From Carmen Miranda to the Grateful Dead

By Rohter, Larry | ReVista (Cambridge), Winter 2016 | Go to article overview

From Carmen Miranda to the Grateful Dead


Rohter, Larry, ReVista (Cambridge)


IN THE 21ST CENTURY, FANS OF POPULAR MUSIC expect, or even demand, that all styles of music be in communication with each other. Sound scavengers like the American DJ Diplo have made their reputations by going into the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and coming back home with beats and riffs that can be recycled into hit songs by Madonna, Shakira, Beyoncé, Justin Bieber, Usher, M.I.A. and the like. But at the same time, the favela funk style that powers dance parties in Rio is itself a mash-up of influences that include the Miami bass sound, New York Latin freestyle, rap and Kraftwerk electronica.

It is tempting to think of this as a purely modern phenomenon, an aspect of the process of globalization that we see around us daily. But it is not. The reality is that U.S. and Brazilian popular music have been engaged in an ongoing dialogue dating back to at least the mid- 19th century, and that such exchanges, both visible and subterranean, have only intensified with the passage of time.

Acknowledging this is crucial to any appreciation of popular music, for the United States and Brazil are the world's two most influential sources of contemporary pop music. Or as the Brazilian composer and pianist Antônio Carlos Jobim, one of the founders of the bossa nova, was fond of saying, "the only music that really swings is that of the United States, Brazil and Cuba, all places where the black thing and the white thing mixed. The rest, with due respect to the Austrians, is all waltzes."

The theory of a mutually reinforcing musical conversation between Brazil and the United States is one that has appealed to me since the 1970s, when I first heard the music of the 19th century American classical composer Louis Moreau Gottschalk, a Louisiana native. I was living in Rio at the time, and in a piece like Gottschalk's "Bamboula," a fantasy for piano, I thought I detected affinities with chorinho, a Brazilian popular music style that originated in Rio in the second half of that century and remains popular there.

A little bit of research yielded these suggestive clues: because of a scandal- he appears to have behaved "inappropriately" with one of his underage female piano students-Gottschalk had to leave the United States. He chose to settle in Rio de Janeiro, where he died at the age of 40 in 1869. In Rio, he took on additional students, two of whom went on to teach Ernesto Nazareth, the father of the chorinho, and Heitor Villa-Lobos, the celebrated Brazilian classical music composer who began his career playing chorinho in clubs and theaters showing silent movies.

This Gottschalk-chorinho connection dovetails nicely with a cultural theory that has predominated in Brazil since it was first enunciated in the late 1920s, that of "cultural cannibalism." As Brazilians see it, theirs is a culture that swallows foreign influences whole, digests them, and then spits them out as something new and quintessentially Brazilian. No matter whether the culture so consumed is Gottschalk's "Creole Eyes" or Afrika Bambaata's "Planet Rock"-what matters is the transformed, cannibalized product, which can range from chorinho to favela funk.

This early example of Brazilian absorption of a cultural artifact from the United States, indirect though it may be, seems almost a miracle, coming as it did in an era in which music could be transmitted only by live performance or sheet music. But with Edison's invention of the phonograph in the late 19th century, followed by the popularization of shellac discs early in the 20th century, the dialogue between Brazil and the United States quickened. For the first time, it was possible for a listener a continent away to actually hear a performance, with all of its melodic nuances and rhythmic variances from a written score, instead of having to deduce from sheet music what a song was supposed to sound like.

Late in 1916, an ensemble that included the flute player and arranger Alfredo da Rocha Vianna went into a studio in Rio de Janeiro to record "Pelo Telefone," which, although permeated with a chorinho feel, is now regarded as the first samba ever to be recorded. …

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