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  • Primitive Modernities: Tango, Samba, and Nation by Florencia Garramuño
  • Deborah Schwartz-Kates
Primitive Modernities: Tango, Samba, and Nation. By Florencia Garramuño. Translated by Anna Kazumi Stahl. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011. Pp. xi, 216. Acknowledgments. Appendix. Notes. Bibliography. $85.00 cloth; $27.95 paper.

Contemporary scholars have approached the study of tango and samba from varied disciplinary perspectives, including ethnomusicology, dance, anthropology, sociology, history, media studies, and modern languages and literature. Yet, they have devoted considerably less attention to cross-cultural comparisons of the two forms, even though parallels between them call for investigation.

In Modernidades primitivas (2007), Florencia Garramuño explores convergences between the two genres and the way that each has participated in the formation of a modern national identity. The recent publication of this book in English grants a broad international readership access to these ideas. The central premise of the book is that Argentines and Brazilians resignified the tango and samba as symbols of their modern nations. The author uses the term "primitive modernities" in the title to underscore the unity that underlies this seeming contradiction. She supports her ideas by analyzing discourses embedded in the tango and the samba that participated in the construction of modern nations. With this approach, she takes the reader on a fascinating tour of literature, visual arts, and the cinema that includes the works of Aluísio Azevedo, Jorge Luis Borges, Ricardo Güiraldes, Manuel Gálvez, Mário de Andrade, Oswald de Andrade, Emiliano Di Cavalcanti, Emilio Pettoruti, Carlos Gardel, and Carmen Miranda. Through her reading of these cultural texts, she identifies a complex process of negotiation and conflict through which the primitive and modern converge.

One of the strong points of Garramuño's book is its positing of an alternative to binary formulations of nationalism and cosmopolitanism. As the author points out, these reductionist dualities tend to classify Latin American intellectuals and creative artists as cosmopolitans when they adhere to European aesthetics, but as nationalists when they reference local practices. Colonialist subtexts embedded within these narratives suggest that the inclusion of local elements in a vanguard context is a manifestation of backwardness. Garramuño effectively counters these arguments with her perception that during the 1920s and 1930s, the Argentine and Brazilian avant-garde viewed the imitation of Europe as a long-standing practice. To break with this tradition, Latin American artists and intellectuals had to forge new relationships with their national pasts. Their unusual blend of primitivism and modernity—rather than signaling a dilution of European aesthetics—represented a radically modern stance, within the Argentine and Brazilian cultural environments.

The most controversial element of the book is Garramuño's privileging of tango and samba as dominant symbols of identity. During the 1920s and 1930s, competing forms pervaded the Argentine and Brazilian cultural fields and vied for attention, but Garramuño avoids substantive reference to the alternate discourses they present, even when they merit further consideration. She analyzes Güiraldes's urbanized literary [End Page 423] works, the poem "Tango" and Raucho (1917), for example, but glosses over his contemporary gauchesco novel, Don Segundo Sombra (1926). In another instance, she acknowledges that many Argentines and Brazilians regarded tango and samba as symbols of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro—urban centers—rather than of their respective nations as a whole. Her failure to reconcile this issue and account for competing visions of Argentine and Brazilian nationality raises important concerns.

The writing style will pose challenges to all but the most serious readers. Garramuño's original Spanish text is characterized by complex academic prose, which Kazumi Stahl occasionally struggles to transmit clearly in English. Musicians may be confused by inaccurate translations of technical terms (such as 'syncope' for 'syncopation'). The lack of a conclusion or index makes it difficult to navigate the work. Nevertheless, this work remains an important study for Latin American specialists, among whom it will foster a lively dialogue across disciplines.

Deborah Schwartz-Kates
University of Miami
Coral Gables, Florida


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