April 2000

Pride and Prejudice

From the late 1950s on, bossa nova's success didn't spread out by chance or without prejudice against it. Only by a strike of luck no bossa nova lamb has been utterly shattered or sacrificed yet.

Dário Borim Jr

The nationalist approach to art in peripheral countries, like Brazil, has the legitimate role of recognizing national talents which can be neglected by biased critics that prefer anything foreign to anything local. One's love for one's nation also instills the zest to seek knowledge and understanding of historical and cultural nuances which, perhaps, only a fellow poet, painter or songwriter may be able to capture and translate in color, light and music.

Exacerbated nationalism, however, may foster passionate attitudes that besmirch the historiography and critical analyses of different cultures. A case of such misinterpretation occurs, for example, when people think of bossa nova as mere imitation of cool jazz, rather than profound innovation to the evolutionary trends of samba and Brazilian pop music in general.

In fact, that vicious form of nationalism emerges even among renown authors, such as historian José Ramos Tinhorão. On 15 February, his article on João Gilberto's most recent release, João Voz e Violão, published by Veja magazine on 19 January 2000, receives laudatory comments from Folha de São Paulo columnist Ariano Suassuna, one of the exponents of Brazil's dramaturgy of all times.

It may seem rather mysterious how Tinhorão, an author of eighteen books on Brazilian popular music, manages to spend approximately 40 years of his career saying just about the same things on samba and bossa nova. Since 1961, when his first articles appeared, Tinhorão has been sketching genealogical lines of Brazilian music through doubtful and indelicate metaphors. Música popular: um tema em debate (reedited by Editora 34 in 1997) aggregates such writings. "The daughter of secret amorous adventures with North-American music—which is undeniably its mother—bossa nova today," argues the historian, goes through the same drama of so many Copacabana children, the Rio district where it was born: "it does not know who its father is" (Música popular 25).

Even though "A águia e os urubus," the article in Veja, rightfully associates bossa nova with significant social and political events brought about by the Americanization of western cultures, particularly strong in Brazil during the administration of industrious Juscelino Kubitscheck (1956-1961), Tinhorão comments on national art without contemplating any factors beyond context. With his typical bombastic style, the historian applies his favorite rhetorical and ideological tricks that deny the compositional and contextual complexities of nearly all artistic historical developments.

Despite the ideological options of ultra-nationalists, music and culture in general regenerate and develop within, without, or throughout national, ethnic and socio-economic boundaries. A remarkable explanation of such phenomena is achieved through an anthropological approach employed by Hermano Vianna in O mistério do samba. Originally published by Jorge Zahar in 1997, from which it is quoted below, Vianna's work is a recent release by The University of North Carolina Press (The Mystery of Samba, 1999).

For Vianna, samba neither constitutes the repository of Brazil's "true musical roots," as Tinhorão sustains through the years, nor is it a national icon simply invented by the political policies of Getúlio Vargas' populist dictatorship in the 1930s and 1940s. Samba as national music is, most of all, the greatest consequence of a centuries-old process of cultural mingling among several sectors of Brazilian society and of their thirst for symbols of national identity. The anthropologist calls our attention to the aspects of invention within any tradition, and the element of fabrication in the history of samba.

Unlike Tinhorão, Vianna warns us about the fact that the status of samba as the "national music of Brazil" was capable of "degrading" all other rhythms and styles of the country to the lesser condition of "regionalist music" (111). Samba carioca (Rio-style samba) arose as national rhythm under the confluence of a variety of phenomena called "cultural mediation" among social groups, as well as under regional and international music influences.

Samba composer Noel Rosa, for instance, was white and middle-class. However, this carioca poet of Vila Isabel became one of the most active participants in the historical developments that defined and fixed "authentic" samba side by side with a great many black composers, such as Ismael Silva, the founder of Brazil's alleged first samba school, Deixa Falar (Vianna, 121).

In reality, artistic borrowings have always crossed and will most likely continue to cross the imaginary borders of all purists' minds. It is noteworthy how the rhythm of lundu, a derivation from the beat and drumming style of certain African slaves, played an immense role in the development of samba carioca while being influenced by polka, which French musicians had first brought to Brazil in 1844 (Vianna, 49).

In light of so many cases of overriding influences in the history of Brazil's music and dance, the author of O mistério do samba contends that "every attempt to establish what is truly African or European in our `popular' dances of today is worthless" (38). After all, does it make sense to defend the status of an African-rooted music style as "purely" Brazilian art? Samba had already acquired various forms at the hands of Bahians in Bahia before other Bahians came to Rio in late nineteenth-century and gave an enormous contribution to the evolution of samba carioca in the first decades of the twentieth-century (Vianna, 112-113).

Samba influences have emanated from Brazil to the world as well. For critics like Jairo Severiano and Zuza Homem de Melo, the authors of A canção no tempo (Editora 34, 1998), samba's internationally acclaimed offspring, bossa nova, has left not only significant and indelible influences in international music. It has helped orient the evolution of Brazilian music toward the style of socially aware songs hegemonically labeled MPB, the acronym for Brazilian popular music, as if other styles from Brazil were not MPB (15).

With all its wealth of sophisticated poetry, tones, arrangements, chords, harmonies and voice postures, bossa nova once meant radical innovation in a market not yet marked by deep aesthetic concerns, and its consequences have paid in spades. Through the art of Marisa Monte, Milton Nascimento, Caetano Veloso, and Gilberto Gil, MPB has been second to bossa nova in terms of commercial success and dissemination of influences abroad.

It is equally important to observe that bossa nova emerged when there was an acute drop in interest in various types of samba, most of which described anguishing love stories. Furthermore, bossa nova presented an alternative to enchanting rhythms naively regarded by Tinhorão as bourgeois deterioration of samba. Examples of such downfall is Tinhorão's view of Pixinguinha as a "semi-erudite" pioneer of stereotypical orchestrations, which bestowed upon samba "an entire series of influences alien to Brazilian culture, those of North-American music, through jazz-bands" (Música popular, 20).

For Tinhorão, the grand style of the 1940s and 1950s known as samba-canção is nothing but music that failed under the overwhelming "influence of Gershwin" (Música popular, 59). The commercial success of samba-canção and other "illegitimate children of samba" had been so astounding that part of the public had grown tired of it toward the end of the 1950s. Therefore, bossa nova came to take the market of new generations and also establish a minimalist alternative to the exaggerated tone of romantic gloom that had overcome the lyrics of samba-canção and various types of music coming from abroad, such as rumbas, boleros, and other Latin styles.

From the late 1950s on, bossa nova's success didn't spread out by chance or, indeed, without prejudice against it. Having mixed a good dose of samba and jazz Laurindo Almeida enchanted American and European audiences devoid of xenophobia, but he remains basically unknown in Brazil. To a certain extent a precursor of bossa nova, Laurindo Almeida won one of his Grammy Awards in the category of jazz—against huge talents like Cole Porter, Miles Davis, and Charlie Parker. Perhaps he remains but a shadow in Brazil because he "corroded" our samba under the auspices of foreign interests.

It is pitiful, but ultra-nationalists' biases are adopted not only by populist figures speaking in the name of the nation, but also by elitist consumers and commentators, whose power to dismiss cultural mediation is exemplified by Carmen Miranda's apotheosis and tragedy. Our first samba ambassador to the United States and the world never recuperated from the quiet but unseemly attack with which carioca high society impinged upon her self-esteem during a special performance at Urca Cassino in 1940. Her audience did not applaud her at all, song after song, and then she collapsed on stage.

By a strike of luck no bossa nova lamb has been utterly shattered or sacrificed yet. The success of bossa nova in today's Brazil is proven by a continuous flow of new CDs, such as those of Leila Pinheiro and Gal Costa, and by the existence of various fan clubs and bars solely dedicated to a kind of music that has never died south or north of the equator. Also corroborating this notion is the fact that bossa nova opponents also live on. They keep alive a tradition of cultural critics that debase anything that is not "pure," such as Suassuna and Tinhorão, even if every new edition of Música popular foretells (with pride) and celebrates (without insight) the death of a refined music distinguished by its subtle samba beat.

Personal preferences apart, long live the music admired worldwide not simply because of an exponent like João Gilberto (the only "eagle of Zeus"), but also because of other immortal geniuses, such as Vinícius de Moraes, Baden Powell, and maestro Antônio Carlos Jobim, the "vultures of bossa nova," according to Tinhorão (Águia, 136-137). The critic would only need to call Jobim a "detestable quack of the popular baton" in order to deserve Suassuna's eulogy a little further. For the dramatist, all the bossa nova musicians do is "to corrupt and vulgarize the popular music of Brazil under the pretense of renovating it" (2).

While giving credit and thanks to authoritative voices that challenge nationalist prejudices, let us agree with Hermano Vianna: "We can only denounce something as `fake' when the `real Brazilian' category exists" (111). Have we already gotten it? Is it really possible to achieve it? It has been a century since the century marked by nationalist frenzy and naiveté was over. One doubt remains: how far can the obsession with a nation's cultural virginity go?

Dário Borim Jr., a professor at Universidade Federal de Ouro Preto, state of Minas Gerais, is a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota—Twin Cities and has been a professor of Brazilian literature at the University of California, Los Angeles. Borim's articles on literary and cultural issues at large have appeared in a variety of journals and books from Brazil, USA and France. You can contact him at 

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