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By Elijah Wald
At 30, Marisa Monte is the top-selling female singer
in Brazil. Despite this, she is something of an anomaly. Though
a product of the rock generation, she bases her sound in the acoustic
instrumentation of the older MPB (Musica Popular Brasileira) style.
Her albums include original material, and covers that range from
MPB stars like Caetano Veloso to Lou Reed. Her last album had guest
appearances by Gilberto Gil, Laurie Anderson, and Philip Glass.
Famed for her cutting-edge live shows, she chose to decorate her
newest album with a crude drawing of a topless woman by an underground
comic artist of the 1950s.
To Monte, this is all completely natural. “I
am from Rio de Janeiro, and grew up listening to all this traditional
information of Brazilian music, and also my generation had a lot
of pop, international influence,” she explains in slightly
broken English. “So I represent this young music, which is
based on mixes, like our culture. Talk about Brazil is talk about
variety, diversity and mixes, because we are such a big country
with a lot of different styles of music. We had these mixes in our
traditional music, and we are still creating new ones.”
Monte, who appears at Berklee Performance Center
this Sunday, became interested in a singing career in her early
teens. She received formal classical training, and appeared in school
shows and as a backup vocalist for friends who were forming bands
and making demo recordings. Her decision to devote herself to Brazilian
pop came while in Italy, where she had gone at 18 to pursue her
“I was thinking of living there and doing
a classical career,” she says. “But when I was alone
there in Italy, I saw Brazil for the first time from outside and
I realized how important it was for me. I realized how I missed
Brazilian music, and how impossible it would be to have a classical
career and live outside of Brazil.”
She returned to Rio a year later, and immediately
attracted attention with her dynamic live shows. For over two years
she resisted making a record, letting her reputation spread through
the press and by word of mouth, then recorded her first album as
the soundtrack to a live TV special. It was a sensational success,
heralding a new era in Brazilian pop. Since the end of the military
dictatorship in the early 1980s, rock had dominated the national
charts. “There was the political opening, and it was the opportunity
for a lot of young people to get into the musical area and to reestablish
the freedom of expression,” Monte says. “So they did
it through the rock movement; the music was powerful and screamed,
and it had to be like that.
“At that time, we had a break in our music.
MPB had a temporary decadence, because this rock movement took all
the market. When I really started, in ‘87, I was one of the
first artists to put together the new artists, the new poets of
the rock movement, and the traditional music, so young people could
listen to MPB again and a lot of old people could enjoy the rock
At its best, Monte’s music combines disparate
elements in fusions that seem completely natural. “Cerebro
Eletronico,” off her new “A Great Noise” album,
sounds at first like techno-pop. It is only after a moment that
one realizes that the pulsing beat comes not from a synthesizer
but an accordion. Her voice on the chorus is electronically modified,
providing a striking contrast to the fierce cry of her unmodified
lead vocal, and the whole is driven by pounding drums and acoustic
“Accordion, percussion, acoustic guitar, mandolin,
and voice, these are the most popular instruments in Brazil,”
Monte says. “So I made this choice to make all the songs in
this atmosphere. The idea was to be very organic, acoustic, without
synthesizors, because the most important character of our music
is to be human, not to be electronic. We also use a lot of synthesizors,
but it is not our best. The best in Brazilian music is the human
feeling, and that’s what I was searching for.”
Asked about the album cover, a smiling nude who,
for American release only, has been censored with a black bar over
her nipples, and the naked couples who cavort through the pages
of the CD booklet, Monte explains that they are also an element
of her cultural message.
“These are by an artist, Carlos Zefiro, who
has a great historical importance,” she says. “He produced
these little erotic books during the peak of the moralism and the
dictatorship in Brazil. He produced clandestinely, nobody knew who
he was, and he distributed millions and millions of these magazines,
and he created a school of pop Brazilian art and drawing. What I
like in his work is he talks about Brazilian values and Brazilian
behavior at that time, and the way he does it, it is simple, it
is black and white, it is cheap, not something expensive and sophisticated.
It is accessible to everyone.
“In Brazil, I’m kind of a sophisticated
singer, you know. So the normal, expected thing would be to have
a photo, on brilliant paper, colorful. And I wanted to go against
that, doing something for everybody, not sophisticated, but popular,
that everybody could get and understand. Then I took Zefiro’s
“It’s so naive, this kind of drawing.
It’s something from the ‘50s; it’s not something
that can really excite someone nowadays. So it’s different
from Playboy and the photo-magazines; there’s not this objective
anymore. I think it’s pure, and it represents the popular
culture in Brazil. For me he is like our Roy Lichtenstein.”
“A Great Noise” includes seven studio
tracks, but is mostly a live album, and Monte considers it a “Polaroid”
of where she is now, ten years after her debut. With it finished,
she is reassessing and relaxing before moving on to her next stage.
“I don’t have plans to do a new record,” she says.
“I’m just taking a break now. I’m composing, I’m
just thinking and talking and listening to a lot of music.”
Bale Folclorico da Bahia (Brazil
As a rule, the World Music production company avoids
bringing the same group into town two years running, for fear of
exhausting its audience. The striking exception for this season
is the Bale[get accent] Folclo[get accent]rico da Bahia, whose two
shows last year at John Hancock Hall were so successful that it
is back for a four-day run this Thursday through Sunday at the Emerson
Majestic Theatre (876-4275).
Recalling last year's visit, it is easy to see why
the Bale[get accent] is getting this sort of treatment. It is the
most polished and exciting African diaspora dance company to come
through Boston in recent times. Walson Botelho, the co-founder and
director, is an anthropologist and dancer from Brazil's northern
province of Bahia, the heartland of Afro-Brazilian culture, and
he has a gift for combining ancient traditions with a sure theatrical
sense that makes them come alive on stage.
This year's program includes most of the highlights
of the old show, plus a new introductory section, "Oxala[get
accent]'s Court,'' which has already won international awards. "It
is a piece about Candomble, the Yoruba religion brought to Brazil
with the slaves,'' Botelho explains, speaking with a thick Brazilian
accent. "We show some of the most important rituals. We start
with the offering to Exu, the god that makes the bridge between
the human beings and the gods, then we show the initiation of the
new adept in the religion, 'Yao[get accent]'s Initiation.' In Yoruba,
Yao[get accent] means woman, but in Candomble, even if you are a
man, you are considered the wife of the gods, so we use the same
word for a man or a woman.''
This section ends with "Pantheon dos Orixa[get
accent]s,'' a procession of the main Candomble gods, from Ogun,
the god of iron and war, to Iansa[get accent], the goddess of storms
and winds, and Oxala[get accent], the supreme creator of the universe.
Botelho, who is himself a priest in the Candomble church, says that
it was only in the last year that he felt capable of putting together
a piece of this sort.
"This was something that I wished to do since
I formed the company,'' he says. "But it was very difficult.
Before, I felt I was not prepared to work with this kind of ritual.
Because they are very sacred, and it's not possible to work with
these without permission of the gods.''
Because of his personal beliefs, Botelho approached
the piece quite differently from his earlier work. "It's almost
in the pure state,'' he says. "Even the fabrics for the costumes
are the same that we use in the original religion. I told to the
dancers, 'I don't want technique in this piece. I want this piece
like we can see in the rituals.' Because in the rituals, we don't
have choreographers, we don't have rehearsals. Of course, if you
put a thing on a stage, you have lights, sound, microphones, you
have many things that are not natural, but I wanted it as natural
As for the rest of the show, there is a traditional
fishermen's dance that ends with the dancers squirming like fish
in the net skirt of the sea goddess, Iemanja[get accent], the dramatic
"Maculele" stick dance, and a piece based on the martial
arts form capoeira. There are also three contemporary Afro-Brazilian
pieces: A modernist depiction of the creation of the universe, the
acrobatic showcase "Afixire,'' and the final "Samba Reggae,''
a carnival dance that ends with the dancers snaking through the
audience and urging everyone to join in.
For Botelho, such outreach is at the heart of his
work. His dream is to bring Bahian culture to the world, and to
forge links between African Americans, both North and South, and
their root traditions in West Africa. His only regret is that, for
the moment, the company is touring so constantly that it is virtually
impossible to develop new pieces. In the next year, they will have
only a month and a half in Brazil, between tours of the U.S., Europe,
Lebanon and the Caribbean.
After years of obscurity, however, Botelho is not
complaining: "Three years ago we had none of this. We had many
difficulties, in terms of how to survive in Brazil with minimal
money, how to maintain the company. So now we are in the right moment
to do this, and we cannot lose it. We are far from our families,
and it is very difficult for many of us, but this is our moment,
and I think it is our life.''
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By Elijah Wald
Two weeks ago, when a judge in Mexico City dismissed
charges against five men accused of murdering an American businessman
and reportedly compared them to Robin Hood, it must have seemed
to most Anglophone Americans like complete insanity. To someone
familiar with the Latin pop world, it sounds as if she had been
listening to too many corridos.
Ballads, the musical news bulletins which celebrated
Robin Hood, Pretty Boy Floyd and thousands more, died out in Anglophone
culture with the rise of literacy and the media. Their Mexican equivalent,
however, is still going strong. On a bus in Guerrero, a singer will
climb aboard and sing a corrido telling the rhymed tale of a massacre
of peasants and laying the blame at the feet of the governor. In
a Chiapas street market, a cassette by Los Zapatistas del Norte
celebrates the triumphs of the guerilla leader Subcomandante Marcos.
And, in the United States, Los Tigres del Norte and Los Tucanes
de Tijuana are on top of the Latin charts with "narcocorridos,''
ballads of the drug smugglers who have fallen heir to a tradition
that once celebrated revolutionary heroes like Villa and Zapata.
The continued success of corridos is a surprising
anomaly in the modern world. As other Latin styles turn to synthesizers
and carribean rhythms, the corrido groups springing up in Northern
Mexico and the Southwestern U.S. continue to sing waltz-time stories
backed by accordion, bass, drums and bajo sexto, a low-pitched 12-string
guitar. Even folklorists are surprised. While the music had a golden
age in the early part of this century, documented on two box sets
from Arhoolie records, "Corridos and Tragedias de la Frontera''
and "The Mexican Revolution,'' by the 1960s most experts thought
its time was passing.
That changed when Los Tigres, "The Tigers of
the North,'' vaulted to the top of the charts in 1971 with "Contrabando
y Traicion'' ("Contraband and Betrayal''). The ballad of a
couple who smuggle marijuana from Mexico to L.A. in their car tires,
after which the man tries to break up and the woman shoots him,
was made into a popular film, and started a new wave of corrido
groups, with the Tigres firmly ensconced as kings of the style.
In the intervening years, they have made some thirty albums, and
18 more songs have spawned movies in which they make brief appearances.
Recently, though, the Tigres have found their crown
in jeopardy. Los Tucanes (The Toucans), a ten-year-old group, have
rocketed to the top of the charts with songs like "La Pinata,''
a hit from their new "Tucanes de Plata'' album (EMI Latin),
which tells of a party with a cocaine-filled pinata. In this and
other songs, the Tucanes depart from tradition by celebrating not
just the valor of the working-class smugglers, but the power and
flashy lifestyle of the big drug lords, and the drugs themselves.
As Enrique Franco Aguilar, a San Jose songwriter who gave the Tigres
some of their most influential hits, puts it, " 'Contrabando
y Traicion' is Walt Disney compared to the songs of Los Tucanes.''
The result has been an outcry on both sides of the
border. Citizens' groups have been formed, and the Mexican states
of Chihuahua and Sinaloa have banned narcocorridos from the radio.
Comparisons have been made to gangsta rap, though Anglophone reporters
often seem puzzled by the fact that the Tucanes' accordion-driven
waltzes and polkas are more perky than forbidding. (The Tucanes
have further confused critics by pairing the release of each corrido
disc with a companion disc, such as 1997's "Tucanes de Oro,''
featuring love songs and boleros in the popular "Tejano'' style
of Grupo Limite and the late Selena.)
What critics often ignore is that the narcocorridos,
as a tradition, are only tangentially about drugs. Like our ballads
of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, the theme is less a celebration
of crime than a dislike of authority and big money. "The people
who buy these records are very poor, and are struggling under a
system which is devised to keep them marginalized,'' says James
Nicolopulos, a professor at the University of Texas who studies
contemporary corrido. "These people who beat the system, who
break out of that, are looked upon as culture heroes. And there's
also the element of conflict with Anglo-Saxon civilization, which
is a long-running theme in Mexican culture. Because the United States
is so intrusive into Mexico in terms of the drug policy, if you
beat the system you're also beating the cultural antagonist.''
In this, the narcocorridos hark back to the Mexican
War of the 1840s, to folk tales of border outlaws, and most obviously
to corridos of the "tequileros'' who smuggled liquor into the
U.S. during prohibition. While providing entertainment and an emotional
release, they also reflect a viewpoint of which few Anglo-Americans
are aware: To rural Mexicans, the "war on drugs'' is most visible
as a flood of armed troops into agricultural districts, borders
and coastal areas, which have in no way halted the flow of drugs
-- indeed the police and soldiers are widely perceived as completely
in the pocket of the drug lords -- but have been a source of harrassment,
extortion and violence.
Corrido singers point out that the smugglers in
their ballads tend to end badly, either dead or in prison, and many
narcocorridos include at least a token admonishment against drug
use. Indeed, the Tigres' Grammy-nominated double CD, "Jefe
de Jefes'' ("Boss of Bosses'') (Fonovisa) includes a couple
of direct anti-drug songs. Nonetheless, while drugs are becoming
an ever-greater problem in urban areas, there is still a perception
among many Mexicans that the trade is, for them, a largely economic
matter and the buyers and users are in the U.S.
On "Jefe de Jefes,'' the Tigres make this point
directly. Two songs, "Por Debajo del Agua'' (colloquially "Under
the Table'') and "El General'' ("The General'') imply
that the real power behind the drug trade is north of the border,
and probably includes government officials. The latter song is centered
on General Rebolla Gutierez, the Mexican contact for the D.E.A.
who was dismissed after accusations that he was a close associate
of the drug lord Pablo Escobar. The song defends the General, suggesting
that he was removed because he could not be bought off, and goes
on to say, "The gringos certify other countries/ They don't
want drugs to exist . . ./ But tell me, who certifies the United
As with the genre in general, the Tigres' message
is decidely mixed, romanticizing the traffickers and gun battles
even while making more serious points. Since the Tucanes' upped
the ante, the Tigres have taken on a harder edge and "Jefe
de Jefes,'' which takes its title from a hit about a shadowy "Godfather''
figure, has them abandoning the gaudy cowboy garb worn by all corrido
groups in favor of gangster-style leather, and doing both their
cover shoot and video in the forbidding ruins of Alcatraz.
Nonetheless, despite the popularity of narcocorridos,
the Tigres continue to sing about plenty of other subjects. The
album's first single, "El Mojado Acaudalado'' ("The Wealthy
Wetback'') is sung in the character of an illegal immigrant who
has made good money in the U.S., but is joyfully returning to spend
it in his "beloved land.'' In a more overtly political vein,
"El Sucesor'' ("The Succesor'') is a barely veiled attack
on the ruling PRI party, with a departing figure (presumeably ex-president
Salinas) handing over "the keys to the store,'' and warning
his successor that they have a nice little business and he should
just keep things moving smoothly as they have for 100 years if he
does not want to end up like Colosio, the candidate assassinated
during the last presidential election.
Salinas, who came to symbolize the corruption in
Mexican politics, has been a fertile subject for corridos, including
the Tigres' satiric "El Circo'' ("The Circus''). Such
songs are, in the opinion of most older corrido fans, what gives
the genre its continued importance. "What the corrido is supposed
to do is be a voice of the people,'' Nicolopulos says. "It
should be a counter-discourse to the discourse of power.''
While the narcocorridos attract more press attention,
these songs remain the meat of the genre, though many are only performed
by local groups and issued on poorly-distributed cassettes. Any
event, from a local crime to the success of baseball star Fernando
Valenzuela is instantly set in verse and sung in bars and cafes.
Several recent corridos tell of attacks by the "Chupacabras''
("Goatsucker'') a beast said to be rampaging through Mexico
and Puerto Rico. In California, there has been a whole cycle celebrating
Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers union, and "Los Illegales,''
a recent song by Franco for the Fresno group Los Pumas de Jalisco,
mocks the xenophobia of Proposition 187, with Governor Pete Wilson
blaming immigrants for everything from forest fires to earthquakes.
Franco strongly condemns the new narcocorridos,
though he credits them with having revived interest in the genre.
His own most popular songs have been socially conscious numbers
that provided the Tigres with some of their biggest hits of the
1980s. "Tres Veces Mojado'' ("Three Times a Wetback'')
told of a poor Salvadoran who had to illegally cross three borders
to reach the U.S. "Jaula de Oro'' ("Cage of Gold'') was
the lament of a Mexican immigrant who found economic success but
lost his culture and his country.
Most recently, Franco has written and produced an
album for La Tradicon Del Norte (The Northern Tradition), a quartet
of twenty-something brothers from outside Tijuana. Released by BMG,
"Corridos Para los Buenos, los Malos, y los Feos'' ("Ballads
for the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly'') is Franco's answer to the
narcocorrido trend. "We think the drug traffic is a crime and
should be attacked,'' he says. "So we are trying to do something
La Tradicion are superlative musicians, with tricky
accordion lines and a rootsy sound that makes the Tigres and Tucanes
sound formulaic by comparison. Many of the songs Franco has written
for them are light, action-filled numbers like the hit, "Gallo
de Pelea'' ("Fighting Cock''), a machismo-filled boast ("Cocks
and women, the two things are pretty much equal,'' the chorus says.
"The cocks give me money, the women take it away.'')
"These songs are an escape for the public,''
Franco says, speaking in Spanish. "It is the only way for the
people to be silly, to create their lies [myths]. We talk about
the gringos who hit us, about the bad government, about the police.
But it is all fiction, right?''
Maybe yes, maybe no. Many of Franco's songs seem
like more than simple escapist fare. "El Lobo de Sinaloa''
("The Wolf of Sinaloa''), for example, is a portrait of a young
hit man selling himself to the governor of a Mexican state notorious
for its feudal agrarian system and violent peasant-landowner struggles.
Since a Laredo sheriff won a suit against a corrido label, all such
songs are at least supposedly fictitious, and Franco says that the
character of El Lobo is his invention, but adds that it represents
"the type of person whom the politicians get involved with,
young guys who will do anything.''
Another song makes no pretension to fiction: "Rigoberta
Menchu'' is a celebration of the Guatemalan peasant organizer who
won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize. Then there is "Declaracion
de Guerra,'' which takes its plot from an old joke, but makes the
point that when the U.S. won wars against Germany and Japan it then
gave them money to rebuild, while when it won against Mexico it
seized half the country (Mexicans remain intensely aware that until
1848 virtually the entire Southwestern U.S. was part of the Mexican
Franco feels that dealing with such subjects, albeit
through fiction, is part of his mission as a corrido composer. "Traditionally,
all the corridos were about real events,'' he says. "It was
a newspaper. In one song, I say that the Mexican people learned
history by reading a songbook.''
Today, despite the dominance of drug songs, he continues
to have faith in the power of the genre. "Too many of these
'artists,' in quotation marks, only want money,'' he says. "But
when you have a good interpreter the corridos can still have a very
strong effect. Because the people believe in these artists. If the
artists wanted, they could make a revolution. A great artist is
more powerful than a politician.''
Back to the Archive Contents
By Elijah Wald
Starting in the 1990s, a flood of stories began
appearing about the “Latin music boom” in the United
States, but almost all of them revealed a basic misunderstanding
of what music was fueling that boom. Anglos, the press included,
tend to think of “Latin” as roughly equivalent to what
the Latin scene calls “tropical” music, and focus on
salsa, along with maybe a nod to the success of the Buena Vista
Social Club. This ignores both Mexican music, which accounts for
roughly two thirds of all Spanish-language record sales in the United
States, and the mainstream pop singers who are known throughout
Latin America but whose work has little regional flavor.
For example, there is Tania Libertad, one of the
most varied and ambitious singers in Latin music. Libertad has never
become a pop idol on the order of José José or Luís
Miguel, but her records are heard from Mexico to Argentina. She
is probably best known as the queen of modern bolero, the sinuous,
romantic music that emerged from Cuba in the 1920s and was popularized
by a string of Mexican trios and female soloists. However, she has
recorded over the years with rock bands and symphony orchestras,
and sung everything from mariachi to nueva canción and pop
Since the late 1990s, Libertad has turned much of
her attention on the music of black Peru. “The town where
I was born, Chiclayo, is the only black town in the north on the
Peruvian coast,” she explains, speaking in Spanish from a
tour stop. “So I have this from my roots. The culture of Peru
has three roots that are extremely important. There are black roots,
Indian roots, and white roots, which put together have produced
a music that is astonishing and magical, but few people have had
the fortune to hear it. My own music has very little of the Indian
part, because I haven’t lived in Peru’s indigenous regions,
so I did not develop that part. I developed the black part, the
mulatto part. I am a person who has gone through life singing the
musical forms linked with the countries that I have visited, but
my true roots are the African roots mixed with Spanish roots that
produced the mulataje, the Peruvian mulatto music, and from that
point of view my music is best considered African, from the Peruvian
Libertad explicitly connected to the African side
of her work with a 1994 album, África en América,
which included electric arrangements of Afro-Latin ceremonial music,
but her emphasis may still surprise some long-time fans. She is
better known for lilting ballads like “Alfonsina y el Mar,”
which made her an international star after she moved from Peru to
Mexico in the late 1970s. Though she began singing professionally
at age seven and had already recorded some ten albums in Peru, it
was in Mexico that her career really took flight. There, she led
a revival of the bolero, then went on to record albums of Mexican
ranchera, Brazilian-flavored pop, orchestral concert material, and
duets with the Cuban singers Pablo Milanés and Silvio Rodríguez.
“That is the wonderful thing,” she says.
“If you are an artist who is open to all kinds of influences,
and who has the chance to live with all different kinds of people,
in different countries, you also have to live with their music.
So I could not have lived in Mexico without trying mariachi and
bolero, and many things. But also, this is not foreign to me. If
you look for the root in each of the musical expressions in Latin
America, you will find African roots.”
In recent years, Libertad’s touring band has
included Peruvian musicians along with Cubans and other Latin players,
and features acoustic instruments such as the Peruvian guitar and
cajón, the wooden percussion box that has spread from Afro-Peruvian
music into modern flamenco. Libertad says that, while the sound
will be more percussive than some of her fans expect, she will be
performing the songs that have made her famous. “If the Mexicans
come, they will hear José Alfredo Jiménez,”
she says, referring to the dean of ranchera songwriters. “And
we will sing the boleros, but we will make them sound different;
they will have a different feel. I will try to make them share a
common root with the other material, and we will try to make the
whole concert have a unity, a single color.”
By Elijah Wald
Pery Ribeiro's name is not familiar to many American
listeners, but his first big hit certainly is. The Brazilian singer
made history in 1963, when he recorded the original version of "Garota
de Ipanema,'' "The Girl from Ipanema.''
Ribeiro, who makes his local debut Tuesday at Scullers
Jazz Club, says that he came across the song more or less by accident.
"I was recording my second album, and in a night I was going
to see a show -- Tom [Antonio Carlos] Jobim, Vinicius de Moraes,
Joao Gilberto -- and then suddenly Jobim said to Vinicius, 'Let's
play the music that we just finished two days ago.' He was reading
with a small piece of paper, and he started to sing 'The Girl from
"I fell in love with the song immediately,
and I went there the next day and he sung it again, and I picked
up a small tape recorder and recorded the whole thing and ran to
the studio and said to the gentleman there who was making the arrangements
for me, 'Listen to this wonderful song that Tom Jobim just made!'
The guy fell in love also, and said, 'Man, let's record this right
away.' So we recorded it and put it on the market. ''
The rest, as they say, is history. "The Girl
From Ipanema'' went on to be recorded hundreds of times and, in
an English-language version by Astrud Gilberto, became the world's
best-selling Brazilian record.
Ribeiro says that the international success of
bossa nova was completely unexpected by its founders. "Everybody
was surprised. Even Tom Jobim, he was the father of the whole thing,
but he was very surprised. Because when the bossa nova started,
it wasn't a kind of a movement that we said, 'OK, let's make something
commercially that we can put in the whole world.'
"It was a very sincere thing: 'Let's play
your music.' 'OK, what do you think about this?' 'Oh, beautiful.'
Like any young people. Most of us were very naive at that time.
So when it exploded in the whole world, when they first invited
the people to come over to New York to participate in the big show
there in the Carnegie Hall, it was very confusing.''
Thinking back, though, Ribeiro says that there
was a natural link between bossa nova and what was happening in
the United States. "I remember when we started to get together,
at Nara Leao's place, we'd sit down on the floor and start to drink
scotch, and we'd listen to Miles Davis, Chet Baker, Sarah Vaughan
and so many other people. That really inspired all the composers
to make good songs, very good music, and do something different
in the Brazilian music, inspired in the American feeling. So, when
the whole thing left Brazil and came to United States, I think the
audience, the critics, identified themselves with the music, because
it was something that almost belonged to them too.''
As times changed, Brazil turned to other musical
styles, and Ribeiro and the other bossa nova stars had to adapt.
"We had to develop our whole lives from there on. We had to
work, after all. We had to put food in the refrigerator, pay the
school for our children. So, when the bossa nova went down a little
bit we all had to find some new ways to be entertainers, singers.
But bossa nova always was inside of me, always. So, if we couldn't
have a chance to sing much in Brazil, I started to look for someplace
else, going to Europe, coming to America.''
Ribeiro spent some years in the U.S., singing with
Sergio Mendes, then returned to Brazil in the 1970s. Now, however,
he is frustrated with the state of music at home and has decided
to move his whole family north and settle in Miami. "I love
Brazil; it is still my country, but right now at the moment it is
terrible to live there. We are transforming our personality, our
taste. So most of the people who make what we call M.P.B. [Brazilian
pop music] are trying to find some new places: Ivan Lins is almost
living in New York and Los Angeles, Dori Caymmi is in Los Angeles,
Cesar Camargo Mariano is in New York, Leny Andrade is in New York.
All the people that make very good music are looking for new audiences
all over the world. ''
For Ribeiro, at least, this new status as an expatriate
does not seem to be causing any anguish. "Miami is something
like Rio: I love this weather, the way of life. As a matter of fact,
I love America. And I feel that Florida is a place that is growing
and exploding. Things are starting happening here, and I feel that
I can contribute something, and I like that very much. I feel the
bossa nova, that style of Brazilian music, never was so hot here
as it is right now at this moment. It is still the music that the
whole country, the whole world is expecting from Brazilians. So
I am trying to follow my star. ''
By Elijah Wald
The Ethnographic Museum of Irrelevant Races (EMIR)
is not exactly a museum, though it does involve walking around and
looking at exhibits. It is not exactly theater, though it is in
MITs Little Kresge theater space and features live performers.
Director Guillermo Gomez-Pena calls it "performance art,"
that grab-bag term that can cover anything from sitting at a desk
delivering a monologue to tattooing oneself blue and eating cockroaches.
So what is it? The museum consists of seven young
people of various ethnic backgrounds, economic levels, and sexual
persuasions displayed as ethnographic exhibits. Three are actually
enclosed in plexiglass cases; all have explanatory labels. Uniformed
guides provide helpful explanations, uniformed guards instruct visitors
not to touch. Not even if the Arab takes them hostage.
Does this sound like a demeaning, offensive, insulting
spectacle? If so, Gomez-Pena is not upset in the least. "The
desired effect is that a show like this triggers a process of reciprocity
in the audience," he says, speaking with a warm Mexican accent.
"People come in and out of the space as they please and each
person develops a kind of hyper-textual journey throughout the space,
and hopefully the audience will go back and forth between seduction
and discomfort. I think that the ultimate strategy is to seduce
them and then to break the mirror of seduction in their faces."
The experience of walking through a dress rehearsal
is certainly disconcerting enough. Standing in the front section,
there is the Arab (a Jordanian) serving a visitor coffee, a gay
white man dancing a jerky dance and screaming about his lust for
Latinos, and an Bengali woman stripping off her native costume to
reveal herself as a gold-lame-garbed sexpot. Deeper in, one finds
a bilingual, bisexual, bicultural Virgin of Guadalupe, a pearl-wearing
lady of the Salvadoran elite who crawls around her case like a wild
ape, an Appalachian Lesbian alternating between her rural redneck
and coffeeshop writer personas, and a Chinese-American who rediscovered
himself as an ancient Mayan while working at McDonalds.
And they are not just quietly "being"
these characters. Several are yelling, and sometimes they are quite
specifically yelling at the viewer. "Im interested in
completely destroying the convention of the proscenium, of having
the audience separated from the performance," Gomez-Pena says.
"Here, you can surround the performers, you can touch them,
you can smell them, you can interact with them in various modes.
And hopefully, if they are good enough, sediments will begin to
settle in the back of the consciousness and to reappear in dreams,
in conversations, in memories. So the show begins to work slowly,
after the fact."
Gomez-Pena is sitting in the bar of the Marriott
Hotel in Cambridge, along with co-director Leticia Nieto. His hair
falls straight to the middle of his back, he smiles out from under
a thick moustache. His comments are rather staid and academic, in
contrast to the anarchic energies on display at Kresge. They sound
more like the Gomez-Pena who does commentary for NPR and has written
three books and won a MacArthur grant.
He says that for this project he has been less a
director than a lightning rod and catalyst. He is part of a team,
here for two of the four weeks of intensive workshop-rehearsals
organized by MIT theater professor Brenda Cotto-Escalera, with Nieto
joining for week three. At the first dress rehearsal, he gives a
few suggestions, nudges some performers to be more focused, but
does not take control. By the time EMIR opens on Thursday, he will
not even be in town. He is heading home to San Francisco and leaving
the students to unleash the final product on their own.
"Performance artists occupy the space of the
anti-hero in American pop culture," he says. "So we become
magnets for troublemakers. I made sure in my prior visits to MIT
to visit all kinds of classrooms, I gave presentations about my
work, people read my books, some of my films were shown in advance,
and then people began to gravitate towards me. I was particularly
interested in these fringe sensibilities, these students who feel
uneasy, who are critical, who are troubled, who are angry, who have
important things to say. So in many ways we perform the roll of
social magnets for outcasts and thats an interesting function.
"But what do you do with that, once you have
them all sitting at the table? Because there are all kinds of ethical
questions that get raised. You can not just open the Pandoras
box of the colonial demons and then get the hell out of town, or
put salt on the wound and then disappear. These kids are angry,
and rightfully so, cause the world is [messed] up. And I like that
anger, but its important to shape it, to turn it into good
performance energy. So thats where the professional skills
come into play. I try to empower them to make as many decisions
as possible, and hopefully my ultimate role will be that of editing,
to make sure that there is some kind of uniformity, that the world
we co-create together has a certain kind of coherence and aesthetic
Now 44, Gomez-Pena grew up in Mexico City, in a
period of cultural ferment. He feels that the young people he is
working with do not have "the ideological and cultural certainties
that our generation had." On the other hand, he thinks that
this has its advantages, at least for performers. They can stand
between cultures, ages, political affiliations, and comment both
as insiders and outsiders. Thus the spectacle of MIT students, a
priviledged minority in many ways, acting out the anger, stereotypes,
and confusion of their ethnic, national and socio-sexual backgrounds.
But to what end? Why, as Gomez-Pena puts it, put salt on the wound?
"Im really disturbed about the jargon
of globalization," he says. "We are witnessing a kind
of a multicultural global village in CNN, the Internet, the music
industry, the fashion industry, and the new jargon is that we are
now living a post-racial society. We are back to a strange form
of libertarian discourse: If race is irrelevant, it is up to the
individuals to make a difference. And we all know that this is [false]."
Except, of course, for all the people who support
the view. "[People accept] this kind of triumphant and utopian
discourse of globalization that has permitted all our institutions,"
he agrees. "But without realizing that globalization is a project
of the Northern Hemisphere."
So will EMIR change any of that? Gomez-Pena is not
making great claims, but he hopes that it will have some effect
on visitors, and he says that it has already been an incredible
experience for the performers themselves. He is not the man with
the answers, but he is trying to break down some preconceptions,
to open minds, and to facilitate a process that will make people
think differently about the world in which they are living.
"I like to see myself as a professional trouble
maker," he says. "As a builder of ephemeral communities,
as someone who shapes someone elses rebellion or anger. Im
always looking for ways to create total experiences that are really
exciting and playful, but at the same time hopefully politically
enlightening and critical."
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