An understanding of Brazilian cultural diversity through music

Written by Emeline Rateau

Waiting next to my laptop sits the CD that my grandpa gave me as a gift two days ago. The title reads “Le Brésil, tous les Brésils” (French for ‘Brazil, all the Brazils). On the cover, a black woman seems to be facing a green light, reflected on her skin. While trying to find the right words for my thesis, I checked the track list multiple times, intrigued by what this album may contain. Many singers are included in this CD, and each song title is followed by a short description of the music genre it belongs to. Funk, Bossa Nova, Samba, Electro, Jazz, Afro-Cuban influences, Nordeste rhythms, Foro, and Brazilian pop. Everything looks different. It seems infinite.

This musical diversity depicts and embraces the multitude of identities existing within the same territory. Known as a multicultural society, Brazil even calls itself a racial democracy. Promoting the idea of an ideal cohabitation of different ethnicities in peace: Indigenous, Afro-Brazilians, Europeans, Asians; the largest country in Latin America seems to have always defended its cultural diversity, notably through distinct musical forms. The country’s three-century-long history of colonization, starting from 1500 with the arrival of the Portuguese, as well as the importation of more than five million African slaves from the 16th century, explains Brazil’s unique heterogeneity. This forced mixing of African, European, and Native Brazilian cultures, involving each group’s food, religion, mythology, music, and dance contributed to the creation of an intercultural melting pot. The album’s tracklist mirrors this rich history, with each music genre encompassing this fusion.

Let’s take the example of samba featured in the CD, which is one of the most famous Brazilian music styles. Just like Brazil, samba is complex and includes many sub-genres, a mix that is inherently linked to its history. Originally influenced by African music, the music genre drastically changed as Vargas declared himself the dictator of Brazil in 1937. The new Brazilian government viewed music as a propaganda tool that could be used to create a sense of ‘Brazilianness’ among its population. As a result, they started to force musicians to write lyrics that worshiped Brazil in all their songs, thus giving birth to the two sub-genres of samba-exaltação and samba-enredo. Characterized by their strong percussions and themes linked to specific aspects of Brazilian life, both genres became the main rhythms played in carnivals and were popularized around the world.

However, despite being the most famous variant, Samba continued to develop throughout history as other new variants emerged. From the late fifties, samba-canção, adopting a more poetic turn with softer melodies and slow rhythms, began to introduce a new music style in the country: bossa nova (Portuguese for “new wave”). Preferring a singer with a unique instrument, often a piano or guitar, over group ensembles, bossa nova advocated for a more relaxed style of samba, internationally popularised by the song “The Girl from Ipanema”. The genre’s best-known artists, such as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinícius de Moraes, and João Gilberto, often sing about Rio de Janeiro, the city where the music style first appeared, romanticizing the country’s old capital.

Nevertheless, as mentioned on the album cover, the idea of Brazil having a unified culture does not correspond with the actual reality of the country – a reality that is far less polished than the one portrayed in the many romanticized Samba songs of the last century. Modern Brazilian music often tells a completely different story, one that counters the belief of their being a ‘Brazilianness’ uniting all Brazilians. Modern artists criticize this ongoing racial myth of perfect harmony between all races. They describe a country where racial equality does not exist, nor does democracy; a country where violence permeates everyday life and discrimination is rampant. 

Just as music was used as a propaganda tool to convey Vargas’ ideas, national modern music styles became a cultural resistance tool, utilised by and empowering Afro-Brazilian movements and Indigenous communities to fight against prejudice and express themselves. By doing so, artists and social activists can gain visibility and reclaim their rights. Such actions, which expose the myth of racial democracy, advocate for the creation of a similar state in which all cultures enjoy the freedom to express themselves and peacefully coexist. A Brazil which is truly for all Brazilians, instead of merely claiming to be. Therefore, if this CD can help me to better understand Brazil’s cultural life and struggles, I am sure I will enjoy it.

Edited by Maurice Wedner-Ross

Artwork by Vanessa Franko

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