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  • Interdisciplinary Approaches to Sound in Text and Context in Latin America
  • Michael O’Brien

Sound Studies, Tango, Samba, Nationalism, Media Studies, Argentina, Brazil, Popular Music, Radio

alejandra bronfman, and andrew grant wood, eds. Media, Sound, and Culture in Latin America and the Caribbean. Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2012. 165 pp.
florencia garramuño. Primitive Modernities: Tango, Samba, and Nation. Trans. Anna Kazumi Stahl. Stanford: Stanford UP, 2011. 216 pp.

Imagining the modern nation in Latin America has often been a musical enterprise, and since the late 1990s, anthropologists and ethnomusicologists have been particularly attentive to the processes through which vernacular musical genres have been central to the emerging national imaginary in modernizing nation-states across the region.1 It is no accident that these projects of cultural nationalism via popular music coincided with the development of technologies to produce and disseminate these sounds, crossing social and political boundaries in complex ways. Similarly, musical sounds themselves bleed over into other forms of cultural practice, including political discourse, dance, and other art forms. Two new volumes, drawing on a variety of disciplinary perspectives, examine music and sound in Latin America in ways that are productively attentive to these forms of boundary-crossing and their significance. While music is a central object of analysis in both books, they share an interest in moving the subject of the book away from “music” as a bounded category, although they accomplish this in very different ways. Together, they suggest the richness that the topic of popular music can have for scholars working in a wide variety of disciplines and methodologies.

The first of these, a recent translation by Anna Kazumi Stahl of Florencia Garramuño’s 2007 volume Modernidades primitivas, examines the role of two popular music genres, tango and samba, in the construction of a modern national identity in Argentina and Brazil, respectively. Although music is at the heart of [End Page 223] Garramuño’s study, the book also benefits from an impressively interdisciplinary examination of the prismatic representations of those musical genres through a variety of media in both elite and popular-culture registers: the visual arts, literature, commercial advertisements, and film. The second, Media, Sound, and Culture in Latin America, an interdisciplinary and disparate collection of essays edited by Alejandra Bronfman and Andrew Grant Wood, represents a collective exercise in decentering music within the fields of aural production and consumption in Latin America. While music is central to some of the book’s chapters, it is entirely absent in others. Taken as a whole, the volume makes a solid argument for understanding the soundscapes of Latin America, where music intersects with speech, fireworks, and noise, as well as the technologies used for their production and reproduction, in ways that blur the boundaries between the public and the private, challenge power relations, and do crucial cultural work that demands to be taken seriously.

Florencia Garramuño explores the way in which tango and samba, two of the most prominent genres of Latin American popular music during the early twentieth century, became consecrated as representative of the emerging nationalistmodernist aesthetics in their respective nation-states. A literary scholar by training, Garramuño is not primarily interested in understanding these musical genres in themselves, but rather in tracing their representations as “faithful thermometers” that register the evolving discourses on primitivism and modernity in Argentina and Brazil (24). The roles that samba and tango played in their respective emergent modern national identities has been explored in prior work, and Garramuño draws extensively and thoughtfully from that literature,2 but Garramuño’s contribution is unique in considering them in conjunction.

Garramuño’s central thesis is that in both of these cases, and in contrast to their counterparts in Europe, modernist thinkers and artists in Brazil and Argentina developed, in and through these genres, a national cultural identity and aesthetic that was both primitive and modern. More importantly, the emergence of modernity as an aesthetic project in Brazil and Argentina, which coincided and was intertwined with the emergence of the modern nation-state as a political project, did not imagine the “primitive” folk and vernacular cultural practices of their own populations as opposed...


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pp. 223-230
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