What is the relationship between music-making, identification and authenticity in a moment of globalization? The response can obviously go many ways. [End Page 160] So, let’s say you are middle-class, relatively affluent and somewhat conscious of politics. You are a talented artist and feel compelled to make an intervention into the way music is made and thereby contribute to the scene. You are in between the “cannibal,” who spits at oppressive regimes, and the “chameleon,” who embraces and adapts to cosmopolitan tastes and technologies. You enjoy being at the crossroads, between the tensions of difference and the familiarity of repetition. You enjoy the mistura or mixture, the conventional hallmark of Brazilianess or brasilidade.
A little context: you live in Rio de Janeiro, perhaps a privileged migrant from the “traditional” and folkloric Northeast, e.g., Lenine, perhaps a bourgeois “carioca” (native of Rio), e.g., Fernanda Abreu, and it’s the 1990s. In retrospect, this is the primetime of neoliberalism and globalization. You are searching for a “line of flight,” a recurrent phrase borrowed from Deleuze that Moehn employs to represent processes of contingent identification and emergent forms of culture. It’s a time when Brazilians (along with most Latin Americans) revisited a dogged, existential question: what is the relationship between political economy and “national culture”? Frederick Moehn’s Contemporary Carioca answers this query by investigating design and sound engineering during the historical period immediately following what is referred to as the “opening” or abertura.
The problem is one of engagement: what do you do when you were born in the era of national protest song, came of age during the early years of globalization and world beat, and are not a mass culture sellout? Moehn takes aim at MPB by deconstructing the curious acronym that stands for a musical genre in iTunes as well as a set of ideological perspectives on national cultural production. The critique is not accusatory of the shortcomings of MPB artists as “engaged” citizens or celebratory of artistic innovation and carnival tropicalia but rather a reminder that national categories and brands require a carefully braided understanding of individual creativity and socio-political environments.
The most compelling aspect of this insightful mix of anthropological ethnography and musical analysis is its structure. Contemporary Carioca is essentially a series of five related but distinct biographies of individual musicians / producers in the Rio scene. The only exception is the chapter on the group Pedro Luís and the Wall. Yet, as Moehn takes pains to clarify, the book’s intention is to use the individual, however talented she is, as a complex point of historical and cultural convergences. It is this stark contrast between the format of the individual, i.e., biography, and that of the collective, i.e., social theory, from which this book draws its explanatory power. Moehn expertly switches register throughout the chapters moving from a mode that privileges the contextual description of a historian / biographer to one of a music critic exercising a precision of vocabulary to catch the subtleties of musical meter and harmony to a register of high theory engaging Deleuze and the present zeitgeist of anthropological musings on identity-as-becoming in addition to Turino and current theories of musical semiotics as indicative of sociality. The fluidity of Moehn’s prose evinces a mastery of all registers, that which only a performer, in all of its connotations, could pull off. [End Page 161]
Moehn essentially argues that we need to understand the dynamics of sound structure to appreciate collective sentiments of authenticity and industrial markets of brands. He does this by taking the reader through the creative trajectories of imaginative musicians. For example, Moehn begins with an expert percussionist schooled in the “traditional” musics of samba and choro who spins Africanity and technology and emerges as a paradigmatic producer, i.e., “the Suzano sound.” The branding of mixture foregrounding the marriage of ambivalent but sonically present signs of locality with the fast-paced intensity of sound engineering technology is...