Review | Contemporary Carioca: Technologies of Mixing in a Brazilian Music Scene by Frederick Moehn

Contemporary Carioca: Technologies of Mixing in a Brazilian Music Scene. By Frederick Moehn. Durham: Duke University Press. 2012. [p. 320. Hardcover $ 75.45, paperback $22.46. ISBN 978-0822351559]
Reviewed by Leonardo Cardoso
In the past decades, the vast majority of scholarly work on post-1950s Brazilian popular music written in English has intersected with that of Brazilian Popular Music (MPB, Música Popular Brasileira). MPB is a label/musical movement that emerged in the 1960s, during a repressive military dictatorship, as politico-aesthetic paradigm. Already in the 1970s, those associated with MPB, including Milton Nascimento, Chico Buarque, Caetano Veloso, Gilberto Gil, and João Bosco, were acclaimed as representatives of a Brazilian popular. Among the elements that most of these musicians shared was the impulse to write songs that could provide a social critique of Brazilian society via the heavy use of metaphors (often to circumvent censorship). They also shared a musical inquiry into “Brazilianness” by mixing Brazilian regional folklore from the Northeast, Rio de Janeiro samba and choro, and Bossa Nova harmonic and melodic innovations. Caetano Veloso and the Tropicalists incorporated broader mixing strategies, particularly with the inclusion of rock’n roll. In the 1980s, other music styles enter the map and gain momentum in the domestic market. These styles included Brock (rock in Portuguese), samba reggae, hip-hop, música sertaneja, pagode, axé music, and funk carioca. Still, there was a shared sense that MPB was the most “intellectualized” facet of musical production in the country.
Frederick Moehn’s Contemporary Carioca offers a fascinating account of the intersections of popular music and MPB in the 1990s and 2000s, when post-dictatorship Brazil had a more fragmented music industry, and when MPB’s musical politico-aesthetic paradigm had lost some circulation space – but not its legitimacy among middle-class consumers. Moehn shows how musicians headquartered in South Rio de Janeiro, where Brazil’s entertainment industry is concentrated, have carved their space in the national scene. We learn how Marcos Suzano, Lenine, Pedro Luís e a Parede, Fernanda Abreu, and Paulinho Moska, who are the focus of the book, define their musical influences and preferences and relate their production with contemporary Brazil. If, as Sandroni (2011) has pointed out, the notion of MPB has lost some of its significance, the reflexivity in songwriting and musical mixing techniques that the first generation of musicians promoted in the 1960s and 1970s remain important elements for these musicians as a source of legitimacy and as an approach to musical Brazilianness.
Contemporary Carioca shows how mixing practices have been crucial to understand the field of cultural production in Brazil, particularly in relation to the creative potential and nationalistic overtones of Oswald de Andrade’s modernist Manifesto Antropogágico (Cannibal Manifesto, published in 1928). In examining artists located in South Rio de Janeiro, Moehn goes to what he calls the “epicenter of the discursive and sonic production of música popular brasileira” to discuss the ways in which influential contemporary musicians mix “regional” instruments, electronic beats, new experiments with timbre and with the harmonic and rhythmic vocabulary familiar to MPB. He shows how these artists integrate new technologies – from the personal computer and effects units to home studios – and alternative methods for producing and commercializing music to assemble their own trajectories.
Although Moehn alerts the reader that the book is structured around individual trajectories “not out of an interest in musical biography per se, but in order to allow various themes to weave through my examination of the talk and sounds of subjects whose careers and music making are closely intertwined yet also marked by sentiments of individual creative development” (22-23), the book comes out as a multi-biographical project. As in any biographical text, the scholar faces the challenge of tackling the individual’s self-presentation, the group to which this individual is closely related, the individual’s oeuvre, and the broader society to which s/he is part, as interconnected elements. The way the scholar manages those elements tells a lot about his/her premises regarding agency, identity politics, social analysis, and the knowledge production.
My only problem with Contemporary Carioca is that it often follows too diligently the narratives of the musicians under consideration. In other words, it lacks the autonomy to explore more critically the assumptions of the interviewees. For instance, the author correctly relates the success of the musicians considered in the book with the transmission of legitimacy from the first generation of MPB artists (e.g., Caetano Veloso with Lenine, Jorge Ben Jor with Fernanda Abreu, Ney Matogrosso with Pedro Luis e a Parede). But there’s not much on how the songs of these have circulated on mainstream TV shows, particularly Globo TV soap operas or on how these artists were integrated into musical festivals (such as the Free Jazz Festival). Similar to 1960s MPB, TV shows and festivals continue to serve as crucial (and often ambiguous) markers of commercial success, popularity, and status. It is difficult, if not pointless, to “map out” the field of cultural production à la Bourdieu in this milieu precisely because musicians navigate in heterogeneous spaces of cultural and economic capital, and negotiate their spaces both in the domestic and international music circuits.
With the explosion of World Music in the 1980s, many popular musicians outside the hegemonic English-American network were attracted to new transnational circuits and collaborative projects. The musicians discussed in Contemporary Carioca, affiliated with some MPB gurus and followers of their interest in Brazilianness (from the urban cosmopolitan to multicultural/multiracial), have been able to enter into these circuits and renew the interest of a “global” audience that has been avid for Brazilian popular music since the Bossa Nova phenomenon. The book missed a good opportunity to examine the ambiguity and anxiety surrounding these negotiations from the perspective of domestic vs. transnational markets – perhaps along the lines of Louise Meintjes’ Sound of Africa: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio.
Finally, I missed a more critical discussion of national rock. The book reproduces a narrative common among middle-class consumers that condemns Brock for “mechanically” copying American and British bands. However, it is important to note that Rio de Janeiro rock bands such as Paralamas do Sucesso have been crucial in mediating the trajectory of some of the artists discussed in the book. Moreover, many of the poetic techniques (e.g., the incorporation of slang), expansion of sonic timbres and technological experimentation, and integration of black diasporic grooves are already present in some Brock songs.
My problem with the book is of course related to the biographical challenge mentioned above, and I have no clear solution for this conundrum because it is a narrative and epistemological choice. Notwithstanding these absences, Contemporary Carioca is a major contribution to the fields of ethnomusicology and popular music studies. It does not claim to offer an overarching view on the field of popular music in Brazil since the 1990s, but it presents us with a detailed narrative about how key musicians in Brazil’s current MPB scene (re)present themselves. The book is a clear testimony that “the desire to define what it meant to be Brazilian in the contemporary world – and musically to perform Brazilianness – was as strong as ever” (205).
Meintjes, Louise. 2003. Sound of Africa: Making Music Zulu in a South African Studio. Durham: Duke University Press.
Sandroni, Carlos. 2011. “Farewell to MPB.” In Brazilian Popular Music and Citizenship, edited by Idelber Avelar and Christopher Dunn, 64-73. Durham: Duke University Press.


"Sounding Board" is intended as a space for scholars to publish thoughts and observations about their current work. These postings are not peer reviewed and do not reflect the opinion of Ethnomusicology Review. We support the expression of controversial opinions, and welcome civil discussion about them. We do not, however, tolerate overt discrimination based on race, sex, gender, sexual orientation, or religion, and reserve the right to remove posts that we feel might offend our readers.