Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse: Popular Music and the Staging of Brazil

Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse: Popular Music and the Staging of Brazil

by Daniel B. Sharp

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Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse is a close-to-the-ground account of musicians and dancers from Arcoverde, Pernambuco—a small city in the northeastern Brazilian backlands. The book’s focus on samba de coco families, marked as bearers of tradition, and the band Cordel do Fogo Encantado, marketed as pop iconoclasts, offers a revealing portrait of performers engaged in new forms of cultural preservation during a post-dictatorship period of democratization and neoliberal reform. Daniel B. Sharp explores how festivals, museums, television, and tourism steep musicians’ performances in national-cultural nostalgia, which both provides musicians and dancers with opportunities for cultural entrepreneurship and hinders their efforts to be recognized as part of the Brazilian here-and-now. The book charts how Afro-Brazilian samba de coco became an unlikely emblem in an interior where European and indigenous mixture predominates. It also chronicles how Cordel do Fogo Encantado—drawing upon the sounds of samba de coco, ecstatic Afro-Brazilian religious music, and heavy metal—sought to make folklore dangerous by embodying an apocalyptic register often associated with northeastern Brazil. Publication of this book was supported by AMS 75 PAYS Endowment of the American Musicological Society, funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780819575029
Publisher: Wesleyan University Press
Publication date: 11/04/2014
Series: Music Culture Series
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 192
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

About the Author

DANIEL B. SHARP is an assistant professor of ethnomusicology at Tulane University.

Read an Excerpt

Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse

Popular Music and the Staging of Brazil

By Daniel B. Sharp

Wesleyan University Press

Copyright © 2014 Daniel B. Sharp
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8195-7503-6


Staging Tradition

* * *

A week after the Associação Respeita Januário meeting, I drove to Arcoverde. The BR-232 highway running from Recife to Arcoverde had been recently repaved. Its lanes were doubled, reducing travel time to Caruaru, a city located 120 km from the capital. Billboards along the road advertised musical traditions to tourists. Caruaru, the largest city along the route, is a popular destination for the Saint John's Day celebration in June known as São João. It is touted as one of the largest, oldest São João celebrations in the Northeast. Every year festival events such as quadrilha line dancing in colonial garb are televised throughout the region. Caruaru also promotes pipe-and-tabor groups called bandas de pífanos and a large craft market at which musicians roam the aisles of vendors. Stalls display rows of miniature clay figures of accordion and flute players and the legendary bandit Lampião, a figure as notorious as Pancho Villa or Jesse James. Satirical miniature doctor/patient scenes are also popular. One scene features a tiny dentist placing his foot on the chest of a patient for better leverage, and another depicts the delivery of a baby. The figures represent an attempt, through caricature, to contain anxieties about health that are pervasive in a zone of harsh economic disparity.

Beyond Caruaru, the landscape became dotted with cacti and caatinga scrub brush. The BR-232 narrowed from two lanes each way to one each way, pockmarked with deep, harrowing potholes. Driving became more treacherous, as drivers boldly threatened oncoming traffic trying to pass each other. Several towns along the road promoted themselves as part of the Route of Forró, an effort to alert visitors to dance halls and small-town festivals. Forró is a genre label that encompasses several rhythmic variations on dance music and most commonly features accordion as its emblematic instrument. In its various subgenres, including ultrapopular forró estilizado and its more rustic counterpart forró pé-de-serra, it has crystallized as a regional genre promoted as the essence of the white and mestiço Catholic cowboy of the northeastern interior backlands. One aspect of the projected image of Arcoverde that sets it apart from the rest of the Route of Forró is the decision by its municipal government around 2000 to promote sounds strongly associated with coastal Afro-Brazilian-ness in the mestiço backlands.

As I drove through the crest of hills dividing the coast and the interior, I thought of a passage I had read about shrinking driving times, modernity, and change in the northeastern sertão. The passage had come from a seminal text on the sertão called Vaqueiros e Cantadores (Cowboys and Troubadours) by folklorist Luís da Câmara Cascudo. The book was written in December 1937, a few months before the Mission of Folkloric Research recorded in Arcoverde. I looked up the quotation later, so I could remember the excerpts that bridged the era of the Mission of Folkloric Research and that of Sandroni's recording project.

Câmara Cascudo's text betrays an ambivalence toward the passage of time, longing for a past way of life. Wonder, awe, and panic accompany the arrival of modernity in Cascudo's telling: "I lived in the typical sertão, that has now disappeared. Electric lights hadn't yet appeared. The gramophone dazzled us. Old João de Holanda ... got down on his knees in the middle of the road and confessed all of his sins, blubbering, when he glimpsed, at sunset, his first automobile" (Cascudo 2004, 11).

In contrast to the city and its ever-novel contraptions, Cascudo idealizes the distant past of his childhood in the sertão. In a key phrase he depicts it as unchanging, arguing that its past was whole in its present, unlike our present, in which the past is fractured and slipping from our grasp. Notice the entanglement of home, past, and childhood, pitched in a register of innocence: "The cooking remained loyal to the eighteenth century. Clothing reminded one of a museum retrospective. The strong prayers, the social habits, the traditional festivals, the way people talked, the superstitions, everything was the inescapable Past, complete, in the present" (ibid.).

Cascudo chronicles the drastically shrinking travel times to and from the sertão as vehicles and roads developed. He takes these dizzying changes as emblematic of broader cultural shifts in the area: "The transformation is subtle and daily. The roadways brought the sertãotogether with the agreste. Canceling out the distance, they mixed the environments. Today electrical lights, cars, radio, cold drinks, cinema, newspapers are everywhere ... everything is close, due to the car. ... From Natal to Caicó it used to take six days. Now the trip takes five hours" (ibid.).

At the time, when I was driving to Arcoverde, I recalled only his reflections on travel times. The passage that followed, however, complicated Cascudo's reflection on the acceleration of modern life in the sertão. He claimed that nostalgia was not much of an issue for those who lived in the sertão, arguing that they constantly picked and chose the aspects of modernity that they wanted to participate in and those they wanted to reject: "The sertão modifies itself quickly. It becomes more uniform, it becomes more banal. Naturally, this criticism doesn't work for those who live there. Modernized life is better than the old way of going by horse buggy and having to stop and rest all the time. Relatives of mine that refused to eat salads made with lettuce ("You think I'm a leaf-eating lizard, do you?") conduct business in São Paulo, coming and going by plane" (ibid.). Concluding the passage, he opposes modernity to tradition and praises holdouts who scorn these changes. Troubadours, according to Cascudo, are quixotic bearers of tradition whose audiences remain stubbornly loyal: "The cantador recoils in front of the Radiola, the Victrola, cinema, the illustrated magazine. But he conserves his audience. Restricted, limited, poor but steadfast in their admiration. The cantadores sertanejos still live" (ibid.)

Recording and broadcasting technologies, transportation, and highway infrastructure have intensified the circulation of people, sounds, and money in the arid backlands. The folkloric paradigm that Cascudo helped crystallize has given way to a new period of heritage tourism and commercial pop mutations. Yet certain narratives of folklore have proven durable in the face of new shifts, as tourism emerges that resembles a recording expedition in miniature. The desire to return to the premodern is a recurring and very modern trope, as is the impulse to celebrate the stubborn holdout like the cantador. When I arrived in Arcoverde, sixty-five years after Cascudo wrote Cowboys and Troubadours, I found that Cascudo's formulation of folklore often served as the script that musicians and audiences used to describe the musical practices performed there.

Arcoverde is nestled in a valley, increasing its rainfall and making it often greener than the semiarid sertão located only a few kilometers farther down the BR-232. As I entered the city, stiltwalkers in street clothes practiced their skills along the side of the highway.

I found a hotel amid downtown storefronts. A nearby ice cream parlor proudly displayed photos of employees posing with Globo television network stars who had recently stayed in Arcoverde while filming a desert-themed prime-time series. A specific kind of cosmopolitan hinterland, Arcoverde is a preferred location for filming footage in a sertão setting, without the actors having to sacrifice too many amenities.

In contrast to how television and film depict the location as a land of tradition and heritage, the home of samba de coco was firmly anchored in a modern, consumerist present. Three-story buildings with ceramic tile façades lined either side of the street. Shoppers were shielded from the blistering sun by overhanging second-story apartments. Young children and teenagers sat in Internet cafes open to the street, their eyes glued to computer screens. Stores displayed DVD players, digital cameras, clothes, shampoo, bicycles, televisions, fabric, and guitars.

The sheer number of stores seemed unlikely. Demand appeared disproportionately large, considering the city's population. It turned out that this district supplied consumer goods to residents of several nearby small towns and rural areas as well as Arcoverde proper. Compared to nearby cities, Arcoverde felt young, commercial, and modern. The city was located in one of the first regions of Brazil to be colonized five centuries before, yet even the oldest Catholic church was less than one hundred years old. Houses and apartment buildings for the middle and upper classes featured clean lines, flat roofs, and a minimum of ornamentation. Downtown was not overly crowded, but it had a bustle to it that contrasted with the slower pace evident in neighboring Buique or Pedra. The sidewalks were half full of people with places to go, parking spaces were not always easy to find, and stores did a brisk business. Were it not for the long lines of people waiting to receive meager government assistance checks, as a visitor it would be easy to ignore the reality that Arcoverde was located in one of the most socially unequal areas in the world.

I spent most of the afternoon with a few members of the Calixto family outside the bar and cultural space near their cluster of three houses. Assis Calixto, one of the surviving patriarchs of Coco Raízes, was a conscientious host, showing me photo collages hung in their small museum. Sets of matching outfits established the timeline of the group. The first photos, from the mid-1990s, featured an off-white pattern with large, ornate orange and brown blossoms on camp shirts and long, old-fashioned dresses. Later they settled on a lime green and yellow floral print.

Talking to the Calixtos, I began to glimpse the complex network of individuals and institutions, from local to international, that supported this family so revered as bearers of tradition. I asked about a newspaper clipping on the wall about a jazz drummer from Chicago named Andrew Potter, and Assis turned on a boom box to play Potter's instrumental version of Assis's song "Balanço da canoa" (The sway of the canoe). It began with a drum solo that riffed on variations of the two rhythmic cells upon which Coco Raízes's songs are based: the 3+3+2 timeline of samba de coco and a fast-paced duple meter of foguetes de roda. Soon the other musicians joined in: an electrified upright bass carried the melody, while the chords were filled in on an electric piano. As we listened, Assis sang his lead part, and his nieces, Iuma and Iram, sang their response, which mimicked the sound of waves lapping against a canoe. They clapped along and coaxed his three-year-old nephew Luizinho to demonstrate his prowess at dancing coco. Assis pulled a coin from his pocket to sweeten the deal, and the boy hammed it up, stomping remarkably well for one his age.

Meanwhile Iram sat down, irritated by an unproductive meeting about T-shirt designs, muttering something about contracts and verbal commitments that had fallen through. She had the abrupt manner of a businessperson in high demand. Iram was used to interviews, but I was not asking the questions that she usually fielded. This made her impatient. I struggled to come up with a question for her regarding the group's state sponsorship. I had thought that it would take at least a few weeks to become acquainted before launching into my research questions. My position as a long-term visitor would end up being a bit baffling for the musicians to locate. They were unsure whether to treat me as a tourist, a journalist, or just another local attendee of their parties.

Iram's attitude toward her neighborhood during this encounter stood in stark contrast to the reverent manner in which the neighborhood was treated by fans and in the lyrics of Coco Raízes's songs. As I tried to ask another question, a woman on the street walked by with anger in her eyes. She glared at Iram and spat out an insult I did not understand. Initially unruffled by the incident, Iram dismissed it with a wave of her hand, adding, "She's just jealous of us, and our success." Her annoyance grew, however, leading her to repeat that she could no longer stand living on their street and dreamed of buying a house elsewhere so that she could have some peace of mind. She was sick of it all and insisted that these problems with her neighbors were not minor. After debating at length the question of whether the woman was actually insane or merely an awful person, Iram casually mentioned that she was a distant relative. This bitterness was my first taste of the volatility of the success of the samba de coco dynasties as the traditional genre had become increasingly lucrative.

My experience on the first day also hinted at how enmeshed the careers of samba de coco musicians were with public and private sponsorship. The Calixtos invited me down the hill to their performance at the Social Service of Commerce (sesc), a nonprofit institution managed privately but funded by mandatory public revenue from the commercial sectors of manufacturing, service, and tourism. Its programming is open to all, but its highest priority is to promote the social well-being of the employees within these sectors and their families. The sesc in Arcoverde is a large, well-maintained complex with a cafeteria, a library, exercise machines, an indoor theater, a pool, and an outdoor area for concerts. Paintings on the walls featured various folk forms, including samba de coco. I sat outside at a table near the pool for the show. There was no cost for admission, but formally dressed waiters in bow ties circulated through the audience offering platters of hors d'oeuvres.

On stage the musicians and dancers wore matching lime green floral shirts, with the women wearing matching dresses and the men and boys in solid green pants. Ciço Gomes was singing lead, and a pair of young dancers, Fagner Gomes and Daiane Calixto, competed for the attention of the audience. Wearing wooden sandals, they performed a quick, snare drum–like dance step. Unlike, for example, Rio-based contemporary samba, in which dancers move their bodies with ginga, or a fluid, graceful swing, samba de coco dancers stomp their sandals with force to compete with many loud percussion instruments and amplified voices. Ciço commanded the stage, projecting his resonant voice through the fuzzy, overdriven sound of the pa speakers.

Behind Ciço and the dancers stood three Calixto women singing backup: Iram, her younger sister Iuma, and her mother, Dona Lourdes. The older Calixto men — Assis and his brother Damião — joined the vocal responses, filling out the harmonies while adding precise rhythmic noise with triangle and tambourine. The quick stutter of the surdo bass drum, played by Ciço's son François, anchored the shimmering treble. The percussion stayed fixed and tight, other than micro variations in rhythm and timbre caused by the drum, shaker, triangle, tambourine jingles, and wooden sandal stomps suspended in tension with each other. One song's lyrics aptly compared the layers of rhythm to a quickly moving freight train. Indeed, it sounded like a train was speeding over a rickety old wooden bridge. After the show ended Ciço introduced himself and proceeded to pepper me with witty, rapid-fire questions. He turned out to be an affable man in his late forties who performed exuberantly on- and offstage. Ciço laughed easily, his contagious grin accentuated by his mustache.


Excerpted from Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse by Daniel B. Sharp. Copyright © 2014 Daniel B. Sharp. Excerpted by permission of Wesleyan University Press.
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Table of Contents

Staging Tradition
Nostalgia and Apocalypse

What People are Saying About This

Alexander Sebastian Dent

“This is an intelligent and well-researched book. The narratives that emerge are not only well-chosen, but they are articulated so as to preserve the multiple complexities in play—mud huts that are envied by the homeless but intended for touristic consumption, mannequins that dance awkwardly with their sources of inspiration, and so much more. Daniel Sharp is to be commended on his approach to music that hears it as embedded in complex circulatory matrices.”

Frederick Moehn

“Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse takes an unvarnished look at the range of human emotions that arise under a unique set of circumstances in which intensely local social dynamics collide with national identity, intangible heritage, and historical revision. Importantly, it moves the discussion of these topics beyond the exhausted hybridity and globalization paradigms.”

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