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[samba special] Samba at the Dawn of Modern Brazil

Our friends over at Afropop have created some awesome documentary’s in recent weeks, here’s the first of three we will also be posting on yer beloved GEN BASS!

In Part One of our 2012 Hip Deep Brazil series, we travel back in time to Rio De Janeiro in early 20th century to explore the birth of Brazil’s most iconic sound: samba. Beginning with the arrival of poor nordestinos in the city after the end of slavery in 1888, we follow the exploits of the early sambistas as they forged the genre that would come to represent the nation. Brazilian scholar Carlos Sandroni shows us how Afro-Brazilian religious music and popular styles like the modinha transformed into the syncopated samba beat. Then, media scholar Bryan McCann guides us through the glamor and political intrigue of 1930s Rio as samba explodes as the popular music of choice throughout the country. Plus, we speak with samba greats from the old guard to the young bloods including Dona Yvone Lara, Heitorzinho dos Prazeres, Paulão 7-Cordas, and Luciana Rabelo. In the end, we find out how samba, an ambitious radio station and a populist dictatorship worked together to shape Brazilians’ ideas about race, society and the Brazilian nation itself.

Bryan McCann, a professor of History at Georgetown University, is a prominent scholar of Latin American History. His work focuses in particular on the intersection between music, popular culture, and politics. His book, “Hello, Hello Brazil: Music and The Making of Modern Brazil” explores the development of Brazilian popular music between the 1920′s and 50′s. He sat down with Afropop producer Marlon Bishop for this interview.

Marlon Bishop: To start – give us the big picture. What were prevailing ideas about “Brazilian-ness,” and how did that change over the course of the time period you researched in your book?

Bryan McCann: I think the biggest change was really the change in the understanding of race and its meaning in Brazil. If we go back to the 19th century when Brazil is a slave society, the understanding of nationhood in 19th century Brazil was a romantic nationhood based on a myth of a combination of Portuguese and indigenous influences. A myth because, frankly, that had never happened to any large extent in Brazil where the indigenous population had mostly died as a result of European disease and had been pushed out.

The Afro-Brazilian population, was very much discriminated against to the degree that it was not thought about as a component of the nation. That began to change in the late 19th century.

Marlon: How did music play a role in that?

Bryan: The music of Rio de Janeiro in the early 20th century is Afro-Atlantic music. Right from the beginning, there’s an understanding in Brazil that Afro-Brazilians are crucial to the way this music emerges and the way this music is played. As that music starts to get more popular and as the depth of that popularity is revealed by the enthusiasm with which consumers start to buy these records of an emerging record industry, it really poses a challenge for Brazilians to start thinking about the meaning of popular culture and its relationship to national identity. Now they have to think about, “We live in a society where our most popular music is Afro-Brazilian music. What does that tell us about our country?”

Marlon: Tell us about that music. What is samba, and where did it come from?

Bryan: There are a lot of different answers for that and probably most of them are right in one way or another. [laughs] I look at it from a different perspective and say that even by the late 1930s, samba does not really exist as a coherent genre. Instead, it’s being formed in radio stations and recording studios, as well as other places.

One of those other places was favelas. If you ask most Brazilians, they’ll say, yes, samba comes from the favelas in Rio. The favelas are the laboratory for the definition of the rhythm. There are various different ways of phrasing it because it is a flexible rhythm but, at the same time, it has defining characteristics. Those are expressed in their consolidated format for the first time in a favela in the neighborhood of Estacio in downtown Rio, and that becomes known as the Estacio sound. That really sets the pattern of samba as it will grow and expand over the 1930s.

HEAD OVER TO AFROPOP TO READ THE ENTIRE FASCINATING STORY!

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