Signifyin(g) Salvador: Professional Musicians and the Sound of Flexibility in Bahia, Brazil's Popular Music Scenes

By Packman, Jeff | Black Music Research Journal, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Signifyin(g) Salvador: Professional Musicians and the Sound of Flexibility in Bahia, Brazil's Popular Music Scenes


Packman, Jeff, Black Music Research Journal


Over the past twenty-five years, popular music scholarship has benefited from an ever-increasing diversity of approaches. Even so, in-depth studies that address music as not only a creative endeavor but also a form of work are less common. (1) In this article, I investigate flexibility in the career paths, musical knowledge, and localized "Signifyin(g)" practices (Gates 1988, see below) of professional performers in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil, an urban center that is culturally rich but economically poor. Rather than focus on media stars, those few performers who have achieved national notoriety and a measure of financial success, I emphasize local working musicians, whom I recognize as members of a flexible workforce in the city's music industries. This focus helps bring to light numerous issues related to the processes and cultural politics of music making among people who are involved in an everyday struggle for survival in a competitive employment market. While the musicians who helped me with my research come from a variety of racial, educational, and socioeconomic backgrounds, none of them can be considered economically privileged or even financially secure. On the contrary, they all exemplify the ways in which Bahia's musical workers endeavor to overcome numerous challenges in order to build careers as music makers.

While some of the issues I address will resonate with the practices and experiences of professional musicians in a variety of cultural contexts, other aspects of the musical work processes I discuss reflect the particularities of living from music performance in Salvador. Here, the stakes for professional music making are particularly high and far-reaching owing both to excessive unemployment and the increasing centrality of the culture industries in Salvador's economy. Complicating matters significantly are the region's prominent place in Brazilian music history and common representations of the city as the "heart of Afro Brazil" (see Browning 1995; Carvalho 1999; Dunn 2001 among many others). Never separate from the music itself, complex power relations and the means by which performers address them deeply inform the sounds that are produced as musicians work to live from music.

At least in part because of its mapping as the center of Afro-Brazilian culture, the northeastern state of Bahia and its capital city, Salvador, hold a special place in the Brazilian cultural and musical imaginary (Dunn 2001). Scholarly and popular discussions of samba, for example, refer to Salvador and its surrounding area--an early center of the sugar industry and the importation of African slaves--as home to the earliest antecedents of what would become Brazil's national music and dance (see for example, McGowan and Pessanha 2998; Vianna 2999). This history is acknowledged in the much-celebrated carnival of Brazil's media capital, Rio de Janeiro, in which each participating samba school features a wing of Baianas costumed in the traditional clothing associated with African-descended women from Bahia. Bahia's contribution to the list of greats in Brazilian popular music is also quite substantial and includes notables Dorival Caymmi, Joao Gilberto, Maria Bethania, Gal Costa, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and many more.

Research on these musicians and others of similar stature is abundant, yet in most such studies an under-explored point that scholars often take for granted is that achieving star status, and indeed any measure of success as a performer, requires much more than the ability to sing or play an instrument. Rather, the people who succeed (or even survive) as musical workers are those who are able to find and maintain employment with at least some consistency in a very inconsistent profession. Doing this typically entails managing many facets of professional musical life including the performance of musical sounds and various processes of social and professional networking. Making this all the more challenging in Salvador are the volatility of the city's music industries, an overabundance of capable musicians, and a limited number of employment opportunities both in music and in other work sectors. …

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