Meet the Inventor of Brazil

 Meet the Inventor of Brazil

Brazilianness was commonly
understood to mean that
collection of qualities which defined the nation, which
distinguished Brazilians from citizens of Argentina, Portugal,
and the United States—to name three populations whom
Brazilians felt it was important to define themselves against.
by: Bryan

"Quem foi que inventou o Brasil?" Who invented Brazil? This musical
question begins Lamartine Babo’s 1933 marcha "História
do Brasil." The next line offers an answer that toys with history and
those who believe in it: "Foi seu Cabral! Foi seu Cabral!" It was
Mr. Cabral, or Pedro Álvares Cabral, the errant navigator who in 1500
initiated Portuguese exploration and settlement of the territory that soon
became known as Brazil.

When Babo wrote these
lines, Cabral was certainly understood to be the discoverer of Brazil, but
discovery is not the same as invention. The next line raises further historical
doubts: "On the 21st of April, two months after Carnival." This
suggests that Brazil’s tradition of pre-Lenten revelry somehow antedated the
arrival of Cabral and the Portuguese.

What is the meaning of
the deliberate anachronism? Was Babo making fun of textbook history by dismantling
its catechism and reassembling it in nonsensical fashion? Was he suggesting
that between discovery and invention lies a complex process of mythmaking
and occasional misinformation? Or was he merely suggesting, in fine Brazilian
fashion, that a naively forthright question deserves a dubious answer?

do Brasil" is, at first blush, a trifle, a carnival ditty with a simple
melody and exuberantly inane lyrics, the kind of tune that Babo cranked out
by the dozens throughout the 1930s. This was among his more successful efforts,
and the original recording by the vocalist Almirante became a hit of the 1934
carnival season.

By its nature, however,
Carnival was a season of festivity, not critical inquiry, and it is likely
that the revelers who followed Almirante’s open car through the streets, throwing
confetti and joining him in song, happily accepted the good-humored incongruities
of "História do Brasil" without prolonged reflection as to
their meaning.

But the tune’s initial
question echoes across the decades with a deeper resonance. Who, after all,
did invent Brazil? As interesting, why did Babo want to know? He was
by no means alone in this concern. Inquiry into the nature and meaning of
Brazilianness was the foremost theme of the 1930s at all levels of intellectual

Brazilianness, or brasilidade,
was commonly understood to mean that collection of qualities which defined
the nation, which distinguished Brazilians from citizens of Argentina, Portugal,
and the United States—to name three populations whom Brazilians felt
it was important to define themselves against.

Determining the cultural
content of Brazilianness, and discovering the best ways to cultivate, express,
and preserve it, became an overriding concern. Artists, authors, bureaucrats,
popular composers, and, to a surprising degree, everyday Brazilians, shared
in an investigation of Brazil’s cultural roots and identity—an investigation
that in itself became a process of reinvention and reconstruction.

do Brasil" is one of many manifestations of this tendency. It was neither
the most graceful nor the most influential, but it was one of the earliest
explicit inquiries into national identity in the field of popular music.

It was also remarkably
acute in describing a transition from one set of national myths and symbols,
based on a high cultural vision of the marriage of European and indigenous
elements to another, based on Afro-Brazilian roots and modern, popular cultural

The tune’s second verse
alludes to José de Alencar’s 1857 novel O Guarani, Brazil’s
most influential nineteenth-century nationalist work. The novel was later
adapted into an opera by composer Carlos Gomes, and both novel and opera were
considered obligatory markers of Brazilian high culture in the late nineteenth
century and early twentieth.

In O Guarani, the
Portuguese maiden Cecília, or Ceci, for short, falls for Peri, the
Guarani chief of the title, and from their union, allegorically, the nation
of Brazil is born. In "História do Brasil," the primordial
couple surfaces in the line "Later, Peri kissed Ceci, to the sound of
O Guarani." Again, Babo indulges in playful anachronism by suggesting
that Gomes’s opera was the soundtrack for the mythic couple’s embrace.

O guarani is prototypical
of nineteenth-century nationalist literature in its depiction of Peri as a
noble, solitary Indian who must give way before the advancing European settlers
but whose spirit is symbolically incorporated into their new civilization.
It was also typical of nineteenth-century Brazilian thought in the way it
pushed Brazil’s enormous population of African descent to the margins:

African influence cuts
no ice in Alencar’s national allegory. By the 1930s, such a perspective was
clearly antiquated. Reconsideration of the importance of African cultural
influence was the single most important element in Brazil’s collective inquiry
into national character.

Nowhere was that influence
more apparent than in popular music and, partly as a result, popular music
became particularly freighted with nationalist meanings. Subsequent lyrics
in "História do Brasil" allude to this transition: "Later,
Ceci became Iaiá, Peri became Ioiô."

and Ioiô were Afro-Brazilian terms of endearment, historically
used by slaves for the slaveowner’s children, but by the 1930s
used, or stereotyped, as terms of courtship between older Afro-Brazilian
men and women. Babo’s marcha thus domesticates the interracial
union of O guarani and gives it an Afro-Brazilian tinge, implying
a new national ancestry.

Babo describes another
transition, from "O guarani to guaraná"—that
is, from the high cultural works of Alencar and Gomes to the modern commercial
product of guaraná, a carbonated soft drink made from an Amazonian
berry. Guaraná, as bottled by the powerful firms Antárctica
and Brahma, was fast becoming a staple of the Brazilian popular diet.

Babo ushers out the old,
refined, elitist Brazil, and welcomes the new, mass-produced, democratically
consumable Brazil. In doing so, he astutely links two apparently unrelated
aspects of the enormous cultural transformation currently underway—the
new emphasis on Afro-Brazilian roots and the rise of a mass market.

This link is indeed fundamental:
the symbolic capital of Afro-Brazilian authenticity was an important factor
shaping the growth of a mass market for popular musical recordings and radio
programs. Emphasis on the Afro-Brazilian origins of samba, for example, became
increasingly important as samba became a packaged commercial product.

From the vantage point
of Carnival, 1934, a Brazil culturally defined by O Guarani already
seemed a distant past. "From there to here," Babo concluded, "everything
changed. Grandma’s time has gone and now Severa and the horse Mossoró
are in charge."

This line refers to a
melodramatic singer of Portuguese laments and a prizewinning thoroughbred,
both of whom were in the headlines in 1933. Babo was wrong about these last
two—few Brazilians today would recognize their names. Many, in contrast,
would recognize Babo’s, although they would likely refer to him only by his
first name, and almost all would be able to sing at least a few lines of his
most famous tunes, without necessarily attaching a name or a date to them.

They are
part of a common store of cultural knowledge. As markers of
Brazilianness, they are as pervasive as feijoada, the
black bean stew of African origin, or guaraná
itself. Babo was right about a transition in the relative importance
of high and popular culture in defining the nation, but he could
not be expected to foresee his own importance, or that of his
fellow composers and performers of popular music, in formulating
the new definition.

The text above is an excerpt
from the introduction to Hello, Hello Brazil : Popular Music in the
Making of Modern Brazil by Bryan McCann. Duke University Press, June 2004.

Bryan McCann is Assistant Professor of Latin American History
at Georgetown University. He welcomes your comments at

Hello Brazil is available for purchase at bookstores or direct from
Duke University Press –


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