It has taken a long time for the Brazilian musical genre known as samba to become a serious object of academic studies. In the 1970s, researchers timidly began putting culture, rather than economics and politics, at the center of sociological interpretation, a movement that gained force in the 1980s and 1990s. The culturalist turn is now deeply rooted, having produced much original work that has enriched social and historical studies with new points of view, methods, and objects, while also showing its limitations.
In its early history, samba underwent a very dramatic and rapid transformation from the object of police repression in the early 1900s to Brazil’s most iconic cultural expression by the late 1920s. Writing in 1995, Hermano Vianna drew attention to this phenomenon, calling it a “mystery” (The Mystery of Samba, 1999). Since then, a number of social scientists, historians, and ethnomusicologists have tried to solve it. Marc Hertzman’s Making Samba places the discussion on another level. His book is an excellent example of how to produce cultural history without losing sight of such strategic areas of human relations as economics, politics, and law.
The first thing that stands out in Hertzman’s work is the extent of his sources. The book is based on a comprehensive reading of the existing literature on samba and a vast array of related themes, all of which have been incorporated into his analysis. More importantly, Hertzman has methodically combed through an extraordinary number of primary sources, and in doing so has introduced game-changing data. Familiar documents have been paired with new and sometimes surprising ones, to offer what the book’s subtitle promises: “a new history of race and music in Brazil.” [End Page 667]
Hertzman’s most important contribution is his careful demonstration of the economic interests that have consistently played a part in making samba the Brazilian music— interests that were a determining factor for both entrepreneurs and musicians, albeit on unequal terms. Hertzman’s new interpretation helps undo the myth that the author calls “the punishment paradigm,” by which sambistas (samba practitioners) were systematically persecuted by the police. This repression occurred mostly when economic interests were at stake. As a point of departure for his analysis, Hertzman uses the well-known 1916 episode in which the black musician Donga registered his work at the National Library, a necessary step to guaranteeing author’s rights, ‘pelo telefone’ (on the telephone). Academic research has paid little attention to the legal aspects of the music business, but for Hertzman, they are key to understanding the evolution of the recently born musical genre. Taking economics and law into account opens new interpretative perspectives, starting with the reconceptualization of Vianna’s riddle. The good news is that sambistas were not themselves a privileged target of police repression; the bad news is that this didn’t make their lives any easier.
Along with economics and law, there is a third important element in Hertzman’s analysis: race, which, unlike the other two, is very present in the historiography of samba. However, Hertzman makes enormous headway in this area by examining many cases that reinforced the importance of race and how it mattered. In post-abolitionist Rio de Janeiro Afro-Brazilians were second-class citizens and the situation was even worse for musicians and entertainers, who were constantly charged under vagrancy laws. Although the author is primarily concerned with race, he also analyzes its interrelationships with class, gender, and sexuality.
My main criticism of Hertzman’s work is that his analysis sometimes fails to recognize the very ambiguous representation of blackness in Brazilian popular music at a moment when cultural values associated with “Africa” were undergoing a process of transformation, from outright depreciation to relative appreciation, even while being ridiculed. An instance of this is when the author refers to the song “O teu cabelo não nega” (Your hair doesn’t lie) as one “that helped extend long-standing racist and...