Brazil: A Biography by Lilia Schwarcz and Heloisa Starling, Allen Lane, 761pp, £30
In a now famous book of 1928, Manifesto Antropófago, Brazil’s leading modernist poet, Oswald de Andrade, described Brazilian culture as anthropophagic, or “cannibalistic”, eating other forms of European and African literature and music.
Brazil itself is a land of bewildering mixed bloods and ethnicities: Italian, Spanish, Jewish and aboriginal Tupi-Guarani Indian have all intermarried to form an imponderable blend of South American peoples. Brazil’s very fabric is mestizo, or “mixed”, according to Brazilian academics Schwarcz and Starling, co-authors of this lively history of the country.
Brazilian music, for one thing, could not be more of a cultural mish-mash. Bossa nova in its heyday, from 1958 to 1964, merged elements of Chopin, Miles Davis, candomblé and Catholic ritual, as well as “off-key” (desafinado) samba notes. It was a sort of New World blues, suffused with a hushed intensity of emotion.
Music is a serious business in Brazil. The peerless bossanovista João Gilberto, who crops up in this book, awakened the imagination of Brazil and the wider world to the insouciant swinging rhythm and languid jazz tones of a new dance beat. In the early 1960s, his fragile singing voice sounded cool, new and modern.
Gilberto was one of the first popular Brazilian singers to realise that one does not need a big voice to put across emotion. His highly syncopated form of violão gago (stammering guitar) caught the attention of US saxophonist Stan Getz who, between 1962 and 1964, recorded five jazz albums which introduced the new sound from Brazil. In the wrong hands, as this book makes clear, bossa nova became mere cocktail music. The Girl from Ipanema in Frank Sinatra’s version is heavy on the flutes and heavenly strings. Gilberto alone gave bossa nova a sweet-sour air of saudade (yearning).
Brazil was rapidly changing during the bossa period, the authors remind us, and Gilberto’s music caught the new mood. The country’s democratically elected new president, Juscelino Kubitschek, was poised to open the gleaming, futuristic new federal capital of Brasilia, designed by Oscar Niemeyer, an architect at the front rank of modernists. Kubitschek’s motto, “50 years in five”, chimed somehow with the cooled and slowed-down African beat of bossa.
João Gilberto’s astonishing debut album, Chega de Saudade, was released in 1959 at the same time as Marcel Camus’s internationally acclaimed film Black Orpheus, set during carnival in the favelas (slums) of modern-day Rio de Janeiro.
The film introduced music by the great Brazilian composer Tom Jobim and the Oxford-educated diplomat-poet Vinicius de Moraes. Brazil had just won the World Cup, moreover, and immense excitement was in the air. Brazilian album covers from this time showed abstract bars superimposed on red, black and white vertical stripes – eye-catching geometric designs to rival those of New York’s Blue Note jazz label. But the bossa-era honeymoon could not last.
In 1964, the Brazilian government was toppled by a military coup. The American poet Elizabeth Bishop, who lived in Rio between 1952 and 1970, praised the new regime for its support of the US.
The dictatorship lasted for 21 years and brought a steadily worsening corruption. The problem of the colour line continued to haunt Brazil during the military years. The lighter your complexion, the more privileged you were likely to be.
The authors explain how Brazil’s vibrant ethnic mix and abundance of African animist religions derived from Portuguese Catholicism are a consequence of Atlantic slavery. Brazil was Portugal’s main slave-driving colony. The trade, which yielded immense profits for some, was not abolished until 1888, by which time an estimated four million slaves had been imported from Africa. This was a striking 40 per cent of the total number of slaves brought to the Americas. Inevitably, a former slave colony such as Brazil will suffer cycles of political and gangland violence.
Since 1980, torture has no longer been official state policy in Brazil, but it is still practised by the police in the favelas and was a constant during the military decades. A more confrontational music than The Girl from Ipanema was required to stand up to the military. In 1968, the singer Caetano Veloso (the “Bob Dylan of Brazil”) founded Brazil’s Tropicalia movement, which encompassed film, theatre and literature as well as music. With its Hendrix-style blues and prankster antics on stage, Tropicalia was forged partly in opposition to João Gilberto’s low-key music, which was seen as politically conservative. In reality, as this fascinating book shows, Tropicalia was less a break with bossa nova than its continuation.
Brazil: A Biography is an absorbing and rewarding work of scholarship.