Rue Amelot

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
Fred Di Giacomo*

-Essay-

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.

Statue of Brazilian bossa nova musician Antônio Carlos Jobim in Rio — Photo: Joao Mattos/Pacific Press/ZUMA

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 â€" 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.

Photo: Richard Fisher

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.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

Support Worldcrunch
We are grateful for reader support to continue our unique mission of delivering in English the best international journalism, regardless of language or geography. Click here to contribute whatever you can. Merci!
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS
MOST READ