"Can You Take a Picture of the Wind?": Candombles Absent Presence Framed through Regional Foodways and Brazilian Popular Music

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Discovering Brazil

Prior to beginning the PhD program in Food Studies at New York University I had spent the last 30 years as a cook, executive chef, and culinary consultant. My research work began with a Harlem jazz club/restaurant restoration project, Minton's, that never fully came to fruition. Minton's Playhouse had been the birthplace of Bebop. Researching the roots of Harlem Renaissance cuisine and dining caused me to investigate the confluence of African, European, and Indigenous foodways that spawned American Southern cookery. My research flourished where the project sputtered. An Instituto Sacatar grant to travel to Bahia in 2008 helped to frame a missing link in my research of West African Diaspora cookery: the role and influence of the sacred in quotidian culinary practice.

Outside of my fieldwork, it was easy to fall in love with Brazil. When I got back to New York, books and music were the souvenirs that staved off my saudade (longing) to return to Brazil. To better tune my ear for Portuguese, I listened to much of the Brazilian popular music songbook I had collected on CDs. Upon my return to Brazil I discovered something that used to occur back home: intergenerational knowledge of popular songs and rhythms. In my youth the music written or performed by Harold Arlen, Fats Waller, Cole Porter, Duke Ellington, Woodie Guthrie, Paul Robeson, Billie Holiday, Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Simon and Garfunkel, Bob Dylan, Aretha Franklin, and many others could be shared the way the work of Dorival Caymmi, Vinicius de Moraes, Tom Jobim, Elis Regina, Caetano Veloso, Chico Buarque, Pixinguinha, Gilberto Gil, Maria Bethania, Cartola, and Carmen Miranda are shared in Brazil. I found the rhyme schemes of the lyrics to be quite poetic, thematically complex, riddled with double entendre and oblique messaging. This was epitomized by Buarque's song "Calice." (1) This can be partially attributed to the repression of the Ditadura (military dictatorship) from 1964 to 1985, and the populism following the regime's fall. I observed how themes of food, cooking, and consumption were often inserted into the music.

While it is easy to use food as metaphor, much of what I heard was less predictable or as randy as Bessie Smith's "I Need a Lil' Sugar in My Bowl." I am referring to songs such as "A Preta do Acaraje" (The Black-Eyed Pea Fritter Vendor), "Cotidiano" (Everyday), or "O Que E Que A Baiana Tem?" (What Is It That a Bahian Woman Has?). My studies in anthropology, cultural studies, and documentary film/media brought a critical eye to my hobby for language improvement. I noticed that in several major hits, cooking and consumption themes functioned as an identity politics of race, Baianidade, and West African heritage, and also contained allusions to the practice of Candomble, an Afro-Brazilian religion.

I was aware that the presence of Afro-Brazilian cultural identity in popular media arose with the formation of a black press, the first Afro-Brazilian organized political movement, Frente Negra Brasileira (Brazilian Black Front), challenging government efforts to suppress black self-determination. Getulio Vargas' Estado Novo (New State) dictatorship advanced a centralizing nationalist agenda that included outlawing social organizations and political groups, such as Frente Negra. (2) Estado Novo's industrialization and urbanization projects developed the large southwestern cities of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo while the former national economic engine in the northeast, founded on plantation agriculture, became impoverished. I was intrigued by the dichotomy between identity, politics, and mediatization that presented Afro-Brazilian identity via themes of food/consumption and religion in media circuits and the evolution of cultural identity branding to stimulate the northeastern economy (Marchant and Conceicao 2002; Jones-de-Oliveira 2003; Seigel 2009, 47-51; Weinstein 2003, 10 and 237-239; Outtes 2003). …