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Rock, Rebellion And My Misguided Shame Of Brazilian Culture

A South American writer rethinks the soundtrack of his teenage revolution, concluding that his aversion to culturally significant genres was a youthful indiscretion that deprived him of musical riches.

Brazil-born Max Cavalera, frontman of heavy metal band Soulfly
Brazil-born Max Cavalera, frontman of heavy metal band Soulfly
Fred Di Giacomo*


SAO PAULO — The metal world was shocked at the end of January when former Pantera singer and frontman Phil Anselmo gave a crowd the Nazi salute and shouted "White power." The scandal inspired a series of discussions about whether heavy metal is a reactionary, backwards musical genre. It reminded me of an interview with black songwriter and actor Seu Jorge (known for his role in the 2002 film City of God) in which he said that "rock isn't a pro-black genre."

After the interview, many white people challenged his assertion and wanted to show him how rock had been invented by black artists such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and electrified by black guitarist Jimi Hendrix. Some made reference to Bad Brains, the only great black hardcore band, and the rockers of Living Colour to teach Seu Jorge what years of experience had apparently failed to do.

They were wrong, of course. And for most of my life, I was wrong too.

Back when I was a young rebel living in a poor town, thinking I was the lumpenproletariat incarnate for having less dough than my schoolmates, I thought that rock music was the soundtrack of the revolution. The Stones, Nirvana, the Ramones, Rage Against the Machine. Is anything more anti-establishment than rock "n" roll?

Given all of my teenage wisdom, I thought that people who listened to traditional and popular genres such as pagode, axé, sertanejo or funk were ignorant. I'd also decided that white classical music and black jazz that my dad used to listen to at home were an utter drag.

In other words, rock music was a symbol of high culture, elaborate lyrics and musical complexity. I had no doubt that Max Cavalera (former frontman of Brazilian metal band Sepultura) was a better musician than the father of bossa nova, João Gilberto. I had no idea that, translating lyrics from AC/DC or Elvis, I'd be left with something close to carioca funk about "blue suede shoes," "whole lotta" women, picking up girls and other deep philosophical questions for humankind. I also had no idea that playing songs from the Sex Pistols or Green Day was actually a lot easier than a guitar solo from calypso guitarist Chimbinha.

For me, rock music was a form of religion. It was a salvation. Especially punk. It was the closest thing to rap a white youth had. Punk was rock music played by rebellious suburbanites, a perfect soundtrack to my life as a suffering teenager. Before discovering all the Brazilian punk bands I still love, I actually enjoyed the stuff my parents were listening to at home. After that, I considered all popular Brazilian music kitsch, sappy and just outdated.

The rock critics I would keenly read back then thought exactly the same. They used to write that the only good to come out of Brazil were hip hop band Racionais, psychedelic rockers Os Mutantes, and Sepultura. Blasting Caetano Veloso became one of their favorite hobbies in the 1980s, and it's still trendy for some of them. Veloso and Gilberto Gil were "effeminate" and suffered from the added maladies of an accent from the poor Bahia region and crappy sound.

Bossa nova was boring. I used to like manguebeat and Chico Science, but my rock-fan friends hated it. For them, good music was Guns n" Roses, Aerosmith, Metallica, Oasis, Pearl Jam, Offspring. National pop-rock bands (which critics also loathed) such as Legião or Raimundos were tolerated, though only just.

My first resistance to this type of thinking came with an introduction to rap. My rock-fan friends thought Racionais were shit, but I found they were so dope. Rap definitely seemed to be music for black people and rock for whites. The Racionais sang about a black guy "listening to James Brown, all poses' who's asked by his white girlfriend if he has "what? Guns n" Roses?" His answer — "Of course not!" — made it all clearer still.

When I entered university, I discovered that a lot of people also liked manguebeat. I didn't need to be ashamed of my CDs anymore. They even liked the stuff my parents liked: Tim Maia, Jorge Ben, Gilberto Gil — all of them black musicians! Hell, they even appreciated Caetano Veloso with his "black power" hair, his feminine demeanor and his "slow" songs.

It suddenly hit me that up until the 1980s, Brazilian pop was full of women, black artists, androgynous people, poor musicians, gays. They would come from all over the country, not just from the rich states of São Paulo, Rio Grande do Sul and Rio like the pop-rock bands from the 1980s. Their rhythms weren't limited to rock (although there was a lot of it, funk and soul too) but they also included samba, baião, forró and other traditional genres.

I realized that everything I considered cheesy, awful and old was simply Brazilian. I'd thought that Djavan was a joke when in fact the dude was actually recording with Stevie Wonder. I'd considered bossa nova to be boring trash when it was actually the Brazilian music with the biggest impact abroad, that Caetano Veloso was outdated when the hipsters of the 2000s were rediscovering him. Brazilian rock from the 1980s, on the other hand, went unnoticed overseas, though it was sold to us as revolutionary here. And sincerely, it wasn't exactly modern given the massive influence it drew from 1970s British rock bands.

My thesis here is that 1980s national rock left Brazilian music "whiter" and more "old fashioned." I think it's a process that took place in the pop culture industry as a whole, not just in music. And I'm writing this as someone who still considers himself to be a rock "n" roll fan.

The 1990s generation redeemed national genres, but you can't deny that the "true rocker" nowadays is a guy locked up in his own little world, believing that four chords (or 367 in the case of the band Dream Theater) are enough. And it's pathetic in a country that has as many musical riches as Brazil.

Music is passion, but it's also culture and an industry. Culture is fundamental in creating the identity of a people. It influences self-esteem and all means of communication. The heroes of our childhoods and of our adolescence are actors, singers, athletes. That's why it's important that these "heroes' be of different colors, regions, sexes — so that everybody has somebody to identify with.

I didn't choose to write under my half-Italian name by chance, leaving behind the name of my father, which was too clearly linked to the state of Bahia, Brazil's poorest. It wasn't by chance either that I never let my "non-straight" hair grow when I was young. We all want to feel like we belong, we all want to be accepted and loved. We're all culturally influenced to have prejudice towards our own roots. We're listening to the music that radio stations and television networks play, to the bands that magazines or underground websites recommend. Some bands are "trendy," others aren't. And when these media all press the same button, it's difficult to have a choice that's as "personal" as we think.

Culture is serious in our world. There is such a thing as cultural wars, in which a country tries to influence another, in which countries with expansionist ambitions try to deify a specific culture. That change in 1980s Brazil didn't just happen based on "personal taste." The industry changed, Brazil changed, the middle class changed. And today, it's changed again. Things aren't as simple as they seem.

I love my CDs, I love punk and rock, I put my son to sleep with Sepultura, but I can't deny that Seu Jorge was right and that Phil Anselmo's critics are right too. Rock is now embodied by the white, arrogant, macho, conservative male. And in Brazil, from the 1980s onwards, it made us feel ashamed of our own culture, of our hair, of our accents.

Rock music is great, but it's not the music of the "world's intellectual elites," as we'd like to think. And beyond its little circle of distorted solos and black clothes, there's a whole world of culturally diverse music out there to be discovered.

*Fred Di Giacomo is a Brazilian writer and multimedia journalist.

This is Worldcrunch"s uniquely international collection of essays, both original pieces written in English and others translated from the world's best writers in any language. The name for this collection, Rue Amelot, is a nod to the humble street in eastern Paris that we call home. Send ideas and suggestions to rueamelot@worldcrunch.com.

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