A great deal of Brazilian music scholarship to emerge in the past decade, particularly from within ethnomusicology, has been devoted to decentering musical representations of Brazil. In sync with the ongoing project of Brazilian democratization in the years following the military dictatorship, this scholarship has tended to privilege formerly marginalized musical styles from the national peripheries over and above those styles developed in the elite neighborhoods of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo that have become nationally hegemonic (see Lucas 2000; Sneed 2007; Sharp 2011; Avelar and Dunn 2011). In light of this academic agenda, Contemporary Carioca—a book that profiles a loosely collaborative group of middle-class musicians active in Rio de Janeiro between the 1990s and the present—might appear to reinscribe old centers and celebrate already well-consecrated artists. Preempting this line of criticism, the book’s author makes the case that a priori exclusion of middle-class musical expressions from ethnomusicological examination “misses an opportunity to probe what is at stake in discourse about Brazilian popular music, and to account for changes in what sounds may edge into or out of the mix” (18). Indeed, Moehn seizes this opportunity and brings considerable ethnographically informed nuance to the representations of these musicians and their work.
Contemporary Carioca shows us a group of highly self-reflexive individuals taking stock of themselves—as artists, as Brazilians, as cariocas (residents of Rio de Janeiro), and as privileged members of Rio’s Zona Sul elite—at a particularly important juncture in Brazilian history. Against the backdrop of Brazil’s democratization and rapid neoliberalization, Moehn provides us with a window onto their aspirations, anxieties, and creative endeavors as they confront the question of what it might mean to be a middle class—or better, a middling class—in a society characterized by extreme socioeconomic disparity. We see them trying out provisional answers—both in their music and in their talk about music—to shared questions about national identity, aesthetic and social mixture, musical participation and social inclusion, and technology and individual artistic becoming, among many others.
As an ethnomusicological monograph, Contemporary Carioca is somewhat unconventional in the way it privileges individual artists. Each of the five relatively stand-alone core chapters is structured around a specific musician—pandeiro virtuoso and “Carioca Blade Runner” Marcos Suzano, prolific northeastern Brazilian songwriter Lenine, self-made samba batucada fomenter and songwriter Pedro Luís and the band “A [End Page 158] Parede,” electronica pioneer and funk enthusiast Fernanda Abreu, and sonic philosopher and multimedia composer Paulinho Moska. The emphasis on the individual is more than a mere structuring device, however; it is also part of the author’s efforts to counteract practice theory’s tendency to “depict . . . the experiences of individual creative subjects through time as rather flat and calculated” through “the language of ‘structures,’ of ‘agents,’ ‘intentions,’ ‘dispositions,’ ‘schemas,’ and ‘motivated transactions’” (15). Moehn insists that “there is always something more happening when people sculpt their entire becoming around making music” (206), and it is precisely that “something more” that he attempts to obliquely capture through personal interviews, anecdotes, and artful turns of phrase. At the same time, Moehn is cautious not to romanticize individual artistic agency. Drawing inspiration from post-structural theory, he describes these musicians’ creative endeavors in such a way as to give us a view of artistic agency as contingent, open ended, and crossed by innumerable lines of flight.
Moehn develops these theoretical underpinnings in the book’s introduction before moving on to examine numerous other themes of particular relevance to ethnomusicology, sound studies, and Latin American cultural studies. These include examinations of, for example, the general flowering of entrepreneurial self-management in the wake of the so-called digital revolution, the aesthetics of participatory music making and its possible intersections with projects of social inclusion, and the adaptation of foreign sounds to suit local purposes. With musicians’ home studios as some of his main field sites, Moehn builds...