Exploring rich traditions of Brazilian music

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Student presentations tackled themes of identity, nation-building, racism, multiculturalism, and more, as reflected in the rich traditions of Brazilian music at "The Beat of Brazil" last month at the Lewis Music Library. The presentations were by students of Portuguese enrolled in class 21G.821 (The Beat of Brazil: Portuguese Language Through Brazilian Society), taught by Nilma Dominique.

Three professional musicians were invited to perform as part of the event: Anna Borges and Bill Ward (from the duo Receita de Samba), along with Grammy Award-winning drummer Rafael Barata. After each student spoke about the historical and cultural context for a particular Brazilian style of music, the musicians performed selections in the discussed styles.

Theo St. Francis (an MIT senior in aeronautics and astronautics) explained Brazil's history of enslaving Africans to work in the sugar fields. He said, "With the workers came their traditions in food, crafts, religion, and mythology, and especially music and dance. … This forced mixing of cultures rendered a brilliant mix of rhythms and sounds among the three primary influences - African, European, and Native Brazilian." He explained that the music genre choro is imbued with "influences from lundu dances from Angola, the maxixe or Brazilian tango (itself a mix of African rhythms with European polka dance of that time), as well as flute rhythms from European musicians."

Samba is not really just one genre, but "is better thought of as the backbone of most genres in Brazil," explained Alessandre Santos, an MIT senior in mathematics. Samba has strong roots in African music, and contains within it many sub-genres. But throughout Brazil's history, music has been a site for conflicting forces. Modern samba has been reclaimed by Afro-Brazilians as a kind of resistance to racist oppression. Santos explained that samba-canção is a very poetic variant of samba, characterized by soft melodies and slow rhythms, and two examples of this style were performed.

Laura Leal de Souza, a junior at Wellesley College majoring in Latin American Studies, made a remote presentation over a large monitor. She explained that the samba-exaltação nomenclature first appeared in 1939. She explained, "Composers began to write lyrics that worshiped Brazil and the government." This was used "to create a sense of 'Brazilianness' in Brazilian citizens in order to facilitate the dictatorship later implemented by [then-president] Vargas." She also described the emergence of samba-enredo in the same period, which became strongly identified with government-backed "samba schools," becoming "the main rhythm of the Brazilian carnival, characterized by its strong percussion and themes that portray specific elements of Brazilian culture." Leal de Souza also presented on the protest music of the 1960s later in the program.

The role of television and radio was discussed by Ygor Moura, an MIT junior majoring in chemistry, who explained how that media helped to propagate and essentialize aspects of Brazilian culture. The U.S. government's "Good Neighbor Policy" of the 1930s sought to advance U.S. interests in Central and South America through trade and other means. He pointed to the promotion of Broadway actress and film star Carmen Miranda as the "origin of most of the visual stereotypes Americans have about Brazilians." Moura also discussed the role of Brazilian music festivals, which became sites for protest during the Brazilian dictatorship of 1964-85.

One of the best-known Brazilian songs, "The Girl from Ipanema," is an example of bossa nova (Portuguese for "new wave"), explained Dasha Castillo, an MIT senior in computation and cognition. Castillo explained that this music moved away from samba's larger group ensembles, toward arrangements typically focus on a "lone singer with a guitar, or a singer with another accompanist on another instrument like a piano." The best-known artists associated with bossa nova are Antonio Carlos Jobim, Vinícius de Moraes, and João Gilberto.

The upbeat music interludes inspired some audience members to get up and dance during the event. One highlight of the evening was a performance by three MIT students (Allessandre Santos, Ygor Moura, and Dasha Castillo) of the well-known Brazilian song "Águas de Março," known in English as "Waters of March," accompanied by drummer Rafael Barata.

Nilma Dominique has offered several classes over the years that teach Portuguese language skills through the vehicle of either film or music. "Language and culture go hand-in-hand," she said. In her class 21G.821, Dominique guides students in examining Brazilian music genres with within a historical context, and "analyzing cultural production from a transnational perspective ... Throughout the course, there was a strong emphasis on developing critical thinking, often centering discussions on how Brazilian musical production reflects questions of identity, social class, race, inequality, and politics."

Nilma Dominique explained that the Lewis Music library was not just the venue for the event. The staff and student workers at Lewis played a key role in publicizing the event, and event setup and staffing. She added, "This was actually the second time I had the pleasure of working in partnership with the Lewis Library to put on a program of Brazilian music."

After the event, Avery Boddie, the Rosalind Denny Lewis Music Library department head, explained that the library was involved as a continuation of the tradition of "offering engaging programming and outreach to the MIT community through workshops, lectures, and in this case, concerts." He also pointed out that the library has a "vast collection on music from most regions of the world, including Brazilian music, so any opportunity to support research and education in diverse genres of music across different cultures is something that we value strongly in our department. And who doesn't enjoy a little samba?"

Funding for the program was from the Council for the Arts at MIT, the Kelly Douglas Fund through the MIT School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences, and the MIT Brazilian Student Association.

Some attendees provided post-event comments. Abby Mrvos said, "The Beat of Brazil show was an absolute treat. The performances were a joy to watch, and the introductions by the students really gave color and context to the experience. I would love to see more events like this in the future!"

Sam Heath agreed, saying: "Listening to a captivating live performance of a selection of Brazilian music along with its historical context, my mind took a journey through time in Brazil, a much-needed escape after a long semester."

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