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The sound of Brazil

Bra­zi­lian popu­lar music, known as MPB, Musi­ca Popu­lar Bra­si­lei­ra, has had a pro­found impact on the world. While bos­sa nova remains the most wide­ly lis­te­ned to genre in Bra­zil, the many variants ins­pi­red by Bra­zi­lian heri­tage have influen­ced French chan­son, Ame­ri­can pop and world music from Afri­ca and the Carib­bean since the 19th cen­tu­ry. In exchange, the coun­try has taken what it right­ful­ly deser­ved. Bra­zil has an extra­or­di­na­ry capa­ci­ty to absorb, an incli­na­tion towards cultu­ral “can­ni­ba­lism”. The can­ni­bals and their lea­der, the poet Oswal­do de Andrade, publi­shed a mani­fes­to in 1928 with the slo­gan “Tupi or not Tupi”, or how to satis­fy natio­nal appe­tites by bor­ro­wing whe­ne­ver neces­sa­ry, from colo­ni­sers in particular.

The elec­tion of Jair Bol­so­na­ro at the end of 2018 pro­du­ced a pro­found unea­si­ness among artis­tic and cultu­ral com­mu­ni­ties. A homo­pho­bic pre­sident who swears by the Bible and has links to the radi­cal fringes of neo-Pen­te­cos­tal churches, Bol­so­na­ro named reti­red gene­ral Anto­nio Hamil­ton Mourão as his vice pre­sident. During the elec­tion cam­pai­gn, Mourão cal­led on Bra­zi­lians to over­come their vira-lata com­plex (“mon­grel com­plex”). From the Por­tu­guese, he added, Bra­zil had inhe­ri­ted a “ten­den­cy to demand pri­vi­leges… from indi­ge­nous culture, a cer­tain indo­lence” and from Afri­cans, a “thug­gish side”. Born in Ama­zo­nia, Gene­ral Mourão went on to deny accu­sa­tions of racism, laying claim to his native origins.

In the mean­time, the joy­ful cultu­ral mel­ting pot on which Bra­zi­lian socie­ty is foun­ded fal­te­red in this review of his­to­ry, in which music has top billing. From Mil­ton Nas­ci­men­to to Her­me­to Pas­coal, from Elza Soares to Gil­ber­to Gil and Mari­sa Monte, Bra­zil boasts all the colours of the rain­bow. In the ear­ly 1960s, Vini­cius de Morais and Tom Jobim inven­ted bos­sa nova, while the new capi­tal Bra­si­lia was being built. Then, figh­ting against the mili­ta­ry dic­ta­tor­ship esta­bli­shed in 1964 (until 1985) and bor­ro­wing from the Beatles and Jimi Hen­drix as much as sam­ba, the Bahia­nais (Os Mutantes, Gil, Cae­ta­no, Gal Cos­ta…) inven­ted tro­picá­lia, a devi­li­sh­ly psy­che­de­lic genre, haun­ted by great cham­pions of destruc­tu­ring such as Tom Zé.

Up against the rise in power of the “Trump of the Tro­pics”, sin­gers and musi­cians have been reta­lia­ting since 2018, each in their own way : Chi­co Buarque –  a Wor­kers’ Par­ty sup­por­ter since its incep­tion – whose song “Ape­sar de vôce” (1978) was used during anti-Bol­so­na­ro pro­tests ; Cae­ta­no Velo­so, who has writ­ten some sea­ring columns in both Bra­zi­lian news­pa­pers and the New York Times ; Danie­la Mer­cu­ry, the queen of axé music who ral­lies to the publi­cly anti-fas­cist stance taken by young pop star Anit­ta ; and Emi­ci­da, the rap­per from São Pau­lo, who adds her voice to those of Bra­zi­lian hip-hop icons such as Racio­niais MC in denoun­cing vio­lence, racism and bru­tal inequalities.

All this pro­ved to be in vain as Jair Bol­so­na­ro was even­tual­ly elec­ted with 55.1% of the vote. Social net­works, What­sApp in par­ti­cu­lar, have come under attack for  sprea­ding fake news : for example, Fer­nan­do Had­dad, Bolsonaro’s opponent, was fal­se­ly accu­sed of wan­ting to dis­tri­bute a “gay kit” to schools.

As soon as it came to power in Janua­ry 2019, the Bra­zi­lian govern­ment began tar­ge­ting indi­ge­nous people from whom the pre­sident is keen to confis­cate lands for the bene­fit of agri­bu­si­ness and mining com­pa­nies. A foun­ding ele­ment of Bra­zi­lian iden­ti­ty, can­dom­blé – the Afro-Bra­zi­lian spi­ri­tual tra­di­tion stee­ped in reli­gious syn­cre­tism born out of sla­ve­ry – has become a recur­ring tar­get for evan­ge­li­cals. Car­ni­val is amo­ral and the ques­tion of gen­der, a “here­sy”. The Minis­ter of Women, Fami­ly and Human Rights, Damares Alves, who swears to have seen Jesus appear in a gua­va tree, sta­ted publi­cly three days after taking office : “Boys must be dres­sed in blue and girls in pink”. Imme­dia­te­ly after which, Cae­ta­no Velo­so wore a pink T‑shirt with the words “Pro­tect your friends”.

In Februa­ry, Cae­ta­no recor­ded Proi­bi­do o Car­na­val with Danie­la Mer­cu­ry, a tor­rid and exu­be­rant axé song. She is dres­sed in blue ; he’s wea­ring a pink tie.

Danie­la Mer­cu­ry, a model of tro­pi­cal femi­ni­ni­ty and a divor­ced mother, mar­ried jour­na­list Malu Ver­ço­sa as soon as gay mar­riage was lega­li­sed in Bra­zil in 2013. She wrote the lyrics for the song, tee­ming with indi­ge­nous names, refe­rences to can­dom­blé and allu­sions to the colours pink and blue [“Qui­lom­bo­la, Tupi­nambá / O cor­po é meu, / nin­guém toca / Vatapá, caru­ru / Ieman­já lá no sul / Vai de rosa or vai de azul ?“]  and, right in the middle, the sta­te­ment : “My body is mine, nobo­dy touches it”. The song deligh­ted the Car­ni­val in Sal­va­dor da Bahia, part of the north-eas­tern ter­ri­to­ries that lar­ge­ly voted for the labour par­ty can­di­date Fer­nan­do Had­dad and sup­ports Lula, who is ser­ving a twelve-year pri­son sen­tence on cor­rup­tion charges. The fel­low conspi­ra­tors dedi­ca­ted the song to Jean Wyl­lys, a gay left-wing  MP (for PSOL – The Socia­lism and Liber­ty Par­ty), who was for­ced into exile after repea­ted death threats in Janua­ry 2019.

The new Bra­zi­lian govern­ment began by abo­li­shing the Minis­try of Culture, while mer­ging the envi­ron­ment and agri­cul­ture minis­tries to focus on agri­bu­si­ness. It then tur­ned its atten­tions to the mecha­nisms for finan­cing culture, in par­ti­cu­lar the SESC, Brazil’s main cultu­ral body fun­ded by a tax levied on Bra­zi­lian ter­tia­ry sec­tor firms and consi­de­red too left-wing. Stub­born and power­ful, the SESC-São Pau­lo refu­sed to make even the sligh­test changes to its pro­gramme, hos­ting, for example, rap­per B‑Negao, co-foun­der of the Pla­net Hemp col­lec­tive with Mar­ce­lo 2D.

B‑Negao was behind a mani­fes­to against Bol­so­na­ro publi­shed in Novem­ber 2018 on the web­site Rap­Pe­la­De­mo­cra­tia, also signed by Emi­ci­da and Crio­lo : “Among various atro­ci­ties, Jair Bol­so­na­ro believes that the police have the right to kill without being accoun­table. He declares without embar­rass­ment or shame that black women are not wor­thy of get­ting mar­ried. He refers to qui­lom­bo­las (the des­cen­dants of esca­ped slaves who foun­ded com­mu­ni­ties cal­led qui­lom­bos in the 19th cen­tu­ry) as if they were cat­tle. He cham­pions an end to the hard-ear­ned rights of domes­tic employees. […] The abso­lute majo­ri­ty of the vic­tims here are black people who live in the sub­urbs. Do you think that makes sense?”

It is clear that cor­rup­tion and gro­wing vio­lence have shif­ted the popu­lar vote towards far-right autho­ri­ta­ria­nism. And yet, nothing seems to have under­mi­ned the pri­mi­tive faith of Bra­zi­lians in their des­ti­ny. Bra­zil dances, cri­ti­cises, lives and dif­fe­rences emerge. This is demons­tra­ted by the new muse of vibrant free­dom in Bra­zil, the rap­per from Curi­ti­ba Karol Conka, who has just relea­sed her third album, Ambu­lante. In her voguing ins­pi­red video, “Vogue do Gue­to, the black femi­nist acti­vist por­trays gay couples, domi­nant women and trans­sexuals along­side femi­nist col­lec­tives such as We Are Magno­lias, Bate­koo, As Irenes, Esta­re­mos Là and Mooc.

In this cultu­ral envi­ron­ment that has emer­ged from the fave­las and wor­king-class areas, the old orders of macho rap and Rio’s baile funk are shat­te­red, as shown by the extra­va­gant per­for­mances of trans­ves­tite Linn da Quebrada.

Rio’s Car­ni­val is tra­di­tio­nal­ly a riot of cross-dres­sing as well as social and poli­ti­cal pro­test. In 2018, people were deligh­ted by cari­ca­tures of acting pre­sident Michel Temer and Mar­cel­lo Cri­vel­la, evan­ge­li­cal Mayor of Rio, whose deci­sion to cut sub­si­dies for the sam­ba schools was jud­ged amo­ral. The win­ner of the first divi­sion schools parade, Bei­ja-Flor, used Frankenstein’s mons­ter as a meta­phor for Bra­zil, with a gree­dy bel­ly gor­ging on cor­rup­tion and inequalities.

A year later, the street parades cal­led blo­cos stood up to the far right and told “Bol­so” to f… off in their mar­chin­has – sati­ri­cal marches sung in uni­son. Inevi­ta­bly, Damares Alves, the anti-gen­der minis­ter for whom all tea­chers are “reds”, also gets it in the neck. But the iro­ny of these short plays per­for­med with gui­tars and sur­do drums has also focu­sed on the libe­ra­li­sa­tion of bea­ring arms in a coun­try alrea­dy racked by vio­lence. In Februa­ry 2019, the march “Rea­ça”, pobre de direi­ta, com­po­sed and per­for­med by the Fami­lia Ramos – a genuine Curi­ti­ba fami­ly with a love for music and paro­dy – went viral on social media. While the Ramos fami­ly were iro­ni­cal­ly sin­ging that “they were going to buy a gun to shoot com­mu­nists,” Belo Horizonte’s Orques­tra Royal, a young and mul­ti-eth­nic ball­room orches­tra, laun­ched a fie­ry fre­vo do Nor­deste entit­led “Over­dose de goia­ba” [Over­dose of gua­va], mocking Ms. Alves’ visions.


Howe­ver, as usual it was up to the great sam­ba schools to tell the sto­ry with a capi­tal S. Like fute­bol teams, each school has its own colours and sup­por­ters and Man­guei­ra school, in green and pink, chose to go against the dog­ma that traces the foun­da­tion of the Bra­zi­lian nation back to the arri­val of the Por­tu­guese in 1500. In rea­li­ty, the “dis­co­ve­rers” were cru­shing inva­ders who slaugh­te­red the natives. The rules of sam­ba school parades in Rio are very strict. Scores awar­ded by the jurors are very tight : the flag bea­rer, Bahian wing, per­cus­sio­nists’ cohe­sion, and of course, the sam­ba de enre­do – the song repea­ted ad libi­tum during the man­da­to­ry 45-minutes parade that escorts the floats and dan­cers – are all rigo­rous­ly asses­sed. Man­guei­ra won in 2019 and was awar­ded excep­tio­nal­ly high marks in eve­ry category.

Salve os cabo­clos de jul­ho / Quem foi de aço nos anos de chum­bo / Bra­sil, che­gou a vez / De ouvir as Marias, Mahins, Marielles, malês”: Mangueira’s sam­ba de enre­do makes refe­rence to cabo­clos, Bra­zi­lians with mixed black and indi­ge­nous heri­tage ; malés, slaves who rebel­led in Sal­va­dor de Bahia in 1835 ; and marielles, refer­ring to the assas­si­na­tion on 14 March 2018 of Marielle Fran­co – a black LGBT Rio city coun­cil­lor and mother to a lit­tle girl – who fought against police vio­lence. A year later, the police arres­ted two for­mer mem­bers of the mili­ta­ry police sus­pec­ted of having shot the young woman ; nume­rous fac­tors point to their close ties to the Bol­so­na­ro family.

Bra­zil is a vast coun­try : from the mega­lo­po­lis of São Pau­lo and its under­ground elec­tro­nic music scene to the desert inter­ior of the north-east, or from Rio de Janei­ro, the City of Won­ders, to the black Bahia. From the temple to fute­bol, the Mara­ca­na sta­dium, to cele­bra­tions for the fes­ti­val of Saint John, Bra­zil is dee­ply reli­gious and stron­gly connec­ted to nature. Tom Jobim – a thin, black-hai­red dan­dy who che­cked out pret­ty girls from the Velo­so bar ter­race while inha­ling the green­ness of the Tiju­ca forest over­loo­king Rio – des­cri­bed him­self as : “Anto­nio Car­los Jou­bin, son of a Euro­pean and an Ama­zo­nian monkey”.

By all accounts, Bra­zil is uni­ted by a very spe­cial spi­rit that is its gift to the world : ale­gria (joy and humour), sau­dade (melan­cho­ly in a jubi­lant soul), rhythm, body free­dom and romance. In the great Por­tu­guese poe­tic tra­di­tion, love in Bra­zil a temple, explo­red by spe­cial women and men who do not fear their femi­ni­ni­ty. “Let time decide / If it must hap­pen / Live / Free,” sings Maria Betha­nia.  “I’m like the man­da­ca­ru [a cac­tus from the north-east that holds water] / Your contempt does not make me sad / I’m gra­te­ful for your mere exis­tence,” conti­nues Alceu Valen­ça. “We may run out of money, real, cru­za­do, cru­zei­ro [Brazil’s cur­ren­cy has seen many changes] / Love is worth more than any­thing,” concludes Rita Lee. The lat­ter, a 70-year-old rebel­lious rocker and for­mer Os Mutantes, recent­ly had people in stitches when she revea­led on Twit­ter that she had once had a rela­tion­ship with “Bol­sin­ho” (lit­tle Bol­so­na­ro) that was cut short as he was sup­po­sed­ly “not all that curious about doing it because he was more inter­es­ted in a male classmate”.

Véronique Mortaigne

Véronique Mortaigne

Long-time journalist and critic for the daily newspaper Le Monde, Véronique Mortaigne explores popular cultures and their phenomena. As well as hanging around rock stars, she is also on the trail of world music and primitive arts. She is the author of a dozen books, such as Cesaria Evora, la voix du Cap-Vert (Actes Sud), Loin du Brésil, entretien avec Claude Lévy Strauss (Chandeigne editions), Johnny Hallyday, le roi caché, and Manu Chao, un nomade contemporain  (Don Quixote editions) and has recently published a book about the iconic couple Birkin-Gainsbourg, Jane & Serge (Les Equateurs editions)

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