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The Sound Of Defiance: Author Joe Thomas On Brazilian Music
The Quietus , February 17th, 2018 12:59

With his new crime novel, Gringa, out this week, set in São Paulo, author Joe Thomas reflects on On politics, alegría, and saudades in Brazilian music

I fell in love with Brazilian music for its attitude and feeling. What I mean is that when I first listened to it, I had no idea what any of the lyrics meant – all I understood was the attitude and feeling. I now understand the words, the sentiment, the nuances, but it’s the attitude and feeling that keeps me listening, keeps me coming back.

The little I knew about Brazilian music before going to Brazil seemed to vanish when I arrived in São Paulo. The first few days of my first visit were such a whirlwind, the city is so frantic and fast there was no time to assimilate anything of the culture: just learning how to be in the place took all my attention. I can pinpoint the moment I understood there was a vast resource of culture I was about to be exposed to, a culture very much of the place, resolutely foreign to my experience up to then. I was sitting in the back of a friend’s car, driving to a bar, stuck, inevitably, in traffic, when a song came on the radio – and my friend turned it up, very loud. The song combined rhythms I recognised – Samba? Bossanova? – but was driven by an acoustic guitar, and an almost disco drum pattern, over which a deep, hugely exciting voice sung lyrics about a girl called Carolina. My friends in the front sung along, at a serious clip, impossibly, it seemed, to my English ear, to every word. The artist: Seu Jorge. That was the moment I understood that contemporary Brazilian music existed – and that I was very keen to learn all about it.

My two São Paulo based novels are soaked in the influence of a host of Brazilian musicians and styles. The influence took three forms: political songs that address the social issues of the country; songs that express feelings of alegría, of joy; and songs that express feelings of saudades, of longing.

Paradise City and Gringa are crime novels about São Paulo – about the political structures of the city that reinforce inequality and social injustice, whether through corruption in government, the kickbacks and shakedowns of the construction industry, or the brutality of the military police. The music of Brazil acted as a soundtrack and an influence, principally as the music, it feels to me, in broad terms, is the music of protest. This might be an explicit political protest – protest against social inequality, against corruption, against exploitation – but also a wider feeling of protest, a defiance, which is as much a celebration of life as it is a railing against the conditions of life. It is this attitude, this feeling, that stays with me, and that acts as something to aspire to in my fiction: a defiance, a critique and a celebration of the city.

In terms of political and social protest, the work of two artists in particular echo throughout my novels: Cazuza, and BNegão e Seletores da Frequência. One of the epigraphs to Paradise City is from a Cazuza song, O Tempo Não Para – time doesn’t stop. It’s a poignant piece of writing, made all the more so by a famous live performance which became the official video, Cazuza dressed all in white, emaciated from the effects of the HIV virus, the beautiful, playboy poet, bi-sexual singer of the great 1980s band Barão Vermelho understanding that his time is coming to a brutally, tragically premature end. The song universalises his experience as an outsider, and howls against the injustice of Brazil:

Te chama de ladrão, de bicha, maconheiro, Transformam um país inteiro, num puteiro, Pois assim se ganha mais dinheiro

They call you a thief, a faggot, a junkie, Turn the whole country into a whorehouse, As that way it makes more money

At the same time, Cazuza writes of tolerance and inclusivity, acceptance and generosity. The chorus soars around a skewering of the country’s elite and their priorities: ‘your swimming pools are full of rats/your ideas don’t correspond to the facts.’ The political protests of the last few years recall another of his songs, ‘Brasil’, and a specific line:

Brasil, mostra tua cara, quero ver quem paga para a gente fiche assim

Brazil, show your face, I want to know who pays for us to end up like this

His lyrics were prescient in the early years of democracy in the post-dictatorship period, and now reflect a deepening dissatisfaction with the political system, a dissatisfaction that fuelled, in 2016/17, the biggest political protests the country has ever seen. I can’t decide whether to appreciate and enjoy the timelessness of Cazuza’s lyrics, or feel depressed that what he sang thirty years ago rings true today. The protests began in São Paulo and were most intensively political in the city perhaps harking back to São Paulo’s motto: ‘I lead, I will not be led.’ Economically, the city is the beating heart of Brazil. If it stops, the country dies.

BNegão and his song Funk ate o CaroçoFunk to the Core – is another key influence. The track pounds with a funky, repetitious guitar and bass pattern, over which the MCs spit complex rhymes about a lack of opportunities and yet, conversely, the creative wealth of inequality, of poverty: ‘lots of ideas in our heads / little money in our pockets.’ A key plot point in Paradise City revolves around the line: ‘advice after the fact is like medicine after a burial.’ It’s a performance that resonates with its tone of anger and defiance matched by its uplifting, celebratory rhythm. Attitude and feeling: you don’t need any Portuguese at all to appreciate its twin concerns.

Perhaps my favourite artist is Tim Maia, who made, between 1971-74, a series of four eponymous LPs, which came to define a classic aspect of Brazilian popular music with their mix of soul, rock, pop, Samba, and Bossanova. Maia was a man of tremendous appetites, a real rock star who died at only 47, and once famously said: ‘my doctor told me I had to give up alcohol, drugs and fast food for two weeks. All I lost was a fortnight.’ In many ways, Tim Maia embodies the spirit of the two feelings I mention above, alegría and saudades – but especially joy. His song Não quero dinheiro, (Só quero amar) I don’t want money, (I just want love) – features in my novels and was another reference point for its sheer excitement, its unadulterated, infectious joy. Brass and strings bounce upward and roll, lyrics tell of the excitement of seeing your lover again:

All week, I’ve been waiting, just to see you smiling, just to see you singing, When we love each other, we don’t think of money, we just want to love, want to love, want to love!

And that voice! A great, booming, soulful wallop of a voice, like the lovechild of Aretha, Solomon Burke, and Sam Cooke. Never has anyone invested the words: ‘I love you, I adore you, my love!’ with such meaning. Time and again in his work, Maia rejects notions of materialism, of capitalism, and embraces the physical, the sensual: feeling. Released during the dictatorship, and loved to this day, Maia’s records stand for this defiant celebration of life – and urge Brazilians to recognise what is truly important.

Alongside the tangible corruption, terrible inequality, and casual relationship with violence, Brazil is characterised by alegría and an apparently ceaseless optimism, spontaneity and warmth. Like many stereotypes, this is true to a point. It might be exactly what you take away from your experience with Brazilians: their generosity, passion, selflessness. Their eagerness to show you a good time and to have one themselves. Their religion – alegría is mentioned 235 times in the bible. But like many concepts in Brazilian Portuguese there is a double consciousness at work. Brazilians often look at themselves through the eyes of others, measure themselves against European and North American perceptions of Brazil – and feel inferior.

This can be traced to the yearning lament in Caetano Veloso’s Alegría, Alegría, a song that became an anti-dictatorship anthem in the ’60’s. Ostensibly about materialism, the song articulates a desire for freedom, and while not quite ironic, the title expresses a longing for joy, happiness. The only mention of the word alegría sits within a fascinating juxtaposition: Joy and laziness.

O sol nas bancas de revista Me enche de alegría e preguiça Quem lê tanta notícia Eu vou...

The sun on the news stands Fills me with joy and laziness Who reads that much news? I go…

Veloso is not expressing a languorous pleasure, but rather apathy, and the idea that we choose to avoid facing reality and are instead becalmed, pacified, by the superficial. He sings of bombs and Brigitte Bardot, of spaceships, guerrillas, beautiful cardinals (a play on words – Claudia Cardinale was an idolised actress), and a consoling song. Veloso is speaking of the lack of freedom during the military dictatorship, but the need he expresses – for freedom, true freedom, of choice and democracy – can be transplanted to contemporary Brazil, in which millions of people are held back by a lack of opportunity.

The question is this: Do Brazilians celebrate alegría, since, living in a country so recognisably unjust, they’re, deep down, lamentably sad?

This paradox explains a lot about Brazil. Are Brazilians happy despite their fate, or because of it? São Paulo, with its fierce work ethic, and the flexing of its financial muscles at every opportunity, is, perhaps, an unlikely place to find alegría in abundance. The city is characterised by the rest of Brazil, and perhaps the world, as dour and joyless. In a city as tough and competitive as São Paulo, does the stereotypical Brazilian warmth and joy really exist?

In Brazil they say that the true, inexorable sadness of life is knowing that it will end. Perhaps Brazilians have it right? Alegría is no illusion: we have to fill our lives with it while we have the chance. The essence of alegría is understanding where – or with who – you find it; then letting it find you, fill you, flood your insides.

Like much in Brazil, it’s physical, sensual: breathe it in, feel it expand, contract and settle. In a smile. Alegría.

Brazilians claim there is no single-word translation for saudade. The closest, perhaps, is longing. You might say to a friend or lover, ‘Saudades suas’, meaning, ‘I miss you’. You can also use it when you are with that person, in a moment of melancholia or nostalgia or fear of the future, but with profound affection. Saudade captures something deeply Brazilian in its physical connotation. Saudade is a lament at the absence of someone, something or someplace. It is pain and joy. As Joao Gilberto sings in the best known version of Chega de Saudade:

Chega de Saudade, a realidade é que sem ela não há paz, não há beleza, é só tristeza e melancolia

Enough longing, no more blues, the reality is that without her there is no peace, no beauty, only sadness and melancholy

Gilberto sings of love, yet his message resonates beyond, in other aspects of Brazilian society, especially in the period of political protest that the country has experienced over the last few years. The realisation that we must cherish what we have, and understand what we don’t have. The rallying cry is deeply Brazilian with its double-consciousness, its affection and passion, and sense of longing, nostalgia, of saudades. During the protests, I saw a banner that expressed this sentiment, and is very much how I feel about my adopted city, and represents, perhaps, the heart of my novels:

São Paulo, I’m not proud of you, but I love you

Joe Thomas is a visiting lecturer in Literature and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London. Prior to this, he lived and taught in São Paulo for ten years. Gringa is the second book to feature detective Mario Leme. The first, Paradise City, was published by Arcadia in 2017