March 29, 2009

Cigarettes and Cultural Hegemony

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?


Ray Adkins said...

Dear Dharma,

The smoking everywhere must be a thing of Juiz de Fora for the most part.
I know for a fact it is hard to find a public place in Sao Paulo where you can smoke, restaurant, music halls or even malls, there are very well enforced designated smoking areas everywhere and they are city laws.
Same thing in Rio, we had to ask and watch for smoking areas before some of us just lit a cigarettes.
I totally hear what you say about the massive presence of American culture in Brazil, I think Brazil by nature is a very western country in its natural habits and the American culture in general is a natural fit.
With all the respect, but when Brazilian film makers have an opportunity to produce something genuine Brazilian they tend to be stubborn and reproduce the ever so cliché themes of violence, poverty, slums and or corruption, see Central do Brasil, Cidade de Deus etc...
Honestly, I think Brazil has so much more to offer and this mediocre film makers insist in selling the worse the country has to offer, this had irritated me for years.
Enough already, I can't believe they are still making and selling movies about slums, poverty, corrupted police. Brazil has such a wealth of interesting history and culture to be explored and sold world over...
Meanwhile we can't blame Brazilians for enjoying what Americans are selling around whole world.
It probably becomes a matter of being much cheaper and practical to buy and resell movies and music already produced by Hollywood than to produce their own from scratch, for the most part.


Mrs. De Miranda said...

UGHHHHHHh, NOT the smoking! I lived in Utah, which was GREAT! You couldn't smoke anywhere!! Then I came back to the south where smoking seems to be a way of life and EVERYONE smokes. Ok, not everyone, but a LOT of people. It is the WORST when you are trying to eat. Or better yet when you are like me with asthma and you are trying to bowl, yet you cann't see past the foggy smoke to do so, and then you go into a coughing fit need an inhaler and have to leave because you can't breathe...yeah, thats fun.


Also my grandmother and grandfather smoked for YEARS. In fact my grandmother worked for Phillip Morris for 30 years and up until the very late nineties they used to send her 2 cartons in the mail every week of her choice of cigarettes. (Now they send boxes of Kraft Food) But we used to be the say way when we came home. We were ordered to strip and shower because we smelled so terrible! Thank goodness they both quit!! (but only because my grandfather had congestive heart failure..they were scared into quitting, but whatever works!)

Sorry for the book. I really hate the smoking of it all.

Emily said...

Ah, yes, the exact same reason why we rarely went out (and why we haven't been out at all while I've been prego!) We love music and dancing, but Belo Horizonte has the same problem - every single club is soooo smoky and usually has no ventilation.

I can count on one hand the number of times we've gone out to a club and each time we both woke up with the exact same "smoke-hangover" you described.

That is one thing I do look forward to about returning to the US eventually. (Iowa has passed a smoking ban since we've been away - YEA! And Georgia has had one for a few years now.)

markuza said...

Hear hear. My wife tells me about lots of cultural stuff that just doesn't exist anymore, there's a whole style of old time Samba that has almost disappeared as well. The list goes on.

I hear what you are saying about the smoking, but I must say I've been a bit surprised as some progress has been made here in Bahia, people don't smoke in the malls hardly at all anymore, and there is more enforcement of smoking/non-smoking areas. My wife smokes, but I asked her not to smoke in the house when we moved in and she's been great about it.

Evelyn said...

Thanks for introducing me to a new Brazilian artist. I am really enjoying reading your blog. I miss Brazil so much - que Saudade ENORME! I have not had the opportunity to live in Brazil (more than a few months) as an independent adult. Every time I go back, I am with family and they live quite differently than I do. I keep wondering what every day life would be like. Thanks for sharing what it's like for you :)

Rachel said...

Agreed. There actually are smoking laws in Rio and they are rarely enforced, which drives me nuts. Eli and I are non-smokers and get grossed out coming home smelling like ashtrays. But another reason we don't go out all the time, even in this supposed cultural mecca, is because it is prohibitively expensive to do so. The great samba and bossa nova artists and the nicer clubs and venues are expensive, and to pay upwards of R$50 per event is a lot on my budget. Luckily, there are lots of cultural things to do during the daytime that aren't as expensive. Rio's museums are highly underrated!

lovelydharma said...

Wow, I'm actually surprised to hear that in some places in Brazil it is starting to become further enforced. I really thought it was just a free for all everywhere.

And Stephanie, I'm kind of freaked out with the image of Philip Morris sending off cartons every WEEK?! I had no idea that happened.

Rachel, I know! It is so expensive. Actually, we rarely pay because Carlos knows musicians and club owners and most of the time we will only bother to brave the smoke when we've got comps...

Erik said...

Funny, my wife and I both smoke and hate second hand smoke the way you described it. We mostly live outdoors here in brazil so it´s never an issue, but nobody smokes in my car. Our blog is called "life in brasil" Now I know why I could not get the "Z" lol

Lori - Blondie in Brazil said...

There are actually smoking bans in Maringa as well. I'm not sure about enforced, but they are respected. In Lexington we had a smoking ban passed and were so used to not smelling smoke when we went out. I hadn't really realized that there wasn't any smoking in Maringa until a friend who lives here (used to live in Curitiba) says that smoking is the one reason they don't like going out in Curitiba. She then told me there is a smoking ban here, but no ban there.

Your post was so well written. For a small town I feel like Maringa has a strong arts and culture scene, but that doesn't erase that desperate desire to have all things USAmerican. I found it so disappointing when we moved here. The music, Nike Shox, ipods, Wii they seem to want that stuff more than we do. I went to one spinning class where they played Brazilian music and I loved it then after that they went back to all US techno.

Thanks for the tip on the new artist. My husband and I really enjoy many of the artists here and wish we would hear more of them.

GingerV said...

sorry it took me so long to comment - I read this entry when you first wrote it and had to wait until I was no longer pissed before I cound comment. I don't believe the American culture is the root of all world problems including Brasilian. Some of their own cultural shortcomings can also be attributed.

Our favorite resturant in Rio is down on the canal(ipanema - leblon split) and it is fully no smoking - inside or out.... what is really funny is that the whole night the traffic drives bumper to bumper past the veranda (the no smoking veranda) belching tar/oil/smog onto the diners - some rules don't make much sense to me. I am a non smoker also.

Anonymous said...

I had that problem while living in the u.s.!! in virginia people smoked inside the clubs and bars and it was horrible!! in my city in brazil its against the law to smoke inside .