Voices of Drought: The Politics of Music and Environment in Northeastern Brazil by Michael B. Silvers
In his new volume Voices of Drought: The Politics of Music and Environment in Northeastern Brazil, Michael Silvers explores how environmental crisis affects both music and music making via politics and social interactions. Through six in-depth case studies of different musical and environmental scenarios in the northeastern Brazilian state of Ceará, he creates a multifaceted portrait of how drought and music have affected one another in this region over the past century.
Each case study touches on aspects of five main concepts (vulnerability, materiality, listening, nostalgia, and policy), some holding greater weight than others, through the lens of the field of ecomusicology. The first focuses on the role of carnauba wax, a material from the arid Northeast that was used to create cylinders for early twentieth-century recording processes in the mass production of recorded sound. Silvers emphasizes the natural resource's circular role in the music industry, as it was integral to the initial recording of sound, returning again from abroad as internationally produced recordings to be purchased by Brazilian consumers. In "Chapter Two," he examines drought as a theme in popular protest music. Luiz Gonzaga, the "king of baião," is the focus of "Chapter Three," in which Silvers looks at both the trajectory of Gonzaga's career and its relation to the eventual national acceptance of Northeastern music and the regional identity of the sertão. He explores both how Gonzaga incorporated aspects of the Northeastern soundscape such as bird songs into his music, and how the contemporary rain prophets of Ceará rely on Gonzaga's lyrics to express their own predictions about natural phenomena, reinforcing his role as part of an accepted Northeastern identity.
The second half of the book shifts its focus to more contemporary musical phenomena, inspiring questions about the role of class and taste in the production of identity through Northeastern music in Brazil. "Chapter Four," perhaps the book's most original, relates the story of the nationally celebrated musician Raimundo Fagner and his complex relationship to his hometown of Orós, Ceará. Silvers carefully portrays the conflict between the operator of a radiadora (an informal radio broadcast over loudspeakers in the community) and Fagner's own cosmopolitan tastes, masterfully contrasting the "real" sertão of Orós' working class residents with Fagner's nostalgic imagined sertão. The notions of class and taste are further explored in "Chapter Five," which focuses on the ongoing conflict between two divergent styles of forró: pé de serra (foothills) and electronic forró. Silvers describes electronic forró's growth as a commercial product and links it to the broad expansion of neoliberal tendencies in Brazil, contrasting it with forró pé de serra's image of tradition and nostalgia. In the final chapter, Silvers examines the use of public funds in periods of drought, specifically on occasions where local politicians have canceled local carnival festivities as a measure [End Page E11] of music in a place where expressive culture is often seen as a basic human right. In concluding, Silvers weaves together these disparate threads into a poetic narrative that illustrates the interconnection of the physical environment of Northeastern Brazil, its popular music, and current policies in a time of drought.
Silvers's book is engaging, approaching the central ideas of drought and music in Northeastern Brazil from multiple angles that provoke broader questions about the role of the environment in cultural production. His writing is personal and deeply felt, and Silvers is frank about his own personal connection to Brazil, the Northeast, and specifically Ceará (his American family lived in Brazil for a period of Silvers's youth, and his brother is married to an Orós native). The detailed portrayal of daily cultural conflict in Orós is particularly insightful, operating on hyperlocal, regional and international scales to portray the difficulties in developing a regionally based identity that is inherently grounded in issues of class.
Originally developed as Silvers's doctoral dissertation, the organization of the volume at times betrays its origin. Some chapter and section titles feel obligatory and disconnected from the general argument of both the book and the individual sections that they head, and there are moments in which the author seems to be accounting for his years of research by listing many details and facts without justifying their connection to his central argument. Some parts of the book are highly researched, yet others leave the reader awaiting further explanation, such as the origins of the name forró, and a cursory mention of a musical cohort called the Boom Nordestino whose context goes unexplained (95). Scholars of cultural studies may be distracted by the lack of definition of several key terms. Silvers does not clearly explain his usage of several key terms ("authenticity," "mass mediated"), nor does he provide a theoretical framework from which to examine these concepts. Given that these ideas are employed differently across academic disciplines and are still up for considerable scholarly debate, greater elaboration from the author would prevent potential reader confusion and further strengthen many of his arguments.
The book is based on research conducted that Silvers conducted in Ceará during the "optimistic Workers' Party era" between 2008 and 2016, a period that was marked by vast social reform (8). His discussion of the economic changes during this period centers around the increasing contradiction between a leftist social paradigm and the growth of neoliberal capitalism that came to a head with Dilma Rousseff's 2016 impeachment. Published prior to Brazil's sharp right turn in electing Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, the book raises questions about the role of culture and government that are still central to an increasingly market-driven globalized reality. How does "the increasing privatization of music in a place where musical experience is also understood as a basic right" rank in relation to widespread drought and a population's lack of access to water, and is the cancellation of carnival celebrations an effective response (134)? If, as Silvers argues, "the same leftist government that brought people out of poverty also increased access and [End Page E12] recognition to traditional music and cultural expression more generally," how will these programs fare under the current political leadership (109)? And more specifically, what will become of forró pé de serra, a genre that "treats music as a social good, necessary for maintaining a unique local identity and encouraging traditional values," but now finds itself dependent on government support (129)?
Silvers's creative approach to his interdisciplinary subject contributes to an insightful account of the interconnection between culture, politics, and the environment of Northeastern Brazil. This volume contributes important regional and environmental perspectives to broader scholarship on both popular music and Brazilian studies, emphasizing the central importance of climate and environment to cultural production, and will be useful to scholars from a variety of disciplines. [End Page E13]