Music in the New World: USA v Brasil

“Foreigner’s love us for our jazz” – Kurt Vonnegut

When Noam Chomsky spoke at Williams last year, he said that “America is the world leader in terrorism according to its own definition of the term.” I buy that. In the 20th century, our country has wrought death and despair upon many countries around the globe, and they look back at us through resentful eyes. But for all our faults. we have given these people something that they fully accept into their hearts: our music. Even for Alexander de Tocqueville in the 1830s, America seemed destined for greatness. And while our foreign policy has frequently erred off its due course, our cultural hegemony is the purest argument for the endurance of American exceptionalism.

In order to better understand the nature of the music of the United States, I wanted to travel to a country with similar historical circumstances: Brazil. Like America, Brazil was a New World state with immense wealth of natural resources and access to cheap labor from West Africa. Slavery was so integral to these economic systems that it wasn’t abolished until 1863 in America and 1888 in Brazil. The two nations entered a new era of racial interaction around the same time. The rhythmic traditions of West Africa preserved by slaves mingled with the orchestral traditions of Europe; the instruments, dance steps, and musical vocabulary of two “older” continents — Africa and Europe — coalesced to create new forms of music that would serve as outlets for lower-class black people of two “new” continents. In Brazil, choro and samba. In America, blues and jazz.

What did I care about any of this? Clarence Acox, my high school jazz band director, called the blues ‘indigenous North American folk music’. He was a black man from the 9th Ward of New Orleans, and we were a bunch of nerdy white kids. Such was the nature of Garfield High School, where white kids were bussed into the heart of Seattle’s blackest neighborhood. This eclectic mixture gave Garfield an electric charge, and us young white boys were proud to play our part. Race and music are two essential components of my identity, and my time at Garfield taught me that great things can happen when two cultures mix.

So the purpose of my study was to compare the brother musical traditions of America and Brazil, birthed by the same continental parents, yet different in character. Because of the historical parallels between the two countries, one cannot separate their respective musical identities from their cultural and racial contexts. My trip to Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, Recife, and Natal granted me insight into the social foundations for Brazilian music. Perhaps more importantly, it shed perspective on the special ability of American music to transcend cultural boundaries and profoundly influence a country like Brazil that derives a particular identity from its unique language, unique geography, unique history, unique racial mixing, and unique music. I aimed to understand the nature of Brazil, and I yearned to develop a sense of patriotism and feeling for my country that had done nothing but neglect its duties as a global leader during my time on Earth.

My itinerary was admittedly sparse. I was determined to keep things open-ended because I conflated scheduling with tourism. I didn’t want to commodify my experience — I wanted it to come naturally. I craved organic authenticity, to the point that it undermined itself and became its own commodity. On some level, I treated Brazil like a famous painting, something I wanted to see just to have seen it. I severely underestimated the power of the language barrier, and the ability of music to overcome it. I studied some Portuguese prior to the trip online, and took classes three hours a day for a month while in Rio, but it was not until the end of my 8-week trip that I was able to understand what people said. I was naive to think that we all live in a global community, that our essential humanness that we share is enough to make valuable connections. It’s not.

I had helpful contacts who pointed me in the right direction, and I made a few good friends with whom I shared a few good times, but no one to whom I could fully relate my predicament. With few plans and without local savvy, I walked around to avoid inertia and orient myself. These wanderings debunked the faint image in my head of Brazil as an escapist fantasyland. Sometimes things got interesting. Once, when wandering near a favela, a crusty old black man spit on me. Cool! I thought. Authentic racial resentment! Once, I took the wrong bus, ended up winding through third-world Salvador, hopped on a random bus, ended up at some dilapidated bus station, and ended up getting robbed by three guys of my wallet, but more importantly my best friends in Brazil — my backpack and my pocket dictionary. I spent hours sitting in the police station waiting to be helped, wallowing in despair and anger with my head in my hands. A few cops ended up taking me out for drinks and even let me hold their gun. At the end of the day, I couldn’t help but think about it all. Cool, the world of authentic Brazilian crime!

The best way to absorb Brazilian culture was often to engage in quotidian day-to-day activities. I walked. I went to the market, my friend’s family’s party, his church (there was a soup festival after the service). For my first week in Rio, before I moved to a better-located area, I spent two hours each way commuting to language school — bus, ferry, subway.  My TV in Salvador had about 7 channels that nicely sum up Brazilian priorities: three network channels, two evangelical channels, and two music performance channels. I fried my computer with a double dose of voltage my first day in Brazil, which in retrospect was probably a good thing. The internet cafe became my only sanctuary, a place where I could put on a pair of headphones and revert to the comforts of Facebook and

I hung out around capoeira street performances. Capoeira is a blend of martial arts and dance descended from slaves who attempted to fend off several captors at once, using high kicks with their hands tied behind their backs. These performances were geared towards tourist, but I watched them thinking about what my language school friend Daniel from South Carolina had told me. “These days, you’re either in your own space or you’re having casual sex with somebody,” he said. “With capoeira, there’s a moderate level of intimacy that’s hard to find in life. You strike a physical and spiritual balance with your partner.”

This moderate intimacy is everywhere in Brazil. People have smaller personal bubbles. Men err on the side of homophobia — at least 5 guys asked me if I was a ‘Bambi’ directly after asking what my name was — but touching the man to whom you are speaking is normal. Dancing is simply more fundamental to Brazilians than it is to Americans. I saw an old couple get up at their table in a restaurant and start dancing. I saw a female contestant on a game show dance upon request for about 45 seconds. She was seductive, but not sexual. Once when lost, I happened upon a random apartment and saw a woman dancing as if possessed in the middle of a drum circle. Brazilians have a predilection to casual offer up a small token of personal expression. I suspect that Brazil’s racial mixing has caused for greater absorption of the “African” cultural characteristics – drums and dancing.

The most efficient way to jump in Brazil was to go out to performances. Lapa, Rio de Janeiro’s big nightlife district, held a smorgasbord of musical performances. At 10pm every Friday, a drumline would come out onto the street and play for an hour to promote a hip-hop show at 11pm. 50 yards down the road, a single man valiantly fought battled to win over their audience with a 90-minute drum kit solo. Another 50 yards down the road, under the white aqueduct that marked the entrance to Lapa, a group of old men played samba in a circle. The row of bars and music venues had samba, choro, forro, jazz, and bossa nova, but it was more exciting (and affordable) to soak up the ambience out on the street.

I developed a theory that the one of the biggest influences on Brazilian culture is the weather. I was around for their winter, and not once did the temperature dip below 60 Fahrenheit. Brazilians are sensitive to weather changes; if it was cloudy in the morning, I learned to expect a sea of umbrellas all day. Parties and performances go later into the night, and are outside. At Lapa, I wouldn’t get home til 4 or 5am. That would never happen in the US. Attitudes towards time are relaxed. People don’t wear suits because its hot – business casual can be formal attire.

Futbol is huge, and the weather plays a part in this. Seattle grows a disproportionate amount of basketball talent, but not very much football talent. This is because it rains all the time, so people play sports in the gym. What countries are best at hockey? Canada, Sweden, Russia. The crux of Brazilian socializing is the boteco – an open-faced bar with tables that spill out onto the sidewalk and street. Once I was on my way to get dinner and watch a soccer game, and walked by a boteco with a large group playing and singing samba de mesa – table samba. Two hours later on my way home, they were still going at it. The weather influences instrumentation; good weather reduces the need for piano and drum kit, indoor instruments capable of performing multiple jobs at once. The guitar and its variants are reign supreme — there is the standard six=string guitar (violao), a 5-string (viola), and ukelele-like 4-string cavaquinho. Accordians, portable pianos at heart, are more common. At a typical samba circle, several people play percussion, one guy plays guitar, one guy plays cavaquinho, and everybody sings. Not in the harmony of the American gospel choir or barbershop quartet — they sing in unison.

I wasn’t sad to bid Brazil farewell when 8 weeks had passed. I was ecstatic. I missed napkins that weren’t plastic. I missed ketchup that didn’t taste like congealed cough medicine. Mostly, I just missed not having to tell people “fale devagar” – speak slowly. These 8 weeks had altered my perspective on America. It wasn’t just Brazil’s cultural idiosyncrasies — the tiny garbage cans, the constant use of the dorky thumbs up signal. It wasn’t even their appreciation for American music — the favela with a Michael Jackson statue, the guitarist I met at church who worshipped John Mayer, the guy who rented me his bodyboard who loved Mariah Carey and R Kelly.

For three weeks in Rio, I lived next door to a Frenchman named Sebastian who had moved there with his wife six months prior. Sebastian’s occupation was street performer. He went out and crooned jazz ballads from the 30s and bossa nova tunes from the 60s. He spoke fluent English, so we hit it off and played together – bossa tunes, Ellington tunes. I was a better guitar player than he was, but had little confidence to use my singing voice. Sebastian did not. His voice was sultry and conditioned by the natural melodiousness and elegance of the French language. He told me he made twice as much money when he sang as when he did not. “People are attracted the human voice,” he said. This reminded me of the great pianist Bill Evans, who looked at a song’s lyrics when he played rather than the musical score.

One night Sebastian and I went down to the boteco for a beer. He was versed in Portuguese well enough to hold a conversation, and elicited no second glance from the waiter as he ordered an ice-cold, flavorless Antarctica. The waiter then turned to me. “Um Antarctica pra mim tambem,” I said confidently. An Antarctica for me as well. But my novice accent gave me away, and the waiter gave me a knowing smile. He rattled off a few words to Sebastian that I did not pick up, and they both chuckled. All I could do was give a thumbs up.

We left the boteco around midnight, when warm zephyrs still bathed our skin as we walked. Sebastian threw his hands outward. “My new home!”. His wife was finishing up her sociology doctorate, and she hoped to find work in Rio thereafter. In Brazil, I was most happy in moments like these, when I spent time with people who spoke English. Rio is the most spectacular city I have yet seen, with its milieu pressed dramatically up against giant walls of rock, its pristine beaches, its excitable rhythms that spill out into the street. But over and over in Rio and Brazil I labored to communicate, in this place I loved that was not my home.

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