- The Defence of Tradition in Brazilian Popular Music: Politics, Culture and the Creation of Música Popular Brasileira
What exactly does MPB mean? Brazilians and Brazilianists have often been vexed in their attempts to explain this common acronym for música popular brasileira to international observers. It clearly does not mean all Brazilian popular music, but the category has metastasized over the course of several decades to incorporate formerly marginalized styles, while, strangely, sales of MPB constitute an ever-shrinking portion of the musical market. In this fascinating book, Sean Stroud traces the history of the idea of MPB, its connections to state [End Page 204] cultural policies, ideas of class distinction, and debates about authenticity and cultural imperialism. The result is a major contribution to the study of Brazilian popular music as a cultural field and as an industry.
The acronym came into common usage in the mid 1960s, to identify the music of performers like Chico Buarque and Nara Leão—it described music that had clear roots in prized local traditions, that incorporated some of the harmonic ideas of bossa nova, and that conveyed leftist political sentiment to a young and predominantly middle-class audience. The cultural preeminence of the academic and journalistic left in the 1960s helped to give MPB an imprimatur as música de qualidade, and it assumed a privileged place in the critical landscape despite lagging behind more popular genres, like música brega, in sales.
Stroud clearly traces the theoretical origins of the term in midcentury writings by critics like Lúcio Rangel and Ary Vasconcellos, and its adoption and extension by a younger generation of politically committed journalists and producers like Sérgio Cabral and Hermínio Bello de Carvalho. In one of the finest chapters in the book, he explores Carvalho's leadership of the Projeto Pixinguinha, a mid-1970s initiative, sponsored by the military regime, to preserve and disseminate MPB. Staunch opponents of the regime characterized the Projeto as an attempt at cooptation, while Carvalho and his cohort insisted it was a vehicle for resistance from within, suggesting that the best Brazilian music inevitably transmitted a popular spirit antithetical to the dictatorship. Stroud shows that it was neither, but instead a rare case of a reasonably successful state initiative to cultivate popular music. The Projeto brought figures as diverse as Moraes Moreira and Doris Monteiro to a broad and diverse popular audience, boosting their careers and pushing the expansion of the amorphous category of MPB.
Stroud also analyzes four more ambitious attempts at musical mapping of Brazil, and explains why none was fully successful. Mário de Andrade's Missão de Pesquisas Folclóricas of the 1930s and Marcus Pereira's Música Popular do Brasil series of the 1970s were both so invested in restrictive notions of authenticity that they created pernicious distinctions between the truly popular and the merely popularesca that distorted subseqeunt debates about MPB. And Hermano Vianna's Música do Brasil of 2000, as well as Benjamin Taubkin's Rumos of 2000–01, failed to negotiate the strange landscape of corporate-sponsored culture in the current political landscape. Brazilian corporations get substantial tax breaks for sponsoring culture, but have no incentive to ensure that the resulting product is widely disseminated. Both Música do Brasil, funded by Editora Abril, and Rumos, funded by Banco Itaú, were lavish multimedia productions enjoyed by a relative handful of insiders before their sponsors pulled the plug. Stroud's analysis of these episodes is evenhanded and enlightening.
Critics and scholars like Luis Girón and Carlos Sandroni have declared that MPB as a genre is dead. Stroud himself would perhaps not go that far, but he clearly shows here that the set of economic and cultural circumstances that gave MPB cultural capital greatly surpassing its market share for three decades have [End Page 205] largely dissipated. He notes, however, that all the best qualities of MPB—its hybridity, its musical sophistication, and its...