as the fourth worst city in the world to live in an artist had basically two options: turning his or her back on that hunger and the violence it provokes, or aesthetically embracing that misery both as an acknowledgement of that reality and as a means of accentuating their own musical discourse, making the band’s syncretism more apparent. Much of what is internationally associated with the “Brazilian Sound,” particularly Bossa Nova, opted for the first option, Chico Science & Nação Zumbi went with the second. “Nação Zumbi” has often been mistranslated as “Zombie Nation,” but the band’s name is a double reference: on the one hand, its use of the word “Nação” (Nation) belongs to candomblé culture, where it refers to each of its distinct cult branches, each one with its particular way of performing maracatu; on the other, “Zumbi” is a tribute to the 17th century hero of the slave resistance, Zumbi dos Palmares, leader of the most legendary settlement of escaped slaves or quilombo.











Thus, in line with the premises of the group’s name, the first track of Da lama ao caos, “Monólogo ao Pé de Ouvido,” chanted over percussion and an electric guitar imitating a berimbau sound, invokes a trans-American tradition of revolutionaries as it calls for a renewal of musical tradition. Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, Nicaraguan Augusto César Sandino, and the American Black Panthers are named side by side with historical Brazilian figures such as Antônio Conselheiro ––the religious leader of the War of Canudos (1896-1897) in the Brazilian desert or sertão––, the legendary bandit Virgulino Ferreira da Silva “Lampião” (1897-1938), and Zumbi dos Palmares himself:


Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s music is thus presented not just as the sound-track of a social revolution, but as revolutionary itself, while the original violence implicit in the resistant traditions it evokes is transformed into aesthetic violence (maracatu percussion, berimbau-like sound)––in other words, song, not bullets, are the band’s arms. The anti-establishment value of Nação Zumbi’s lyrics, often expressed in terms of class struggleshould be understood within the context of a country that, despite its outstanding economy in macroeconomic terms, continues to live an extreme difference between rich and poor (during the first decade of the 21st century 60% of the country’s wealth still concentrated on the hands of 20% of its population)[4].The appeal to historical figures within the context of violence and social conflict continues on the following track, “Banditismo por uma questão de classe” (“Banditism as a Matter of Class”) in which Lampião reappears in addition to two local legendary bandits from the Recife area, Biu do Olho Verde (Green Eyed Biu), known for torturing his victims’ nipples with pliers, and Galeguinho do Coque, famous for his  ability to run away after committing a crime.

















This ludic, carnavalesque side to violence is obvious in the allusion to the Perna Cabeluda (the Hairy Leg, “cabiluda” is an alternative spelling) which refers to a Recife oral urban legend of a white hairy leg, dismembered from its body, that haunts scary children and the fearful in general.

The character is also present in popular cordel (or “string”) literature–cheap printed booklets typical of the Northeast, sold in the streets and hung from strings when displayed for sale. Chico Science appeared in several of his performances with a replica of the actual leg in his hand, as shown in the picture below. He planned a film with the leg as a main character as well, a project that in recent years was brought to reality by the students of the SAGA school in Recife.

Chico Science with the Perna Cabeluda in his hand.


A Perna Cabeluda, short cartoon film:

However, among the rich variety of cultural references present in manguebit lyrics, there is one that is central to both the movement and the manifesto, that of the human-crab, the intelligent crabs to which its title alludes. This hybrid image––hybrid as almost anything else in manguebit––pays homage to the large population of Recife that feeds on the crabs infesting its marshlands. The crab fishermen and fisherwomen of the mangroves, whose lives end up mingled with the mud just as those of the crustacean, become a metonym for all Recife’s inhabitants. The history of their representation includes João Cabral de Melo Neto’s book-length poem The Dog Without Feathers (O cão sem plumas, 1950):












Josué de Castro

But the immediate source of the conceptualization of the human-crab in the manguebit movement is Josué de Castro (1908-1973). This physician, social geographer, and diplomat, a Nobel Prize candidate who died in exile in Paris, where he was professor at the Sorbonne, is mostly known for his analysis and activism surrounding the problem of hunger, especially as proposed in his study Geography of Hunger (1946).  De Castro argues against the Malthusian theories that describe hunger as a consequence of overpopulation. He analyzes the origin and causes of the problem in the modern world and demonstrates how hunger is not derived from, but actually one of the causes of, overpopulation. Josué de Castro also wrote a novel, Of Men and Crabs (Homens e caranguejos, 1967), which, inscribed in the engagée literature of Northeastern Regionalism, pays homage to his childhood in the mangroves of Recife. Here he describes the lives of those “humans fashioned of crab meat, thinking and feeling like crabs; amphibians, at home on land and in water, half-man, half-animal; fed, in their infancy, on that miry milk, crab broth”[5] (XII). While Cabral or De Castro offer representations of the human-crab, the promoters of the manguebit movement assume it as a collective identity. Chico Science & Nação Zumbi allude to the human-crustacean in some of their lyrics (such as “Corpo de lama”), the leader often incorporated crab-like movements in his dance, and in the video-clip of “Maracatu atômico” members of the band appear crawling naked in the mud:


There are multiple allusions to to Josué de Castro and his novel in several of Chico Science & Nação Zumbi’s lyrics, notoriously on the title track of Da lama ao caos:

Another less obvious reference to Josué de Castro’s Of Men and Crabs is found in “Corpo de lama” (“Mud body”):

This relates to Father Aristides, a character who in the novel provokes fake noisy “tempests” in order to get the guaiamus, his preferred variety of crabs, out of their hiding holes.

Of Men and Crabs tells the history of a failed rebellion in one of Recife’s shantytowns. While the problem of hunger persists in Recife, the situation has improved quite a lot since the decade in which manguebit was born, thanks to economic and social development. The contribution of manguebit to this cannot be ignored. It has called the attention to local traditions, renewing the role of instruments such as maracatu drums, the cavaquinho, and the rabeca. Recife now has a new place in Brazil’s contemporary music scene–traditionally dominated by centers such as Rio and Bahia–, and the once semi-abandoned neighborhood of its docks, populated by the homeless, street hookers, sailors, and warehouses where the first manguebit parties took place and its founders gather together, has been re-urbanized and gained new life. In the meantime, Nação Zumbi continues to develop the poetics of hunger and violence that inform their music, cannibalizing foreign influences and expanding the meanings of what is something more than just a metaphor:




On this video you can see excerpts of Chico Science & Nação Zumbi New York City debut at the Central Park SummerStage in 1994, featuring Gilberto Gil. Notice that Chico Science and other band members are wearing a traditional fisherman’s hat. Chico combines hip-hop mannerisms with traditional frevo dance-steps (min. 5´ 50”) and appears dancing as a caboclo de lança (a traditional carnival warrior figure of the maracatu tradition, min. 13:15).

[1] I would like to thank Philip Galinsky for his permission to reproduce his translation of “Caranguejos com cérebro” as it appears in his PhD dissertation “Maracatu Atômico”: Tradition, Modernity, and Postmodernity in the Mangue Movement and “New Music Scene” of Recife, Pernambuco, Brazil. Wesleyan U: Middletown, CT, 1999.

[2] Moehn, Frederick.”‘Good Blood in the Veins of this Brazilian Rio,’ or a Cannibalist Transnationalism.” Perrone, Charles A. and Christopher Dunn, eds. Brazilian Popular Music and Globalization. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 2001. 258-270.


[3]…/ROCHA_Aesth_Hunger.pdf (in English) (in Portuguese).

[4] As Maria Silvério observes on her study of social inequalities in emergent countries: “O Brasil é o único país que conseguiu diminuir consideravelmente a desigualdade de renda nos últimos 20 anos, saindo de um Gini de 0,61 em 1990 para 0,54 em 2009 – menor índice de sua história (ver gráfico 1). Outra conquista do país é que os 20% mais pobres e os 20% de renda média foram os principais beneficiados. De acordo com a Fundação Getúlio Vargas (FGV), na primeira década do século XXI, os 10% mais ricos tiveram um crescimento na renda real de 10,03% contra 67,9% na renda dos 50% mais pobres, o que significa um crescimento 577% maior do que o alcançado pela parcela no topo da pirâmide social. Apesar de tais conquistas, o país ainda está entre os mais desiguais do mundo e os 20% mais ricos concentram cerca de 60% da renda.” (“BRICS: desigualdades sociais nos países emergentes,” emphasis mine).

[5] de Castro, Josué. Of Men and Crabs. Trans. by Susan Hertelendy. New York: Vanguard, 1970.

Melcion Mateu
Melcion Mateu

Melcion Mateu (Barcelona) is a PhD Candidate at NYU´s Department of Spanish and Portuguese and holds an MA in Comparative Literature from Cornell University. His research interests include peripheries, intermediality, and transatlantic relations, with a special focus on Brazil. His dissertation explores the continuity of the artistic and literary avant-garde in the early years of Francoist Spain. He is the author of three books of poetry and numerous literary translations, including works by John Ashbery, Michael Ondaatje, and John le Carré.