Part two of our (well… actually this is of course AFROPOP’s JOURNEY!) Hip-Deep series on the music of Rio de Janeiro picks up the samba story where we left off in the 1960s, tracing the rhythm as it transforms and re-appears throughout the many popular music forms that developed in Rio in the later 20th century. Scholar Frederick Moehn, author of a book about samba and pop music titled Contemporary Carioca, shows us how samba’s shadow re-appears in the youth music of MPB-stars Pedro Luis and Marcos Suzano, and how a samba revival led by young artists in the Lapa neighborhood revitalizes Rio’s urban core. Arriving in the 21st century, we see how samba’s footprint continues to reverberate in Rio today, in the form of the electronic tamborizao rhythm behind funk carioca tracks , and in the beats of Brazilian hip-hop pioneer Marcelo D2.
Fred Moehn is an ethnomusicologist who studies Brazil and other Lusophone (that is, Portuguese-speaking) musical worlds. His new book, out on Duke University Press, is called ‘Contemporary Carioca,’ and it’s about the presence of samba in the pop music being made in Rio in the ‘90s and ‘00s, and how technology, culture and identity come together in process of music production.
Fred is our featured scholar in our program ‘Rio 2: Samba Strikes Back,’ a Hip-Deep exploration of music in 21st century Rio De Janeiro. Plus, check out part 1 of our Hip Deep in Rio series with ‘Rio 1: Samba and the Dawn of Modern Brazil.’
Marlon Bishop: I want to hear why you came to be interested in Rio. Did the city enchant you in some way personally? On an academic level what was interesting about it?
Fred Moehn: Great question. When I began my work, I intended to do it in Salvador. I always wanted to research music production in Brazil, but I was interested in how Salvador in the mid-’90s was becoming a real hot bed of popular music in Brazil.
So I went to Salvador in 1995 and I was beginning my research. One night I was out and the DJ played a song that I thought was interesting, mixing samba and funk and hip-hop. It turned out it was Fernanda Abreu, from Rio de Janeiro. So my next stop was Rio, I went down there and went to see the Mangueira samba school, and in fact, I did become enchanted. It was spectacular.
I did not really want to research samba because I felt that was kind of what the typical gringo researcher would do in Rio. But samba really is a force in Rio. You can’t avoid it, you don’t want to avoid it. It’s intense. The groove just draws you in. On that same trip I went to see Jorge Ben Jor on the beach in Ipanema – he was among the first to take samba and mix it with rock and roll in the ‘60s. At the same time, a friend of mine took me to one of the main recording studios in Rio, this legendary studio where all the greats of Brazil have recorded. So that sealed it for me.
It was clear for my project, which was popular music production in Brazil, that Rio was still the center of it. That’s probably no longer so much the case. A lot people just record at home or in smaller studios, and Salvador now has more studios than it had and São Paulo has a lot as well. But, at the time, the major international studios in Rio were really the center for Brazilian popular music making.
Marlon Bishop: How do you see the role samba plays in the city of Rio specifically? Samba is on level the national popular music style of Brazil, but it has a special relationship to people in Rio, I think.
Fred Moehn: Yes. I’m not sure that I actually have the answer to that quite yet… but I think it’s a deep cultural trope about the way people even move, the way people behave, the way they dress, and the way they interact socially. The samba is, what you would say in Portuguese, the goma – the glue.
That rhythm is just so versatile. You can do so many things with it. So, I think that’s part of it. You can mix funk with that very easily and it works very well. You can slow it down, and make bossa nova, or you can speed it up and kind of mix it with hip-hop.
You hear it everywhere. You could get on a bus and somebody could just grab a tamborim and start playing that rhythm. You also have a lot of music that may not really be samba, but you will pick out that rhythm inside of it. Or you might have the vocal part structured in a way that that rhythmic pattern is sung in the articulations of the vocal. What I’m trying to get at when I say it’s a deep, cultural trope is that it doesn’t necessarily have to be explicit. It functions on so many levels musically and culturally that I think it’s deep in the unconscious.
And, on top of that, it’s actually much more than just a rhythm. It’s the sound of the drums, the heterophony of 200 or 300 drummers playing together. By that, I mean somebody might be a little ahead of the beat, somebody might be a little bit behind the beat, what they call the massaroca, the feeling of having dozens of people working around a rhythm, let’s say. The “messiness” of it.
Actually, one of the things I talk about in the book is how groups like Monobloco or Pedro Luís e a Parede were trying to get at some of that massaroca, get at some of that messiness. There’s just this tension between order and chaos in the samba. I think it reflects a tension between order and chaos in the city itself.