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Brazzil - Identity - June 2004

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.

Bryan McCann


Picture "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?

"História 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 debate.

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.

"História 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 forms.

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."

Iaiá 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 bryan.mccann2@verizon.net.
Hello, Hello Brazil is available for purchase at bookstores or direct from Duke University Press - http://www.dukeupress.edu

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