Review | Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse: Popular Music and the Staging of Brazil

Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse: Popular Music and the Staging of Brazil. By Daniel B. Sharp. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2014. [159 pp. ISBN 9780819575029. Paperback $27.95, $80.00 Hardcover, Ebook $21.99].

Reviewed by Andrea Douglass / University of Massachusetts Boston

In Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse, ethnomusicologist Daniel Sharp invites us into the musical practices of the hinterlands of northeast Brazil, specifically the small city, Arcoverde, Pernambuco. While the most recognized genre of northeast Brazil is arguably forró, made famous by Luis Gonzaga, Sharp studies the performances of samba de coco, a relatively unknown musical and dance genre with African roots. He contrasts two iterations of samba de coco, the traditional ensemble, Samba de Coco Raízes de Arcoverde (Coco Raízes), with the pop iconoclasts, Cordel do Fogo Encantado (Cordel), which can be considered an offshoot of the mangue beat movement of the 1990s in Recife, a city in northern Brazil. Samba de coco musicians have capitalized on this localized Afro-Brazilian practice as tourism has increased to the area in post-dictatorship Brazil. The location, in the desert (sertão) of northern Brazil, is associated with economic disparity, violence, and racial tensions. Sharp notes that though Cordel began in homage to tradition and its history was intertwined with Coco Raízes, ultimately the band disentangled itself and moved away from Arcoverde, Pernambuco, repositioning itself in a cosmopolitan pop scene. Conceptions of nationhood and cultural identity are entwined in a preservationist approach to samba de coco in the group, Coco Raízes and its offshoots, which is evidenced in family feuds about fame, authorship, and money. Professionalization, authenticity, and ownership are all part of the narrative that sets one samba de coco group apart from another.

Using ethnographic narratives and situating his work in ideas of cultural rescue, nostalgia, tourism studies and a mutating idea of folklore, Sharp positions his oeuvre in current debates in ethnomusicology, sociology, and anthropology focusing particularly on writings by Marilyn Ivy, Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Erving Goffman, and Dean MacCannell among others. Sharp draws on over ten years of ethnographic fieldwork in writing Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse. His initial fieldwork from 2004 resulted in his dissertation, entitled Saudades de Arcoverde: Nostalgia and the Performance of Origin (2006). Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse also contains accounts from follow-up fieldwork in 2009 and 2013.

Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse is organized in two parts. In Part I, Sharp explores themes such as “Staging Tradition,” “Museums,” “Nostalgia and Apocalypse,” and “Television.” Part II focuses on how samba de coco became government sponsored and incorporated into the annual São João Festival (also called Festa Junina in other parts of Brazil) that occurs in June to celebrate the Nativity of John the Baptist. 

The first three chapters introduce us to the world of samba de coco and the beginnings of the band, Cordel. In Chapter One, for instance, Sharp sets the stage by describing his initial drive into the northeast interior of Brazil, depicting his first meeting of the samba de coco performers and describing the video of Cordel’s first performance. The first part of Chapter Four is dedicated to the creation of a documentary on samba de coco by Globo Comunidade, a large television network in Brazil that also broadcasts internationally. Sharp follows the camera crew, examining the choices made both on and off screen. Taking a closer look at Cordels official video, “Na Veia” (In My Veins) in the second part of Chapter Four,[1] Sharp notes how the band focuses on the dislocation of touring and how this creates a sense of nostalgia or longing for home.

In Chapter Six, “Tourism,” Sharp engages Dean McCannell’s writings on tourism and the notion of “staged authenticity.” Rehearsals and performances become “staged” depending on the audience presence.[2] At Sharp’s initial arrival to Arcoverde, the samba de coco musicians were unclear into what category they should place him: should they provide the show of authenticity that they do for tourists that stay only for a few days or a week? Throughout Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse Sharp notes instances of the fluidity in certain scenarios that are meant to be either seen or hidden.

As Coco Raízes and Cordel traverse the space between the center and the margins of Brazilian national identity, nostalgia is a key player. Various instances of nostalgia are at play–as a counterpart to the unraveling present–in the music of Coco Raízes and Cordel. Sharp draws from Svetlana Boym who divides nostalgia into two halves: reflective and restorative nostalgia (2001). Reflective nostalgia refers to a personal longing, it is more fragmented and private whereas restorative nostalgia is more public, referring to the collective lost home and engages in impulses to return to an imagined past. Increased tourist presence has underscored the severe social inequality of the region and the band Cordel emphasizes the harsh aesthetics of hunger and violence, employing reflective nostalgia. The samba de coco families tap into what Svetlana Boym refers to as “restorative nostalgia” in her binary (2001), capitalizing on emphasizing the local. As samba de coco became a successful tourist attraction, feuds over musical ownership emerged between the various performing families. Both the performances of samba de coco families as well as television portrayals tap into narratives of national cultural origins. As Sharp states, they find ways to “strategically use the past” (2014:xvi). The samba de coco performers must remain rooted in place (geographically and sonically) in order to maintain their “traditional” status whereas Cordel emphasizes a yearning for a home left behind as the band toured Brazil.

Sharp contrasts the so-called traditional music of samba de coco with that of the band, Cordel, noting that it is impossible to form clear lines between tradition and innovation. He describes the band’s initial concern with recognizing the established samba de coco tradition by “calling for permission from the previous generation of popular poets” (2014:14). After some time, Cordel shifted itself from heritage homage to emphasizing innovation and repositioning itself in several overlapping genres.[3] Over time Cordel distanced itself from the folkloric, locating itself in the aesthetics of democratization and examining the true interplay of social class and race in Brazilian-ness.  

Between Nostalgia and Apocalypse is a well-organized ethnographic monograph. Published ten years after the initial fieldwork was conducted, the events that inspire the writing are thoroughly analyzed and situated in dialogue with current theories in the field of ethnomusicology. Sharp moves from the particular, analyzing song lyrics and personal fieldwork experiences, to looking at the larger picture at how these musical practices are situated in and reflect Brazilian-ness. As I read this volume, I wondered about the projected audience for this work. Though he does discuss the tresillo rhythm at the root of samba de coco, Sharp mainly focuses on the lyrics when he talks about the music itself. Much of the oeuvre revolves around dissecting fieldwork experiences, research and videos, and applying theoretical constructs. It seems as though this book is written with a broad academic audience in mind, not necessarily assuming a preexisting knowledge of music, even though it focuses on a very specific musical genre. Many aspects of the theoretical framework apply to other musical contexts, particularly those involving cultural tourism and projections of nationhood. Overall, it is a well-organized account examining the social, cultural, and political aspects of particular musical practices in post-dictatorship Brazil.

 

Notes

[1] See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u-OKJQd0_uE

[2] Sharp finds that the staged aspects of samba de coco indicate a permeability between what Erving Goffman calls front and back regions.

[3] The band drew inspiration from Cinema Novo (“New Cinema”), an intellectual and social movement in Brazilian film during the 1960s that was also a stimulus for Caetano Veloso and the Tropicália movement.

 

Works Cited

Boym, Svetlana. 2001. The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Goffman, Erving. 1959. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.

Ivy, Marilyn. 1995. Discourses of the Vanishing: Modernity, Phantasm, Japan. University of Chicago Press.

Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Barbara. 1998. Destination Culture: Tourism, Museums, and Heritage. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

MacCannell, Dean. 1973. “Staged Authenticity: Arrangements of Social Space in Tourist Settings.” American Journal of Sociology 79(3): 589–603.

–––——.1996. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class. 3rd ed. New York: Schocken Books.

–––——.2002. “The Ego Factor in Tourism.” Journal of Consumer Research 29(1): 146–151.

 

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