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  • Voices of Drought: The Politics of Music and Environment in Northeastern Brazil by Michael B. Silvers
  • Elise Dietrich
Silvers, Michael B. Voices of Drought: The Politics of Music and Environment in Northeastern Brazil. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 2018. 212 pp.

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...


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pp. E11-E13
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