- Making Samba: A New History of Race and Music in Brazil by Marc A. Hertzman
In Brazil, perhaps more than in any other country, the political and historical relevance of popular music has long been obvious. Samba, in particular, has been directly implicated in histories of Brazilian populism, in debates about national identity, and in the ongoing controversies surrounding the “myth of racial democracy.” In recent years, a series of works in English have brought many of these debates to readers outside of Brazil. From groundbreaking cultural histories by John Chasteen and Bryan McCann to more recent works by Darién Davis and Micol Seigel, scholars have assessed the origins of samba music and dance, its connection to Brazilian ideas about race, the ways multinational record companies and the Brazilian state sought to exploit popular music, as well as the agency of popular musicians themselves. In his new book, Marc Hertzman wades into this quite crowded field and manages to say something new. Hertzman draws on a [End Page 380] range of untapped sources and focuses on new questions related to the functioning of the music business and the long struggle over intellectual property rights. In so doing, he is able to make a series of important and innovative contributions to the historiography of Brazilian popular music.
Hertzman begins his account by taking on what he calls the “punishment paradigm,” the idea that before samba was accepted as the musical embodiment of Brazilian national identity, it was brutally repressed by the authorities, who saw this musical form as essentially Afro-Brazilian and therefore barbaric. In order to test this conventional wisdom, Hertzman did what no other historian of Brazilian music has done: he went directly to Rio de Janeiro’s police archives and systematically looked for evidence of official harassment of musicians. On the basis of a random sample of 400 vagrancy cases, Hertzman convincingly argues that Rio’s police did not in fact single out sambistas for repression. While a handful of musicians did end up in jail, their arrests had nothing to do with music. Being a musician in the early decades of the twentieth century was not a respectable occupation that could protect one from accusations of vagrancy, but neither was it grounds for arrest. The police, it turns out, were far more interested in policing prostitution and gambling than they were in harassing musicians.
Having debunked the punishment paradigm, Hertzman explores the roots of the myth. He demonstrates that in later decades, some Afro-Brazilian musicians embraced the story of samba’s early persecution as a way of claiming authenticity, of linking themselves to a heroic tale of transformation and thereby taking ownership of a particular form of national identity. This specific argument is part of a larger project. Throughout the book, Hertzman charts the efforts of Afro-Brazilian musicians to navigate the ideological and economic structures of Brazilian society. Hertzman’s account of these efforts is not always celebratory. Unlike many other scholars, Hertzman emphasizes the commercial aspirations of samba innovators as well as the divisions and hierarchies within the Afro-Brazilian community. He shows that only the relatively privileged were able “to turn culture into money” (248) and that they were often attacked by both whites and blacks for doing so.
Any new history of samba necessarily involves revisiting some well-known stories, but even in these instances, Hertzman manages to shed new light. For example, his account of “Pelo Telefone” (1917), generally considered the first samba, focuses on the efforts of the musician and composer, Donga, to register the song as his own composition. Hertzman emphasizes Donga’s alliances with powerful white mediators. He also uncovers the attacks directed at Donga by the Afro-Brazilian journalist Vagalume, who accused the sambista not only of stealing the song but of betraying his community. Hertzman’s account of the rise to fame of Pixinguinha and his group, the Oito Batutas, is similarly innovative. He rejects the typical depiction of Pixinguinha as a symbol of the impoverished black masses...