Finding the Afro- in Brazil
Last week I wrote a post about my excitement around the African musical permutations I was hearing this year in Trinidad’s Carnival. Since this week I was in Brazil for my first Carnaval Carioca, I wanted to also write about my experiences seeking out similar connections as a newcomer to this country. It’s no secret that Brazil is America’s largest African country. So as a DJ of African descent who specializes in the music of the Black Atlantic, I was excited to hit the ground here and experience the Brazilian Atlantic musical permutations first hand. I’ve come to find that while Brazil is a nation with a strong pride in its African roots, the continued role of race in the formation of country’s deep social divisions reveals some confusing contradictions.
As the social reasoning goes in Rio, wealthier residents live in the formal city and are generally, but not always, white or light skinned. The residents of the informal favelas are mostly, but not always, dark skinned and of African descent. The marginal position that the favelas and their residents hold in society is reflected by the way their cultural production is treated. Funk Carioca is perhaps the cultural product that most represents life in Rio’s favelas today. According to my friend Maga Bo, it is also one of the most African manifestations in contemporary Brazilian music because of its roots in the Maculele rhythm of Capoeira. In Rio, it and its practitioners are constantly subjected to either attacks by the state, or not unlike hip hop in the U.S. – appropriation into the machinery of capitalism. This mirrors the twin processes of removal and gentrification happening to the favelas’ actual residents. Additionally, funk’s often vulgar lyrics and favela origins cause even some self-identified Afro-Brazilians to look down upon it. The marginalization of certain aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture, combined with my own status as an outsider, often leave me frustrated when seeking out Afro-Brazilian culture in the city.
Therefore, when I do come across African cultural permutations here it is both surprising and exciting. The first weekend I arrived in Rio I went to a large mainstream club in Lapa. The DJ played a lot of electro pop inflected funk, and a rock cover band played songs by bands like Bon Jovi. It wasn’t necessarily my cup of tea, but in the middle of the night, my predilections were satisfied when the DJ ran a set of tunes that sent me into a dancing frenzy. One of those songs that really stood out was ‘Ziriguidum’ by Bahian band Filhos de Jorge:
The reason I was so excited to hear this tune is that I know the melody from the song of a salsa-obsessed Beninois singer named Gnonnas Pedro. In the 1960s Pedro gave himself a Spanish-sounding name, revealing his desire to be associated with the Afro-Cuban sounds which were making their way all over the African continent at that time. These beginnings would eventually lead him to a long career of singing funk, salsa, highlife, soul, and updated Beninois traditional styles for such legendary projects as T.P. Orchestre Rythmo and Africando. ‘Yiri Yiri Boum’, having appeared on reissue compilations from outfits such as Putamayo and Sofrito records, is perhaps his most internationally recognizable hit:
However, I didn’t know until recently that while Pedro did a great rendition, he didn’t write the song. The origins of the tune bring us back across the Atlantic to a Cuban composer named José Silvestre Méndez, and the great Beny Moré who recorded the song while on residency at a nightclub in Mexico. His version is likely the recording that made its way to Benin by vinyl LP, where Pedro picked it up. The trans-Atlantic connections of the melody (Portugal and Jamaica added to the list) now make it even rival ‘The Peanut Vendor’ in my mind.
It turns out that ‘Ziriguidum’ was one of the biggest songs in Salvador’s Carnival last year, and so it makes sense that it would have reverberated around the country in the following months. The melody would eventually make its way down to São Paolo, graft itself onto Maculele, and turned into an Atlantic super jam by Funk Ostenaçao artist MC2K:
For me, such musical connections add a bit of the familiar to the unfamiliar, helping me sort through the confusion that is Brazilian identity politics. Sure, MC2K is singing about and showing off girls shaking their butts. But the fact that he includes Capoeiristas in a video for a song that uses Maculele, and samples a pan-Atlantic Afro-Brazilian roots song from Bahia, shows me that the underlying cultural connections aren’t totally lost on the “vulgar” and “low class” funk artists.
The weight that Bahian music carries in the Brazilian national conscience was solidified for me by the time this year’s Carnaval rolled around. That’s when another big tune from Salvador, Psirico’s ‘Lepo Lepo’, hit the streets. The song is a “pagode de miséria” ballad about the power of love (sex) over money that sounds (and looks) like a mix of bachata and jump up soca:
You couldn’t escape renditions from (often white and middle class) Carnaval revelers anywhere in Rio. Perhaps its ubiquity in the party has been the reason why the song has received some blowback, and has become the subject of countless parodies. However, in the process of enduring alcohol soaked renditions on the city’s public buses, I’ve come to understand that alongside funk, Northeastern musics such as axé, forro, and pagode are probably the most visible aspects of Afro-Brazilian culture in mainstream Brazilian society (David Goldblatt makes a pretty good case for Futebol though as well). And, it is often through these musics that an explicit African pride is channeled, which for me continues to pop up in unexpected places:
Even though the Northeast can still be thought of as the cradle of Afro-Brazilian culture, Rio’s historic position in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and as a locus for Northeastern migration has made it central to the mainstreaming of Afro-Brazilian music. Besides being the birthplace of funk, Rio is recognized as the birthplace of samba. Rio’s famous samba schools are the historic epicenter for both local social activism and the formation of an Afro-Brazilian identity for the country in general (check out Marlon Bishop’s program about Samba on Afropop for more context.)
From their beginnings through to today, socially marginalized favela residents often use these schools and their vaulted position during Carnaval as a soap box to express their views on society. Runners up of this year’s Carnaval competition, Academicos do Salgueiro started as one such organization, and watching their performance was another revelatory surprise for me. Their theme of ‘Gaia’ or harmony with nature, with a composition originally built around a 6/8 rhythm and floats and costumes that drew on African aesthetics, really dug hard into representing the African roots of Brazil. Seeing them live, it was hard to not get carried away by, and sing along to the resounding chorus praising the Orixas of Candomble:
I wrote last week that it seems like in the Caribbean older ideas of political pan-Africanism are fading, and contemporary Africa is providing new inspiration for a generation of globally aspirational cultural producers. On the other hand, in Brazil it seems to me that African-ness continues to be informed by ideas of national heritage and cultural roots.
It wasn’t just Salguiero celebrating Africa at this year’s Carnaval competition in the Sambódromo, Brazil’s African heritage was and often is a recurring theme. However, this year the thread came up against an interesting juxtaposition with the prevalence of a theme similar to the one I was noticing in the Caribbean: the interrogation of Brazil’s position in the world. To me, these two threads symbolize the crossroads that Brazil is at just before it hosts FIFA’s World Cup. As more and more eyes look to the country, Brazil may have to find ways to reconcile the contradictions between their pride in their roots and their contemporary social divisions. In other words, like any global superpower, Brazil will have to figure out how to project all their confusing contradictions into our globalizing world.