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Beyond the Bananas


Beyond the Bananas

The emergence of Carmen Miranda acted as an official link
between the samba tradition of poor
blacks and mulattos and
white and elite middle-class to create a national identity.
She belonged to
Hollywood turned her back to her
native Brazil not only once, but twice.

by:
Giancarlo Iosue

Often times, many Latin American popular culture icons, like Carmen Miranda, are embedded with images of
nostalgia and tragedy. Nostalgia, because she represented a part of popular culture that had not yet reached its prime; a culture of
a national identity that was transformed into the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, rather than an ambassador of a country
rich with life, history, music, and
brasilidade (Brazilianness) that represented the history and plight of its people. Tragedy,
because her life ended when she was in her prime, she was only 46 years old. She lived a life that could have inspired many great
things for the benefit of her Brazil, as well as for Miranda, herself.

Darién J. Davis’ Racial Parity and National Humor: Exploring Brazilian Samba from Noel Rosa to Carmen
Miranda, speaks about the Brazilian samba and its early connections to Carmen Miranda. Samba, the most popular Brazilian
rhythm, is directly related to forms of music brought to Brazil by African slaves. Samba music and lyrics remained linked to
blacks, the original composers of the music; but these artists, however, were only tangentially recognized by white society.
The emergence of Carmen Miranda into Música Popular Brasileira, or MBP, acted as an official link between the samba
tradition of poor blacks and mulattos and white and elite middle-class to create a national identity.

Conversely, ask an American to describe Carmen Miranda and you will most likely receive a response that contains
key words ranging from monikers like "Broadway Brazilian Bombshell," and film titles,
Copacabana, and Down Argentine Way. Others might describe Miranda performing with the "tutti-frutti hat," or even, my personal favorite, "the girl on the
Chiquita Banana label." After all, it was Miranda who recorded the smash hit, jazz-inspired, Chiquita theme song that went "I’m
Chiquita Banana and I’ve come to say, Bananas have to ripen in a certain way. Bananas like the climate of the very tropical
equator, so you should never put bananas in the refrigerator." No mention of any samba, MPB, or connection to Brazil. Some of
the people whom I interviewed were not even sure which Latin American country Miranda came from.

Though that is how most remembers Carmen Miranda—before her general Hollywood trademarks, the tutti-frutti hat,
and the platform shoes, her rise to MBP in the 1930’s affords us an opportunity to link the relationship between identity,
racial ties, poverty, and colonialism.

Less than fifty years after the abolition of slavery in Brazil (1888), a face was chosen to create a national identity of
Música Popular Brasileira. This face, known to all Brazilians, was one that was praised by the upper and middle classes as well
as the popular classes. That face was Carmen Miranda’s. She possessed different elements about her: She was born in
Portugal, but raised in Brazil. Her family was not rich; rather, she was raised in very humble beginnings. Because of this
socioeconomic characteristic, Miranda identified herself with the humilities of the black popular classes; it was easier therefore to then
display black popular rhythms with lyrics that spoke of poverty, race, and patriotism.

Humor, spoofs, and exaggeration of black and other popular rhythms were central to Miranda’s musical routine.
Though pedaling the music and rhythms of the black and popular classes, she was able to catch the attention of the elite classes
using a double-edged sword with popular black music on one end, and a white female conveying this music on the other. This
sword allowed her to bring together all Brazilians, regardless of class and race, through musical enjoyment.

Brazil First

Though brasilidade, an expression of Brazilianness, was placed as first priority over racial, ethnic, and class ties
throughout the Getúlio Vargas regime, political ridicule was virtually non-existent during the 30’s and 40’s. Vargas created a
Department of Press and Propaganda to maintain a sense of order, free of political mockery, in which
brasilidade could occur and further progress. During the administration, the progression and nationalization of black culture occurred at a time when
Carnaval, a celebration of debauchery and excess—a liberation of the body, underwent significant transformation and emerged as
a federal production with nationalist criteria for participation.

Davis goes on to say that music and politics in Brazil have been closely intertwined for centuries. Noticeable in other
cultures as well as the Brazilian one, music can either celebrate and praise, or denounce and belittle—and during this time, songs
were written praising Brazil, and songs were written to belittle the government. Musicians like Dorival Caymmi and Ary Barroso produced songs like "Samba da Minha Terra" and "Aquarela do Brasil" expressing the
framework for, their feelings of passion for Brazil. But successful interpretation of these songs could only be executed by the style
of singers like Carmen Miranda. She identified with Brazil and its culture. Miranda translated the black samba for a white
audience, originated the Brazilian way of singing and invented a new, one of the first, standards of Brazilian popular music; she
defined the Carioca (from Rio) woman.

However, songs like "Samba da Minha Terra" and "Aquarela do Brasil," with their grand verses were stripped bare
in the United States. Verses like, `Samba da minha terra deixa a gente mole. Quando se canta todo mundo
bole’ (The samba from my land leaves the people weak. When it is sung, everyone shakes) and
`O Brasil samba que dá, bamboleio que
faz gingar, O Brasil do meu amor, terra de Nosso
Senhor’ (Brazil, your samba puts some bounce in my strut, Brazil of my
love, land of our Lord), virtually became non-existent in the U.S..

When Carmen Miranda came to Hollywood, now in her tutti-frutti hat and her platform shoes, she still sang
"Aquarela do Brasil," however a modified version of it. The name was changed simply to "Brazil" and the lyrics were translated
from Portuguese to English. Further, Aquarela do
Brasil was used as a closing song for many of Miranda’s performances
and instead of singing the whole song, with passion, her producers and managers shortened the song to the same tune,
having her sing the word "Brazil" again and again.

It seemed that the crowd was more focused on the "cabana boy" dancers and Miranda’s fruit salad headpiece rather
than the beauty of the song and its descriptive phrases sung in its native language. To end a show with a bastardization of a
song that is often used as a second Brazilian national anthem seems unjust, but if that is what can sell American crowds, then
it was acceptable. America gained a performer, but Brazil lost a star.

After Miranda coined "Aquarela do Brasil," Frank Sinatra stole it for his repertoire during his "Rat Pack" years.
Though not singing, not even mentioning the word Brazil, Sinatra would replace the word with the female undergarment and
sing: "Braziers! I love a broad with no brazier…" —a greater exacerbation of an already bastardized term.

Victim of Hollywood

It seems that Miranda belonged to Hollywood at a certain point and turned her back to her native Brazil not only
once, but twice. She could not prove herself as the Brazilian "cultural ambassador," or prove herself as anything for that
matter. One of the taglines for the documentary about Miranda,
Bananas is my Business, says, "Miranda emerged as a
Hollywood victim, for although she had everything she wanted, she was never given the studio’s blessing to escape from her image
to pursue her true musical talent."

I agree with that strongly. Though she died at a young age, not even in her prime, her musical talents could have
flourished in a way she wanted them to. In the late 1940’s Carmen Miranda was the highest paid performer in the USA. With the
popularity and earnings she had amassed, a new wave of Carmen Miranda, a Brazilian/American hybridization of Carmen Miranda,
could have emerged. She could have furthered her quests as the Brazilian cultural ambassador, forging the national identity
and the promotion of it; as well as her ability to pursue her own musical and acting interests whether in Brazil or in the
United States.

Unfortunately, sleeping pills, depression, an abusive marriage and electroshock therapy followed. These combined
factors were a recipe for disaster and expressed a sense of misery despite Miranda’s jovial public expression that "bananas was
her business."

I remember once while listening to Fine Estampa Ao
Vivo, Caetano Veloso, a legend in his own right, spoke of his
introduction to bossa nova, in particular, João Gilberto. As a 16-year-old, he would sit across the street from a bar in Santo
Amaro, his hometown, and listen to the record of João Gilberto, singing "Chega de Saudade" (No More Longing) and the
flipside, "Bim Bom," written by João himself.

A fellow bossa nova lover, and contributor to
Brazzil, Kirsten Weinoldt put it: "For young Caetano, this record was
a revelation, possibly one of the inspirations for his own career that would later be legendary." The rest is history as
Veloso in his 50’s and Gilberto in his 70’s are still recognized as greats; Gilberto is even called O Pai da Bossa (The Father of
Bossa Nova). However, since many people only remember Carmen Miranda with the tutti-frutti hat and the platform shoes, it is
in that manner she will be immortalized.

She will not be placed in entertainment history as a diva or as a matriarch like João
Gilberto was a father to a musical revolution. Though some reminiscence as Carmen Miranda bridged the gap for Música Popular
Brasileira and made music available for all, those same will soon lament over a young life with a fierce Brazilian soul and an
awesome potential for acting and music.

A thank you to Robert Stoll for his help with Portuguese translation and a special thank you to Hugo Benavides for
his support and teachings on popular culture, Carnaval, and Carmen.

Giancarlo Iosue is a student at Fordham University in New York City, majoring in International Political Economy
with a minor in the Spanish language. Latin American culture and identity are among his many interests and he has spent
time abroad in South America and the Caribbean. He can be reached at
giancarlo.iosue@mail.com

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