There is a reason we don’t go out much. Last night I was reminded why.
I’m always complaining that we don’t have much social life. That there isn’t anything to do other than see a movie or go out to eat. That we live in a cultural wasteland.
Now did I really just write that? I live in Brazil and stoop so low as to call it a cultural wasteland? Imagine. Nothing could actually be farther from the truth. Brazilians have an incredibly rich, diverse culture. Music, art, dance, and film – they are incredibly innovative and creative. It’s just that most middle class Brazilians don’t seem to value it much. So good opportunities to experience Brazilian originality are few and far between outside of the hubs of São Paulo and Rio.
And it’s because they haven’t learned how to value it, so honestly it's hard to hold them accountable. Several generations of Brazilians have cut their teeth on American music, movies, TV shows. They naturally aspire to a streamlined lifestyle of big cars and nice clothes, of blonde hair and blue eyes (yes Lula, even greedy ones) and of prosperity - all of which they associate with everything that the colossal cultural machine that is the United States churns out.
I’m talking, of course, in generalities here, about the type of Brazilian, who subconsciously (or perhaps consciously) feels inferior and thinks that perhaps by bleaching their hair blonde and listening to American music that they’ll boost their self-esteem and feel more 1st world. I am aware that beyond this type of thinking, there are many Brazilian intellectuals and others who harbor a solid anti-American ideology based on what they call, and rightly so, American cultural imperialism.
Now I know how sensitive Americans can get when their country is accused of shoving it’s culture down the gullets of the world, (I can hear my mom’s voice – “but we don’t force them watch our movies”) and certainly it is not the average American’s fault, and that anti-American sentiment is not personal. But what I think we often fail to appreciate is how aggressively the fruit of the American entertainment industry is marketed outside of the United States. Here in Brazil, multinational (read: American) multiplex movie theaters, showing 90% American films, monopolize the industry. You can see re-runs of Lost and Two and A Half Men on the television at any hour of the day. MTV Brasil pumps the sounds of America rock all day, the Black Eyed Peas sell over 15,000 tickets for a single show. Radio stations and clubs, record stores naturally want a piece of that action. They want more listeners, more patrons, so why not play the music that sells? Why not enter into lucrative contracts with multinational distributors to sell the movies, music and television shows that Brazilians have been consuming for so long that they have become habituated to and come to consider superior to their own.
Money makes the world go round and it isn’t hard to sell the American dream, packaged in movies and music, for a tidy profit all over the planet. And, to quote the ultimate salesman of the spectacle, P.T. Barnum, “there’s a sucker born every minute.”
Anyway, back to why we don’t get out much.
Well other than the very rare, sparsely attended, poorly organized art openings or dance performances, the only other entertainment outlet outside of the afore mentioned stadium seating American owned multiplex, is music. Now you’d think that here in Brazil that wouldn’t be an issue at all. Most people who fall in love with the country do so first through its music. They might fantasize that out of every window drifts the soft jinga of bossa nova. That the evenings are filled with samba and impromptu percussion jam sessions on street corners.
Sorry, hate to ruin your afternoon, but sadly, you’re more likely to hear American style rock, especially classic rock, drifting out of those windows. Or you’re going to hear a band doing a cover of it, singing all the lyrics in English with a passable accent and likely not understanding anything they are saying. Or you might hear a Brazilian band singing their own original songs, but with a distinctively American sound and often with English lyrics thrown in. MTV shows a lot of Brazilian rap or hip hop (pronounced: happy and hippy hoppy). And on any given Saturday night, you’re likely to hear the deplorable Carioca funk thundering out of cars and clubs. This "funk" they like to claim is something indigenous, but in truth it’s just a rehashing of electronic dance music developed in the northern hemispheres, that first gained popularity in Brazil in Rio’s favelas. (Again, there is that inferiority complex at work – if we throw dance parties with these foreign style electronic music, aren’t we stepping up and out of our position?)
Most of the live music in our city follows these patterns. The bands label themselves as rock & roll (pronounced: hock e hole which never fails to send me into the giggles) and for the most part are terribly uninventive, lacking in irony or self-reflection, and churn out, gig after gig, totally unmemorable, mediocre music that sounds like to my ears like a well rehearsed high school garage band from the late 80’s.
But every 10th show or so, something distinctively Brazilian comes round. So last night we went to see this girl.
Roberta Sá. She’s alright. She can sing (which is much more than I can say for some of Brazil’s more famous exports – ah-hem, Bebel…Astrud…) but she’s no Marrisa Monte – whom she’s getting compared to, more based on looks than anything else because she certainly doesn’t have the vocal chops or the originality. But she’s got a nice energy. Her set was actually a lot more upbeat than that droopy (annoyingly repetitive) clip above. But, what is to like about her is that she is actually making Brazilian music. She mixes in some samba rhythms, uses some traditional instrumentation like the pandeiro and cavaquinho, and she didn’t go straight for the pop jugular. She’s getting a lot of attention and in a few years will probably ripen into a sturdy artist and make some good music.
The club we saw her at was packed to the gills. Now I know I I’ve just spend several hundred words telling you about how your average middle class Brazilian doesn’t support their own culture – and now I must qualify that a bit.
There are in fact a number of singers and bands singing in Portuguese and sounding somewhat Brazilian in flavor (although typically the American pop sound is dominant) that people get really into. They do show videos of these bands on MTV and they get radio play and people purchase their records. But they do not comprise the dominant taste or purchases of most upwardly mobile Brazilian consumers.
And in the case of the packed club last night for Roberta’s show - I really can’t attribute the crowd to a desire to hear her sing and support a Brazilian artist. If this had been the case, 90% of the people would have been asking for their money back because you could barely hear her at all. It didn’t seem to matter to the crowd, in fact it didn’t appear that the majority paid their R$40 ticket to hear the music. They just came to hang out and been seen and shout over it. At least half people in attendance were yelling and drinking and carrying on the whole time as if her singing were nothing more than background noise.
The acoustics were largely to blame, which is really appalling because the club has been open for just under two months and was specifically built to be a live music venue. One of the owners, who invested a bundle in constructing this very large multi-level, sophisticated space, consulted with C on the acoustics as it was being built. The plans had already been drawn up at this point and construction underway, but C pointed out very firmly that they were making a big mistake in constructing a two story vaulted space with a metal ceiling directly in front of and over the stage, while the majority of the spectators would watch the show either from the balcony or from the ten foot dropped space under it. He was right, of course. The sound shot up, hit the metal ceiling, bounced around a bit and got lost. Meanwhile from where we were, wedged in against the bar in the single story space under the balcony that comprises most of the club, it was hot, packed and the sound was completely muffled.
But still, I have not yet arrived at why we don’t get out much.
It’s the cigarette smoke.
There are no smoking laws in Brazil (at least none that are enforced) and everyone and their mother smokes – at least when they are out in clubs and bars. We are not smokers. Most of the time we can tolerate a little – except in instances like at the sushi restaurant, when you are just about to dive into your plate of maguro sashimi and the guy at the table next to you lights up and starts blowing smoke rings all over your raw fish. But last night was just awful. Not only was the space an acoustic disaster, but there was absolutely no ventilation. We were crammed into a corner with no exit available until after the set finished and everyone around us was chain smoking.
Today, I’ve washed my hair twice and I think it still smells and our clothes had to be tossed outside this morning because they were making the bedroom smell like the club. We both woke up with terrible hangovers, but not from drinking too much, because we didn’t, but instead from spending three hours breathing nothing but second hand smoke.
And that, dear friends, is why we don’t get out much. I’ve said it before, but isn’t my Brazilian life so glamorous?