- River of Tears: Country Music, Memory, and Modernity in Brazil by Alexander Sebastian Dent
In his Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Frederic Jameson rightly points out to important aspects of music that highlight the inter-connectedness of this particular cultural production with both class and memory. Alexander Sebastian Dent's recently published book functions as a testament to the accuracy of Jameson's (and Bourdieu's) claims regarding music and distinctions, as well as to the value that music has to the fields of anthropology and cultural studies. River of Tears is the first ethnographic study of Brazilian country music, and it describes and tells the history of the genre in Brazil, including lengthy discussions on the differences within the genre. Dent's contribution provides an innovative and fascinating ethnography of popular culture. Despite recent complications on the notions pertaining to defining popular culture—precisely because of the blurring of distinctions between high and low art—Dent addresses important and valuable issues regarding the realm of a popular art form that acquired a massive commercial success in Brazilian music's recent history. Not only does Dent rigorously analyze the dynamics of Brazilian popular and mass culture, but he also addresses valid questions regarding genre. Dent brilliantly examines country music and its internal stratifications, dynamics and segregations within rapid commercialization, and nostalgic connoisseurs, attempts to preserve the "folk" in Brazilian country tunes. Alexander Dent has accomplished a fine job in pointing out these distinctions and ramifications in his book.
Aside from the fact that the topic of study is music, one of the boldest aspects of Dent's book is that the author dared to speak about sadness in Brazil. Often we hear hyperbolic accounts of joy in Brazilian everyday life, or generalizations about how Brazilians are "poor but happy," and that Carnaval is proof of Brazilian's innate happiness. Obversely, however, sadness and melancholy go hand in hand with this apparent joy, and Dent's book points out to a fascinating facet of Brazilian culture related to tears, mourning and loss—of love, the past, innocence, and mostly rurality. The focus on sadness sets the tone for a book mostly preoccupied with emotions and affect. From the opening epigraph (a Pascal quote on the superiority of the heart over reason) to its end, the idea that emotions permeate every facet of cultural production runs throughout the whole book. Most importantly, Dent presents the case that country music's melancholy is just as important to Brazilian culture as samba.
With this framework in mind, and a theoretical approach based on Pierre Bourdieu's theories (even with the characteristic diagrams), Dent dissects the dichotomies between rurality and urbanity as a consequence of modernity, and discusses the role memory plays out in rural music in the South Central region of Brazil. He is mostly concerned with the dynamics of production, distribution, dissemination, and consumption of popular music. The specific music [End Page 286] Dent investigates is divided in two categories, música caipira and música sertaneja. Dent subscribes to the lineage that these two are distinct because one is folk, and the other, commercial. In addition, he also examines the industry revolving around música sertaneja such as rodeos, and culture-specific details such as clothing.
Dent contextualizes his book within a historical period of redemocratization and securing of a neoliberal economy in Brazil. In addition to Bourdieu and Raymond Williams, Dent applies a theory of performance, and he is also interested in linguistic anthropology and poetics. He conducted his ethnography in the state of São Paulo and the book is filled with fun anecdotes and storytelling. The bibliography is thorough, including renowned Brazilian critics in the field, for instance Antonio Candido, and the work of anthropologists and ethnomusicologists.
In general, this book is an excellent example of dismantling potential paradoxes in cultural studies. On the one hand, Dent's analyses of commercial Brazilian country music and its melodramatic lyrics may seem superficial, but it undoubtedly reveals the mechanisms of the propagation of sentimentality as marketing...