Contemporary Carioca: Technologies of Mixing in a Brazilian Music Scene

Contemporary Carioca: Technologies of Mixing in a Brazilian Music Scene

by Frederick Moehn

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Brazilian popular music is widely celebrated for its inventive amalgams of styles and sounds. Cariocas, native residents of Rio de Janeiro, think of their city as particularly conducive to musical mixture, given its history as a hub of Brazilian media and culture. In Contemporary Carioca, the ethnomusicologist Frederick Moehn introduces a generation…  See more details below


Brazilian popular music is widely celebrated for its inventive amalgams of styles and sounds. Cariocas, native residents of Rio de Janeiro, think of their city as particularly conducive to musical mixture, given its history as a hub of Brazilian media and culture. In Contemporary Carioca, the ethnomusicologist Frederick Moehn introduces a generation of Rio-based musicians who collaboratively have reinvigorated Brazilian genres, such as samba and maracatu, through juxtaposition with international influences, including rock, techno, and funk. Moehn highlights the creativity of individual artists, including Marcos Suzano, Lenine, Pedro Luís, Fernanda Abreu, and Paulinho Moska. He describes how these artists manage their careers, having reclaimed some control from record labels. Examining the specific meanings that their fusions have in the Carioca scene, he explains that musical mixture is not only intertwined with nationalist discourses of miscegenation, but also with the experience of being middle-class in a country confronting neoliberal models of globalization. At the same time, he illuminates the inseparability of race, gender, class, place, national identity, technology, and expressive practice in Carioca music and its making. Moehn offers vivid depictions of Rio musicians as they creatively combine and reconcile local realities with global trends and exigencies.

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Editorial Reviews

Tom Moore

“[A] capable study, particularly useful for its consideration of the music of
Lenine, a major musical figure. For all libraries supporting study of popular music.”
Ethnomusicology - Joshua Tucker

“Throughout, Moehn’s book is gratifyingly rooted in the specifics of musical sound and production procedure. . . . It bursts with telling details. . . . The sophistication of Moehn’s take on the thorny subject of middle-class identity is worth mentioning as well. . . . [An] innovative and well-accomplished piece of popular musical analysis.”
From the Publisher

Contemporary Carioca is a solid scholarly text, and it’s a good read.” - Bill Shoemaker, The Wire

“[A] capable study, particularly useful for its consideration of the music of
Lenine, a major musical figure. For all libraries supporting study of popular music.” - Tom Moore, Notes

“This volume is an excellent resource for those interested in Brazilian culture in general and popular music in Brazil in particular. Recommended. Lower- and upper-division undergraduates and above.” - K. W. Mukuna, Choice

"Contemporary Carioca is an engaging study of musical production in Brazil that focuses on a group of Rio-based, middle-class musicians who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s and continue to produce innovative work. Among the book's many strengths is its organization around individual artists and the ways that they have approached questions of globalization, national identity, social class, race, and gender. Frederick Moehn succeeds admirably in describing and analyzing the specificity of Brazilian strategies for negotiating global and local musical practices."—Christopher Dunn, coeditor of Brazilian Popular Music and Citizenship

"Frederick Moehn guides us on a scintillating exploration of Brazilian popular music of the 1990s, combining deep critical explication of the work of key performers with sharp delineation of that work's place in the political and commercial context. No previous author has balanced intimate knowledge of popular music as a studio creation with careful exploration of the Brazilian cultural marketplace as successfully as Moehn does here."—Bryan McCann, Georgetown University

The Wire - Bill Shoemaker

Contemporary Carioca is a solid scholarly text, and it’s a good read.”
The Americas - Marc Hertzman

“...Moehn’s work is important because it brings to the table fresh, interesting material that he analyzes with a nice combination of ethnomusicological and anthropological insights and frames. Present and future ‘new Brazilianists’ will do well to follow his lead by examining the multiple processes that go into making music and studying artists who, for one reason or another, have received little scholarly attention."
Luso-Brazilian Review - Derek Pardue

“[An] insightful mix of anthropological ethnography and musical analysis. . . . Moehn expertly switches register throughout the chapters moving from a mode that privileges the contextual description of a historian / biographer to one of a music critic exercising a precision of vocabulary to catch the subtleties of musical meter and harmony to a register of high theory engaging Deleuze and the present zeitgeist of anthropological musings on identity-as-becoming in addition to Turino and current theories of musical semiotics as indicative of sociality. The fluidity of Moehn’s prose evinces a mastery of all registers, that which only a performer, in all of its connotations, could pull off.”
IASPM@Journal - Jordan Saull

“With his vast knowledge of post-production studio technologies and his intimate knowledge of popular music in both political and commercial contexts, Moehn provides a valuable and highly engaging contribution to the field.”
Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology - Falina Enriquez

“Moehn’s study provides productive insights for novices and experts in Brazilian music studies. His descriptions of how artists are managing and even benefiting from the decline of the record industry are especially illuminating for researchers who are interested in the effects of neoliberalism on musical production in Brazil and beyond. . . . Moehn’s descriptions of each artist’s biography and analyses of their major works are thought provoking and present a much-needed English language resource for Brazilian pop music enthusiasts.” 

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Duke University Press Books
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By Frederick Moehn

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-5155-9

Chapter One



Thanks to Ogum, I am a warrior. It is not my first instinct to hold my tongue in the face of untruth or justice, great or small.... I am a son of Ogum ... He rules my head and molds my personality. He makes me strong like steel. Because of him, I am a pathbreaker, ever ready to invent or organize something new, to look at things in a new way. —James Matory, Black Atlantic Religion, 246–47

I showed Marcos Suzano my new pandeiro today and he loved it. He knew immediately who had made it, and he marveled at the thick goatskin drumhead. —Author's fieldnotes, 19 March 1999, AR Studios

The 1990s were interesting years for the percussionist Marcos Suzano and his colleagues in music, he recalls, precisely because they captured a specific phase of technological transformation. He recorded a lot analogically (i.e., on the tape medium), but also a lot digitally as new technologies emerged. In fact, he "dove headfirst into the digital thing," and by the time of our July 2007 interview, I could no longer discern what acoustic instruments Suzano used to generate the sonic raw material for the schizophonically corrupted grooves he delighted in playing back for me on his iPod nano. Yet evidence of them was all around me in his cramped but sun-drenched home studio. An Afro-Brazilian berimbau musical bow rested upright in one corner. Cuban congas filled another crook. I almost stumbled over a wooden zabumba bass drum from the Brazilian Northeast. Shiny metal cuícas, the unique-sounding friction drum of samba, were stacked atop one other. A handsome wooden alfaia, another bass drum from the Northeast, was perched against a tarol snare drum. Cymbals rested atop drumheads, and cabasa and ganzá shakers lay about. A Nigerian dùndún talking drum, Indian tabla drums, a wooden reco reco scraper, a muringa clay jug, an Afro-Peruvian cajón, various pandeiros, and sundry sticks, mallets, brushes, and instrument cases took up the remaining space to one side of the room.

The variety of wood, skin, and brass tones of these items contrasted with the grays, whites, and blacks of much of the electronic gear on the other side of the room, where Suzano had his Apple computer–based digital audio workstation (DAW) and electronic postproduction gear. Suzano might be merely an eclectic percussionist with virtuosic technique without his Pro Tools software and mixing console, Sherman V2 filter bank, Neve 1073DPD Class A transformer balanced two-channel microphone preamplifier, Rosendahl Nanosyncs DDS audio clock and sync reference generator, Universal Audio 2–610 Dual Channel Tube Preamplifier, Neumann TLM103 large-diaphragm cardioid condenser microphone, and Yamaha NS10 near-field monitors. To the left of the DAW a stand-alone ashtray held evidence of the percussionist's impulsive habits.

I first met Suzano at Estúdio AR, where he was co-producing Paulinho Moska's Móbile (see chapter 5). At the time, he was also working on his second solo cD, and on albums with Pedro Luís, Chico César, Zeca Balero, Lenine, Fernanda Abreu, Lucas Santtana, and Carlos Malta, among others, all released in 1999 and 2000. He had recently recorded Otto's drum and bass–inspired Samba pra burro (roughly, Lots of samba), and he performed on the soundtrack for the Oscar-nominated film Central do Brasil (Central Station, both 1998). He recorded with Marisa Monte on her Rose and Charcoal disc of 1994, and on Gilberto Gil's popular Unplugged CD and the corresponding concert tour that same year, as well as the Brazilian rock band Titãs's Acústico (1997). He also recorded on Gil's Quanta (1997) and the Grammy-winning live version, Quanta ao vivo (1998); on Sting's All This Time (2001); and on Gil's Grammy-nominated Electroacústico (2004).

In the early 1990s Suzano began to gain recognition in Japan, where he frequently travels to perform, record, and teach, and where he has recorded with the pop musician Kazufumi Miyazawa and with the drummer Takashi Numazawa. His partnership with Lenine on the 1993 Olho de peixe CD is revered among many musicians and producers in Rio de Janeiro for reinvigorating the role of percussion in Brazilian pop. When the New York Times music critic Jon Pareles saw this duo perform on New York City's Central Park SummerStage in 1997, he wrote that Suzano "made a simple pandeiro (tambourine) into a polyrhythmic dynamo." The bassist Mário Moura of the band Pedro Luís e A Parede maintains that Suzano "turned everything upside down" by playing the pandeiro like a drum kit, and by bringing percussion to the foreground of pop music arrangements and productions. Indeed, while Suzano utilizes a great variety of percussive instruments in his music making, he is best known for his innovations on the pandeiro, the shallow, round, single-headed frame drum with metal cymbals that is probably descended from North African tambourines via the Iberian Peninsula.

In sum, from the 1990s to the present, Marcos Suzano has remained a percussionist highly sought after for his musical skill and versatility, his recording and performing professionalism, his technological deftness, and his unique sounds. He claims to have played on over two hundred albums. It is fair to say that there exists a Suzano brand, and that he is a cultural entrepreneur who understands his sounds as capital to be managed within a market economy in a way similar to what Jocelyne Guilbault has observed among Trinidadian carnival musicians (2007, 265). As he has been a central figure in the South Zone pop music scene, an examination of his biography and musical practice is a good way to start looking more closely at the people active in this setting. What innovations made Suzano so in demand as a recording and performing artist? How did he adapt the traditional Brazilian pandeiro to changing music technologies and international musical trends? What can his musical practices tell us about race and gender in this setting, or about the image of Africa in musical constructions of Brazilian identity? In what ways do his career trajectory and musical becoming fit into the broader collective project of inserting Brazil into pop? First, some discussion of Suzano's musicianship, and a few observations about the context in which his musical activities have unfolded.

I begin by summarizing several interconnected innovations and practices for which Suzano is known among Brazilian musicians.

He helped bring percussion to the foreground of Brazilian pop music. This may strike readers as an unusual claim, given the rich percussiveness of much Brazilian music. The argument, as I have heard it, is that in the 1980s when urban, predominantly white, middle-class Brazilian youths were increasingly identifying with international rock and pop music, percussion came to serve as a mere "complement" to an instrumentation structured around a drum kit. With a commanding stage presence, virtuosic technique, and "contemporary" sounds, he was able to claim a new space in MPB for, in particular, the pandeiro.

He preferred thick, natural drumheads for his pandeiro, in order to achieve more low-frequency resonance. By contrast, many players were using comparatively thin skins or plastic heads in the early 1990s. Playing his somewhat heavier instrument requires physical stamina, and his favorite pandeiro, now three decades old, is bruised, beaten, and held together with duct tape (see figure 2).

He lowered the pitch of the pandeiro by loosening the drumhead. Traditionally, the instrument is tuned relatively tightly, giving it a medium-pitched and comparatively brief sonic envelope. Influenced by the drum and bass, jungle, and dub genres, Suzano was interested in generating a more sustained low bass.

He developed a playing technique that corresponds to these stylistic priorities, and that allows him to get at what he called the "Afro intention" of certain popular music grooves. In a typical samba technique for playing the pandeiro, open strokes with the thumb emphasize beat 2 in duple meter, analogous to the surdo bass drum. The surdo is said to have been added to samba by the drum corps director Bide (Alcebíades Barcelos) in the late 1920s as a way of keeping carnival marchers in rhythm as they parade. Suzano, however, keeps the thumb free to accentuate the offbeats, which he sees as closer to the role of the large rum (or ilú) lead drum in the traditional drumming of the African-Brazilian Candomblé religion (see, e.g., Béhague 1984, 232; Fryer 2000, 18). The smaller and rumpi drums in this tradition are typically responsible for steady patterns. Similarly, the cymbals on the pandeiro, in Suzano's method, generally maintain even sixteenth notes (that is, four subdivisions of the beat, without "swing") as they are shaken and clang against one another, providing the fastest pulse of a given rhythm and functioning as a kind of "density referent" (Koetting 1970). The middle range on the pandeiro includes various sounds such as a muted slap on the drumhead. I detail some of the basics of Suzano's playing technique in Appendix 2.

He captures and amplifies the sounds made on his pandeiro with a small condenser microphone that clips to the instrument's frame and is aimed at the rear of the drumhead, as seen in figure 2. He was thus able to collaborate with audio engineers to achieve an outsize sound for the pandeiro both in live performance on the stage and in the recording studio. This has also allowed him and his favored engineers to control and electronically manipulate the sound of his instruments.

He, along with some of his colleagues, have utilized "mini-sets" (alt. "mini-kits") of percussive instruments and odds and ends that allow great varieties of timbres and are customizable to the particular musical context.

He adapted rhythms from a range of international influences such as rock, techno, jungle, and drum and bass to the pandeiro and to his mini-kit.

He experimented with music technologies in his search for new timbres, textures, and grooves. For example, he has used samplers and computers to record his acoustically performed beats and subsequently to loop or modify them electronically. He also uses a variety of special effects in the form of foot pedals or rack-mounted outboard gear, especially filters. The pairing of the "natural" material to electronics is a central theme in his work, and he has taken it further than his predecessors in Brazil.

In a conversation I had with Paulinho Moska he referred to Suzano as a "Carioca Blade Runner" who is "truly contemporary" and at the same time very rooted in Rio de Janeiro culture and life. Fusing the popular term for a native-born resident of Rio (Carioca) with the Hollywood reference, this characterization evokes the image of a savvy, somewhat aggressive, do-it-yourself solo male hero negotiating between nature and culture, emotions and programmed responses, humans and machines, corporate control and free will, like Harrison Ford's Detective Deckard, the Blade Runner. Deckard is charged with "retiring" rebellious "replicants," the bio-engineered slaves who are forced to live in a labor camp on another planet and who, after developing powerful emotions, seek to outlive their pre-programmed expiration date. In the end, Deckard chooses not to retire the last replicant, Rachel, with whom he falls in love and whom he invites into his home. He thus domesticates the threatening and alien technology much as Suzano has progressively domesticated imported music technologies and electronic sounds in his work and in his home DAW. Paul Théberge has observed that music technologies are often represented in advertising as women to impart a human "feel" to machines while simultaneously playing into male anxiety about the need for domination and control (1997, 124–25). This, he writes, is what is conveyed in Blade Runner's character Rachel.

Bearing these associations in mind, Paulinho's characterization of Suzano suggests some interesting ways to think about the latter's musical practices. If the Blade Runner aspect suggests a heroic domination of alien technologies, the "Carioca" modifier speaks to the percussionist's command of local and Brazilian musical styles (insofar as carioca samba is often understood—at least locally—as representative of "Brazilian" music). Did the sonic shift away from allowing percussion to serve as a mere "perfume" in the mix—as one musician described its place in Brazilian pop music "before Suzano"—toward a soloist man-and-his-tambourine sort of positioning index a broader shift in nationalist sentiment that at least partly played into existing sentiments about masculinity, control, power, individualism, and the "conduct of conduct"? In fact, Suzano's desire to foreground percussion and to limit the role of the drum kit (understood as an import) complemented efforts by, for example, the members of the bands Pedro Luís e A Parede (PLAP) and Chico Science and Nação Zumbi (CSNZ), who similarly attributed to Brazilian percussion a reinvigorated role in the pop-rock ensemble.

Mário Moura explicitly expressed this kind of sentiment when he noted in one of our interviews that the band CSNZ emerged in Recife during a period of national anxiety following the impeachment of President Fernando Collor de Mello: "Brazilians got incensed with the lack of shame of this guy ... He put his hand into everyone's bank account and ... put [the money] in his pocket ... And no one did anything beyond removing him from power. So that inflamed a nationalist movement of people, you know, 'I want a real Brazil, man!' And suddenly Chico Science and Nação Zumbi appeared with this totally different sound, mixing tambor [hand drum] with distorted guitar, hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, with agitated words, and it caught on. It was what the youth wanted to hear—strong, vigorous sounds, that seemed to say, 'Brazil is awesome [do caralho]!'" The "strong" and "vigorous" sounds of CSNZ mobilized both new music technologies and the rather martial "no apology" (Crook 2005, 237) drumming of the Afro-Brazilian maracatu tradition along with other Afro-diasporic sounds to fortify beleaguered nationalist sentiments, and indeed to counterpoise the corrupted conduct of those in power (or removed from power because of their conduct). Suzano had already plugged into this sonic amendment through his collaboration with Lenine in 1993. (The title of Suzano's subsequent solo album, Sambatown, was in fact a play on the title of CSNZ's song "Manguetown.")

Some of Mário's language draws attention to the social construction of gender and sexuality. For example, one of the expressions Mário employed is associated with male sexuality: do caralho, which I have translated as "awesome," derives from a slang term for "penis" (caralho). Similarly, Mário described Suzano as a cara foda (roughly, "formidable guy"), which derives from a vulgar slang term for sexual intercourse (foder). In our interviews, Suzano often used another popular Carioca word, porra (the double r sounding like an h), an interjection commonly used to express frustration, surprise, or anger or simply to stress a point. It is actually, however, slang for "semen." These terms, Richard Parker notes, "place emphasis on the potentially active quality of the phallus—on its aggressive quality, on its potency not merely as a sexual organ, but, in the language of metaphor, as a tool to be wielded, as a kind of weapon intimately linked to both violence and violation" (2009, 41). "In the play of words," he continues, "the phallus becomes, figuratively if not literally, an arma—a weapon, an instrument of metaphoric aggression, or in an extension of Pierre Bourdieu's expression, of symbolic violence" (42). The exclamatory interjection porra, "understood as both phallus and semen, as well as in its relation to anger and violence," Parker argues, "becomes a kind of essence of masculinity—a symbol of creative power, of potência (potency) and vida (life)" (42). These kinds of expressions, common in Carioca conversation and no less so in the male-dominated recording scene, are drawn from an extensive public repertoire of androcentric macho language in which the heterosexual male is represented as (sexually) active, in control, and producing (rather than reproducing), while women and gay men alike are passive, lacking control, receptive, or debased. Notwithstanding the ubiquity of such language, its use in this context adds to the sense that the modes of agency at stake in some of these musical developments have sexualized and gendered dimensions.


Excerpted from CONTEMPORARY CARIOCA by Frederick Moehn Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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