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, musical theater, and most matters related to Brazil 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 continued to function 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 cannot be denied.

On the other hand, there is no question that music, not soccer, is Brazil’s lifeblood. Yes, you read that right. Author, musicologist, and accomplished vocalist Vasco Mariz, in the Introduction to his book História da Música no Brasil (“The History of Music in Brazil”), made note of the fact that “the Brazilian people have always been musically inclined.” I have yet to encounter anyone who disputes that claim. Considered a participatory event, music is an expression of the public’s taste (or mood) at any given moment. It can manifest itself in any number of ways, most commonly 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.

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, which begat samba-canção; the combination of samba and samba-canção with cool-jazz begat bossa nova; and bossa nova begat Música Popular Brasileira (MPB). With Música Popular Brasileira and the influx of British Merseybeat, as well as American rock-n-roll, 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 — except in its place of origin. 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 another term 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 true 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 confrontation with the censors. Unfortunately, it didn’t always work to their advantage. For their efforts, they, along with like-minded individuals, 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 and elements — 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 exhilarating, as well as distinctly and, to his eyes, unapologetically Brazilian.

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

There are multiple examples of cultural cannibalism throughout Brazil’s history, about which I have touched 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. 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 imposed 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 in her field for performing sambas, marchas, marchinhas, samba-choro, samba-batuque, and similar styles. As in Sting’s example above, Carmen drew from a variety of 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 offered their services willingly, knowing that Carmen would interpret their work to the best of her ability and talent.

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, 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 nationalist 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 make note, 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 power 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/or 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 a substantial growth pattern over the past five or more decades, thanks to the creativity and vision of Villa-Lobos, Chico Buarque, Paulo Pontes, Augusto Bial, 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

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