Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part Two)

Orpheus playing his lyre, with thoughts of his lost love, Eurydice

A Dog’s Life

Despite the surfeit of first-rate material, written and performed by artists of the front ranks, Brazilians still need, in this author’s view, to face up to an unpleasant trait that continues to haunt their midst.

This trait, known, at the time, as complexo de vira-lata, or “mongrel complex” (decades before Sting’s use of the word “mongrel”), was introduced by columnist, author, and playwright Nelson Rodrigues (the self-professed “pornographic angel”) after Brazil’s loss to Uruguay in the 1950 World Cup. The phrase suggests that what Brazil has produced is less refined, less “pure” if you will and, for that reason, less genuinely Brazilian than what Europeans and North Americans have provided the world. Ever the dramatist, Nelson went so far as to accuse his fellow Brazilians (and, by implication, himself) of being “Narcissuses in reverse who spit on [their] own image.”

What an extraordinary admission! When you consider that eight years later Brazil enjoyed nearly back-to-back triumphs in the 1958, 1962, and 1970 World Cup Soccer tournaments, you realize that Nelson’s remark fails to hold up (as least as far as soccer was concerned). You would think that Brazil’s Fat Lady would have taken pride in these accomplishments rather than going the self-critical route.

Writer, sports columnist, playwright, and dramatist Nelson Rodrigues (1912-1980)

How could Brazilians, who, as an example, took the sport of soccer (introduced into the country by a Brazilian-born, British descendant named Charles Miller), injected that sport with so much joy and spontaneity, and after that, went about making soccer essentially their own, have possibly subjected themselves to such levels of self-deprecation? The image of a mangy mutt overturning cans in a darkened alleyway, fighting for scraps with others of its kind, and rearing a brood of “less than pure” offspring, runs counter to everything we know and love about Brazilians. “If you lay down with dogs, you’ll get fleas,” goes the corresponding English connotation. Was this a warning to Brazilians to steer clear of foreign influences, lest they become infected with a permanent stain on their national identity? It positively reeks of post-Modernism.

However, the reality of the situation is far more complicated, and not as easily dismissible as it might appear. It goes to the core of the argument that Brazilians, as in the days of medieval flagellants, reserve the harshest punishments for themselves. An excerpt from a popular poem, attributed to politician and writer Henrique Maximiano Coelho Neto (1864-1934), and known to every household, both praises and bemoans the insurmountable obstacles of motherhood:

 Ser mãe é andar chorando num sorriso!
Ser mãe é ter um mundo e não ter nada!
Ser mãe é padecer num paraíso!  

To be a mother is to cry when you are smiling!

To be a mother is having the world when there’s nothing left to have!

To be a mother is to suffer even in Paradise!

If you were to substitute “mother,” in the poem’s last three lines, with the word “Brazilian” (“To be a Brazilian is to suffer even in Paradise”), you would begin to appreciate the lengths the Brazilian people have gone to, and the degree of suffering they’ve had to endure, in forging a purposeful life for their families and loved ones in the midst of turmoil and defeat.

Be that as it may, I happen to disagree with Nelson’s viewpoint. I believe, as many of my family members do, that diversity brings us strength and unity of purpose. In my own case, and in the case of my wife, we are the product of multi-ethnicities, of cultures foreign (for the most part) to the Brazilian ethos, yet inextricably bound to it.

My background, as revealed to me recently, was surprising and unforeseen in that it overturned all previous expectations — something many Brazilians have grown accustomed to experiencing. I learned that I am predominantly of Iberian descent (i.e., Portuguese and Spanish), and, in descending order of importance, part Southern European (Italian and/or Greek), part British Isles, part Middle Eastern, part Scots-Irish-Welsh, part North African, and part European Jewish. Similarly, my wife is overwhelmingly Portuguese, over a third Spanish, and part French, with a significantly smaller percentage of Native North, South, and/or Central American lineage, along with minor Sardinian ancestry.

Do these statistics make us “mongrels”? Yes, I suppose they do, but without the complexes, I assure you. If you asked me, I’d say the preferred description would be “citizen of the world.” In a way, the discovery of my roots has helped to reconcile a longstanding dilemma I once faced as a youngster growing up in the Bronx. So many individuals I encountered had expressed surprise and, indeed, outright shock at my having been born in Brazil.

“Oh, really?” they responded quizzically. “Funny, you don’t look Brazilian,” as if they knew what Brazilians looked like.

It happened that I hailed from the city of São Paulo, a region populated by immigrants with Western European, Middle Eastern, and Japanese affiliation. Judging by such iconic images as those of the unrivaled Pelé and soccer player-turned-actor Breno Mello (Orfeu in the movie Black Orpheus), some folks took it for granted that all Brazilians were people of color. I grew up realizing that such misconceptions about one’s “looks” were commonplace in the sixties and seventies, although I had a hard time accepting them. Still, I struggled to overcome people’s ignorance of Brazilian culture and their seeming unawareness of Brazil as a place almost as large, and equally as diverse, as the continental United States, with events in America’s past that often paralleled both countries’ histories.

Orpheus Rising

The favelas, as represented at the Rio 2016 Olympics

In the meantime, Orpheus, the perfect surrogate for a battered Brazil (and a citizen of the ancient world), continues to ply his trade by singing his songs through the mouths of present-day Narcissuses. “The show must go on,” he cries, even if it doesn’t. This irreconcilable duality between the passions of Orpheus with the rancor and resentment of a reverse Narcissus is jarring, to say the least, but closer to the truth of who Brazilians are and what Brazil has become. There is one thing we can all agree on: even in the face of dire trouble, Brazilians are a most resilient breed.   

In spite of Brazil’s bittersweet trajectory and its perpetual tumbling toward the abyss, the country has continued to evolve, though not in the way one would have surmised. It is more apparent than ever that Brazil has always been, and will forever be, the land of Carnival and samba. Orson Welles knew this. Vinicius and Jobim knew this, as well as Marcel Camus. Cacá Diegues and Caetano Veloso both knew this, as did Chico Buarque, Gilberto Gil, and many others. And now, the world knows it.

As well, the Brazilian favelas have forever been depicted as crime-ridden, drug-plagued infernos (unfairly, I might add). Carnival was similarly looked down upon when Welles tried to capture the event in his unfinished documentary It’s All True. His attempts at foisting the festivities down the throats of RKO executives were met with resistance and defeat. Inconceivably, at the time not even those Brazilians in power wanted anything to do with Carnival, especially if it focused on black people. With the release of Black Orpheus, the elevation of the slums and the film’s inauthentic depiction of Carnival were again rejected by Brazilians, but embraced by everyone else.

Poster for “Orfeu Negro” (“Black Orpheus”)

Yet, by some miracle of modern technology, a combination of déjà vu with wish fulfillment, the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympics brought Carnival and the favelas back into the national conversation. Orpheus rose once again, this time over a setting Brazilian sun and in defiance of the odds. Kept front and center throughout the games, it appeared to television viewers, and to millions of Brazilians, that the country had accepted the image that had long been imposed on them so many decades before. Too, the ceremony’s creative directors had begun to embrace this once-reviled picture of Brazil (the country’s “true face,” come to pass). And appreciably, the music of the ceremony — the same music that issued forth from the slums of Rio de Janeiro — has become suggestive of the forgotten multitudes who happen to live, work, and die there.

With the exception of the commotion that swirled around the Ryan Lochte episode, a troublesome sideshow to the main event, Marvelous City Rio put on a model Olympics. And despite the staggering costs involved in the project, and the adverse publicity generated with the city’s concurrent (and mutually exclusive) relocation and pacification efforts, most observers, including a majority of Brazil’s citizens, gave Rio 2016 an enthusiastic “thumbs up,” a traditional sign of approbation.

About a decade ago, in September 2010, I had the esteemed privilege of speaking to Susana Moraes, Vinicius’ eldest daughter, about her father’s play, Orfeu da Conceição, and how it differed from the movie, Black Orpheus. She told me in model English (she also spoke fluent French) how much the movie had perturbed Vinicius when he saw it at the Presidential Palace in Laranjeiras, Rio. She sat alongside him at the time, and described to me the tears of hurt and anger that welled up in his eyes and down his cheeks at the stereotypical images of black Brazilians cavorting on the screen.

Susana Moraes (1940-2015), eldest daughter of Vinicius de Moraes (at right)

Over the years, Susana came to soften her view of the picture. For one, she regarded it as mostly nostalgic, part of that longing for a time that may never have existed, but that still had a place in her memory and heart; for another, she acknowledged the huge influence Black Orpheus exuded on the world scene in bringing something of Brazil’s culture to the fore.

Looking back on that experience, Susana Moraes, an actress, filmmaker, and producer in her day, had finally come to grips with the movie’s power to enchant through sounds, images, music, and lyrics. Susana had accepted the notion that Black Orpheus had been idyllic in nature, if not grounded in reality. But more importantly, she had grown more mindful today of how the Brazil of 1959 (coincidentally, the year my family and I came to America) had been represented — i.e., as a country on the verge of greatness — than when the movie had first come out.

Coincidence or not, this author has reached a similar conclusion: that Brazilians, too, must accept the notion of what a twenty-first-century Brazil has always been — i.e., an “Orphean country,” in the perceptive, frequently quoted, and still highly applicable terms of poet-musician Caetano Veloso, “one that expresses its soul’s sweetly tragic aspects through music — with moments of revulsion and regret whenever that vision ran counter to those terms. To these, and more, we plead nolo contendere.

In a paradoxical twist of fate, Brazil, in the past, has been touted as the country of the future. For today’s Brazilians, that future never seems to arrive. Prosperity appears to be just around the corner; you can almost touch it, seize it, even taste the riches that are within your grasp, yet it remains stubbornly out of reach. One gets the impression the populace rather enjoys harking after a nostalgic past, with misgivings for the present mixed with unbounded expectations for the future — Tropicália turned inside out and on its head. If diversity in all matters can lead those inured to the country’s problems into the light of reason, may it be so.

What does the future hold for Brazil’s Fat Lady? My parting advice for her is this: Take heart, girl. The performance is over. It’s time again for you to take stock of your accomplishments. Learn from your mistakes, especially from your glorious past. Revamp your repertoire, learn new roles; take on new assignments and new challenges, then show them what you’ve got. Do something to address the problems of the present, and the future will take care of itself. But do make it a future worth striving for — a grateful nation will be at your feet. Ω

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes

Epilogue: What’s in Store for Brazil’s Fat Lady? (Part One)

Bidu Sayao (c.), with conductor Jean Morel to her left, and composer Heitor Villa-Lobos at far right, 1946

“I Got the Music in Me”

When I began the writing of my book Brazil’s Fat Lady Can’t Sing, But She Can Still Do the Bossa Nova, my enthusiasm for opera and, if I may be all inclusive, for soccer, cinema, bossa nova, pop music, and musical theater was at its unassailable peak. With the passage of time (by my count, almost a decade and a half), the glow of that enthusiasm has dimmed in proportion to events as they continue to spiral out of control — both in Brazil and elsewhere.

If that is the case, well, then, so be it. To the extent these subjects have revealed themselves to be somewhat flawed, I remain convinced of their efficacy. I am not so naïve as to believe the institutions that have existed in Brazil, or that have endured throughout the world, have functioned at top speed and full tilt. That these institutions have been influential in bolstering the production of opera and film, in maintaining the support of men’s and women’s soccer, in driving the investment in and promotion of new musical-theater material, and in contributing to the vitality of the popular song format are undeniable pluses.

On the other hand, there is no question that music, in every conceivable form, is Brazil’s lifeblood. Considered a participatory event, music is an expression of the public’s taste (or mood) at any given moment. It can manifest itself in communal gatherings, rock concerts, soccer stadiums, church functions, birthday parties, after-school programs, wedding celebrations, and fêtes in the park; in street demonstrations and political rallies, in local and national news coverage, indeed wherever music may be found and heard.

Author, musicologist, former diplomat, and accomplished performer Vasco Mariz, in the Introduction to his book História da Música no Brasil (“The History of Music in Brazil”), made note that “the Brazilian people have always been musically inclined.” I have yet to encounter or been made aware of anyone who disputes that claim.

Vasco Mariz, ‘Historia da Musica no Brasil” (“The History of Music in Brazil”)

Along similar lines, the genealogy of Brazil’s musical styles can serve as a blueprint for the country’s vaunted diversity: In the beginning, there was choro, and choro begat samba; the combination of samba with cool-jazz begat bossa nova; and bossa nova begat Música Popular Brasileira (MPB). With Música Popular Brasileira and the influx of British Merseybeat, one can chart the next stage of development in the shorter-lived Tropicália movement — itself a compendium of the musical, artistic, literary, and audiovisual ideas re-imagined as a form of protest. While bossa nova hit the world’s shores with the force of a typhoon, by comparison Tropicália was a mild ripple. But which genre has proven to be more resilient, both musically and artistically, or more challenging and inventive?

For the Young Guard and the older generation of that era, Tropicália was everything and it was nothing; it came from everywhere and nowhere at once; it created and destroyed, constructed and deconstructed the country’s musical foundations. Transformative is a term that has also been used in connection to the genre’s impact.

In the same instant that Tropicália was commenting on the present, it paid homage to the past while hurtling toward an uncertain future. A typical aesthetic of Tropicália was its drawing from a rich variety of sources. Another was its use of “opposites” to disguise one’s feelings from authorities who were forever policing what performers could or could not say or do in public.

To illustrate this point, when the tropicalistas sang “Alô, alô,” what they meant was “Goodbye, goodbye,” one of several methods employed for avoiding direct confrontation with the censors. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work to their advantage. For their efforts, they, along with like-minded individuals (among them artists, journalists, students, teachers, politicians, sociologists, revolutionaries, and members of the clergy) were treated with either suppression, imprisonment, torture or exile — and often all four, even to their death.

Tropicalistas (Top row – from left to right: Jorge Ben, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, Rita Lee, Gal Costa; bottom row – Os Mutantes Arnaldo Baptista and Sergio Dias Baptista)

All told, the most significant and intellectually stimulating of Brazil’s musical-poetic creations registered as a giant blip on the country’s radar, so radically disturbing it proved to the status quo.

Others have tried to define this typically Brazilian methodology of taking from multiple references to suit their artistic purposes. For instance, British rocker and former Police front-man, Sting, once proposed that “pop music should be a great mongrel,” wherein the ability to glean “from any source” and from any country’s musical traditions would result in a cornucopia of stylistic forms, elements, and ideas — all of them perfectly suitable for public consumption.

This same thought process originated in Brazil decades before with Modernist poet, polemicist, playwright, and novelist José Oswald de Andrade’s 1928 “Cannibalist Manifesto,” where the term antropofagia, or anthropophagy (known by the more familiar expression “cannibalism”) was initially coined. Oswald de Andrade was speaking figuratively, of course, about the phenomenon of ingesting foreign cultures through their music, art, literature, poetry, philosophy, and so forth. What came out in the end evolved into something fresh and exciting, as well as distinctly and, to his eyes, unapologetically Brazilian.

Jose Oswald de Andrade (1890-1954), author of the “Cannibalist Manifesto”

There are manifold examples of cultural cannibalism throughout Brazil’s history, about which I have attempted to touch upon in my work. There is the case of Carlos Gomes, a Brazilian opera composer who (first) went about in search of a theme, and (second) in search of an individual style to fit that theme. The theme, for him, which ranged far beyond his native land and into quasi-Verdian territory, remained out of reach; likewise, his search for an individual style came together with the composition of Il Guarany, Fosca, Salvator Rosa, Lo Schiavo, and, in the main, Colombo, the premise of which had a personal resonance for the native-born musician. Gomes may have passed on into obscurity, but he left behind an impressive musical legacy, if not a great one.

Another artist who flourished in the wake of Oswald de Andrade’s cannibalist theory was Carmen Miranda. What Carmen was forced to accept — or, rather, what Hollywood forced upon her to admit — was what today is called “cultural appropriation,” defined as “the inappropriate use by a dominant culture of borrowing,” as it were, “from a subordinate culture.”

Significantly, for the first decade of her career — that is, prior to her coming to North America — Carmen achieved recognition for performing sambas, marchas, marchinhas, samba-choro, samba-batuque, and similar styles. As in Sting’s example, and in what Oswald de Andrade had earlier envisioned, Carmen drew from both native and non-native sources to expand the range and content of her repertoire. She did not write her own songs, but rather had songwriters compose them for her. In Brazil, these songwriters, numbering among them Ary Barroso, Josué de Barros, Joubert de Carvalho, Synval Silva, Dorival Caymmi, and Assis Valente, offered their services willingly, knowing that Carmen would interpret their work to the best of her ability and talent.

Carmen’s subsequent Broadway debut became, for Brazilians, a watershed event that, much to the entertainer’s frustration, did not bear similar fruit in her home country. The so-called cultural appropriation aspects, then, can also be applied to her Hollywood career, specifically in that faux Latin persona imposed on her by the powers that be; and by her mashing of English (despite her fluency in the language) which, more often than not, accompanied the interspersing of her native Portuguese in between the lyrics of American show tunes.

Carmen Miranda in ‘The Gang’s All Here’ (1943)

By comparison, Carmen’s compatriot, soprano Bidu Sayão, took the opposite position in that she exuded a typically Westernized approach to such operatic staples as Manon, Susanna, Zerlina, Violetta, Mimì, Mélisande, Micaëla, and others, as befit the requirements of the time. As always, though, Bidu’s innate Brazilianness shone through in the way she carried herself on and off the stage, and the manner in which she led her later life away from it.

Separately from Carmen but contemporaneous with her and Bidu’s chief period of activity, composer Heitor Villa-Lobos thrived for a time as Brazil’s most voracious musical artist and educator, a “cannibal” in all but name only. His insatiable appetite for folk, street-wise, native Brazilian and non-native sources, in addition to the variety of styles he applied those sources to, was unequaled among his peers.

After Carmen, Villa, and Bidu, cultural cannibalism continued unabated and, we should be reminded, unabashedly Brazilian, which supports Oswald de Andrade’s theory in action as well as in fact. It was carried over into the classic song output of Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes, which came about through the influence of classical and jazz compositions, Greek mythology, Brazilian folklore, and various other sources, expanded upon at length in the preceding pages of my book.

And let’s not discount the contributions of Brazil’s musical and dramatic theater to the country’s artistic diversity. It has impressed me, to no end, how rich and fertile this overlooked facet of Brazilian culture has been; one that has witnessed substantial growth over five or more decades, thanks to the creativity and vision of the likes of Vinicius, Villa-Lobos, Chico Buarque, Paulo Pontes, Augusto Bial, Francis Hime, Edu Lobo, Carlos Lyra, Gerald Thomas, Charles Möeller, Claudio Botelho, and that ageless national treasure Bibi Ferreira.*

  • Just as this portion of the text was completed, the disheartening news was received that Bibi had passed away at age 96 on February 13, 2019, after suffering cardiac arrest. Much of her obituary in the Brazilian media was taken up with her 77 years as a performer, singer, actress, writer, director, and producer. One article described her having sat on Carmen Miranda’s knee, which must have taken place sometime in the 1930s. She also studied theater in London (thankfully, not during one of those infamous blitzkrieg bombings) during the early 1940s.

(End of Part One)

To be continued …..

Copyright © 2019 by Josmar F. Lopes