Samba Nation

by Ben Ratliff

MYSTERY OF SAMBA; POPULAR MUSIC AND NATIONAL IDENTITY IN BRAZIL • by Hermano Vianna • Edited and translated by John Charles Chasteen • University of North Carolina Press • 168 pp • $34.95 • $15.95 pb • February 1999

For the non-Brazilian, samba is a paradox. On the one hand, it's so easy to feel, so welcoming; on the other, it's so difficult to know, hidden behind untranslated lyrics and historical accounts. Despite the fact that Brazil is one of the three most prolific sources for the continuing evolution of popular music (the United States and Cuba being the two others), an outsider without a decent knowledge of Portuguese must struggle to grasp the significance of the country's music and its culture. Hermano Vianna's new book is a valiant effort to make sense of both.

These days, Brazilians take pride in their country's racial tolerance and racially mixed population. But it wasn't always so. Colonized by the Portuguese and populated by slaves, Brazil was for most of its history a highly miscegenated and highly stratified caste society; only after a series of political upheavals, and the beginning of the country's industrialization in the 1930s, did Brazilians seek to turn their mixed bloodlines into a source of pride rather than shame. And no one did more to usher in this new attitude than the anthropologist Gilberto Freyre. One of Brazil's most famous men of letters, Freyre published his classic, The Masters and the Slaves, in 1933, after having spent time during the 1920s studying at Columbia University with the anthropologist Franz Boas; he later published The Mansions and the Shanties and Order and Progress, forming a trilogy of books that shaped Brazilian self-consciousness.

The great innovation of The Masters and the Slaves was to present racial mixing as a positive ideal rather than as a scapegoat for all of Brazil's perceived backwardness. Freyre's book essentially gave Brazil a new national myth. But while The Master and the Slave's influence is now widely acknowledged, its genesis and its immediate and far-reaching effects on Brazilian culture are little understood. Pondering the matter, Vianna asks: "How could [its] publication work such a sudden transformation--making race-mixing the guarantor of Brazil's special cultural identity, the mark of our unique 'tropicalist civilization'--almost overnight?"

Though Freyre barely wrote about music at all, Vianna believes that this question is best answered in terms of samba. An Afro-Brazilian musical form whose ingredients were brought south from the port of Salvador by slaves, samba coalesced in Rio in the 1920s. Samba was performed initially by carnival drum-groups, though these groups were frequently suppressed by a racist police force. Then, in the 1930s, it went national, becoming the symbol and pride of Brazil. It has a two-beat rhythm with an emphasis on the second beat; after that, there are a thousand variations, from the thick, clattering music played in Rio during carnival, which sounds like several million locusts beating their wings, to the lovely, aerated recordings made in the 1930s by crooners like Orlando Silva and brilliant arrangers of flute and strings like Pixinguinha.

Vianna suggests that Freyre and the sambistas each paved the way for the other's success. In the 1930s, having gained confidence in their own musical forms, sambistas such as Pixinguinha turned away from the European dance music that had dominated Brazil's carnivals--polkas, waltzes, mazurkas, and the like--and started playing the once-suppressed urban music of Rio. They believed that Rio-style samba was a distinctly Brazilian popular music, not one borrowed from other cultures.

All of this is quite persuasive. But Vianna also wishes to suggest that the highly cultured Freyre was a secret sambista. He hangs much of his book on a tossed-off entry found in Freyre's published diaries describing a night's revels:

Sérgio and Prudente, [Freyre wrote in 1926, referring to the writer SÈrgio Buarque de Holanda and the journalist Pedro Dantas Prudente de Moraes Neto] really do know modern English and French literature. They're tops. I went out for some bohemian fun with them the other night. With [the composer Heitor] Villa-Lobos and [the composer Luciano] Gallet too. We went for an evening of guitar music and a drop of cachaÁa [cane liquor] with three true Brazilians--Pixinguinha, Patrício, and Donga.

Vianna slowly builds up the relevance of this encounter between the young scholars, who would soon make their mark, and the sambistas, who were making theirs already. (Pixinguinha played his music in Europe as early as 1922, and Vianna assumes that Freyre was fully aware of the composer's success.) As he goes on, Vianna emphasizes the considerable use that Brazil's artists made of foreign elements; he makes it clear that Brazilians often look outside their borders to get a reflection of themselves. Freyre and his comrades Moraes Neto and Buarque de Holanda met out of a common interest in James Joyce. And Moraes Neto knew the black samba composer Donga through an introduction by the French modernist poet Blaise Cendrars. It isn't mentioned in the book, but another product of Brazil's polyglot culture of the period, Oswald de Andrade's Anthropofagic Manifesto, was influenced by the work of the French Dadaists, particularly Francis Picabia. In short, the European avant-garde played a vital role in Brazil's growing self-awareness.

In its enthusiastic mixing of the academic with the popular, Vianna's book achieves a rather Brazilian intellectual feat, one in tune with the acts of "transcultural mediation" he ascribes to his subjects. (The popular singer Caetano Veloso's recent memoir of the 1960s, which displays a strong streak of Freyrean mestizo pride, reflects the same drive to combine elite and mass culture, Claude LÈvi-Strauss and Carmen Miranda.) Still, relating Freyre to the evolution of samba is not an open-and-shut case, as Vianna tacitly acknowledges when he reveals some of Freyre's cultural prejudices. While studying at Columbia alongside Zora Neale Hurston, Freyre wrote some radically condescending, Adorno-esque notes about jazz, theorizing that jazz dancing was "barbarous" and that jazz "excited murderous fury" in zoo monkeys. Moreover, Freyre secretly preferred English roast beef to the food from the northeastern state of Pernambuco that fit his theories of a national cuisine. It's to Vianna's credit that he didn't swerve from the complex evolution of Freyre's thought in order to protect his thesis.

Vianna doesn't skimp on music as much as Freyre did, but the book is at most half musical. There may be little documentation available of Pixinguinha's travels, few narratives told by the musicians, but next to the book's treatment of intellectual history, music does receive short shrift. ("The Mystery of Freyre" would have been a truer, if less seductive, title.)

The Mystery of Samba presents a densely argued academic thesis, written for a Brazilian academic audience. But it is an argument that demands careful framing. What he's describing is an inevitably difficult point: Freyre advocated not black-and-white unity but what one scholar calls "a process in which the singular qualities of the constituent races did not dissolve." Likewise, samba was never deracinated pop treacle but an example of controlled syncretism at its best, in which the original parts can be separated and identified.

The most important point in the book is one that Vianna never simply states, but it's nevertheless the tune you're whistling when you finish: Popular music isn't only what one turns to when taking a rest from important things like writing social history. It can actually work, if sometimes indirectly, to change the world. •

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