Mamulengo is a puppet tradition from northeastern Brazil, whose name likely comes from the Portuguese words for “soft hand.”. Mamulengo took shape during the colonial era, and has obvious connections to European puppet genres, such as the English Punch and Judy shows, the Italian pulcinella, and the French guignol, that are rooted in the Italian commedia dell’arte of the 16th century. Mamulengo also weaves in African and indigenous aesthetic and narrative elements to make a thoroughly Brazilian art form. Among its primary characters is the trickster Benedito the Vaquiero, a cowboy, who bests a series of opponents, from the mythological bull Bumba-meu-boi to human adversaries who just might symbolize the forces arrayed against common people throughout history. Mamulengo is a raucous spectacle for children, but it contains social commentary as well. As such, Simões describes his puppetry as traditional, which he views as alive, improvisatory, and evolving, rather than a “folkloric” form preserved only to recall the past.
Chico Simões began studying mamulengo in 1981 from mestres (master puppeteers) in the Brazilian countryside where the tradition is still practiced, and founded his own puppet theater, the Mamulengo Presepada, in 1985. He has become an international ambassador for this tradition, teaching about its history and performing thousands of puppet plays worldwide, from street corners to prestigious puppetry festivals. At home in Taguatinga, he directs the cultural center Ponto de Cultura Invenção Brasileira, which works with the masters of the region’s traditions to mobilize the arts for social change.