Rio 2016: An Ethnomusicologist’s Dream

Today’s guest post is by ethnomusicologist Frederick Moehn, author of Contemporary Carioca: Technologies of Mixing in a Brazilian Music Scene, and Senior Lecturer at King’s College London.

978-0-8223-5155-9_pr“Fred, I’m in Rio and wherever you are, I hope you’re watching the Rio Opening Ceremonies. It’s an ethnomusicologist’s dream.”—email from a friend, Aug 5, 2016

Amidst the widely reported political and economic turmoil rocking Brazil, the 2016 Summer Olympic Games successfully kicked off in Rio de Janeiro last Friday. In the opening ceremony for these games music and musicians were as much a part of the narrative as the historical stories and ecological premonitions presented in the visuals. This was wise: what’s not to like about a scintillating samba school parade with the swinging drumming of a bateria, or Jorge Ben Jor leading the jubilant crowd through his classic “País Tropical” (Tropical country), or a duet between singers Zeca Pagodinho and Marcelo D2 that seamlessly slides back and forth between samba and hip-hop, or a solo voice and acoustic guitar performance of the national anthem by the urbane septuagenarian Paulinho da Viola?

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I watched on television from tropical New York City, where I am working on a project about one of Brazil’s least athletic genres: bossa nova. This cool, middle class music emerged in Rio in the late 1950s and conquered the U.S. a few years later, particularly after the release of “The Girl from Ipanema” featuring João Gilberto and his wife Astrud on the classic Getz/Gilberto album of 1964.

Meanwhile at the Games, Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen performed the “role” of The Girl in, as one NBC commentator put it, a “sultry walk” through the Maracanã soccer stadium. A long walk it was, so Bündchen had to balance grace with speed as she glided in a floor-length silvery dress toward a massive image of the young Tom Jobim, the prolific bossa nova composer who wrote the music to “Garota de Ipanema,” as the song is known in Portuguese. Jobim’s photograph was projected on a structure comprised of giant building blocks that jaggedly rose from the stadium floor for various scenes of the ceremony; perched atop one of these during Bündchen’s catwalk was Daniel Jobim at a grand piano. With his panama hat, wispy voice, and gentle articulations of the syncopated chords on the keys, Jobim quietly ventriloquized his grandfather.

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An interesting aspect of Brazilian popular music, perhaps especially in Rio, is the way it often reflects upon its own history and pays homage to its “elders”: from 79-year-old samba diva Elsa Soares to 90-year-old percussionist Wilson das Neves, who “called” the spirits of Rio’s musical ancestors while accompanying himself with a matchbox shaker, to Tropicália legends Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil, both in their 70s, singing a samba from the 1940s: Ary Barroso’s “Isso aqui, o que é” (What is all this?). It is what has been termed an “exaltation samba,” a type of radio-oriented song that celebrated the nation in the years of populist dictator Getúlio Vargas’s hold on power (1930-1945). In the lyrics, a brief reference to the happy, singing nation quickly shifts to phrases about a brown skinned woman (morena) who is adept at swaying her hips. For this performance, the rising star Anitta, from Rio, joined Veloso and Gil on the stage to sing the line, “Morena boa que me faz penar, põe a sandália de prata, e vem pro samba sambar” (roughly, “Nice brown woman who makes me suffer, put on your silver sandals and come dance samba”). Then the accompaniment mutated into a faster, driving rhythm as the major samba “schools” paraded through the stadium in brightly colored fantasias (carnival costumes). More recent musical tendencies privileging electronics such as the funk carioca tamborzão beat, or the techno-brega of Gang do Eletro from Belém do Pará, way up North, or São Paulo rap, were also woven into the intricate soundtrack of the event.

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The creative director for the spectacle, filmmaker Fernando Meirelles (dir. City of God), spoke of tight budgets and keeping things simple. More modest than the London and Beijing openers, this one was also in a way more personal and charming. Not quite melancholy, neither was it exuberant. Meirelles said he didn’t want it to be about props and ceremony as much as heart and soul. It should serve as a kind of anti-depressant drug for Brazil, he hoped.

Much of the musical story, however, was lost on NBC’s producers (who evidently did not think to engage an ethnomusicologist). Even many Brazilians might not have noted the inclusion of Chico Buarque’s menacing 1971 song “Construção” during a scene featuring dancers leaping around rising stacks of colorful urban edifices as if doing parkour (choreographed by Deborah Colker). Lacking the vocal part, the song was recognizable in the driving bass ostinato from Rogerio Duprat’s original arrangement and the strains of its tense, high melodic line in timbres that evoked anti-establishment songwriter Tom Zé’s late work.

Buarque claimed that “Construção,” which narrates a brick layer’s fall to death, was not a protest song against the military dictatorship (1964-1985), but many contemporary listeners heard it that way. Perhaps this was because his 1971 recording segued directly into Buarque’s “Deus lhe pague” (May God reward you), to increasingly anxious music. Excerpts from Charles Perrone’s translation of that song’s lyrics give a sense of the significance of “Construção/Deus lhe pague” to some older Brazilians:

For this bread to eat, this floor to sleep on
A certificate to be born, a concession to smile
For letting me breathe, for letting me exist
May God reward you

For the free liquor that we have to swallow
For the curse of smoke that we have to cough
For the dripping scaffolding from which we fall
May God reward you

As I watched this scene of the ceremony, I imagined that Meirelles camouflaged a cautious admonition to Brazil’s political elite—who are ensnared in corruption scandals and the impeachment of the country’s first woman president—to preserve democracy and protect the rights of citizens, including those least privileged. But despite the brittle scaffolding buttressing the nation (and these Games), Brazilian music never seems to let gloom overpower pleasure; less pliant than gold, it may be the country’s sturdiest cement.


  1. A more critical perspective on the music/images/performances during the opening and closing ceremonies would have made a more engaging read. There’s no mention of music from Brazil’s northeast or of the interesting (and polemical) delivery of música de terreiro vis-a-vis the national anthem in the closing ceremony. I also find the self-aggrandizing of ethnomusicologists as the “go-to people” for Brazilian music criticism a bit much. Ditto for underestimating Brazilians’ relationship and knowledge of Chico Buarque’s “Construção.” This subtle form of condescension (aside from totally unnecessary and unsubstantiated) is exactly what annoys so many Brazilians when we read (most notably) U.S. based scholars who write on Brazilian society and culture.


  2. João, thanks for your reflection. Allow me to respond a bit. This is a brief blog post, not a critical article, with little space for elaborating music criticism. It was written immediately after the opening ceremony so the music of the closing ceremony was not relevant here. As for the self-aggrandizing, I think you missed the ironic intention of the title (“an ethnomusicologist’s dream”) and the point of including that opening quotation from the email. I was precisely situating myself as not having been able to attend, and therefore as observing from afar, via a N. American television broadcast (hence, with a particular, necessarily incomplete perspective). I’m sorry that US-based scholars’ writing on Brazilian society and culture annoys you; others have found some of it thoughtful and choose to productively engage and collaborate with us (some Brazilian colleagues, including experienced journalists, indicated that they found this post insightful). As for condescension vis-à-vis “Construção,” I’d ask if you have done any ethnography about musical taste and popular music history among different age groups and classes in Brazil? Do you think that all viewers nationwide would have recognized that song, without the vocal part and lyrics? Perhaps the Brazilian broadcast included a lot more information about the music than the US broadcast (I did not see it, and was not reflecting on that); perhaps there was ample discussion in the media of the musical choices ahead of the ceremony in Brazil. I’m perfectly happy to stand corrected on this, but I merely wrote “even many Brazilians MIGHT not have noted the inclusion of … ‘Construção'” intending simply to highlight the subtle way it was invoked. The point was that this song was once understood as possibly subversive in a different political context and that here, many years later, the way the song was included in a mega-spectacle for global audiences (not just for Brazilians, mind you) yet in the peculiar local political context of the moment, had a different kind of political potential precisely for lacking the original lyrics. This was something of a playful reading of the event; it was not offered as the only way to understand this music. None of this is to suggest that your thoughts are wrong or unwelcome! Rather, just to elaborate the narrative tone this post sought to convey.


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